Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS Méditerranée announced this week that they will be ending the operations of the Aquarius migrant rescue ship, which since February 2016 has assisted nearly 30,000 people in international waters between Libya, Italy and Malta.
The rescue ship, which has become a lightning rod for the controversy surrounding Europe’s policies on migration, was twice stripped of its registration earlier this year and now faces allegations of criminal activity – allegations which the NGOs said are patently absurd.
“This is a dark day,” MSF’s general director Nelke Manders said, adding “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 and SOS Méditerranée said that over the past 18 months, the attacks by EU states on humanitarian search and rescue operations have drawn on tactics used in some of the world’s most repressive states.
“Amid these smear campaigns and manoeuvres to undermine international law, people rescued at sea have been denied access to safe ports, refused assistance from other ships and left stranded at sea for weeks at a time,” the NGOs said in a statement.
The forced end to the Aquarius’ operations happens at a critical time. An estimated 2,133 people have died in the Mediterranean in 2018, with departures from Libya accounting for the overwhelming majority of deaths.
Over the past two months, with people continuing to flee by sea along the world’s deadliest migration route, the Aquarius has remained in port, unable to carry out its humanitarian work, MSF and SOS Méditerranée said.
“This is the result of 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.”
Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini vowed to block the Aquarius permanently from his country’s ports, accusing it of offering a “taxi service” for migrants from Libya to Europe. In June of this year, the rescue vessel spent days at sea with 629 migrants after being denied entry by Italy and Malta as the two countries blocked access to various rescue ships.
They added that coupled with the EU’s ill-conceived external policies on migration, this campaign has undermined international law and humanitarian principles.
“With no immediate solution to these attacks, MSF and SOS Méditerranée have no choice but to end operations by the Aquarius.”