On September 23, Panama government revoked the registration of the private migrant rescue vessel Aquarius 2 allegedly under pressure from the Italian government. The ship operates in a route which witnesses a high level of immigration from Libya and Egypt to Italy and Malta, across central Mediterranean sea. Aquarius was being used by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS Méditerranée on lease since February 2016 for the search and rescue operations. Many migrants stranded at sea, who ventured into the dangerous Mediterranean while crossing from North Africa to Europe in unseaworthy vessels belonging to traffickers, have been rescued by the Aquarius.
On August 6, Gibraltar authorities had issued a ‘notice of removal’ of the license of the ship, following which the owners sought registration from Panama on August 20, 2018. Earlier, the Italian government had denied berthing rights to the boat in June 2018 and directed it to return the refugees to the Libyan coast guard. When the ship’s captain refused to comply with the order, the Italians complained to Panama authorities. Under pressure, Panama Maritime Authority succumbed and officially revoked the boat’s license on September 22.
Performing rescue duty, the ship successfully patrolled the waters from Sicily to the Libyan coast and was instrumental in saving lives of more than 10,000 refugees.
MSF responded to the recent developments saying the Italian government’s complaint against the ship is baseless. The organisations further requested European governments to assure Panama Maritime Authority so it can re-issue Aquarius’ license enabling it to continue its rescue operations. Karline Kleijer (MSF Head of Emergencies) said, “European leaders appear to have no qualms implementing increasingly abusive and vicious tactics that serve their political interests at the expense of human lives.”
“Five years after the Lampedusa tragedy, when European leaders said ‘never again’ and Italy launched its first large-scale search and rescue operation; people are still risking their lives to escape from Libya while the death rate on the Central Mediterranean is skyrocketing. … Europe cannot afford to renounce its fundamental values,” said Sophie Beau, Vice President of SOS Méditerranée international.
A vast number of migrants have been attempting to seek refuge in Europe, originating from the war-torn North African states and the conflict zones in West Asia. Till date, thousands have lost their lives after drowning in the sea as overcrowded and unseaworthy boats often capsize in the rough waters of the Mediterranean.
The October 2013 tragedy of Lampedusa in which 359 people died after a boat carrying migrants capsized, the tragic death of the three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi along with others, and other such instances of excessive losses of lives evoked widespread concern about this humanitarian crisis all over the world. This prompted NGOs such as MSF, SOS Méditerranée, Save the Children, Sea Eye, etc. to initiate voluntary rescue ship operations in the region. According to the United Nations, around 1600 migrants have died so far in 2018 alone while trying to cross the Mediterranean.