Medecins Sans Frontieres forced to pull rescue boat from Mediterranean after being stuck in port for months

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An aid organisation has been forced to end its rescue missions of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and its partner SOS Mediterranee said the rescue ship Aquarius would no longer be used to save migrants travelling by boat from North Africa to Italy – one of the deadliest migration routes in the world. 

The vessel had remained in port for the past two months, MSF said, due to a “sustained smear campaign” headed by the Italian government. 

Last month, regional prosecutors in Italy baselessly claimed the Aquarius could bring infectious diseases such as HIV, meningitis and tuberculosis into the country on the clothing of migrants. 

Twenty-four people associated with the Aquarius, including the ship’s captain, were put under investigation for “trafficking and illegal management of waste” based on the technicality the clothing was labelled as “special waste” rather than “toxic waste” by the ship’s crew.

The orders come despite international health authorities rejecting the idea that any of those diseases can be transmitted through clothing. MSF said it “categorically refutes” the accusations.

It came following far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini’s decision to close Italian ports to rescue boats. 

“Coupled with ill-conceived policies aimed at trapping people outside Europe’s borders, this campaign has undermined international law and humanitarian principles,” MSF said in a statement.

“With no immediate solution to these attacks, MSF and SOS Mediterranee have no option but to end the operations of the Aquarius.” 

A migrant from the rescue vessel Aquarius arrives in Spain (AFP)

Vickie Hawkins, MSF UK’s executive director, said: “This is a dark day. Not only has Europe failed to provide dedicated search and rescue capacity, it has also actively sabotaged others’ attempts to save lives. 

“The end of Aquarius means more lives lost at sea; more avoidable deaths that will go unwitnessed and unrecorded. It really is a case of ‘out of sight out of mind’ for UK and European leaders as men, women and children perish.”

MSF said an estimated 2,133 people have died in the Mediterranean so far this year, with those departing from Libya representing the overwhelming majority of lives lost. 

The aid organisation accused the UK and European governments of “further fuelling” the suffering of thousands by enabling the Libyan coastguard to intercept migrants and force them to return to north Africa in what it said was a “clear violation of international law”.

Rescue ship Aquarius waits for port of safety for 141 migrants saved in the Mediterranean

“Today, the UK and its European counterparts are directly supporting forced returns while claiming successes on migration,” Karline Kleijer, MSF’s head of emergencies, said. 

“Let’s be clear about what that ‘success’ means: a lack of lifesaving assistance at sea; men, women and children pushed back to arbitrary detention with virtually no hope of escape; and the creation of a climate that discourages all ships at sea from carrying out their obligations to rescue those in distress.” 

“Just as we said when we launched our search and rescue operations in 2015 – we refuse to remain idle on shore as people continue to die at sea.

“As long as people are suffering at sea and in Libya, MSF will look for ways to provide them with the vital medical and humanitarian care they desperately need.”

The Aquarius is currently in port in the French city of Marseilles and beyond the reach of the Italian authorities. But prosecutors from the city of Catania in eastern Sicily said last month: “If Aquarius would disembark to Italy, it will be immediately put under seizure.”

The Foreign Office has been contacted for comment.

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