Central Mediterranean: What next for rescued men, women and children trapped between Italian and European politics?

Amsterdam/London: Aquarius, the Search and Rescue vessel jointly operated by SOS Méditerranée and Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is now sailing to Valencia, Spain. When it arrives, 106 people rescued over the weekend will be disembarked along with a further 500 people who were transferred from the Aquarius to Italian Navy and Coastguard ships last night. 

The men, women and children on board have survived horrific abuse in Libya, have been shipped from one boat to another like commodities, and have endured the elements on an unnecessarily long and treacherous journey at sea. This disembarkation is the end of an ordeal but is in no means a celebration. Italian and European governments have shamefully failed these people. They have placed politics before people’s lives,” says Karline Kleijer, MSF’s Head of Emergencies in Amsterdam.

After a rescue, people should be disembarked in the nearest safe port available as stipulated by International Maritime Law. Italian authorities have disregarded people’s well-being and instead, instructed Aquarius to transfer people to Italian ships and embark on a four-day trip to Spain, exposing already vulnerable people to further suffering. 

Italy’s decision to close its ports to MSF is a disgrace, particularly as the rescues were done under the coordination of the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC). Italy has been toying with the lives of 629 rescued people by denying them disembarkation in the closest port of safety”, says Kleijer. 

Some 400 rescued people who were on board Aquarius until last night were initially rescued by Italian ships, then transferred to the Aquarius over the weekend at the request of the Italian MRCC. Only to be transferred back to Italian ships two days later. “Italian authorities are moving people around like chess pieces for political point scoring. Vulnerable people are used as pawns to put pressure on EU member states to fix the broken asylum system and address the failure of European states to relocate asylum seekers who arrived in Italy, their entry point in Europe.”

The dirty political game played between Italy and other European governments is not only affecting those recently rescued but also reduces search and rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean. Having the Aquarius sail to Spain forces it to spend longer out of the search and rescue zone, thus endangering many more lives.

MSF urges the Italian and Government governments ...


Notes to editors

Timeline of events:

  • On Saturday 9th June, Aquarius conducted two rescues 50 nautical miles from the Libyan coast coordinated by the Italian MRCC. 229 people were rescued from 2 rubber boats in a operation that turned critical when one boat broke apart, leaving 40 people in the water and some in need of resuscitation.
  • The Aquarius then remained in that position so that the Italian Coastguard could transfer an additional 400 people they had rescued onto the vessel.
  • By Sunday 10th June, the Aquarius had 629 people on board, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children & 7 pregnant women.  
  • On Sunday morning, Aquarius headed North, in the expectation of a safe port to disembark the 629 survivors. Conflicting media responses began to come in as Matteo Salvini, the leader of the right wing League party in Italy, refused Aquarius permission to dock. He said Malta should accept Aquarius but the Maltase MRCC refused, arguing that it falls under Italy’s jurisdiction.
  • At 10pm on Sunday, Aquarius was instructed by the IMRCC to standby in their current position, which was 35 nautical miles from Italy and 27 nautical miles from Malta, where it remainied until the evening of Tuesday 12th June.
  • On the afternoon of Tuesday 12th June, Aquarius was instructed to transfer 500 migrants onto an Italian Coastguard and Navy vessel, following which it was then asked to set sail to Valencia.
  • An Italian coastguard ship, The Diciotti, arrived at the port of Catania in Sicily to disembark 900 migrants saved during several rescue operations off the coast of Libya.
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