Even thought people continue to risk their lives by taking the dangerous refugee route across the Mediterranean, there is currently not one single humanitarian ship operating to rescue people in distress. The reconnaissance aircraft “Moonbird” from Sea Watch is currently the only NGO asset operating at sea that sight boats in distress. Individual European countries such as Malta or Italy have deliberately prevented in the past months’ civilian organizations from saving lives. Thus, there are hardly any witnesses left who can independently report on the situation unfolding in the Mediterranean.
Our rescue ship Aquarius, which we have been operating together with MSF in international waters off the Libyan coast since 2016, is currently impeded to return to rescue operations at sea. The Aquarius remains in the port of Marseille until further notice, until its flag status is clarified.
In an unprecedented political maneuver, the Panamanian Maritime Authority (PMA) announced at the end of September its intention to withdraw the flag from the Aquarius. The decision was taken due to political pressure from Italy. An official communication from the Panamanian Maritime Administration to the owner of the Aquarius said that the Italian authorities urged the PMA to take “emergency measures” against the Aquarius. The statement said: “Unfortunately, it is necessary to exclude [the Aquarius] from our registration because it poses a political problem for the Panamanian Government and the Panamanian fleet when it enters European ports.” (See news release dated 23.09. 2018).
In support of their claim, the Italian government alleged that the Aquarius captain had refused to return survivors to Libya during a rescue operation in September – a country torn by civil war, where migrants are constantly threatened by forced labor, slavery, torture and sexual violence and run the risk of falling between firing lines of rival paramilitary groups.
Just a few weeks earlier, Gibraltar had deprived, based on unsustainable grounds, the Aquarius of its flag (see statement of 13.08.2018). Despite the fact that the Aquarius had met all the regulatory requirements and technical controls of the flag State of Gibraltar over the last two and a half years.
We find these attempts to stop the rescue operations of the Aquarius unacceptable! We will not allow this to stop us from saving people from drowning at Sea and bear witness to the tragedy unfolding on the Mediterranean. We therefore call for a petition on the European states, and in particular the German Federal Government, to work actively for civilian sea rescue and for a new flag for the Aquarius. What we demand is compliance with the law and, thus, the obligation to rescue people in distress at Sea.
We continue to explore all the long-term possibilities to continue saving lives with the Aquarius. In the meantime, the owner of the Aquarius has obtained a provisional registration with the Liberian Maritime Authority as an interim administrative solution. However, this does not allow us to continue our search and rescue operations. The search for a long-term solution for the Aquarius continues.
The latest information on the flag status of the Aquarius can be found on our Twitter account.
(Last update 12.11.2018)