Humanitarian organisation forced to end Mediterranean migrant rescue operations

Médecins Sans Frontières says it has been left with no choice amid EU and Italian opposition

Humanitarian organisation forced to end Mediterranean migrant rescue operations

The Aquarius rescue ship moored Marseille harbour, 19-02-2018. Image: Mahoudeau Clement/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

The charity Médecins Sans Frontières has said it has been forced to end its search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

The organisation said a sustained campaign of obstruction by the Italian government and the EU had left it with no choice but to withdraw the rescue vessel MV Aquarius from service.

It accused Italian authorities of working to delegitimise, slander and obstruct aid organisations providing assistance to vulnerable people.

It said the Aquarius had been stripped of its registration twice this year and now faces “patently absurd” allegations of criminal activity.

It said the Aquarius had been forced to remain in port for the past two months as people continue to flee across the world’s deadliest migration route.

"Dark day"

The charity’s general director Nelke Manders said EU attempts to discredit search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean over the past 18 months “have drawn on tactics used in some of the world’s most repressive states.”

“This is a dark day,” he said.

“Not only has Europe failed to provide search and rescue capacity, it has also actively sabotaged others’ attempts to save lives.

“The end of Aquarius means more deaths at sea, and more needless deaths that will go un-witnessed.”

Deadliest route

Some 2,133 people are believed to have died in the Mediterranean this year.

The majority of people attempting the crossing from Libya to Europe do so on dangerous and overcrowded crafts.

The Aquarius, which has assisted nearly 30,000 people since 2016, was the last ship working to rescue stricken migrants in the region.

It’s after crackdowns by the Italian government forced several others to halt operations.

Returned

MSF said the EU states have fuelled the suffering by enabling the Libyan coastguard to intercept more than 14,000 people at sea this year and forcibly return them to Libya.

It said the policy was in “clear violation of international law” noting that in 2015, the EU pledged to ensure nobody rescued at sea would be forced to return to Libya.

A number of humanitarian vessels have been blocked from entering ports in Italy and Malta in recent months.

The stand-off has seen ships, including the Aquarius stranded at sea for days at a time with dwindling supplies and hundreds of people on board.

EU response

Italy's interior minister Matteo Salvini has said other European countries to take on more responsibility in taking in migrants.

"Europe needs to seriously decide to help Italy in concrete terms," he said in August.

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