Aquarius in port: last large vessel withdraws from Mediterranean refugee rescue

Back in June, the refugee rescue ship Aquarius was at the centre of a media storm when Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister, refused permission for it to dock, forcing the transfer at sea of some refugees to coastguard vessels (that were allowed to dock) and a long journey to Spain for those remaining on Aquarius.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have announced that the Aquarius, the last large vessel working in the Mediterranean Sea, has now ceased operations. The charity explain:

“Since February 2016, the Aquarius has assisted nearly 30,000 people in international waters between Libya, Italy and Malta. An estimated 2,133 people have died in the Mediterranean in 2018. Not only has Europe failed to provide search and rescue capacity, it has also actively sabotaged others’ attempts to save lives.”

The Aquarius was twice stripped of its registration earlier this year, forcing it to remain in port. It now faces allegations of criminal activity, allegations which MSF say are “patently absurd”. The ship has been stuck in Marseilles since October 4, and MSF and its partner SOS MEDITERRANEE say that they have no choice but to end operations.

Nelke Manders, MSF’s general director, stated:

“This is a dark day. Not only has Europe failed to provide search and rescue capacity, it has also actively sabotaged others’ attempts to save lives. The end of Aquarius means more deaths at sea, and more needless deaths that will go unwitnessed.”

MSF feel that they are witnessing a “sustained campaign, spearheaded by the Italian government and backed by other European states, to delegitimise, slander and obstruct aid organisations providing assistance to vulnerable people.”

The charity believe that the overwhelming majority of deaths in the Mediterranean this year have been of people departing from Libya.

“European member states have fuelled the suffering by enabling the Libyan coastguard to intercept more than 14,000 people at sea this year and forcibly return them to Libya. This is in clear violation of international law. In 2015, Europe made a commitment to the UN Security Council that nobody rescued at sea would be forced to return to Libya.”

Conditions are poor for people returned to Libya, with human rights 

The human rights climate in Libya is poor for people who are returned. Karline Kleijer, MSF’s head of emergencies, commented on the EU’s policy of ‘forced returns’:

“Let’s be clear about what that success means: a lack of lifesaving assistance at sea; children, women and men pushed back to arbitrary detention with virtually no hope of escape; and the creation of a climate that discourages all ships at sea from carrying out their obligations to rescue those in distress.”