Dozens of distressed survivors aboard a migrant rescue ship in the deadly Mediterranean Sea were in limbo after Panama withdrew the vessel’s registration amid Italian complaints about such ships that one official has called a “taxi service" for migrants.
The Aquarius 2 is the last private rescue vessel to search for shipwrecked migrants on the route from North and Sub-Saharan Africa to Italy, via Libya. The ship, which has made rescues in recent days off Libya, is operated jointly by SOS Mediterranee and Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).
The two aid humanitarian groups view Italy's complaint “as further proof of the extent to which the Italian government is willing to go to, knowing that the only consequence is that people will continue to die at sea and that no witnesses will be present to count the dead.”
“We are asking E.U. governments to step in and provide the Aquarius 2 with some solution,” SOS Mediterranee spokewoman Natalia Lambana told ABC News by phone from Berlin. “At the moment we still have Panama flag. We cannot be deflaged at sea.
“We are still at sea involved in search-and-rescue operations. We have 58 survivors on board the ship; 17 of them are children and further 17 survivors are women. And we don’t have a port of safety yet. Malta and Italy refused to let Aquarius dock, and we made a formal request to France to allow the ship in Marseille.”
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s anti-immigration interior minister, who earlier described the rescue vessels as a "taxi service" for migrants, has denied that his government was behind Panamá’s decision Sunday to deflag the Aquarius. He tweeted that he doesn’t even know the country dialing code for Panama.
SOS Mediterranee’s Lambana called his denial “strange.”
Salvini also reportedly said Aquarius 2 had hindered the work of the Libyan coast guard by ignoring instructions. Aquarius 2 was about to have its registration revoked by Panama because it was “illegal and does not respect procedures,” he told reporters.
But Lambana argued that Aquarius 2's refusal to return migrants to Libya was in compliance with the maritime law because Libya doesn't meet international standards for safe harbor.
More than 1,250 people have drowned while attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean Since the beginning of the year, officials say.