Updated - Adds reaction to Gibraltar government statement

The migrant rescue ship Aquarius, currently at the heart of the second migrant standoff between Italy and Malta in as many months, has run into vessel registration problems and could be stripped of its Gibraltar registration.

The Gibraltar Maritime Administration has put the ship on notice of removal of its registration after it ignored orders to suspend operations as a rescue vessel and revert to its role as a survey ship, as registered. 

But Medicins Sans Frontieres, which operates it, said the vessel had satisfied all regulatory requests and terminating registration would be 'a political manoeuvre'.

Italy has closed its ports to the vessel and demanded that Britain take the 141 migrants on board the vessel in virtue of its Gibraltar registration. Malta has similarly banned the ship, saying the migrants were rescued from areas that were closer to Libya, Tunisia or the Italian island of Lampedusa, than Malta.

The ship has anchored between Italy and Malta awaiting instructions. It was involved in a similar standoff in June, which ended when the ship was allowed to berth in Spain and disembark some 600 migrants it was carrying.

Aquarius in the third migrant rescue ship facing registration issues. The captain of another vessel, the MV Lifeline is facing court procedures in Malta over Dutch registration irregularities, while another ship, the Sea Watch III is being investigated. Both vessels have been blocked in Grand Harbour. 

The Government of Gibraltar said the Aquarius was bareboat registered in the Gibraltar Ship Registry as a survey vessel, with Germany as the primary underlying Register, in 2009.

In 2016, the ship was chartered by Medicins Sans Frontieres and SOS Mediterranee to conduct maritime rescue activities within the Italian Search And Rescue zone. The vessel operated exclusively under the direction of the Italian authorities for rescue operations within its remit as a search and rescue vessel.

In June/July 2018, the ship was instructed to suspend operations as a dedicated rescue vessel by the Gibraltar Maritime Administration (GMA) and revert to its original registered status as a ‘survey vessel’, following delays in the availability of disembarkation ports for a number of rescue vessels within the Italian SAR zone.

When the operators failed to inform and seek clearance from the GMA of the resumption of these dedicated activities earlier this month, the owners of the Aquarius were served with a 'notice of removal’ by the Maritime Administrator  with a termination date set for August 20. Should the registration terminate, the vessel will leave the Gibraltar (UK) registry and revert back to its underlying owner’s Flag, Germany.

"It should be pointed out that no Flag State can prevent a vessel, whether registered in Gibraltar or not, from assisting with a rescue operation conducted in accordance with the Search And Rescue (SAR) Convention, if it is transiting an area and has the capacity to take on additional persons safely," the government of Gibraltar said. 

"The individuals presently on board the Aquarius are people who have been rescued at sea and their safety should be the primary concern. The GMA urges ports within the vicinity to fulfil their obligations under the Search And Rescue Convention and allow the Aquarius to disembark safely and promptly at a nearby port in the Italian SAR area."