Urged by the Italian government, the Panama Maritime Authority (PMA) has begun the process of revoking the registration of the search and rescue ship Aquarius 2, SOS Mediterranee and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said. 

On September 22, the Aquarius 2 team received a message by PMA stating that “unfortunately, it is necessary that [the Aquarius] be excluded from our registry, because it implies a political problem against the Panamanian government and the Panamanian fleet that arrive to European port.”

The message came despite the fact that Aquarius 2 meets all maritime standards and is in full compliance with rigorous technical specifications as required under the Panama flag, according to the two organizations.

As explained, this is “a major blow” to the life-saving humanitarian mission of the Aquarius, the only remaining non-governmental search and rescue vessel in the Central Mediterranean.

Both organizations demand that European governments allow the Aquarius 2 to continue its mission, by affirming to the Panamanian authorities that threats made by the Italian government are unfounded, or by immediately issuing a new flag under which the vessel can sail.

“European leaders appear to have no qualms implementing increasingly abusive and vicious tactics that serve their own political interests at the expense of human lives,”  Karline Kleijer, MSF’s Head of Emergencies, stated.

“For the past two years, European leaders have claimed that people should not die at sea, but at the same time they have pursued dangerous and ill-informed policies that have brought the humanitarian crisis in the Central Mediterranean and in Libya to new lows. This tragedy has to end, but that can only happen if EU governments allow the Aquarius and other search and rescue vessels to continue providing lifesaving assistance and bearing witness where it is so desperately needed,” Kleijer continued.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 1,250 people have drowned while attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean. Those that attempt the crossing are three times more likely to drown than those who made the same journey in 2015. The real number of deaths is likely much higher, as not all drownings are witnessed or recorded by authorities or UN agencies. This underreporting is represented in shipwrecks like the one in early September in which it is estimated that at least 100 people drowned.

The Libyan coastguard continues to make interceptions in international waters between Italy, Malta and Libya, while denying survivors their right to disembark in a place of safety as required by International Maritime and Refugee Law. Instead, these people are returned to Libyan detention centers.

“Five years after the Lampedusa tragedy, when European leaders said ‘never again’ and Italy launched its first large scale search and rescue operation, people are still risking their lives to escape from Libya while the death rate on the Central Mediterranean is skyrocketing” Sophie Beau, vice president of SOS MEDITERRANEE international, stressed.

News from the PMA arrived at the Aquarius 2 while the team was engaged in an active search and rescue operation in the Central Mediterranean. Over the past three days, Aquarius 2  has assisted two boats in distress and now has 58 survivors on board, several of whom are psychologically distressed and fatigued from their journeys at sea and experiences in Libya, and who must be disembarked urgently in a place of safety in accordance with international maritime law.

Meanwhile, the Italian government has adopted a new bill which will make it easier to expel migrants and prevent them from getting the country’s citizenship. Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini said on social media that the plan was approved on September 24.

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