Aquarius, The Last Mediterranean Refugee Rescue Ship, Ends Operations Amid Pressure From EU States

Rescue and relief organizations SOS Méditerranée and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have recently announced that they are ending the Aquarius refugee rescue mission in the Mediterranean Sea. This decision followed the two-month halt to operations that Aquarius has endured following the revocation of its registration. 24 people associated with Aquarius have been put under investigation in the past months by Italian prosecutors for “trafficking and illegal management of waste,” as the ship’s crew had partaken in labelling migrants’ clothing as “special waste,” rather than “toxic waste,” according to Al Jazeera.

MSF responded to these allegations by denying any wrongdoing on their part, stating that this was part of the Italian agenda to smear and criminalize humanitarian work. Furthermore, the majority of refugees, whom now take the route by ocean to Italy, are now being intercepted and returned to Libya where they will face indefinite detention.

SOS Méditerranée and MSF have described the ending of Aquarius as a result of “a relentless ongoing political, judicial, and administrative campaign, backed by several European states… [given] repeated and targeted attacks against life-saving aid organizations, coupled with EU states’ criminal disregard of their maritime and international obligations.” The Director of SOS Mediterranee Gernmany, Verena Papke, further noted that this will lead to “mounting life-threatening risks for people.”

Regardless, Italy’s new Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, has labelled Aquarius as a “taxi-service” for migrants coming from Libya to Europe, claiming that it must be permanently blocked from Italy’s ports. Nelke Manders, General Director of MSF, added, “This is a dark day. Not only has Europe failed to provide search and rescue capacity, it has also actively sabotaged others’ attempts to save lives.” According to MSF, the onslaught from the EU on the ability of Aquarius to do its humanitarian work leaves the problem as an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” situation for the U.K. and other European leaders, in their refusal to acknowledge the plight of those making the journey from Libya to Europe, as well as their more than likely deaths without humanitarian assistance.

For the organizations themselves, the obstruction to their search and rescue Aquarius operations is the result of a campaign led by the Italian government, further backed by other European states, in an effort to delegitimize aid organizations in providing assistance to some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Given that the migration route from Libya to Europe is considered one of — if not the most — dangerous migration route, the work that Aquarius and operations like them were doing is vital in protecting and saving the lives of migrants. Thus, for BuzzFeed News, this result echoes that of an increasing political shift to the right within European nations. Germany, for instance, has experienced far-right marching against migrants. France has tightened its immigration rules, introducing a measure which could see unauthorized migrants being detained for up to a year. Additionally, the U.K. has recently presented a Brexit negotiation which will see the end of free movement.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), nearly 5,000 migrants had died in 2016 while trying flee from war and poverty by crossing the Mediterranean from Africa and the Middle East. Given this figure, the protection of lives in the process of making dangerous journeys should be a priority for European states. However, the hostile environment within Europe is making is near impossible for humanitarian organizations to provide life-saving assistance. This will only increase the numbers of fatalities everyone will see in the Mediterranean.

Without the assistance of operations such as Aquarius, countless avoidable and unnecessary deaths will continue to occur. The actions of EU states, in disregarding the lives of migrants and the ability of humanitarian organizations to operate, are a direct intercession on peace and will continue to be a setback for a global commitment to peace and security of all people.