Last Private Migrant Rescue Ship in Mediterranean, the Aquarius, Sees Registration Revoked by Panama

Last Private Migrant Rescue Ship in Mediterranean, the Aquarius, Sees Registration Revoked by Panama

The Aquarius, the emblematic migrant rescue ship in the Mediterranean, the last remaining private vessel on such mission, has seen its registration revoked by the authorities of Panama.

The Aquarius is leased by two NGOs, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) (Doctors without Borders) and SOS Mediterranée, and has been operating in the waters between Libya and Italy since February 2016. The route in question is used by migrants crossing from Africa to Europe.

They said they were notified of the decision by the Panama Maritime Authority (PMA) on Saturday.

According to the two NGOs, the registration of The Aquarius has been revoked by Panama under pressure from Italy, whose populist right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has initiated a crackdown on the mass arrivals of migrants from the Middle East and Africa.

The revoking of the registration means that next time it docks The Aquarius will be required to take down its Panama flag, and it will be unable to sail without a new flag.

Italy had urged Panama to take “immediate action” against the “political problem” presented by The Aquarius, according to SOS Mediterranée.

“On Saturday … the Aquarius team was shocked to learn of an official communication from the Panamanian authorities stating that the Italian authorities had urged the PMA to take ‘immediate action’ against the Aquarius,” it said.

Salvini, however, denied the allegations that Italy had pressured Panama over The Aquarius.

“I don’t even know Panama’s area code,” he tweeted on Sunday.

Salvini, the leader of the right-wing populist League party, which formed a coalition Cabinet in June together with the leftist populist Five Star Movement, who has previously described the private migrant rescue ships as a “taxi service” for migrants.

In August 2018, he initiated a standoff preventing the disembarkation of 150 migrants on a coast guard vessel on Italy’s island of Sicily.

This is not the first time The Aquarius has had its registration revoked. It used to sail under the flag of the Gibraltar Maritime Administration until August 2018 when it was given “notice of removal” and re-registered with Panama.

In a joint statement, the two NGOs running the migrant rescue vessel declared they were in “full compliance” with maritime law and denounced the decision as condemning hundreds to death.

The statement also asked European governments to step in to allow the vessel to continue its operations by either reassuring the Panamanian authorities or issuing it a new flag.

At the time when they were given notice of Panama’s decision to revoke its registration, The Aquarius had 58 migrants on board rescued from two boats in the Mediterranean.

The Central Mediterranean remains the deadliest route for migrants, with over 1,600 deaths in 2018 so far, while nearly 300 have died trying to cross through the Gibraltar Strait into Spain, according to UN data.

(Banner image: SOS Mediterranée)

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