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Mediterranean Sea

Aquarius returns to Central Mediterranean: humanitarian assistance at sea desperately needed

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The rescue boat Aquarius, run in partnership between SOS MEDITERRANEE and MSF, sets sail today from Marseille after an extended port call. Aquarius is heading back to the Central Mediterranean in order to render assistance to persons in distress at sea.

    The Central Mediterranean route is the deadliest in the world,” said Aloys Vimard, MSF’s Project Coordinator on board the Aquarius. “Humanitarian assistance at sea is needed now more than ever with hardly any humanitarian ships left at sea and no dedicated search and rescue mechanism put in place by European states. The rescue of people in distress at sea remains a legal and moral obligation. This contempt for human life is horrifying.

    It was the first time in over two years of uninterrupted search and rescue operations in Central Mediterranean that Aquarius was in port for more than one month. The extended stay was a result of significant contextual changes that have taken place in Central Mediterranean that severely affect rescue operations.

    A new Libyan Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) was recognised by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) at the end of June and the transfer of coordination responsibilities to the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard was ramped up even further, despite European states being fully aware of the alarming level of violence and exploitation which refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers suffer in Libya. Political disputes over ports of disembarkation have left ships who have rescued people at sea stranded for weeks at a time. Humanitarian organisations carrying out search and rescue activities have been criminalised and obstructed from ports in Italy and Malta.

    Despite the increasingly complex situation on the Central Mediterranean, our objective remains the same as it was at the start which is to save lives at sea; to prevent men, women and children from drowning as best and as quickly as possible, and to bring them to a place of safety where their basic needs are met and their rights protected and guaranteed,” said Vimard.

    MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE teams onboard Aquarius re-affirm that:

    • Aquarius will continue to rescue people in distress with full respect to maritime law.
    • Aquarius will continue to coordinate with all relevant maritime authorities in respect of international maritime conventions. 
    • Aquarius will comply with instructions to not assist only if other assets are deployed to assist people in distress at sea and bring them to a place of safety. The Aquarius will comply with these instructions to not assist only if it is clear that all other available means/assets are deployed to save the people in danger and bring them to a place of safety. 
    • Aquarius will not disembark people rescued at sea in Libya. Libya is not a place of safety for refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants. A place of safety is where their basic needs are met, but also a place where they can seek the protection they might be entitled to and where they are not at risk of further abuses and violations - which Libya cannot be considered for the time being.
    • Refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants intercepted at sea should not be returned to Libya.

    Therefore, Aquarius is obliged to refuse any instruction by maritime authorities to disembark people rescued at sea in Libya, or to transfer people rescued at sea onto any ship that would disembark them in Libya.

    Main picture: the Aquarius secured to its wharf, on June 19, 2018. © Kenny Karpov/SOS MEDITERRANEE

    The Aquarius

    With over two years of experience in the Central Mediterranean the Aquarius has assisted more than 29,000 people in more than 200 operations at sea, all coordinated by competent maritime authorities. On numerous occasions, the Aquarius has been mobilised by maritime authorities to accommodate people rescued by other vessels in the Central Mediterranean, either commercial, military or coast guard ships. The ship has three fast rescue boats with emergency floatation tools for mass rescue operations, a specially recruited crew of 35 consisting of a professional marine crew, rescuers and a medical team from MSF, trained to render assistance to those in distress at sea. The Aquarius has been set-up to provide emergency care to more than 500 people at one time for several days on the high seas.

    While in Marseille, the Aquarius was equipped with a new fast speed rescue boat to allow for more efficient rescue operations. With increased likelihood that people rescued at sea will have to spend more days onboard before being able to disembark to a safe place, extra food and medical supplies have been brought onto the ship. As a consequence of the increased probability of deaths at sea, a refrigerated shipping container has been installed on deck to store dead bodies.