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Sealing Liquid Borders – Italy’s Not-So-Hidden Agenda

Since 2016, the Aquarius search and rescue vessel, chartered by SOS Méditerranée and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), has been operating in hazardous Mediterranean waters between Libya and Italy. Over the past two years, it has rescued almost 30,000 people. However, according to the Guardian, ‘the Aquarius is the last private rescue ship operating in the area.’

Last week, the Panama Maritime Authority (PMA) moved to revoke the ship’s registration, confining the Aquarius to the Port of Marseille. This is not the first time a government has de-flagged the Aquarius. In August, Gibraltar also de-flagged the ship, holding it in Marseille for three weeks until Panama agreed to grant the ship registration, only to revoke it a few months later.

In a letter to the Aquarius, the PMA wrote that the ship ‘implies a political problem against the Panamanian government.’ SOS Méditerranée and MSF blame the leaders of the newly-elected Italian far-right populist government for the PMA’s act, stating that the Italian government put ‘blatant economic and political pressure’ on the PMA. Each day the ship remains un-flagged, it cannot leave Marseille to continue to search for and rescue vessels that are experiencing distress in the deadly crossing between Libya and Italy.

‘Each day the ship remains un-flagged, it cannot leave Marseille to continue to search for and rescue vessels that are experiencing distress in the deadly crossing between Libya and Italy.’

Since June, the Italian far-right has frequently targeted the Aquarius with legal actions. Matteo Salvini, Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister of Italy, has spearheaded those efforts. Claims likening the Aquarius to a ‘taxi cab for migrants’ have become commonplace in Salvini’s anti-immigration rhetoric. In response to allegations that the Italian government was pressuring Panama to de-flag the Aquarius, Salvini tweeted a denial, stating that he ‘didn’t even know the country code for Panama.’ The legal grounds for Panama’s reversal are unclear, given that the Aquarius’ mission is in line with the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. The Convention states that any ship aware of persons in distress ‘is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance.’ MSF Sea tweeted, ‘For the Aquarius and all ships, saving lives is a duty, not a crime.’

Italy has denied the Aquarius permission to dock at Italian ports multiple times since June, despite International Maritime and Refugee Law stipulating that it is the duty of governments and ships to cooperate in granting survivors the right to disembark at the nearest, safest port. The last week of September marked the most recent instance where Italian authorities denied the Aquarius disembarkation rights. At the time, 58 migrants were on board. Malta, France, and Spain gave conflicting responses about whether they would allow the Aquarius to dock in their ports. As these countries changed their stances, they further delayed the ship, causing additional distress to the migrants on-board. In an Al-Jazeera interview, one of the Aquarius’ crew members, Laura Garel, states, ‘We have seen people who are actually carrying bullets in their bodies from their time in Libya’.


On 3 October, a coalition of NGOs across Europe released a joint letter. They urged European leaders to grant Aquarius flag registration so that it could resume rescue operations immediately. The opening statement is harrowing: ‘Five years to the day after the Lampedusa tragedy in which at least 368 people died, rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea are more vital than ever’. In response to this plea, the French Socialist MEP Isabelle Thomas urged French President Emmanuel Macron to offer the French flag, publicly stating that this would ‘bring honour to the country’. Few other officials throughout Europe have responded.

This comes at a moment when Italian ministers ‘approved a decree to sharply curtail access to asylum, downgrade the care asylum seekers receive, and increase immigration detention,’ according to a Human Rights Watch article. The Italian government’s tightening of maritime borders and policy change regarding asylum seekers are the first actions taken by Salvini in ensuring that Italy will ‘no longer be Europe’s refugee camp.’ Salvini’s Italy is on the front line, but Italy isn’t the only country trying to spread the anti-immigration agenda. The ‘sealed border’ policies and Euro-sceptic visions curtailing free movement of migrants within the EU are echoed by other far-right European leaders, such as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. A recent Guardian article reports that after Salvini held a meeting in Milan with Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s Prime Minister, Orbán stated that ‘Hungary has shown that we can stop migrants on land. Salvini has shown migrants can be stopped at sea. We thank him for protecting Europe’s borders.’

ISPI, an Italian think tank, has monitored the deaths and missing persons at sea since Salvini took power four months ago. The figures are shocking: ‘the average number of deaths per day has risen to 8.’ This is equivalent to 5 more deaths per day than under the previous government that was in charge between July 2017 to May 2018.

Notably, the Italian government cannot deny ships like Mare Jonio the right to dock when they fly the Italian flag. Mare Jonio is an Italian-registered independent ship, which left Sicily on the five-year anniversary of the Lampedusa shipwreck. The ship is part of the crowd-funded Mediterranea mission, an effort to fill the gap left by de-flagged, NGO-run vessels like the Aquarius.


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