Charities operating the last search and rescue ship aiding migrants in the central Mediterranean have appealed to France for help, after Panama revoked the vessel’s registration.
The Aquarius 2, operated by nongovernmental organizations Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Mediterranean, is currently at sea carrying more than 58 migrants plucked from inflatable boats in recent days.
The vessel is heading for the French port of Marseille. Once the ship gets there, its Panamanian flag will be removed and the ship will not be able to set sail again unless another country agrees to register it. The charities have accused Italy’s right-wing government of pressuring foreign governments into revoking the ship’s registration.
At a press conference Monday, SOS Mediterranean chief Francis Vallat appealed to Europe for help.
“We call solemnly on all European countries, who are still, in general, law-abiding nations, to please not let this happen,” Vallat told reporters in Paris.
The charity’s director of operations, Frederic Penard, said he hoped French authorities would allow the ship to depart.
“The Aquarius must absolutely continue its mission, and the port of Marseille is the only possible place so that it can leave again.”
The Aquarius 2 was previously flagged to Gibraltar, until that was revoked in August. Italy’s government denies pressuring governments into canceling the registration of migrant boats, but has often accused NGOs of facilitating illegal migration.
At the height of the migrant influx in 2015 and 2016, NGO vessels worked alongside Italian coast guard ships. The election of Italy’s coalition government this year on an anti-migrant platform rapidly brought an end to the cooperation, and rescue boats have been prevented from docking in Italian ports. Migrant arrivals in Italy have since fallen to pre-crisis levels following a series of hard-line measures drafted by far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.
Analyst Camino Mortera-Martinez of the Center for European Reform says Italy’s approach has been met with a conflicted response in Brussels.
“I think some in Brussels are actually happy that Salvini and others are bringing out these topics on the so-called ‘taxi service’ or the shuttle service, and the pull factor that some in government think that the NGOs have in the increase of migrants coming to Europe. I think there is a lot of hypocrisy in this discourse,” Mortera-Martinez added. “We have on the one hand people trying to stop these populists from gaining power, but on the other hand it is actually really useful (for the EU) to have somebody raising these issues which is not like the liberal elite.”
Rescue missions will now fall on national coast guard crews from Europe and north Africa, who tend to return the rescued migrants to the country they set off from, usually Libya.
NGO groups describe conditions for the migrants there as “inhuman” – with allegations of arbitrary detention, torture, rape and killings by people smugglers and security forces.
Credit: Voice of America (VOA) | Photo Credit: Reuters