Marseille, France: The aid groups Doctors Without Borders and SOS Méditerranée say they have been forced to end rescue operations of the Aquarius ship in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Aquarius, the last refugee rescue ship working in the Mediterranean Sea, has been docked in Marseille since October after Panama revoked its flag. Last month, Italian prosecutors ordered the seizure of the ship and accused Doctors Without Borders, known by its French name Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), of illegally disposing 24 metric tonnes of medical and contaminated waste accumulated during rescues.
In a statement late on Thursday, the aid groups said they made the decision because of “a sustained campaign, spearheaded by the Italian government and backed by other European states, to delegitimise, slander and obstruct aid organisations providing assistance to vulnerable people.”
MSF says the Aquarius has assisted nearly 30,000 people since 2016.
The decision to moor the Aquarius is the result of a “constant denigration, smearing and obstruction campaign led” against the aid groups by the Italian government and supported by other European countries, the NGO said.
The Aquarius was recently accused of trafficking waste and criminal activities — accusations that are “ludicrous”, MSF said.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has repeatedly closed Italian ports to the Aquarius, forcing it to sail for days with dozens of rescued migrants aboard to find a port in other countries.
Salvini has refused to take more migrants from the Aquarius, demanding other European Union countries take a share of migrants. He also said the rescue ships like Aquarius encouraged people to take the sea route to cross towards Europe.
Europe has seen the biggest influx of people for decades in the past three years, many fleeing conflicts and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. Sea arrivals have dropped sharply, but the political aftershocks are still reverberating.
The ship was commissioned in February 2016 and has rescued almost 30,000 people in international waters off Libya, Malta and Italy. She has remained moored on Marseilles since October 4, after transferring 58 migrants on Malta during her last mission.
Medecins Sans Frontieres estimates 2,133 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2018, mainly embarking from Libya.