The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who has turned to Europe’s refugee crisis in his latest works, uses one motif again and again: the rubber dinghy.
In March in the Czech Republic, he showcased an enormous black dinghy filled with black figures. And last year in Florence, in an installation called “Libero” (Italian for free), he draped thin red dinghies over the windows of the Palazzo Strozzi—all of them made in China.
This week, the European Union asked China to stop the sale of boats like these, saying that many refugees are relying on these rafts to make their dangerous journeys. Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU Commissioner for Migration, raised the issue in Beijing at a meeting with the Chinese minister of public security Guo Shenkun, according to Reuters.
“The rubber boats used by the smuggler networks in the Mediterranean are fabricated somewhere in China, they are exported to the countries in Asia and they are used by them,” Avramopoulos said Thursday, adding that he asked China to “track down this business and dismantle it, because what they produce [the disposable dinghies] is not serving the common good of the country. It is a very dangerous tool in the hands of ruthless smugglers.”
The dinghies in question often come without a proper bottom–at times, smugglers will put down wooden boards, turning the boats into even flimsier affairs. Slim, light, and above all, cheap, they are just not strong enough to sustain a sea crossing of this magnitude.
A report last month said that the boats were possibly purchased on Chinese e-commerce sites and then shipped through a number of countries, including Malta, before ending up in the hands of smugglers in Libya, where civil war has been raging for years, and where people smuggling has become one of the most important sources of revenue.
On the website of e-commerce giant Alibaba.com, it’s possible to find a number of sellers advertising rubber and fiberglass dinghies, including one offering “inflatable rescue refugee boats” for 300 to 500 US dollars, made by Weihai Dama Yacht, a company in eastern China’s Shandong province.
It isn’t really clear what China can do on this front—these marketplaces involve transactions between individual sellers and buyers and most sales likely have nothing to do with refugee smuggling—although perhaps there are tactics the sites can adapt to identify problematic goods or sellers. Raising quality standards to ban perilous vessels would also help. Yet restricting the sales doesn’t address the heart of the problem—the desperation, both political and economic—driving people from their countries even at risk of death.
Italy, which has seen hundreds of thousands of refugees arrive—and sometimes perish—on its southern shores, acknowledges the sales are not inherently illegal but says it nevertheless would like China to act against them.
Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino, of the Italian Navy, and captain of the European Union Naval Force in the Mediterranean established in 2015 after numerous shipwrecks of refugees from Libya, said last year (link in Italian) “we know that these boats come from China–there is nothing we can do to block it, because it is a legal commerce. But we should find the way to convince China not to sell these dangerous boats.”