NEW YORK/CENTRAL MEDITERRANEAN, SEPTEMBER 23, 2018—Facing blatant economic and political pressure by the government of Italy, the Panama Maritime Authority (PMA) has been forced to revoke the registration of the search and rescue ship Aquarius, run by SOS MEDITERRANEE and the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). This decision condemns hundreds of men, women, and children to death, and deals a major blow to the lifesaving humanitarian mission of the Aquarius, the only remaining non-governmental search and rescue vessel in the Central Mediterranean. Both organizations demand that European governments allow the Aquarius to continue its mission, by affirming to the Panamanian authorities that threats made by the Italian government are unfounded, or by immediately issuing a new flag under which the vessel can sail.
On Saturday, September 22, the Aquarius team received an official communication from Panamanian authorities stating that Italian authorities urged the PMA to take “immediate action” against the Aquarius, despite the fact that vessel meets all maritime standards and is in full compliance with rigorous technical specifications required for ships to fly the Panama flag. The PMA communication said: “unfortunately, it is necessary that [the Aquarius] be excluded from our registry, because it implies a political problem against the Panamanian government and the Panamanian fleet that arrive to European port.”
“European leaders appear to have no qualms implementing increasingly abusive and vicious tactics that serve their own political interests at the expense of human lives,” said Karline Kleijer, MSF’s head of emergencies. “For the past two years, European leaders have claimed that people should not die at sea, but at the same time they have pursued dangerous and ill-informed policies that have brought the humanitarian crisis in the Central Mediterranean and in Libya to new lows. This tragedy has to end, but that can only happen if European Union governments allow the Aquarius and other search and rescue vessels to continue providing lifesaving assistance and bearing witness where it is so desperately needed.”
SOS MEDITERRANEE and MSF strongly denounce the actions as further proof of the extent to which the Italian government is willing to go to, knowing that the only consequence is that people will continue to die at sea and that no witnesses will be present to count the dead.
Since the beginning of the year, more than 1,250 people have drowned while attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean. Those that attempt the crossing today are three times more likely to drown than those who made the same journey in 2015. The real number of deaths is likely much higher, as not all drownings are witnessed or recorded by authorities or United Nations agencies. In early September, a shipwreck in which an estimated 100 people drowned went unreported.
As Europe is increasingly trying to keep people in search of safety from reaching its shores, the European-sponsored Libyan coastguard continues to make more and more interceptions in international waters between Italy, Malta, and Libya, while denying survivors their right to disembark in a place of safety as required by International Maritime and Refugee Law. Instead, these vulnerable people are returned to appalling conditions in Libyan detention centers, several of which are now affected by heavy fighting in Tripoli’s conflict zones.
“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,” said Sophie Beau, vice president of SOS MEDITERRANEE international. “Europe cannot afford to renounce its fundamental values.”
News from the PMA came while the Aquarius team was engaged in an active search and rescue operation in the Central Mediterranean. Over the past three days, Aquarius has assisted two boats in distress and now has 58 survivors on board—several of whom are psychologically distressed and fatigued from their journeys at sea and experiences in Libya—who must be disembarked urgently in a place of safety in accordance with international maritime law. Throughout its current operation and during all previous rescue operations, the Aquarius has maintained full transparency while operating under the instructions of all maritime coordination centers and following international maritime conventions.