Two humanitarian groups, SOS MEDITERRANEE and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), have accused the Government of Italy of pressuring the Panama Maritime Authority (PMA) to revoke the registration of a refugee search-and-rescue ship, Aquarius.
The vessel has been operated jointly by both the groups under Panama’s flag to rescue Libyan refugees trying to enter Europe via Central Mediterranean Sea.
Cancellation of the vessel’s registration has brought uncertainty to the future operation of the vessel, which is the last non-governmental search-and-rescue vessel operating in the area.
Aquarius, which has helped two boats in distress and is currently travelling with 58 survivors on-board, will not be able to operate after docking unless it finds a new maritime flag to function under.
According to SOS MEDITERRANEE and MSF, PMA had withdrawn the ship’s registration ‘under blatant economic and political pressure from the Italian Government’.
MSF Emergencies head Karline Kleijer said: “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.
“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 life-saving assistance and bearing witness where it is so desperately needed.”
Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who has been running an anti-refugee campaign, refuted the allegation made by the humanitarian groups. He tweeted that his country did not put any pressure on PMA.
However, in revoking the registration, PMA stated that the Italian authorities had urged it to take ‘immediate action’ against Aquarius.