'Dark day' as MSF terminates Mediterranean search and rescue

The charity and its partner SOS Méditerranée has said Europe will “condemn people to drown” and accused the Italian government of a smear campaign aimed at preventing and discrediting rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

“This is a dark day,” Nelke Manders, MSF’s general director said.

“Not only has Europe failed to provide search and rescue capacity, it has also actively sabotaged others’ attempts to save lives. The end of Aquarius means more deaths at sea, and more needless deaths that will go unwitnessed.”

Some 2,133 people are believed to have died in the Mediterranean this year, the majority having departed on dangerous and overcrowded crafts from Libya in the hope of reaching Europe.

The Aquarius, which has assisted nearly 30,000 people since 2016, was the last ship working to rescue stricken migrants in the region, after crackdowns by the Italian government forced several others to halt operations.

Since its saved 58 people over two months ago it has been docked at the Port of Marseilles after being stripped of its Panamanian registration.

It now faces allegations of criminal activity, with the Italian government investigating the vessel for trafficking and wrongful handling of toxic waste.

In recent months ships carrying migrants have found it impossible to dock at ports in Italy and Malta, and several have been left floating at sea for weeks at a time or forced to return to Libya.

Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini has said other European countries need to accept migrants who arrive in Italy, and has threatened to return them to Libya.

“Europe needs to seriously decide to help Italy in concrete terms,” he said in August.

For other European states, preventing people reaching their shores is also a priority.

EU member states are supporting Libyan authorities to intercept boats and return migrants to Libya, where they face continued danger in camps where torture, rape and slavery are rife.

MSF says this constitutes supporting forced returns while “claiming success” on migration.

“Let’s be clear about what that success means: a lack of lifesaving assistance at sea; children, women and men pushed back to arbitrary detention with virtually no hope of escape,” Karline Kleijer, MSF’s head of emergencies, said.

“As long as people are suffering at sea and in Libya, MSF will look for ways to provide them with the vital medical and humanitarian care they desperately need.”

The International Organisation for Migration says 15,000 migrants have drowned in the central Mediterranean since 2013.

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