Panama has revoked the registration of the NGO migrant-rescue ship Aquarius2, making it impossible for it to operate any longer in the Mediterranean. The move has dealt a "major blow" to migrant "rescue operations" off Libya's coast.
SOS Méditerranée and Doctors without Borders (MSF) said they were “reeling” from Saturday’s announcement by the Panama Maritime Authority.
The NGOs have complained of “blatant economic and political pressure from the Italian government”, AFP reported. But the Italian government denies pressuring Panama to make the decision.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has denied turning the Aquarius2 into a “pirate” vessel.
“It’s clear that no country wants to take the responsibility of being identified with a ship that hampers sea rescue operations, refuses coordination with the Libyan coast guard, attacks democratic governments like the Italian one, and expects to distribute clandestine migrants in Europe,” he said on Sunday night.
Salvini said on Sunday that the ship would “never” dock in Italy. On Monday he called the Aquarius2 a “ghost ship”.
Both NGOs have appealed to the European Union to intervene.
But the vessel is just the latest in a string of NGO-operated migrant rescue ships Salvini has turned away from landing at Italian ports – although it is the first whose flag has been stripped by a foreign government.
The Aquarius2 was heading for Marseille, where SOS Méditerranée has asked authorities to “exceptionally” authorise the disembarkation of the 58 migrants aboard, the NGO said later on Monday.
SOS Méditeerranée director operations Frédéric Penard told a press conference in Paris that “the port of Marseille is the only one possible from which to set off again”.
The vessel spent 19 days docked in the French port of Marseille after Gibraltar revoked its flag last month. It set sail again last week after having acquired Panamanian recognition. But Panama then launched “an official revocation procedure” before stripping the ship of its flag.
Italian authorities noted on Friday that it was “floating in the Mediterranean” with migrants on board but that it was not welcome to dock in Italy.
The two NGOs complained that “this measure condemns hundreds of men, women and children, in desperate search of safety, to drown at sea and inflicts a hard blow to the Aquarius’s humanitarian mission”.
MSF said the Aquarius2 had saved 47 migrants including 17 minors and a pregnant woman of Libya.