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.



Exhausted migrants on France’s Aquarius bear scars of the past

The 141 migrants onboard the Aquarius rescue boat at the centre of Europe's latest migration drama, are exhausted and mentally scarred after harrowing journeys, according to an aid worker on the ship.

Exhausted migrants on France's Aquarius bear scars of the past
Photos: AFP

On Tuesday, five European countries agreed to take in the migrants to avoid another bitter dispute like the one in June when Italy and Malta turned the Aquarius away with 630 people onboard.

This time the Aquarius had been floating between Italy and Malta since carrying out two rescue missions off Libya on Friday — the crew desperately worried the standoff would repeat itself.

“We've been on standby since 8:00 am yesterday (Monday), exactly halfway between Malta and Italy,” said Aloys Vimard, a coordinator with Doctors Without Borders (MSF), one of two charities operating the ship.

Vimard, reached by telephone, said more than half of the passengers were minors — 73 in total, of whom 67 were travelling alone.

“A quarter of those on the boat are between 13 and 15, unaccompanied, and from either Eritrea or Somalia,” he told AFP.

Both Horn of Africa countries remain deeply troubled — Somalia torn by violence among militias, Islamists and criminal gangs, while repressive Eritrea maintains an indefinite military service that has been likened to slavery by the United Nations.

While the bulk of the youngsters onboard the Aquarius are teenagers, Vimard said they were “still vulnerable.”

On Monday the crew organised a basketball match for the youngsters which briefly took their minds off their situation, he said.

“They have experienced such ordeals that they have impressive maturity and incredible resistance,” he added.

One of the teenagers, a 13-year-old boy, fled Somalia after his parents were killed in front of him.

Like many, he spoke of horrendous abuse after making his way to lawless Libya, “tortured for months with electric shocks”.

“He eventually got released because he asked the guards to kill him to end it all,” said Vimard.

'Contempt' for human lives 

The crew had spent the last 24 hours, stranded at sea, attempting to reassure the migrants.

“We told them we'd do everything possible to find a place,” Vimard said. “That we wouldn't leave them.”

After the standoff in June, which eventually ended when Spain allowed the boat to land, the Aquarius docked in the southern French port of Marseille for a month of maintenance work.

Vimard said its upgraded facilities were a reflection of the fact that people were now spending more time onboard.

Before the arrival in June of Rome's new populist government, which says it has had enough of taking in migrant ships, there was no shower as passengers were usually just aboard for two days before disembarking in Italy.

Now all passengers shower systematically while other procedures have been changed to help prevent the spread of disease, Vimard said.

While the Aquarius crew is determined to keep picking up people they say would drown otherwise, Vimard fears governments will repeatedly turn them away, prompting standoff after standoff.

“The question now is how many times politicians are going to hold human lives in contempt,” he said, urging the European Union to “find a decent system to avoid managing rescues on a case-by-case basis”.

He accused European politicians of “discouraging the captains of rescue boats from rescuing people in distress, which is their duty as sailors”.

“It is terrible. It is the very nature of maritime rescue that is being called into question,” Vimard said.

By the time the Aquarius reached one of the two boats whose passengers were rescued Friday, five ships had already passed by and done nothing to help them, he said.

These ships “changed course” despite the boat “being clearly in distress, wooden, unstable and overloaded.”

After the first dispute over the Aquarius, EU countries agreed to explore several new policies in a bid to cut off the influx towards Europe.

But “if we put up more barriers, people will take bigger and bigger risks,” Vimard said.