Central Mediterranean: Aquarius resumes desperately-needed humanitarian assistance

Rescue on MV Aquarius - June 2016

ITALY 2016 © Alva White/MSF

NEW YORK/MARSEILLE, AUGUST 1, 2018—About two months after Italy and Malta refused to let it dock with hundreds of migrants onboard, the Aquarius, a rescue boat run in partnership between the SOS MEDITERRANEE and the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), set sail again today from Marseilles. The boat is on its way back to the Central Mediterranean to continue rendering lifesaving assistance to people in distress at sea.  

Political disputes over ports of disembarkation have left ships that have rescued people at sea stranded for weeks at a time. Humanitarian organizations saving lives at sea have been criminalized and blocked from ports in Italy and Malta. Earlier this summer, Italian authorities refused to allow the Aquarius to disembark 630 rescued people, causing uncertainly for those aboard, putting at risk vulnerable people like unaccompanied minors and pregnant women, and prolonging their time at sea. Further blockages and obstructions of NGO rescue ships by European states followed.

“The Central Mediterranean route is the deadliest in the world,” said Aloys Vimard, MSF’s project coordinator on board the Aquarius. “There are hardly any rescue ships left in the Central Mediterranean and no dedicated search and rescue capacity from European states. Humanitarian assistance at sea is desperately needed now more than ever. Rescuing people in distress at sea remains a legal and moral obligation. Over 700 people have drowned in the past few weeks. This contempt for human life is horrifying.”

In over two years of uninterrupted search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean, this was the first time that Aquarius was in port for more than one month.

Despite European states being fully aware of the alarming level of violence and exploitation which refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers suffer in Libya, the EU has been more and more supportive lately of returning them back to Libya where they face being arbitrarily detained in overcrowded and inhumane detention centers where the humanitarian assistance provided fails to address the rising needs.

Specifically, coordination responsibilities of the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard were ramped up even more and a new Libyan Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) was recognized by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) at the end of June to double down on returning people to Libya, where they are at risk of experiencing further abuse and violation.

“Despite the increasingly complex situation on the Central Mediterranean, our objective remains the same as it was at the start which is to save lives at sea; to prevent men, women and children from drowning, and to bring them to a place of safety where their basic needs are met and their rights protected and guaranteed,” Vimard said.

As Aquarius heads back to the Central Mediterranean, MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE teams onboard reaffirm that Aquarius will continue to rescue people in distress at sea with full respect to international maritime authorities, law, and conventions. Aquarius cannot comply with instructions to delay rendering assistance to persons in distress at sea if there is no certainty that all other available means and assets have been deployed to assist those in danger and bring them to a place of safety.

Libya is not a place of safety for refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants. Refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants intercepted at sea should not be returned to Libya. Therefore, Aquarius is obliged to refuse any instruction by maritime authorities to disembark people rescued at sea in Libya, or to transfer people rescued at sea onto any ship that would disembark them in Libya.

The Aquarius has assisted more than 29,000 people in more than 200 operations at sea, all coordinated by competent maritime authorities. The ship has three fast rescue boats with emergency floatation tools for mass rescue operations, a specially recruited crew of 35 consisting of a professional marine crew, rescuers and a medical team from MSF, trained to render assistance to persons in distress at sea. The Aquarius has been set-up to provide emergency care to more than 500 people at one time for several days on the high seas.

While in Marseille, the Aquarius was equipped with a new fast speed rescue boat to allow for more efficient rescue operations. With increased likelihood that people rescued at sea will have to spend more days onboard before being able to disembark to a safe place, extra food and medical supplies have been brought onto the ship. A refrigerated shipping container has been installed on deck to store the bodies of people who have drowned.