copyright msf caption © Kevin McElvaney
06 Dec 18 07 Dec 18

With migrant lives still at risk on Mediterranean, MSF is forced to terminate operations of search-and-rescue ship Aquarius

While refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers continue to die in the Mediterranean Sea, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), together with its partner SOS Méditerranée, have been forced to terminate operations of our search-and-rescue vessel, the Aquarius. 

Over the past two months, as people have continued to risk their lives at sea crossing the world’s deadliest maritime migration route, the Aquarius has remained in port, unable to carry out its humanitarian work as a result of a sustained campaign spearheaded by the Italian government and backed by other European states. Attacks aimed at delegitimizing, slandering and obstructing aid organizations have hindered assistance to vulnerable people. Coupled with the European Union’s ill-conceived external policies on migration, these campaigns are undermining international law and humanitarian principles. With no immediate solution to these attacks, MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE have no other choice but to begin decommissioning the Aquarius.

'More deaths at sea'

“This represents a dark day,” says Nelke Manders, MSF’s General Director. “Not only has Europe failed to provide search-and-rescue capacity, it has also actively sabotaged others who are attempting to save lives. The end of Aquarius means more deaths at sea and more needless deaths that will have no witnesses.”

Over the past 18 months, the unprecedented efforts curtailing humanitarian assistance have drawn upon tactics used in some of the world’s most repressive states. Despite working in full compliance and transparency with authorities, the Aquarius was twice stripped of its registration earlier this year due to political motives, and now faces absurd allegations of criminal activity. Amidst smear campaigns and deliberate manoeuvres to undermine international law, people rescued at sea have been denied access to safe ports, refused assistance from other ships and left stranded at sea for weeks at a time.

The forced end of the Aquarius happens at a critical time. An estimated 2,133 people have perished in the Mediterranean in 2018, with departures from Libya accounting for the overwhelming majority of deaths. European member states have fuelled the suffering by enabling the Libyan coast guard to intercept more than 14,000 people at sea this year and — in clear violation of international law — forcibly return them to Libya.

Returning vulnerable people to detention and abuse in Libya

In 2015, Europe made a commitment to the UN Security Council that nobody rescued at sea would be forced to return to Libya. “Today, Europe is directly supporting forced returns while claiming successes on migration for their citizens,” says Karline Kleijer, MSF’s Head of Emergencies. “Let's be clear about what that success means: a lack of life-saving assistance at sea; children, women and men pushed back to arbitrary detention with virtually no hope of escape; and the creation of a climate that discourages all ships at sea from carrying out their obligations to rescue those in distress.”

Since beginning its search and rescue mission in February 2016, the Aquarius has assisted nearly 30,000 people in international waters between Libya, Italy and Malta. The Aquarius’ last period of active search-and-rescue duty ended on October 4, 2018, when it arrived in the port of Marseille following the rescue of 58 people. Using the Aquarius and other rescue vessels — the Bourbon Argos, Dignity, Prudence and the Phoenix —  MSF has rescued or assisted over 80,000 people since 2015. Despite recent efforts of other NGOs at sea, today there are no dedicated rescue boats operating in the Central Mediterranean.

“We refuse to remain idle on shore as people continue dying at sea,” says Kleijer. “So long as people continue to suffer at sea and in Libya, MSF will look for ways to provide medical humanitarian care to them.”

{{{ labels.morehistories }}}