Once Again, Rescue Vessel Aquarius Seeks Port of Refuge

Image courtesy SOS Mediterranee

Published Aug 13, 2018 5:01 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Monday, Italian prime minister Matteo Salvini turned away another maritime migrant rescue mission, telling the NGO-operated vessel Aquarius that she "can go anywhere, but not Italy." 

Salvini noted the vessel's multinational operating structure, which is common in the maritime industry, and alleged that she is engaged in human trafficking. “German ownership, chartered by a French NGO, foreign crew, in Maltese waters, carrying the Gibraltar flag,” he wrote. "Stop human traffickers and their accomplices."

The Aquarius' current predicament mirrors an earlier standoff in June, when she asked for permission to enter a port in Sicily with 629 rescued migrants on board. When Salvini ordered her turned away, the government of Spain offered her a port of refuge. This time, however, a Spanish official told media that Madrid believes that ports in the Central Mediterranean would be safer, as Spain's shores are far from the vessel's current position. 

Medecins Sans Frontieres, one of two NGOs behind the Aquarius' operations, said in a Twitter update that the government of Malta has also refused the vessel permission to enter port. Malta rarely grants access for rescue vessels, and asserts that it does not have the resources to absorb significant flows of maritime migrants. 

In an unusual development, MSF and partner NGO SOS Mediterranee said that Libyan authorities had also refused the vessel permission to enter port. The development is novel, given EU support for Libyan efforts to return maritime migrants to shore. However, it is moot: MSF would not have brought the migrants to Libya anyways, as the UN considers the country unsafe due to its poor human rights record. 

“We are now following the instructions of the JRCC and will duly contact other RCCs for a place of safety to disembark the rescued people we have on board”, said Nick Romaniuk, search and rescue coordinator for SOS Mediterranee. “What is of utmost importance is that the survivors are brought to a place of safety without delay, where their basic needs can be met and where they can be protected from abuse.”

Vessels sailed by without providing aid

In a potentially dangerous development, MSF said that a group of survivors told the Aquarius' crew that they had encountered five other ships during their ordeal, none of which offered them assistance. “It seems the very principle of rendering assistance to persons in distress at sea is now at stake. Ships might be unwilling to respond to those in distress due to the high risk of being stranded and denied a place of safety. Policies designed to prevent people from reaching Europe at all costs are resulting in more suffering and forcing those who are already vulnerable to take even riskier journeys to safety,” said Aloys Vimard, MSF project coordinator on board Aquarius.