Sicilian Authorities Call for NGO Rescue Vessel's Arrest

The Aquarius at her berth in Marseille (SOS Mediterranee)

By The Maritime Executive 11-20-2018 05:50:35

Authorities in Catania, Sicily have leveled new allegations against the migrant rescue vessel Aquarius, claiming that her crew did not properly sort out used clothing, food scraps and "sanitary" waste streams from ordinary solid waste when calling ports in Sicily. Italian officials called on their French counterparts to arrest the Aquarius in her current port of call, Marseille, until the case is resolved.

Prosecutors in Catania asserted that Aquarius disposed of 24 tonnes of material in a non-compliant manner, including "migrant clothing, food leftovers and sanitary waste." Medecins Sans Frontieres and SOS Mediterranee, the vessel's operators, have both denied that any breach of regulations occurred. The groups assert that their in-port operations were subject to stringent regulatory oversight throughout the period in question, and that they had received no complaints about waste-handling compliance. 

The two groups described the charges as the latest in a series of politically-motivated attempts to discredit their work. "After two years of defamatory and unfounded allegations of collusion with human traffickers, judicial investigations, and bureaucratic obstacles against our humanitarian work, we are now accused of organised crime aimed at illicit waste trafficking," said Karline Kleijer, MSF's head of emergencies, in a statement Tuesday. 

SOS Mediterranee also issued a strongly-worded rebuttal. "This is a new offensive in the series of attacks that criminalize humanitarian aid at sea. The current tragic situation results in the absence of humanitarian ships dedicated to search and rescue in the central Mediterranean, while the mortality rate increases," said Frederic Penard, the group's director of operations. Human rights NGO Amnesty International alleged that the Italian charges were "a shameless attempt to offer justification for the deliberate blocking of [Aquarius'] life-saving work."

Matteo Salvini, the Italian minister of the interior and a hard-line opponent of immigration, cited the waste-handling charge as a vindication of his no-arrivals policy. Earlier this year, Salvini ordered Italy's ports closed to all vessels bearing rescued migrants, including warships and merchant vessels. "I was right to stop the NGOs ships," he wrote. "Not only did I stop the trafficking of migrants, but, according to what has emerged, I stopped the trafficking of refuse too." 

Aquarius was the last NGO-operated migrant recue vessel operating in the Central Mediterranean until September, when she was sidelined by the loss of her flag state. Gibraltar and Panama both de-registered her in sequence, and MSF and SOS Mediterranee allege that their decisions were taken under pressure from the Italian government. While Aquarius has since secured a place on the Liberian registry, her status is temporary and does not permit her to return to her normal operations.