Gibraltar calls on ‘Aquarius’ rescue ship to sail under different flag

The NGO-run vessel says it is surprised by the threat, which it argues is motivated by “political interests”

A group of migrants rescued at sea by ‘Aquarius.’
A group of migrants rescued at sea by ‘Aquarius.’ Guglielmo Mangiapane/SOS MEDITER (EFE)
Naiara Galarraga Gortázar

Gibraltarian authorities have called on the humanitarian rescue ship Aquarius to sail under a different flag. The threat has surprised the ship, run by French charities SOS Méditerranée and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), who argue the move is motivated by “political interests.”

According to the NGOs, the Aquarius has been in constant contact with Gibraltar since June and has always met all the required norms.

The ‘Aquarius’ may be forced to sail under the German flag

“There is no concrete or objective reason whatsoever for Gibraltarian authorities to make any reproach against the Aquarius,” said Frédéric Penard, the head of operations for MSF.

The NGO said it hoped the threat was not yet effective and that there was still time for it to be withdrawn. If not, the Aquarius will have to quickly look for another flag to sail under, most likely from Germany, as it cannot operate without one.

The Aquarius is currently in international waters, 32 miles from the coast of Italy, and 32 miles from the Maltese coast. After initially being refused entry by the two countries – a repeat of the situation in June when it was carrying 630 migrants – the ship has been allowed to dock in Malta.

The ‘Aquarius’ is carrying 141 migrants, many of them minors.
The ‘Aquarius’ is carrying 141 migrants, many of them minors.Guglielmo Mangiapane/SOS MEDITER (EFE)

The decision comes after six countries from the European Union reached an agreement to take in the 141 migrants that are currently on board the NGO rescue ship, as well as a further 205 that have also been picked up in the Mediterranean and 64 rescued in Malta. Under the deal, Spain will take in a total of 60 people, while France will take in 60, Portugal 30, Germany 50 and Luxembourg five.

Almost half of the migrants currently on board the Aquarius are unaccompanied minors, and two-thirds are from Eritrea and Somalia.

Italy’s Foreign Minister Matteo Salvini welcomed the news, writing on Twitter that Italy “has done enough.”

There is no concrete or objective reason whatsoever for authorities to make any reproach against the Aquarius

Frédéric Penard, MSF head of operations

In a press release, the government of Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said it had agreed to allow “the ship to enter, despite having no legal obligation to do so,” and provide a logistical base for the distribution of the migrants. Malta, an island of just over 400,000 people, has defended its hard-line stance on immigration arguing it lacks the resources to take in rescued migrants and pointing to legal discrepancies with Italy.

Penard said the crew were pleased Aquarius could dock in Malta, a decision he argued was “efficient” and in compliance with international norms that stipulate rescue vessels must dock at the closest possible port. The humanitarian ship will take five hours to reach the Maltese capital Valletta.

The rescue zone in front of Libya has been left unsupervised for the past few days, with the Aquarius stuck in international waters and the Catalan rescue ship Open Arms docked in Spain.

Although the number of undocumented migrants arriving in the European Union is at one of its lowest levels in recent years (except in Spain, which has become the main gateway into Europe), immigration flows have become the subject of increasing dispute. Not since 2015, when a million people arrived to the continent in just one year, has the issue caused such political upheaval.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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