A new migrant rescue vessel, flying an Italian flag, is on its way to the search-and-rescue area off Libya, providing a lifeline to asylum seekers fleeing north Africa.

The Mare Jonio, run by the Italian civil society project Mediterranea, in cooperation with Sea-Watch, is accompanied by another vessel - the Spanish Proactiva Open Arms’ Astral. It will reach the search and rescue zone on Saturday.

With the Sea-Watch 3 arbitrarily impounded by Malta and the MS Aquarius’ flag withdrawn, due to political pressure from the Italian government, the Mare Jonio and its escort provide the only dedicated rescue force in the area, the NGO said.

Death toll is at a record high due to an ongoing political crackdown on civilian rescuers

There are currently three rescue vessels being detained in Malta – a move that has been criticized as 'morally and legally questionable' by a German Social democratic delegation.

The MV Lifeline has been held up in Malta since June, after rescuing 233 migrants. The Sea Watch 3 and a third migrant rescue vessel - the Seefuchs – are also facing the same fate over registration issues.

The Mare Jonio set sail on Wednesday, which marked the fifth anniversary of the deadly shipwreck of October of 2013, when hundreds of migrants died off Lampedusa.

The NGO Sea Watch said the vessel will be resuming civil sea rescue at the deadliest border of the world, as the death toll is at a record high due to an ongoing political crackdown on civilian rescuers.

More than one out of every 10 people who attempted to reach Italy from North Africa perished in September, according to official data.

"In reality, however, the death toll is likely to be much higher, as no one is present in the SAR zone to bear witness to the deadly consequences of European border policy."

Read: Sea-Watch takes Muscat to task for his 'deadly decision'

Sea Watch chairman Johannes Bayer insisted that European states had made it “more than clear” that they would rather see people drown than let them arrive on European soil.

In contrast, the Mare Jonio convoyed a sign that civil society had not yet given up European values and was ready to continue defending human rights at sea.

"Just this Monday, our aircrew spotted a dead body in the sea - an indication of yet another unknown tragedy. This is why we now need to take a firm stance and support the Mediterranea project from its inception, financially as well as with the crew and knowledge that we gathered from numerous rescue missions."

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