GENEVA: The UN voiced concern Friday at the MSF charity’s decision to retire its Aquarius rescue ship amid alleged obstruction by some European countries, saying more capacity was needed to save migrants stranded in the Mediterranean.
SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) announced late on Thursday the end of the mission of Aquarius, which has been stranded in southern France since October after Panama revoked the right to fly its flag following a request from Italy’s far-right government.
“Search and rescue capacity needs to be reinforced rather than diminished,” UN refugee agency spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo told reporters in Geneva.
She stressed the need to leave “space for NGOs to contribute in an coordinated manner to these efforts”.
“Saving lives is our primary concern.”
The ship became a symbol of the diplomatic crisis surrounding the arrival of migrants in Europe when Italy slammed shut its ports in June and left the ship stranded with 630 people on board.
Aquarius has helped almost 30,000 migrants at sea who have attempted the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
MSF said in a statement Thursday that the decision to retire the vessel’s mission was “the result of a sustained campaign, spearheaded by the Italian government and backed by other European states, to delegitimise, slander and obstruct aid organisations providing assistance to vulnerable people.”
“With no immediate solution to these attacks, MSF and SOS Mediterranee have no choice but to end operations by the Aquarius,” it added.
The UN human rights agency is “deeply concerned by the recent developments,” spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told reporters.
“The provision of support and assistance to migrants must not be criminalised,” she said.
She insisted that “the decrease of search and rescue by humanitarian organisations and states’ failure to provide adequate search and rescue capacity is resulting in an increase in … the vulnerability of migrants at sea.”
Aquarius began its rescue operations off Libya in February 2016 flying the flag of Gibraltar, and later Panama.
But it hit rocky waters in June this year when it attempted to dock in Corsica with 630 migrants on board, only for Italy’s new populist government to shut its ports to civilian and military boats that have rescued migrants — saying Italy bears an unfair share of the migrant burden.
After also being refused by Malta, the ship finally landed in Valencia in Spain after other EU states promised to take in some of the migrants.
The International Organization for Migration says that about 15,000 migrants have drowned in the central Mediterranean since 2013.
During the same period Italy has seen 600,000 migrants land on its coastline.
Italy’s anti-immigrant Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on Friday hailed the end of the Aquarius mission, hinting it would mean that fewer migrants would be tempted to try to make the dangerous crossing.
This means “fewer departures, fewer arrivals, fewer deaths. That is a good thing,” he said on Twitter.