NGOs: Refugee rescue ship loses license after pressure from Italy

Charities lash out at Italy after Panama revokes registration of the Aquarius search and rescue vessel.

The Aquarius was at the centre of a European standoff over disembarkation twice in recent months [File: Rene Rossignaud/The Associated Press]

A rescue vessel that was at the centre of a European standoff over disembarkation of refugees and migrants twice in recent months has had its registration revoked because of pressure by Italy, the two charities that lease the ship have said. 

SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on Sunday accused Italy of exercising “blatant economic and political pressure” on Panama’s Maritime Authority (PMA), which had registered the ship.

In a statement, the NGOs stated that Panamanian authorities told them Italian authorities had urged them to take “immediate action” against the Aquarius and that the vessel “implies a political problem against the Panamanian government”. 

“This announcement condemns hundreds of men, women and children who are desperate to reach safety to a watery grave,” the organisations said. 

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini took to Twitter to deny his involvement, saying he doesn’t even know what telephone prefix Panama has. 

The far-right Lega politician is known for his tough stance on immigration and has said that Italy “cannot take one more” asylum seeker. 

He denied the Aquarius the right to dock in an Italian port twice in recent months, sending the ship adrift on the Mediterranean in June and again in August

Panama said it revoked the registration due to “non-respect” of “international legal procedures” relating to migrant rescues in the Mediterranean. 

The AFP news agency reported that the Central American country launched the revocation procedure after Italian authorities complained that the captain of the Aquarius had “refused to return migrants and refugees back to their point of origin”. 

The Aquarius picked up 11 migrants off the coast of Libya on Thursday but refused to take them back to the North African country and instead went in search of an alternative port.

The vessel’s operators have said they refuse to disembark people in Libya because it is not a place of safety.

Last of its kind

The last search-and-rescue vessel run by non-governmental actors in the central Mediterranean, the Aquarius was on an operation when it was notified of the PMA’s decision and said it currently has 58 migrants and refugees on board. 

The ship had been registered with Panama since August when Gibraltar revoked its registration. 

When it next docks, it will lose its flag and will not be able to leave port again until another maritime authority has agreed to register the ship.

According to the United Nations refugee agency, 1,719 people have died or gone missing in 2018 while trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach European shores. 

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies