The Aquarius – the migrant rescue vessel of the two aid organisations Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS Méditerranée – was forced to end its search and rescue (SAR) operations in the Mediterranean Sea. The two NGOs announced that they had to end their mission on 6 December after "a relentless ongoing political, judicial and administrative campaign backed by several European states."
Nelke Manders, MSF’s director general, called it a "dark day" and said, "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."
Several human rights organizations showed their support for MSF and SOS Méditerranée. The secretary general of Amnesty International, Kumi Naidoo, said in an interview: "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." According to MSF, the Aquarius was the last NGO-chartered rescue ship operating off the coast of Libya.
The Aquarius had been in operation since February 2016 and assisted nearly 30,000 migrants at sea. In the summer, the ship received worldwide media attention when it was refused the right to dock in Italy and Malta with 629 refugees on board (Spain finally welcomed the migrants). The Aquarius was then stripped twice of its registration: once in August, when its flag was revoked by Gibraltar, and once in September, when it was revoked by Panama. MSF criticized these actions, saying that they came after "blatant economic and political pressure from the Italian government". Since losing its registration, the Aquarius has not been able to leave the port of Marseille.
In November, Italian authorities accused the NGOs of dumping toxic waste and claimed that the Aquarius would bring infectious diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis, despite international health organizations saying that these diseases could not be transmitted through clothing. Italy also threatened to seize the ship if it was to dock in one of its ports. Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, can now finally claim victory over those he calls "migrant taxis". He reacted to the cancellation of the operations by tweeting, "Fewer departures, fewer landings, fewer deaths. That’s good."
Attacks on humanitarian workers
While European member states fail to live up to their responsibilities to rescue people in the Mediterranean, NGOs conducting SAR operations have faced continuous attacks. The European border agency Frontex accused NGOs of strengthening the business model of smugglers by encouraging more people to cross the sea. In August of last year, Italian authorities had already impounded the ship Iuventa, of German NGO Jugend Rettet, arguing that they were aiding illegal immigration from Libya.
On the Internet, humanitarian aid organizations are vilified on a daily basis. Instead of compassion, they are exposed to hatred and death threats. When the German private aid organization Sea-Eye announced last week that it would set sail with a new ship, the Professor Albrecht Penck, Internet trolls called for the ship to be sunk and the crew executed.
Attacks can also get physical, as was the case on 5 October in Marseille, when 22 individuals stormed the headquarters of SOS Méditerranée. Fortunately, there were no casualties, but employees suffered physical, emotional and psychological damage. SOS Mediterrannée has launched a lawsuit against the perpetrators.
Libya deal: the EU complicit in human rights abuses
As part of the deal that the EU struck with Libya in 2017 to reduce the arrivals of people coming from the Mediterranean, European forces train the Libyan Coast Guard. When the Libyan Coast Guard intercepts these people, they send them to detention centers where they risk torture, forced labor, rape and death. A 28-year-old Eritrean told Al Jazeera: "People would rather die in the sea than in detention centers." After hearing about what happened to the Aquarius, another said that this will not hinder people from coming.
Although the situation in Libya is well documented and known to the governments of the EU member states, the cooperation with Libya continues. MSF wrote a letter to UN envoy Ghassan Salamé addressing the forced return of migrants to Libya. The letter argues that "[i]t is time to call unequivocally for an end to this sinister policy".
The announcement of MSF and SOS Méditerranée that they were stopping the operations of Aquarius came four days ahead of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 14 of the document states: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
When the EU criminalizes rescue organizations that assist people who seek asylum and works instead with the Libyan Coast Guard, a serial human rights violator, it becomes hard to argue that the EU is fulfilling its responsibility towards refugee protection.
According to the International Organisation for Migration, 2,160 migrants have died in the Mediterranean so far this year – about six a day. And while the number of arrivals has been falling, the proportion of those drowning is rising. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported in September that there was an average of one death for every 18 arrivals between January and July 2018, compared to one death for every 42 arrivals in 2017.