'This is a dark day': Migrant rescue ship Aquarius 'forced' to end operations


Aid groups say Europe has actively sabotaged attempts to save the lives of drowning migrants in the Mediterranean.

The Aquarius migrant rescue ship is to end its operations in the Mediterranean, the humanitarian groups that chartered the boat said on Thursday.

The vessel has been stranded in Marseille since early October after Panama revoked the right to fly its flag following a request from Italy's far-right, anti-establishment government.

Last month Rome also ordered the seizure of the Aquarius, which had been conducting rescue operations off Libya since 2016, for allegedly dumping toxic waste.

The rescue ship is equipped with speedboats, life rafts and a first aid station.
The rescue ship is equipped with speedboats, life rafts and a first aid station.

"This is a dark day,” said Nelke Manders, the general director of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

"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 unwitnessed."

MSF said the organisation was not able to combat the "sustained campaign" by Italy and other EU states "to delegitimise, slander and obstruct aid organisations providing assistance to vulnerable people".

SOS Mediterranee director of operations Frederic Penard said "giving up the Aquarius has been an extremely difficult decision" but added that the group was "actively exploring options for a new boat".

Life buoys on the boat's deck.
Life buoys on the boat's deck.

According to Italian media, investigators suspect the vessel passed off 24 tonnes of potentially toxic waste as ordinary waste.

Prosecutors in the Sicilian city of Catania are running the inquiry into migrant clothing, food leftovers and sanitary waste that was handled at Italian ports from the Aquarius and the Vos Prudence, another vessel chartered by MSF last year.

The ships have rescued thousands of migrants from the Mediterranean with immigration a hot-button issue in the European Union.

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

Crew memebers prepare for a rescue mission.
Crew memebers prepare for a rescue mission.

During the same period Italy has seen 600,000 migrants land on its coastline, while other European nations have closed their borders.

Italy's former centre-left government tried to stem the flow of migrants by working with the Libyan authorities and limiting the NGO effort.

Anti-immigrant Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who came to power as part of a populist government in June, however, has since closed Italian ports to civilian and military boats that have rescued migrants, saying Italy bears an unfair share of the migrant burden.

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