After a long standoff and amid an ongoing global refugee crisis, European nations led by anti-immigrant Italian politicians have forced a migrant rescue ship that has saved tens of thousands of people trapped in international waters between Libya, Italy, and Malta to cease operations.
"This is a dark day... The end of Aquarius means more deaths at sea, and more needless deaths that will go unwitnessed."
—Nelke Manders, MSF
"Europe condemns people to drown," warned Médecins Sans Frontières—also known as MSF or Doctors Without Borders—which operated the ship, Aquarius, with its partner SOS MEDITERRANEE. With just this vessel, the groups have rescued an estimated 30,000 people since February of 2016.
"This is a dark day," declared MSF general director Nelke Manders. "Not only has Europe failed to provide search and rescue capacity, it has also actively sabotaged others' attempts to save lives. The end of Aquarius means more deaths at sea, and more needless deaths that will go unwitnessed."
As the BBC noted, citing data from the United Nations' International Organization for Migration (IOM), "more than 2,000 people have died or gone missing making crossings this year, compared to more than 3,000 last year." At least a dozen people died this week, according to IOM, when a rubber boat that had spent more than 10 days at sea capsized off the Libyan coast.
Despite such tragedies, the world's richest nations have turned their backs on those fleeing crises in their homelands. As journalist Naomi Klein wrote for The Intercept last week:
Europe, Australia, and the United States have all responded to the increase in mass migration—intensified if not directly caused by climate stresses—with brutal force, ranging from Italy's de facto "let them drown" policy to [President Donald] Trump's increasingly real war on an unarmed caravan from Central America. Let there be no mistake: this barbarism is the way the wealthy world plans to adapt to climate change.
Humanitarian organizations and activists, meanwhile, are increasingly outraged by such moves.
"In absence of European states' rescue capacities, absurd investigations & criminalization of search & rescue will cost lives," tweeted Amnesty International migration campaigner María Serrano Martin. "We stand with #Aquarius."
Sad. @MSF_Sea & @SOSMedIntl forced to end operations. In absence of European States’ rescue capacities, absurd investigations & criminalization of search & rescue will cost lives. Thanks to MSF & SOS for saving 1000s of lives. We stand with #Aquarius https://t.co/9iCvXrl9Rh
— María Serrano Martin (@marsemavi) December 6, 2018
"In doing this, European leaders have shown where their true priorities lie: the closure of the central Mediterranean route for refugees and migrants, even at the cost of a soaring death toll at sea," said Amnesty International secretary general Kumi Naidoo. "Today we salute the Aquarius and her courageous crew. We will continue to stand with them in defiance of cruel and unlawful policies condemning people to die at sea."
The ship has been trapped at the French port in Marseille since Panama revoked its flag earlier this year—citing pressure from Italian officials—and smears have continued since then. As the Guardian reports:
Italian magistrates in November accused MSF of illegally dumping toxic waste at ports in southern Italy and ordered Aquarius to be impounded.
The charity denied any wrongdoing and accused Italy of seeking to criminalize humanitarian search-and-rescue missions.
MSF said in a tweet that the "sustained attacks" have forced it to end the ship's rescue missions.
Sustained attacks on search and rescue by European states will mean more deaths at sea, and more needless deaths that will go unwitnessed. https://t.co/JxX7hiigcm
— MSF Sea (@MSF_Sea) December 6, 2018
Despite the announcement, the groups have vowed to continue trying to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees in the region. Frédéric Penard, head of operations of SOS MEDITERRANEE, explained that "ending operations of the Aquarius vessel was an extremely difficult decision to make, but one that will enable our teams to resume search and rescue work as soon as possible."
"We refuse to remain idle on shore as people continue to die at sea," he added, noting that the group is already exploring options for a new flag or ship. "As long as people will continue attempting the most dangerous sea crossing in the world, SOS MEDITERRANEE will fulfill its maritime duty, responding to the emergency by all professional means possible."
This post has been updated with comment from Amnesty International secretary general Kumi Naidoo.