Five European Union countries agreed yesterday to take in 141 migrants on board the Gibraltar-flag rescue ship Aquarius, prompting Malta to say it would allow the ship, already barred from three coastal states, to dock.
The boat, run by the Franco-German charity SOS Méditerranée and Medecins Sans Frontieres, has already been at the centre of a continent-wide tug-of-war over how to cope with the arrival of seaborne migrants.
The development came as the French aid group that operates the vessel accused the Gibraltar Government of engaging in a “political manoeuvre” that would impede its search and rescue operations off Libya.
No.6 Convent Place had said on Tuesday that the Aquarius had been instructed by the Gibraltar Maritime Administration to stop operating as a rescue vessel after Italy began closing its ports to rescue vessels operating in the area.
When the Aquarius continued its rescue work in August despite the request from Gibraltar, the GMA informed its operators that it would be removed from the register.
SOS Mediterranee said the Gibraltar Government had issued a statement “in haste and with little understanding of the current situation”.
It added that the comments made by the Gibraltar Government “only attests a deliberate will to stop the rescue activity of the Aquarius, one of the last civil and humanitarian rescue ships in the Mediterranean.”
The development came as five European Union countries agreed to take in the 141 migrants on board the Aquarius, prompting Malta to say it would allow the ship, already barred from three coastal states, to dock.
The decision yesterday by five EU countries to accept the migrants ended a four-day standoff in which Spain, Tunisia and Malta also refused the ship entry.
The migrants had been rescued from boats off Libya, and Malta had initially argued that they should be taken to Libya, Tunisia or the Italian island of Lampedusa, all closer to the rescue points.
“Following discussions between France and Malta, a number of European Union member states, with the support of the European Commission, agreed on a responsibility-sharing exercise regarding the rescued migrants,” the Maltese government said.
All 141 migrants would be taken in by France, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain, it said, noting that a further 114 migrants rescued at sea had been brought to Malta on Monday. Sixty of these will also be taken in by other EU member states.
Spain will take 60 of the migrants, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez tweeted. Portugal said it would take 30 from the Aquarius and other boats that had arrived in Malta.
Yesterday, the Gibraltar Government would not be drawn yesterday to respond to the NGO’s criticisms.
No.6 Convent Place had already explained on Monday that the Aquarius was registered in the Gibraltar Ship Registry as a survey vessel, with the Federal Republic of Germany as the primary underlying register.
In 2016, the Aquarius was chartered by the two charities to engage in maritime rescue activities within the Italian Search and Rescue zone.
According to the government, the vessel operated exclusively under the direction of the Italian authorities for rescue operations within its remit as a search and rescue vessel.
“In June/July 2018, the Aquarius was instructed to suspend operations as a dedicated rescue vessel by the GMA and revert to its original registered status as a ‘Survey Vessel’, following delays in the availability of disembarkation ports for a number of rescue vessels within the Italian search and rescue zone,” it added.
“When the operators failed to inform and seek clearance from the GMA of the resumption of these dedicated activities in August, the owners of the Aquarius were served with a ‘notice of removal’ by the Maritime Administrator on the 6th August, with a termination date set for the 20th August 2018.”
“Should the registration terminate, the vessel will leave the Gibraltar (UK) registry and revert back to its underlying owner’s flag, Germany,” the government said.
“It should be pointed out that no flag state can prevent a vessel, whether registered in Gibraltar or not, from assisting with a rescue operation conducted in accordance with the Search and Rescue Convention, if it is transiting an area and has the capacity to take on additional persons safely.”
Additionally, the Government said the individuals on board the Aquarius had been rescued at sea and their safety should be the primary concern.
The Gibraltar Maritime Association urged ports within the vicinity to fulfil their obligations under the Search and Rescue (SAR) Convention and allow the Aquarius to disembark safely and promptly at a nearby port in the Italian SAR area.
But SOS Mediterranee said the Gibraltar Maritime Authority was “disguising a political manoeuvre behind an incoherent argument by abusively pretending that clearance should be obtained in order to conduct rescue operations, while the mere principle of rescue at sea is an overarching principle which falls upon all flags, all ships and on all seas, and while all the operations of the Aquarius have always been strictly been conducted in compliance with maritime law and SAR competent authorities.”
Additionally, the charity said the government had created an “artificial difference” between ‘survey’ and ‘rescue’ ships which, it said, was not technically founded.
“The Aquarius has always been recognised as well-suited to carry out rescues by the competent authorities, which on numerous occasions handed over to her rescued people due to her capacity,” the French charity said.
“Furthermore, the Gibraltar Maritime Authority itself has registered the Aquarius as a SAR vessel with the International Maritime Organisation.”
Finally, the charity indicated that the Gibraltar Government was only “pretending” to care about the fate of the 141 migrants and its actions were likely to jeopardise the prompt sheltering of the survivors.
“By pretending to care about the fate of the 141 people onboard the Aquarius and recalling their obligations to coastal states of the central Mediterranean, while this new development from the flag state, as the Aquarius is in the middle of an operation, is itself likely to jeopardise a prompt sheltering of the survivors,” the charity said in a statement.
The UK Government also moved to distance itself from calls for the UK to take in the 141 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean by the Aquarius.
The Foreign Office said it was “well-established” that those stranded aboard the Aquarius should disembark “at a nearby safe port”, after the Italian government called for Britain to take them in.
Italy’s transport minister Danilo Toninelli earlier this week claimed the UK was responsible for the migrants because the Aquarius was sailing under the Gibraltar flag, which is a member of the UK’s Red Ensign Group of ship registers.
The European Commission said that as the flag state, the UK could be responsible, but suggested the circumstances of the rescue also had to be looked at.
The group, which includes 67 unaccompanied minors and is mainly made up of Somalis and Eritreans, was picked up last Friday.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We are deeply concerned for the welfare of 141 migrants who have been rescued from the Mediterranean by sailing vessel Aquarius.”
“It is well-established that responsibility for arranging disembarkation, at a nearby safe port, is assumed by the relevant regional maritime rescue and co-ordination, and in accordance with the wishes of the ship’s master.”
“The UK is committed to working with European partners long term to tackle the shared challenge of irregular migration.”