The diplomatic spat between Italy and Britain over 141 migrants currently on board a Gibraltar-flagged vessel has taken a new turn after Italy demanded that Britain take in the migrants.
The Gibraltar Maritime Administration (GMA) has now announced that it would strip the migrant rescue vessel Aquarius of its Gibraltar registration, SkyNews reported.
The “notice of removal” was issued by the GMA, citing its registration as a “survey vessel” which was in fact being used for rescue work. Due to be officially revoked on 20 August, the vessel’s registration will revert back to Germany since the owner is German.
The British government quickly moved to strip the vessel of its UK status after Italy demanded Britain take in the 141 migrants on board because of its Gibraltar flag registration.
The head of state of Gibraltar is the British monarch, represented by the Governor of Gibraltar. The governor is responsible to the British government in respect of defence, foreign policy, internal security.
The news came after Italy’s transport minister Danilo Toninelli demanded that Britain open its ports to the Aquarius. Toninelli said the UK was responsible for the migrants.
The Aquarius is currently in international waters between Italy and Malta waiting for a country to grant them a port of disembarkation.
The French-German charity SOS Mediterranee, which lease and operate the Aquarius with Medicines Sans Frontiers, is furious over the Gibraltar government’s decision.
The charity said in a statement that the move “attests a deliberate will to stop the rescue activity of the Aquarius, one of the last civil and humanitarian rescue ships in the Mediterranean”.
The charity claimed that it had “satisfied, for the last two years, all regulatory requests arising from the competencies of the Gibraltar Flag State, and all technical controls regarding security and safety of the ship. No deficiencies were ever reported”.
It added: “While for the last two and half years, the Aquarius has conducted more than 200 search and rescue (SAR) operations, in complete transparency and regularly informing all competent authorities, the Gibraltar Maritime Authority is disguising a political manoeuvre behind an incoherent argument.”
The charity says that Gibraltar has been fully aware that the Aquarius has been used as a rescue ship. It appears that the Gibraltar Maritime Authority itself had registered the Aquarius as a search and rescue vessel with the International Maritime Organisation.
According to the charity there is no “technically founded” difference between a survey and a rescue vessel.
But SkyNews has since obtained the maritime maps which show the precise location of the latest migrant rescues by the vessel. It clearly shows that the closest ports are in Libya and Tunisia.
However, Tunisia has routinely refused to allow migrant vessels to dock without fear of reprisals, while rescue charities have consistently refused to take migrants back to Libya.
This latest standoff comes less than two months after another diplomatic incident involving the Aquarius in June when Italy refused the vessel.
Spain then allowed the Aquarius to sail on to Valencia, but it now claims that the Aquarius is too far away to come to Spain, a source in the government told Sputnik News on Monday.
A down-swing of some 80 percent in arrivals from Africa have been noted after the Italian government recently closed its ports to boats which rescue migrants.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), over 60 000 migrants have arrived in Europe by sea in 2018.
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