Sea rescue ship MV Aquarius' future is in jeopardy after Panamanian maritime authorities withdrew its registration.
Two NGOs which jointly operate the vessel blamed Italy for the decision, saying the government in Rome had pressured Panama to revoke its registration.
Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini denied that and said the Italian government had applied no pressure on Panama.
In a statement issued on Sunday, NGOs Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee said that they were left “reeling” by a message from the Panama Maritime Authority, in which it told the NGOs that it had no choice but to revoke the Aquarius’ registration.
According to the NGOs, Panamanian authorities informed them on Saturday that they had been urged to take “immediate action” against the Aquarius by the Italian government.
“Unfortunately, it is necessary that [the Aquarius] be excluded from our registry, because it implies a political problem against the Panamanian government and the Panamanian fleet that arrive to European port,” Panamanian authorities allegedly told the two NGOs.
Panama's decision means that once the ship comes into port it will be deflagged and will not be allowed to operate again unless it can find a new flag.
The Aquarius is one of the last remaining vessels conducting sea rescues in the Mediterranean, with both Italy and Malta having adopted a hard-line stance against NGOs carrying out such missions.
Mr Salvini has been especially critical of sea rescue missions, accusing NGOs of running a "taxi service" for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean.
⚡PRESS RELEASE⚡ Pressured by #Italy, the announcement by #Panama Maritime Authority (PMA) to revoke the registration of the #Aquarius condemns hundreds of men, women & children who are desperate to reach safety, to a watery grave. #MSF @SOSMedIntl https://t.co/w1i6K5yfhM— MSF Sea (@MSF_Sea) September 23, 2018
Malta’s government has blocked three other sea rescue vessels from leaving local ports, citing registration issues. The NGOs which run the vessels say the red tape is designed to prevent them from saving people stranded at sea.
The Aquarius had applied to register as a Panamanian vessel after Gibraltar had announced its intention to strip the vessel of its flag, citing similar registration concerns.
News of the Aquarius being denied a Panamanian registrations reached the ship’s crew as they were conducting rescue missions at sea. Over the past three days, the Aquarius has assisted two boats in distress. Fifty eight survivors are currently on board the vessel.
In their statement, MSF and SOS Mediterranee slammed Italy’s government for the lengths it was willing to go to stop the ship from operating, “knowing that the only consequence is that people will continue to die at sea and that no witnesses will be present to count the dead”.
They urged European governments to step in and allow the Aquarius to continue its mission, either by dismissing Italy’s threats to Panama or by issuing the ship a new flag under which it could sail.
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