Refugee ship Aquarius to stop rescue mission in the Mediterranean

Rescue organisation SOS Mediterranee and MSF say they will end operation after relentless pressure from EU states.

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    The Aquarius has been in the Mediterranean since 2016 and has rescued thousands of people [File: Heino Kalis/Reuters]
    The Aquarius has been in the Mediterranean since 2016 and has rescued thousands of people [File: Heino Kalis/Reuters]

    Rescue and relief organisations SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have announced they are ending the Aquarius refugee rescue mission in the Mediterranean Sea after what they call "a relentless ongoing political, judicial and administrative campaign backed by several European states".

    Thursday's decision came after the Aquarius, which has been operating since February 2016, was forced to wait in a port in Marseille for two months following the revocation of its registration. 

    "Repeated and targeted attacks against life-saving aid organisations, coupled with the EU states' criminal disregard of their maritime and international obligations, lead to mounting life-threatening risks for people," Director of SOS Mediterranee Germany Verena Papke said in a statement.

    "The Aquarius has helped in filling the void in the Mediterranean and now the repeated unacceptable attacks resulted in stopping it," she added. "Today, search and rescue at sea is nearly non-existent, portraying the failure of Europe."

    'More deaths at sea'

    Over the past three years, the ship has assisted nearly 30,000 people in international waters between Libya, Italy and Malta, according to MSF. The route between Libya and Italy is the world's deadliest sea route for migrants and refugees, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

    But the Aquarius ran into a number of issues with European governments in recent months. 

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    In June, Italy's new Interior Minister Matteo Salvini blocked the Aquarius, carrying 629 refugees and migrants, from docking at its ports. The move caused a public outcry. Eventually, the ship sailed to Spain where the refugees were allowed to disembark.

    Last month, 24 people associated with the Aquarius were put under investigation by Italian prosecutors for "trafficking and illegal management of waste" because the ship's crew had labelled migrants' clothing as "special waste" rather than "toxic waste". MSF denied any wrongdoing, saying Italy was trying to criminalise its humanitarian work.

    Salvini, who is also co-deputy prime minister, has accused the Aquarius of being a "taxi service" for migrants coming from Libya to Europe and said he wanted it permanently blocked from his country's ports.

    "This is a dark day," said Nelke Manders, MSF's general director, of Thursday's decision. "Not only has Europe failed to provide search and rescue capacity, it has also actively sabotaged others' attempts to save lives. The end of Aquarius means more deaths at sea and more needless deaths that will go unwitnessed."

    At least 2,133 people are estimated to have died in the Mediterranean this year, according to figures published by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), while 107,583 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea.

    'People won't stop going by sea'

    The majority of refugees and migrants who try to cross to Italy are now being intercepted and returned to Libya, where they're usually held in indefinite detention. Since February 2017, the European Union has been funding the Libyan coastguard to intercept boats, and UNHCR said more than 14,000 people have been returned to Libya by the coastguard this year. 

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    However, many refugees and migrants in Libya say they will attempt to cross the Mediterranean again due to the unsafe conditions in the country and detention centres.

    "People would rather die in the sea than in detention centres," a 28-year-old Eritrean told Al Jazeera. He said without legal routes to Europe from countries with high refugee populations, like Sudan and Ethiopia, refugees will keep trying to find ways to get there.

    The man, who like other interviewees asked not to be named because he's using a hidden phone and fears retaliation, has been in a detention centre run by Libya's Department for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM), since trying to cross to Italy in February this year. He said he was hoping to be evacuated and resettled by UNHCR but now believes this is highly unlikely because he is a single man.

    "I don't have hope to evacuate by UNHCR," he told Al Jazeera through WhatsApp messages. "I only know that I will pay money and try again to the sea." 

    Another Eritrean detainee said he doesn't know what to say after being told about MSF's announcement.  "Even now people still won't stop going to the sea," he told Al Jazeera. 

    A 17-year-old Somali, who escaped a detention centre during the fighting in Tripoli a few months ago, also said he was trying to save up money to pay to try and cross again. He said smugglers regularly hassle migrants and refugees they see in the streets, encouraging them to pay for the trip, which costs $2,000.

    The weather will improve in around three months, and many people are waiting until then to attempt the journey by boat, according to a detained 20-year-old Eritrean man who's been in Libya for two years now and has also already tried to cross to Italy. 

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    Other refugees and migrants in Libya are now giving up on Europe, and instead are being smuggled to Tunisia, where they say conditions are better. A 19-year-old Eritrean in a detention centre in southwest Tripoli told Al Jazeera that smugglers are now charging $800 to take people to Tunis, up from $400 a month ago.

    "They are making (it) expensive because many people are going there," he said in a Facebook message, adding that this route is dangerous too. "Even they have started kidnapping people. First, they will make a deal with you to take you to Tunis. After that, they will sell (you) or another mafia group may kidnap you."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News