NGOs give up on Aquar­ius ves­sel

Gulf Times - - EUROPE -

NGOs to re­sume op­er­a­tions with new ship as soon as pos­si­ble

The char­ity-run mi­grant res­cue ship Aquar­ius will end its mis­sions in the Mediter­ranean, with hu­man­i­tar­ian group MSF blam­ing Italy and other Euro­pean states for smear­ing and ob­struct­ing its work.

The ves­sel, char­tered by SOS Mediter­ra­nee and Doc­tors With­out Borders (Medecins sans Fron­tieres, MSF), has been stranded in Mar­seille, in the south of France, since Oc­to­ber af­ter Panama re­voked the right to fly its flag fol­low­ing a re­quest from Italy’s far-right, anti-es­tab­lish­ment gov­ern­ment.

The ship be­came a sym­bol of the diplo­matic cri­sis sur­round­ing the ar­rival of mi­grants in Europe when Italy slammed shut its ports in June and left the ship stranded with 630 peo­ple on board.

Aquar­ius has helped al­most 30,000 mi­grants at sea who have at­tempted the per­ilous jour­ney across the Mediter­ranean.

“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,” MSF said in a state­ment on Thurs­day.

“Cou­pled with the EU’s ill­con­ceived ex­ter­nal poli­cies on mi­gra­tion, this cam­paign has un­der­mined in­ter­na­tional law and hu­man­i­tar­ian prin­ci­ples.

“With no im­me­di­ate so­lu­tion to these at­tacks, MSF and SOS Mediter­ra­nee have no choice but to end op­er­a­tions by the Aquar­ius,” it added.

SOS Mediter­ra­nee di­rec­tor of op­er­a­tions Fred­eric Pe­nard said “giv­ing up the Aquar­ius has been an ex­tremely dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion” but added that the group was “ac­tively ex­plor­ing op­tions for a new boat”.

“We are look­ing for new ships and are hav­ing talks with sev­eral ship­ping com­pa­nies,” Ver­ena Papke, the di­rec­tor of SOS Mediter­ra­nee Ger­many, said in a press con­fer­ence in Paris.

Pepke said the NGO will have found a new res­cue ship by 2019 at the lat­est.

“The Aquar­ius was ob­vi­ously a big sym­bol” but at the end of the day, it was only a ship and needs to be re­placed, she added.

Last month Rome also or­dered the seizure of the Aquar­ius, which had been con­duct­ing res­cue op­er­a­tions off Libya since 2016, for al­legedly dump­ing toxic waste.

Ac­cord­ing to Ital­ian me­dia, in­ves­ti­ga­tors sus­pect the ves­sel passed off 24 tonnes of po­ten­tially toxic waste as or­di­nary waste.

Prose­cu­tors in the Si­cil­ian city of Cata­nia are run­ning the in­quiry into mi­grant cloth­ing, food left­overs and san­i­tary waste that was han­dled at Ital­ian ports from the Aquar­ius and the Vos Pru­dence, an­other ves­sel char­tered by MSF last year.

Aquar­ius be­gan its res­cue op­er­a­tions off Libya in Fe­bru­ary 2016 fly­ing the flag of Gi­bral­tar, and later Panama.

But it hit rocky waters in June this year when it at­tempted to dock in Cor­sica with 630 mi­grants on board, only for Italy’s new pop­ulist gov­ern­ment to shut its ports to civil­ian and mil­i­tary boats that have res­cued mi­grants – say­ing that Italy bears an un­fair share of the mi­grant bur­den.

Af­ter also be­ing re­fused by Malta, the ship fi­nally landed in Va­len­cia in Spain af­ter other EU states promised to take in some of the mi­grants.

It was the first of a se­ries of sim­i­lar in­ci­dents that trig­gered di­vi­sions in the EU over how to tackle mi­gra­tion and its im­pact on front­line mem­ber states Italy, Greece and Spain.

The Euro­pean Union is try­ing to boost its de­fences against fu­ture mi­grant surges af­ter hav­ing sharply re­duced ar­rivals since a 2015 peak as a re­sult of co-op­er­a­tion with Tur­key and Libya.

The In­ter­na­tional Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Mi­gra­tion says that about 15,000 mi­grants have drowned in the cen­tral Mediter­ranean since 2013.

Dur­ing the same pe­riod Italy has seen 600,000 mi­grants land on its coast­line.

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