A rescue ship that has saved the lives of nearly 30,000 people making the perilous crossing across the Mediterranean Sea has been forced to terminate operations.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which the operates the Aquarius, says the move is due to a “sustained smear campaign, spearheaded by the Italian government and backed by other European countries”.
MSF and other aid organisations with rescue boats say they are simply saving the lives of people desperate enough to attempt the deadly journey, usually from Libya. Many face torture, imprisonment and even enslavement if they stay.
An estimated 2,133 people have died in the Mediterranean in 2018 alone, with departures from Libya accounting for the overwhelming majority of lives lost.
But critics, among them Italy’s new right wing government, say they are assisting in “human trafficking”.
Earlier this month the Italian government accused MSF of illegally dumping toxic waste at ports in southern Italy in what the charity said was an attempt to undermine migrant rescue efforts.
Vickie Hawkins, MSF UK’s Executive Director, said: “This is a dark day. Not only has Europe failed to provide dedicated search and rescue capacity,
“it has also actively sabotaged others’ attempts to save lives. The end of Aquarius means more lives lost at sea; more avoidable deaths that will go unwitnessed and unrecorded.
“It really is a case of ‘out of sight out of mind’ for UK and European leaders as men, women and children perish.”
The Aquarius has been severely restricted since the new right-wing Italian government began a crackdown on immigration since taking office in June and Matteo Salvini, recently appointed as interior minister, closed the country’s ports to the boat.
Writing on his Facebook page at the time, Salvini said: “Malta takes in nobody. France pushes people back at the border, Spain defends its frontier with weapons. From today, Italy will also start to say no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration.”