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Panama began the process to revoke the registration of the Aquarius ship, which rescues and transports immigrants and refugees in the Mediterranean who aspire to reach Europe.
When the ship docks in the next port, it will have to withdraw the flag of Panama under which it sails and it will not be able to return to the sea without a new one, calling into question the future of its operations.
The Aquarius is the last private rescue boat that operates in waters used by migrants to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Europe.
Humanitarian organizations operating the boat accuse the government of Italy have pressed do the Central American country to cancel the registration office of the ship.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Mediterranée, who rent the boat, say they were notified of the decision by the Panama Maritime Authority (AMP) on Saturday.
Aloys Vimard, a project coordinator on board the Aquarius, told the BBC that the notification is “absolutely alarming” to them.
Complaints from Italy
In a statement, the Panama Maritime Authority claims to have received international reports that “indicate that the vessel is neglecting international legal procedures regarding immigrants and refugees assisted on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.”
The AMP indicates that the main complaint comes from Italy, in its complaint that “the captain of the ship has refused to return the immigrants and refugees assisted to their place of origin,” according to the statement.
MSF and SOS Medirerranée accused the Italian government of subjecting Panama to “brutal economic and political pressure” to force it to cancel the Aquarius registry, which they describe as “the only non-governmental search and rescue ship that continues to try to save lives. today in the Mediterranean. ”
“This announcement condemns hundreds of men, women and children desperately seeking a safe place to take refuge, to drown in the Mediterranean,” humanitarian agencies said in a statement.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who in the past has described assistance boats as a “taxi service” for migrants, denied that his country had put pressure on Panama.
This Sunday he wrote on his Twitter account that “I do not even know” the Panama prefix for phone calls.
Salvini has been one of the main actors in the hard-line measures against immigration in Italy since his coalition government between the right-wing Northern League party and the populist Five-Star Movement came to power in June.
The minister has frequently come into conflict with the operators of the rescue ships and, last month, was at the forefront of the controversy regarding the disembarkation of 150 migrants on board a coast guard ship on the island of Sicily.
According to the United Nations, more than 1,700 migrants have drowned in their attempts to cross the sea to Europe in 2018.
Aquarius has been operating in the region since February 2016 and, in recent months, has been involved in diplomatic clashes over the landing of migrants.
Formerly it sailed under a flag of the Maritime Administration of Gibraltar until August of this year, when it received a “notice of cancellation” and was registered then with Panama.
According to international law, each private craft must be registered in a country, known as Bandera State.
That country has jurisdiction over the vessel and is responsible for the inspection to ensure that it is safe to navigate and to review the working conditions of the crew.
The Panamanian authorities pointed out as one of the reasons for cancelling the registration that the Maritime Administration of Gibraltar had not given Aquarius permission to act as a rescue boat since its original registration status was “oceanographic vessel”.
Aloys Vimard told the BBC that they were notified of the new revocation during a current mission and that on board they have 58 survivors of two boats that were in danger.
“They can not do this to us while we are on the high seas,” Vimard said. However, once docked, the boat will have its registration cancelled and will not be able to sail again without having a new flag.
In their statement, MSF and SOS Medirerranée insist that they are in “full compliance” with the maritime law and condemned the decision.
They asked the European governments to allow the vessel to continue with its mission, either reassuring the Panamanian authorities or issuing a new flag.
“We will definitely look for another flag because there are people who are dying unnecessarily and we believe it is our duty to rescue it,” Vimard said.
Source: BBC Mundo