MSF wants new flag for migrant rescue ship Aquarius

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on Thursday launched an appeal to world governments to give migrant rescue boat Aquarius a flag after Panama removed it from its register, preventing it working legally.

MSF wants new flag for migrant rescue ship Aquarius
SOS Mediterranee operations director Frederic Penard and MSF president Claudia Lodesani give a press conference in Rome, on September 27, 2018. Photo: Filippo Monteforte / AFP

“We appeal to all governments, not just European, to governments who care about people's lives so that we get a flag,” Claudia Lodesani, the head of MSF Italy, told journalists.

“We want to continue to work in the Mediterranean, the most dangerous sea in the world today, in a transparent and legal way, as we have always done,” she said.

READ ALSO: NGOs 'reeling' after Italy pressures Panama to revoke flag from Aquarius rescue ship

The Aquarius, chartered by MSF and SOS Mediterranee, is the only civilian ship still trying to rescue migrants making the perilous journey from North Africa to Europe.

It is currently carrying 58 migrants rescued in the southern Mediterranean but cannot dock after Panama on Saturday revoked its flag owing to “non-respect” of “international legal procedures”.

Malta has said it will transfer the 58 migrants to one of its boats in international waters and bring them to Malta. They will then be taken to four European countries that have agreed to take them in.

READ ALSO: Aquarius ship arrives in Malta after migrant-sharing deal

“People are still dying at sea, it isn't true that there are no more deaths, just that we see them less because there are no more witnesses, we are the last boat,” Lodesani said.

Asked whether the Vatican might give the Aquarius a flag, SOS Mediterranee operations chief Frederic Penard said such an offer would be welcome.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke declined to comment when asked about the possibility.

Three Swiss lawmakers have meanwhile urged their country to allow the Aquarius to fly the Swiss flag.

The trio — Ada Marra, Kurt Fluri and Guillaume Barazzone, who all belong to different parties — made the demand Wednesday in parliament, citing Switzerland's “long humanitarian tradition” including migrant protection.

Marra, Fluri and Barazzone asked the government to make use of a clause in maritime law exceptionally permitting such a move and the foreign ministry confirmed to AFP that it was “competent” to do so. 

“We cannot remain unmoved by the situation of all these migrants who are in danger and in distress in international waters in the Mediterranean. This concerns us all as human beings on this planet,” Barazzone told RTS radio.



Spain, Portugal to take in most of Aquarius migrants

Spain and Portugal on Tuesday offered to take in most of the 141 migrants on board the Aquarius after it was given permission to dock in Malta, resolving a new standoff over the rescue ship.

Spain, Portugal to take in most of Aquarius migrants
Aquarius leaving the harbour of Marseille, southeastern France, on August 1, 2018. BORIS HORVAT / AFP

Madrid said it would accept 60 people, while Portugal offered to welcome 30, with the remainder distributed between France, Germany and Luxembourg, government sources in Malta and Spain said.

The boat was initially refused entry by Italy and Malta after rescuing the migrants in two separate missions off the Libyan coast on Friday. 

The Aquarius, which hit the headlines in June after being stranded with 630 migrants on board, causing a major diplomatic row, resumed its rescue operations off Libya last week.

Spain's new Socialist government helped resolve the first standoff by allowing the boat to dock in Valencia and was again at the forefront of the solution on Tuesday.

“Spain has coordinated a pioneering agreement with six countries to share the hosting of the people on the Aquarius… Spain will take 60 people,” Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez wrote on Twitter.

Malta confirmed afterwards it would allow the ship to dock to disembark its passengers, many of whom are unaccompanied children from violence-wracked Somalia and repressive Eritrea.

“Malta will be making a concession allowing the vessel to enter its ports, despite having no legal obligation to do so,” said a government statement posted on Twitter.

European attitudes hardening

After elections in March that brought a populist, anti-immigrant government to power in Italy, new far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini began turning away rescue ships operated by foreign NGOs.

For years, Italy had pleaded with its EU partners for help with a massive influx of arrivals that has seen 700,000 people land in the country since 2013, most of whom had made the short but treacherous sea crossing from Libya.

On Saturday, Salvini said the Aquarius would “never see an Italian port” again, accusing it of encouraging smugglers and migrants to take to the water in the knowledge that they will be rescued.

The Italian coast guard continues to rescue migrants, however. 

Malta's government had initially defended its decision to turn the Aquarius away, saying it was “neither the coordinating nor the competent authority for such a rescue” and had “no legal obligation” to provide a place of safety.

The government of Gibraltar also announced late Monday that the ship would no longer be allowed to operate under its maritime flag; it was registered on the British overseas territory in 2009.

The increasingly hostile stance reflects hardening public opinion in Europe towards migrants following the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war or poverty in Africa and the Middle East.

The Aquarius has become a symbol of the unwillingness of many European countries to accept more newcomers, with Italy siding with conservative governments in eastern Europe intent on keeping out migrants.

France's President Emmanuel Macron was criticised by leftwing opponents in June for failing to offer the migrants safe haven, despite it being the next closest location to the boat after Italy and Malta. 

France ended up taking in 78 of the migrants after they landed in Spain.

French public opinion was against accepting the Aquarius during the first crisis and the rightwing Republicans party and far-right National Rally both argued on Tuesday against allowing the boat to dock.

A spokesman for the National Rally suggested the ship should head for a port in Tunisia.