Gibraltar to Deregister NGO Rescue Vessel

Image courtesy SOS Mediterranee

By The Maritime Executive 08-14-2018 07:56:50

The NGO-operated rescue vessel Aquarius has been granted permission to dock in Malta after a group of European countries agreed to share responsibility for the 141 survivors on board. She had been in search of a port of refuge since Friday, when Italy, Malta and Libya all refused to accept her. 

In a statement, Malta said that it has no obligation to allow the Aquarius to enter port, but would do so as a "concession" to allow all migrants aboard to travel onward to their final destinations. The survivors - primarily Somali and Eritrean nationals - include 67 unaccompanied children. Medecins Sans Frontieries, the aid charity that operates the Aquarius alongside France-based SOS Mediterranee, reported that some of the minors gave accounts of "kidnapping and extortion" during their time in Libya. 

Under the terms of the agreement with Malta, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain agreed to take a share of the arrivals. Britain did not participate, despite calls for its participation from Italy's new anti-immigration governing coalition. Aquarius is flagged in the British territory of Gibraltar, and Italian transport minister Danilo Toninelli urged Britain to join in, given this connection. A spokesperson for the British government did not accept or decline, but expressed concern for the migrants' wellbeing and a desire to work long-term with EU partners on the "shared challenge of irregular migration."

Dimitris Avramopolous, the EU commissioner for migration, commended the five participating nations for showing "solidarity" and accepting the arrivals. However, he also called for long term "sustainable solutions" that involve the EU as a whole. 

Aquarius may lose flag state registration

The Aquarius' Equasis record describes her as a search and rescue vessel. However, Gibraltar's maritime administration says that she is on its registry as a survey vessel, a categorization that does not correspond to the nature of her work. To resolve this discrepancy, Gibraltar intends to deregister the Aquarius by August 20, and her flag state will revert to her underlying nationality of registration, the German register.

“In June/July 2018, the Aquarius was instructed to suspend operations as a dedicated rescue vessel by the GMA and revert to its original registered status as a ‘Survey Vessel," Gibraltar told the Gibraltar Chronicle in a statement. “When the operators failed to inform and seek clearance from the GMA of the resumption of these dedicated activities in August, the owners of the Aquarius were served with a ‘notice of removal’ by the Maritime Administrator on the 6th August, with a termination date set for the 20th August 2018.” 

In a rebuttal to the flag state's decision, charterer SOS Mediterranee noted that Gibraltar itself has registered Aquarius as a SAR vessel with the IMO. The NGO also pointed out that all vessels are search and rescue vessels when required by international law. The group accused the administration of "concealing a political maneuver behind an incoherent argument" in an attempt to stop "one of the last civilian and humanitarian rescue vessels in the Mediterranean."