Political standoff in the Mediterranean puts vulnerable people at risk

On board the search and rescue ship Aquarius, where 629 people rescued in the Mediterranean received care from MSF teams.
Kenny Karpov/SOS MEDITERRANEE
Click to hide Text

UPDATE: The Aquarius has transferred rescued people to Italian coast guard and navy vessels, leaving 51 women, 45 men and 10 children onboard the Aquarius.

AMSTERDAM/NEW YORK, JUNE 12, 2018—Hundreds of people rescued from boats in distress in the central Mediterranean will spend four more days at sea following a political standoff in which Italy refused to allow them to disembark in a port of safety. They include small children, unaccompanied minors, pregnant women, and urgent medical cases.

As of this morning, the Aquarius, a search and rescue ship run by the organizations SOS MEDITERRANEE and Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), had 629 rescued people onboard, after rescuing 229 people from two boats in distress and accepting the transfer of 400 people rescued by Italian coast guard ships and a merchant ship.

All these activities were coordinated by the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (IMRCC), which took responsibility for the rescues.

While the Aquarius was in international waters between Malta and Italy, Italy refused to allow rescued people to disembark in Italian ports, delaying medical treatment for people in need of urgent care. Today, two Italian navy ships arrived to take a transfer of 400 people from the Aquarius. Following a humanitarian decision by Spain to accept the disembarkation of people, the Aquarius will take the remaining 229 rescued people onboard to Valencia.

However, this will require a four-day journey that is particularly concerning for vulnerable people. Medical cases include people who were resuscitated following near-drowning and hypothermia and 21 patients who suffered severe chemical burns after being exposed to a toxic mixture of sea water and fuel for an extended period. There are also several serious orthopedic cases with associated infections that need immediate surgical evaluation and operations, which MSF is unable to provide on the ship.

"Denying disembarkation to desperate people rescued at sea cannot be considered as a victory: it is the wrong response to the lack of responsibility and burden-sharing between European Union member states," said Aloys Vimard, MSF's project coordinator onboard the Aquarius. "All EU governments and institutions must step up and support countries on the front line of dealing with sea arrivals such as Italy, to guarantee shared solutions and stop the unacceptable inaction from EU states."