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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Medical charities accuse Italy in rescue ship dispute

Panama revokes registration of Mediterranean rescue vessel sparking new dispute over migrant safety

Migrants wave from SOS Mediterranee Aquarius rescue ship, after being rescued by members of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms during an operation at the Mediterranean sea. AP
Migrants wave from SOS Mediterranee Aquarius rescue ship, after being rescued by members of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms during an operation at the Mediterranean sea. AP

Medical charities accused Italy’s populist Interior Minister Matteo Salvini of putting pressure on Panama to force into dock the sole charity vessel operating search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea in a new tactic to cut migrant arrivals.

Italy placed “blatant and economic political pressure” on the Panama Maritime Authority (PMA) to revoke the registration of Aquarius 2, said SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) which runs the ship.

“European leaders seem ruthless when it comes to adopting tactics that are more and more offensive and cruel in order to promote their political interests at the expense of human lives,” Karline Kleijer, emergency coordinator at MSF, said in Sunday’s statement.

Mr Salvini denied his involvement in a Tweet, saying “no pressure at all on Panama for the Aquarius 2. I don’t even know what Panama’s country code is.”

The ship, which is engaged in rescue operations in the Mediterranean, had been sailing under the Panama flag since August, when Gibraltar revoked its registration.

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When it next docks, it will lose its flag and not be able to leave port again until another maritime authority agrees to register the ship. An MSF spokesperson told The National that the ship was still at sea with 58 migrants on board following two rescue mission. It was unclear when and where it would next dock.

The NGOs have asked European governments to reassure Panama or issue a new flag so that Aquarius 2 can continue operating.

Panama said it revoked the registration because of non-compliance with international legal procedures related to migrant rescues in the Mediterranean, claims denied by the two charities.

NGOs consider the recent development as the latest in a string of attacks conducted by Italy’s far-right Lega politician towards the work of humanitarian organisation, which he previously attacked for providing a “taxi service” to migrants attempting to reach Italian shores.

The Aquarius was left stranded with 630 migrants on board in June when Mr Salvini vowed to turn away rescue ships from its shores. It was finally forced to make a 1,300km journey to dock in Spain, sparking a diplomatic crisis with the European Union over how to handle migrants.

Panama maritime authority said that it sought to revoke the registration of the Aquarius after its captain defied Italian instructions to take rescued refugees back to Libya on safety grounds.

The UN refugee agency said that Libya – where fighting among militias is ongoing – is not a safe country to return migrants to.

In 2017, the ship assisted 14,000 people in the Mediterranean, according to MSF figures. According to the United Nations, 1,719 people have died or gone missing this year while trying to cross over to Italy.

Spain has seen a spike in arrivals following Italy’s protracted refusal to let humanitarian boats dock. Nearly 300 migrants have died in the waters separating Spain from Africa and the recent arrivals have strained the country’s resources.

Spain’s maritime rescue service said Sunday it rescued more than 400 people from 15 dinghies. The sole private rescue ship, Aquarius 2, now risks being put out of action by Italy’s anti-migrant government, substantially increasing the risks for those undertaking the journey towards European shores.