Italian authorities continue attacks on lifesaving search and rescue in the Mediterranean

Attempt to seize ship fits a pattern of unfounded allegations

The Aquarius at Valencia harbor on June 20, 2018, when it returned to sea to keep saving lives in international waters off the coast of Libya.
Roland Schilring
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AMSTERDAM/ROME, NOVEMBER 20, 2018—Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) strongly condemns a decision by Italian judicial authorities to request the seizure of the search and rescue ship Aquarius for alleged anomalies in its disposal of onboard waste.

It is a disproportionate and unfounded measure, purely aimed at further criminalizing lifesaving medical-humanitarian action at sea, MSF said today. The Aquarius is a search and rescue ship run by MSF in partnership with the organization SOS Méditerranée.

"This climate of repeated attacks and baseless accusations has led to the real crimes we see today at sea," said Gabriele Eminente, General Director of MSF in Italy. "This year alone, more than 2,000 people have perished in the Mediterranean, while still others continue to take the dangerous sea journey with no dedicated search and rescue vessels left to save their lives. Those who do survive are returned to inhumane and arbitrary detention in Libya, in complete disregard for international maritime and refugee law."  

The request to seize the Aquarius, and the order to freeze some of MSF's bank accounts, follows a longstanding investigation by the Prosecutor's Office of Catania, Italy, regarding the disposal of onboard waste, with particular reference to food leftovers, clothes of rescued people, and waste from the ship's medical activities. However, the in-port operations, including waste management, of MSF's search and rescue vessels have always followed standard procedures. Relevant authorities did not question these procedures, nor did they identify any hazard for public health since MSF began search and rescue operations in 2015. 

"After two years of defamatory and unfounded allegations of collusion with human traffickers, judicial investigations, and bureaucratic obstacles against our humanitarian work, we are now accused of organized crime aimed at illicit waste trafficking," said Karline Kleijer, MSF emergency coordinator. "This latest attempt by the Italian authorities to stop humanitarian lifesaving search and rescue capacity at any cost is sinister."   

MSF is fully willing to cooperate with Italian authorities but questions the Public Prosecutor's interpretation of the events and refutes accusations that it was involved in criminal activity aimed at illicit waste management of any kind. Following an assessment of the seizure decree and an internal review, where the prosecutor's allegations appear inaccurate or misleading, MSF has decided it will submit an appeal to Italian review courts.   

"We are more than ready to clarify the facts and stand accountable for the operational procedures we followed, but we strongly reaffirm the legitimacy and legality of our humanitarian work," said Eminente.   

Over the past three years, MSF has worked with a total of five humanitarian search and rescue ships in the Central Mediterranean, rescuing and assisting more than 80,000 people in coordination with maritime authorities and in full compliance with national and international laws. The only such ship MSF is currently working on, the Aquarius, now sits paralyzed in Marseille after having its registration flag revoked twice in two months as a result of concerted political pressure.  

"Two years of smear campaigns against search and rescue activities, baseless public accusations of criminal activity, and the closure of places of safety have impeded humanitarian aid and discouraged ships of all kinds from rescuing boats in distress on the Mediterranean Sea," Kleijer said. "The ultimate result is a surge in human suffering, as the European-funded Libyan coast guard returns more and more survivors intercepted in international waters and sends them back to arbitrary detention in Libya, in contravention to international law."

See also: An MSF physician writes in Refugees Deeply: "What It Means for Migrants When Europe Blocks Sea Rescues"