The final refugee search and rescue ship working in the Mediterranean has been forced to suspend its operations following political pressure spearheaded by Italy and supported by major EU states. The rescue vessel Aquarius, which has been moored in Marseille since October 4, is operated by the charitable organizations SOS Méditerranée and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The vessel is unable to sail due to the cancellation of its Panamanian flag registration, as well as the role of many Mediterranean ports in preventing refugees from being disembarked. The result of this is that there are now no existing dedicated search and rescue vessels to come to the aid of those attempting to cross the Mediterranean, a situation which arguably violates international law.
MSF General Director Nelke Manders described this as a dark day, commenting that “the end of our operations onboard the Aquarius will mean more death in the sea, deaths that are avoidable and without witnesses.” Refugees will continue to attempt to cross the Mediterranean and the lack of a dedicated search and rescue will only result in more deaths. The positive impact that Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) commissioned ships have had in the past should not be understated. Since its commission in February 2016, the Aquarius rescued approximately 30,000 people in distress and brought them to shore safely.
MSF and many other NGOs have blamed the situation on the policies of EU governments and the general anti-migration sentiment spreading across Europe. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Director of SOS Méditerranée Germany Verena Papke said, “repeated and targeted attacks against life-saving aid organizations, coupled with the EU states’ criminal disregard of their maritime and international obligations, lead to mounting life-threatening risks for people.” The situation in and of itself is a major humanitarian crisis with over 2000 drownings having occurred in the Mediterranean this year according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). This number will surely increase if action is not taken to fill the void left by the Aquarius.
The way this issue is being handled is a shameful reflection upon EU politics. Instead of maintaining a European search and rescue service, the EU has provided funding to the Libyan coastguard to bring as many people as possible back to the African mainland. The Guardian reports that those migrants who are intercepted off the coast are returned and held in indefinite detention where conditions are often squalid and detainees are left in a state of limbo, not knowing what will happen to them next. Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has described the NGO-operated ships as a “taxi service” for migrants and has blocked the Aquarius from Italian ports. Italy has also attempted to criminalize the work of MSF, placing several people associated with the Aquarius under investigation on mostly baseless charges for illegal waste management.
The main problem with this situation is that people will still try and cross into Europe despite the absence of a search and rescue vessel. A 28-year-old Eritrean speaking to Al Jazeera said that “people would rather die in the sea than in detention centres.” So long as the EU continues to put politics before human life, many more thousands of people will die in the sea and the humanitarian crisis will only deepen. Migrants only attempt to leave the country because they want to better their situation and if Europe is not prepared to take them, then they must commit to at least making the environment better in the countries they are trying to escape.
The EU should work alongside NGOs and not against them when dealing with this crisis. Failure to assist vessels in distress in the Mediterranean arguably constitutes a crime against humanity and the EU must urgently change its attitude towards the issue. Actions like those brought against MSF and the Aquarius do nothing to help anyone and contribute to the deaths of thousands; since 2015, MSF has rescued an estimated 80,000 people in the Mediterranean Sea. By forcing ships such as the Aquarius out of the sea and obstructing NGOs in their work, Europe is condemning many innocent people to drown.
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