Over the last two months as people have continued to flee by sea on the world’s deadliest migration route, the Aquarius has remained in port, unable to carry out its vital humanitarian work. This is due to a sustained smear campaign, spearheaded by the Italian government and backed by other European countries to delegitimise, slander and obstruct aid organisations trying to save the lives of vulnerable people in the Mediterranean.
Coupled with ill-conceived policies aimed at trapping people outside Europe’s borders, this campaign has undermined international law and humanitarian principles. With no immediate solution to these attacks, MSF and SOS Méditerranée have no option but to end the operations of the Aquarius.
“This is a dark day,” says Vickie Hawkins, MSF UK’s Executive Director. “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.
During the past 18 months, European attacks on humanitarian search and rescue operations seem to have come from the playbook of some of the world’s most repressive states. Despite working in full compliance with authorities, the Aquarius was twice stripped of its registration earlier this year and now faces allegations of criminal activity – allegations we categorically refute.
Amidst these smear campaigns and manoeuvres to undermine international law, people rescued at sea have been denied access to safe ports, refused assistance from other ships and left stranded at sea for weeks at a time.
The unavoidable end to Aquarius’ life-saving operations is happening at a critical time. An estimated 2,133 people have died in the Mediterranean in 2018, with departures from Libya accounting for the overwhelming majority of lives lost.
In addition, the UK and European governments have further fuelled the unnecessary suffering of thousands by enabling the Libyan coastguard to intercept more than 14,000 people at sea this year alone and forcibly return them to Libya. This is in clear violation of international law. In 2015, Europe made a commitment to the UN Security Council that nobody rescued at sea would be forced to return to Libya.
Karline Kleijer, MSF’s Head of Emergencies, “Today, the UK and its European counterparts are directly supporting forced returns while claiming successes on migration. 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,” says Kleijer. “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.”
Notes to editors
- Since the start of its search and rescue mission in February 2016, the Aquarius has assisted nearly 30,000 people in international waters between Libya, Italy and Malta.
- The Aquarius’ last active period of search and rescue ended on 4 October 2018, when it arrived in the port of Marseille following the rescue of 58 people.
- Together with MSF’s previous search and rescue vessels – the Bourbon Argos, Dignity, Prudence and Phoenix – MSF has rescued or assisted more than 80,000 people in the Mediterranean Sea since 2015.
- September 2018: https://www.msf.org.uk/article/libya-msf-calls-evacuation-refugees-and-migrants-trapped-tripoli-conflict
- September 2017: Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is calling on the UK Government to end its support for the arbitrary detention of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in Libya https://www.msf.org.uk/article/libya-uk-support-arbitrary-detention-refugees-asylum-seekers-and-migrants-must-stop
- IOM figures of lives lost sea: https://missingmigrants.iom.int/
- April 2015: MSF launches search and rescue operation https://www.msf.org/msf-moas-launch-mediterranean-search-rescue-and-medical-aid-operation