One of the charities behind the migrant search and rescue ship in the Mediterranean that was forced to end operations says it is determined to find a new ship.
The Aquarius was the last ship run by NGOs still operating in the Mediterranean before it was retired Thursday, with NGO Doctors Without Borders calling it a “dark day.”
But SOS Mediterranée, the other charity running the Aquarius, said the decision to end operations was the “right one,” and that the focus was now on finding a new ship.
“We want to put all our energy and determination to finding a sustainable and new solution,” spokesperson Avra Fialas told BuzzFeed News from the French port of Marseille. “We will find a new ship, and a new flag.”
The Aquarius was one of the best-known vessels working in the central Mediterranean, and had operated since the height of the migrant crisis in 2015. In the process its crew rescued around 30,000 men, women, and children, and delivered five babies, according to the records of the charities that ran the ship.
This summer, BuzzFeed News joined the volunteers on the ship for what proved to be its last mission and saw firsthand the difficulties — including losing their flag, facing off with the Libyan coastguard, and being refused re-entry to European waters — that the vessel faced.
Vickie Hawkins, head of Doctors Without Borders in the UK, laid the blame for the end of the mission squarely at the feet of European nations that she said had not only failed to provide help for people drowning at sea, but had 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,” she said.
The Aquarius, jointly run by Doctors Without Borders (also known as Médecins Sans Frontières) and SOS Mediterranée, had become a focal point for criticism of migration, with many blaming the ship for encouraging smuggling and illegal immigration.
Far-right French politician Marine Le Pen tweeted her delight at the decision to retire the Aquarius, writing, “The end of the pro-migrant activities of the Aquarius, an accomplice of trafficking mafias, is excellent news.”
Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who has condemned the Aquarius’s activities and attempted to prevent the work of the charities, called the decision to retire the vessel “good” and claimed there would be “fewer departures, fewer landings, fewer deaths.”
The data does not back up Salvini’s claim, however. Since the number of NGO ships working on the central Mediterranean has fallen, the proportion of people dying while attempting to cross has dramatically risen.
Liza Courtois, 29, a nurse with Doctors Without Borders who was on the Aquarius during the last mission, described the comments from Salvini and Le Pen as “insane.”
“It again is reduced to a political dilemma, but it shouldn’t be political because we are talking about saving lives,” she told BuzzFeed News from Paris. “It shouldn’t be a dilemma to care for people who are fleeing from misery and arbitrary detention.
“We are talking about saving lives. Those people are not questioning whether fire people have a right to answer a call of a building that is burning.”
Courtois expressed her sadness about the end of the Aquarius, and warned that the work needed to continue. “Since the beginning of this whole crisis, I have been saying later in the future we will look at it and we will be so ashamed. For me, it was impossible not to do something. If I had to do it again, I would definitely do it again. It was so important.”
This year, just over 2,000 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean, according to the Missing Migrants project. The UNHCR (the United Nations body for refugees) noted that one in every seven people who attempted the journey drowned.
Adding to the difficulties, even were the Aquarius able to rescue people, it was frequently held for days offshore while port authorities and European nations wrangled over who would accept the migrants and refugees onboard.
And since October, the ship has been stuck in Marseille, awaiting a new flag after its Panamanian one was withdrawn mid-mission in September. Most recently, Italian authorities ordered the ship to be seized, claiming the clothes onboard (from rescued people) were contaminated with HIV.
Alessandro Porro, 38, who spent six months onboard the Aquarius working with SOS Mediterranée, told BuzzFeed News that “there is so much energy against the vessel.”
“The point is if we want to fight for the mission, or we want to fight for the vessel,” Porro, who was among the search and rescue crews who went out in small rubber boats and plucked people from the waters, said from Marseille.
“Of course I will miss the Aquarius, the ship, but that is not the point. The focus is not keeping the ship, the focus is getting back onto the sea to do our job.”