The NGO rescue ship Sea Watch 3 has been prevented from embarking on new operations by the Netherlands, its own flag state.
A new policy imposed by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management will take effect, which has severe implications on Sea-Watch and other NGOs operating ships under the Dutch flag, the operators said on Tuesday.
The Dutch authorities say they are concerned about the safety of migrants as the ship has repeatedly been subjected to lengthy standoffs as countries argue over who should take them in.
One of the most recent standoffs took place in rough seas off Malta at the end of the year while Malta negotiated an agreement with other EU member states to share the migrants it had on board.
More recently it was the subject of another standoff near Italy. It was then allowed to berth, before being briefly detained.
Sea Watch last year was blocked in Malta for four months before being allowed to leave without explanation.
"The policy change implemented hastily and without a transition period for Sea-Watch, demonstrates the lengths the Dutch government is willing to go to, to hinder civil society actors from their operations – a strategy it shares with other EU member states, abusing their powers in a coordinated crackdown on Mediterranean rescue operations," Sea Watch said.
The ship had been due to depart on another mission in mid-March after finalising planned maintenance and after successfully passing an inspection but was prevented from doing so.
"Until the time the Dutch government is satisfied that we comply with more stringent technical requirements under the new regulation, Sea-Watch is forced to suspend its current mission and will be subjected to another series of farcical regulatory processes.
"It is beyond comprehension that our own fag state attempts to undermine our work, while we consistently demonstrate that we have an extremely well-equipped rescue vessel that exceeds mandatory safety standards; a fact the Dutch Inspectie Leefomgeving en Transport [Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate] itself concluded in a thorough five-year inspection of our ship last summer, when it was unlawfully held in the Maltese port of Valletta,” said Johannes Bayer, chairman of Sea-Watch.
"The ministry claims to have ‘safety concerns’ for shipwrecked guests Sea Watch may get on board. We cannot be held accountable for the current state of inhumane standoffs at sea. Instead, this situation is a damning indictment of certain European states who are abusing their powers. In any next rescue, another long standoff may be likely, but still unacceptable. Blocking us for ‘safety’ concerns in a standoff is a fundamentally illogical argument when the alternative is that people are left to drown,” said Bayer.
He said keeping shipwrecked people at sea for prolonged periods of time is in violation of international law and therefore will never be the responsibility of Sea-Watch or any vessel rendering assistance to a distress case. It is the legal obligation of maritime rescue coordination authorities to provide a safe port without delay.
Sea Watch said it remained able and willing to guarantee safety and certification compliance.