Migrant rescue ship Aquarius to end operations

The NGOs that chartered the Aquarius cited a "smear campaign" by European governments as the reason for its ceasing operations. The ship has been stranded in Marseille since losing its registration.

The Aquarius search and rescue ship has ended its operations after saving tens of thousands of migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, Doctors without Borders (MSF), one of the charities that ran the ship, said on Thursday.

The ship has been blocked at the French port of Marseille since the end of September after losing its Panamanian registration

Italy also ordered the boat to be impounded last month. Italian magistrates accused MSF of illegally dumping toxic waste at ports in southern Italy, a claim the charity vehemently denies.

"This is the result of a sustained campaign, spearheaded by the Italian government and backed by other European states, to delegitimize, slander and obstruct aid organizations providing assistance to vulnerable people," MSF, who chartered the ship with French NGO SOS Mediterranee, said in a statement. 

"Coupled with the EU's ill-conceived external policies on migration, this campaign has undermined international law and humanitarian principles. With no immediate solution to these attacks, MSF and SOS Mediterranee have no choice but to end operations by the Aquarius."

NGO ship rescues Europe-bound migrants in Mediterranean

First on site

At around 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 31, the search-and-rescue vessel Aquarius, along with the Libyan coast guard, was alerted by the Italian Rescue Maritime Coordination Center (IMRCC) that a rubber boat was in distress in international waters. Aquarius is manned by rescue workers from SOS Mediteranee, medics from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and a nautical and technical crew.

NGO ship rescues Europe-bound migrants in Mediterranean

People in distress

Aquarius made first contact with the rubber boat in international waters at around 11:00 a.m. Soon after, the SOS head coordinator was informed by IMRCC that the Libyan coastguard would take charge of the rescue operation. As people in the overcrowded rubber boat, visibly in distress, waved frantically, Aquarius was instructed to standby and wait for further instructions.

NGO ship rescues Europe-bound migrants in Mediterranean

Helping hand

Two hours later, and with no Libyan coastguard in sight, the Aquarius was able to convince the IMRCC and the Libyans to allow them to rescue children, women and families. They evacuated 39 vulnerable people. They had to leave the remaining 80-90 men on the rubber boat to the Libyan coastguard. The Aquarius has the capacity to carry 500 rescued people.

NGO ship rescues Europe-bound migrants in Mediterranean

All in it together

MSF nurse Sylvie was on board the Aquarius' fast-speed rescue boat, whose personnel identified medical and vulnerable cases later evacuated to the NGO ship. Over the course of three missions, the staff saved 292 people from more than 20 countries, the majority from sub-Saharan Africa. Besides showing signs of dehydration, exhaustion and weakness, some also displayed signs of physical abuse.

NGO ship rescues Europe-bound migrants in Mediterranean

Having fun

As parents rested on the ship's deck, MSF logistician Francois took a moment to interact with the newly arrived children. Those rescued got a chance to bond with the ship's crew as well as to express themselves in safe and secure surroundings.

NGO ship rescues Europe-bound migrants in Mediterranean

Doctor's orders

Dr. Dan from California gave each new arrival a check-up to see whether anyone was in need of urgent medical care. Once on land, those rescued are examined by local medical staff in Italy.

NGO ship rescues Europe-bound migrants in Mediterranean

Holding tight in rough weather

As the vessel pitched and rolled in strong winds, SOS Mediteranee team member Theo cuddled a child rescued the day before. "As a seaman it's your duty to save anybody in distress," he said. "We all shed tears yesterday. I had a baby and children in my arms. We helped some women. What's the most important is to get all these out people out of the water, to save them and for them to survive."

NGO ship rescues Europe-bound migrants in Mediterranean

Thanking the Lord

As the Aquarius approached the Sicilian city of Messina, the designated Italian port of safety, many of the rescued women began singing French and English gospel songs praising the Lord and thanking him for safe passage across the Mediterranean Sea.

NGO ship rescues Europe-bound migrants in Mediterranean

On terra firma

Francois personally helped all 292 men, women and children disembark. "Emotionally it was really hard, because once the last guy stepped out on shore, it was over. I could just call everyone and say disembarkation successfully finished, and then I felt empty."

NGO ship rescues Europe-bound migrants in Mediterranean

Thank-you kiss

These lucky people made it to Europe. According to international NGOs figures, between 750,000 and 900,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers remain trapped in Libya, whose migrant detention centers the UN has called inhumane. Many see merely one way out: to attempt to cross one of the world's most deadly seas in rubber dinghies that can only be considered floating death traps.

The last of the charity boats

The ship has rescued more than 30,000 people since it first left port in February 2016, including more than 3,000 in 2018, according to SOS Mediterranee. It was the last NGO-chartered rescue ship operating off the coast of Libya, a key departure point for many sub-Saharan African migrants — there were five groups running rescue ships last year. 

The ship was denied port multiple times by European countries bordering the Mediterranean this year. In June, it famously traveled 1,500 kilometers to Valencia, Spain, with 629 migrants on board after being turned away by Italy and Malta. 

The International Organization for Migration said about 15,000 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean since 2013, including more than 2,000 so far this year. Italy has seen some 600,000 migrants land on its shores over the same time period. 

The number of migrants reaching Italy has fallen sharply over the past year as smuggling networks inside Libya have been disrupted and the European Union has stepped up efforts to increase Libyan coastguard patrols.

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