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Aquarius returns to sea to save lives 

Migrant rescue ship is one of only two private rescue vessels still operating in the Mediterranean

The Aquarius carrying over 600 people rescued at sea was denied entry by Malta and Italy in June (Photo: SOS MEDITERRANEE)

Some six weeks after being denied access to Italian and Maltese ports, the migrant rescue ship Aquarius is back at sea to save lives in the waters between Libya, Malta and Italy.

In June, the rescue vessel chartered by the French NGO SOS Mediterranee spent days at sea with 629 migrants after being denied entry by Italy and Malta.

Aquarius set sail from Marseille on Wednesday and is one of only two private rescue vessels still operating in the Mediterranean after an increase in restrictions by European governments.

A number of rescue vessels, including Sea Watch, are currently blocked in Malta, as the government continues to play hardball. Since the beginning of the year, over 1,500 people have died in the Mediterranean.

”Despite a radical shift in the operational context for humanitarian interventions in the Mediterranean, the Aquarius operations are driven by the same conviction that there is no alternative to saving lives in distress at sea, and by the same principle rooted in the maritime tradition that no human being should be left drowning at sea,” SOS Mediterrannee, said in a statement this week.

Since it first left the port of Marseille in February 2016, the Aquarius rescued 29,318 men, women and children from drowning, of which 2,979 in 2018.

“The humanitarian tragedy at sea is still ongoing at our doorstep, but the failure of the EU in addressing it is under our eyes: Over 1,100 people died in the Central Mediterranean since early 2018. Nearly two-thirds of these deaths – 721 – occurred since June, when civil rescue assets were prevented from operating in the international waters off the coast of Libya,” Frédéric Penard, Directer of Operations of SOS Mediterrannee said.

The Aquarius was forced to make a 1,500 km journey in June across the Mediterranean Sea while carrying 629 migrants after being denied port by Italy and Malta. Spain eventually allowed for the ship to dock in Valencia.

Malta and Italy’s rejection of the migrants, who were rescued at sea while undertaking the perilous trip over the Mediterranean from Libya, underscored deep divisions in Europe on how best to handle a recent massive influx of migrants attempting to reach the continent.

The NGO said the operational framework remains firmly based on fundamental maritime principles.

“Rescue at sea is a legal obligation, rescue operations at sea are coordinated by a competent MRCC, rescues have to be conducted as fast and efficiently as possible by all available boats, and the survivors have to be disembarked in the nearest safe port. As long as Libya cannot qualify as a place of safety, the Aquarius will never disembark any rescued person in Libyan ports.”

SOS Mediterrannee added that transparency has always been crucial to the Aquarius mission. The ship now returns to sea as a “civil sentinel in the Mediterranean”.

An online logbook is to be launched upon departure of the ship and it will be fully accessible to the public on www.onboard-aquarius.org and updated live. It will document all activities of the Aquarius in the Central Mediterranean.

The ship has undergone checks and updates since the voyage, according to its operators.

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