Doctors Without Borders announced on Thursday the end of the migrant rescue vessel Aquarius, which it operated in the Mediterranean until September, in collaboration with the French NGO SOS Méditerranée.
“This is a dark day,” they wrote. “Not only has Europe failed to provide dedicated search and rescue capacity, it has also actively sabotaged others’ attempts to save lives.”
The ship’s last hope was Switzerland, but the Swiss Federal Council rejected the motion by the Socialist Deputy Ada Marra asking that the ship be granted permission to fly the Swiss flag. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini did not miss the opportunity to offer his own spin, writing in a Facebook post on Friday: “The Aquarius ship is ending its activities. Less departures, fewer landings, fewer deaths. All good.”
We interviewed Marco Bertotto, head of institutional relations for MSF Italy, about how this decision was reached.
Mr. Bertotto, why was it no longer possible to use the Aquarius?
The ship had been stuck in the port of Marseille for two months after having its flag withdrawn twice: first Gibraltar revoked its registration in their shipping registry, then Panama. In both cases, this happened under pressure from the Italian government, which is behaving like a dictatorial state that persecutes whoever it perceives as its enemies. There is also a pending request for the seizure of the ship on the part of the prosecutor’s office in Catania as part of their latest investigation regarding the charge of illegal waste trafficking, a charge we most strongly reject. We were forced to reckon with the consequences of these developments.
Will you stop the search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean?
We are working on a solution that would allow us to go back to sea with a different ship, under a different flag, but we must take into account the fact that conditions have changed radically. Given the continuing policy of closed ports enacted by the Italian government and other European states, which have decided to criminalize rescue activities, it is necessary to find a ship with greater autonomy.
When did you first decide to carry out rescues at sea?
In May 2015. Operation Mare Nostrum had just concluded and the European states had not yet replaced it with a new mission, the numbers of deaths at sea were rising, and we decided to move into the Mediterranean. Back then, there was full cooperation from the Italian Coast Guard, which used to thank us regularly for the work we did. Since 2016, we have rescued over 30,000 people.
When did the hostility towards NGOs start?
If I had to point to a particular period, I would say between December 2016 and February 2017, when an attack was launched through the Frontex report, which floated the possibility of assistance being offered by NGOs to traffickers—a report which was partially refuted, but which spread accompanied by an interview with the head of Frontex, and thus fueled the suspicions. Then came the first investigation by the prosecutor of Catania, Carmelo Zuccaro, which later ended with no evidence of wrongdoing—this is where the narrative began that NGOs were like “sea taxis.” Then, there was the investigation by the Defense Committee of the Senate, which led to the code of conduct passed by Minister Marco Minniti and the agreement to block migrants in Libya in July 2017. Later on, Salvini closed the ports. In the space of just a few months, we went from being considered angels of the seas to accomplices of traffickers.
Salvini considers stopping the Aquarius a success.
The minister is associating our activities with the raw numbers of the dead at sea, a wrongheaded argument that flies in the face of the data. The death rate for those who attempted the crossing in 2018 was 3.12 percent, while in 2015 it was 1.8 percent. Fewer migrants are going on the journey, but more of them are dying, and the number of deaths at sea is growing without the NGOs. Without witnesses, we are not even able to know what happened. For instance, we reported a shipwreck that has remained unknown, with more than 100 deaths: our doctors in Libya found out about it after interviewing the survivors, locked up in local jails.
The EU is paralyzed by the interests of individual states.
Political considerations have taken precedence over the rule of law and human lives. We are witnessing the failure of Europe. The end of the operations of the Aquarius, and the dumping of refugees into the hands of the Libyan Coast Guard, are now being considered successes. The cynicism of those who think the number of expulsions back to Libya is the positive figure, as opposed to the number of rescues, shows that we are living in a time when we have lost our moral compass. Therefore, we will continue to call on the Italian Government and on Europe to take up their responsibilities: it is unacceptable that there are no coordinated search and rescue operations of any kind, as this fuels the activity of the smugglers, leading to a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, the most dangerous border in the world.