Migrant rescue vessel Aquarius denied Swiss flag

A member of Aquarius rescue ship run by NGO SOS Mediterranee and Medecins Sans Frontieres holds a girl after she was recovered with others. (Credit: Angelos Tzortzinis/ AFP/ Getty Images)

The government of Switzerland has rejected a proposal that would have allowed the migrant rescue vessel Aquarius to sail under the Swiss flag.

The ship – which is operated by the charities Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS Mediterranée – is currently stranded in Marseilles. Aquarius had previously sailed under the flags of Gibraltar and Panama, with the latter revoking the vessel’s registration in September following pressure from the Italian government.

The Panama Maritime Authority (PMA) claimed it was necessary to exclude the rescue from its registry because: “it implies a political problem against the Panamanian government and the Panamanian fleet that arrive to European ports.”

Since 2016, Aquarius has rescued some 30,000 migrants crossing from Libya to Europe. It was one of the last private rescue ships operating in the central Mediterranean Sea when it was deflagged by Panama. Several Swiss parliamentarians have since proposed that the vessel be given the country’s flag – and more than 27,000 Swiss citizens signed a petition requesting the same.

However, the Swiss Federal Council has said that migrant rescue operations require a sustainable and coordinated effort to manage the flow of refugees into Europe. It argued that allowing Aquarius to carry the Swiss flag would compromise this unified international response.

Even if the ship were issued a flag, it could still be seized upon entering Italian waters. Last month, prosecutors in Sicily accused Aquarius of illegally dumping waste in Italian ports – an allegation that MSF strongly denies.

“We are more than ready to clarify the facts and stand accountable for the operational procedures we followed, but we strongly reaffirm the legitimacy and legality of our humanitarian work”, said Gabriele Eminente, executive director of MSF in Italy.

“This climate of repeated attacks and baseless accusations has led to the real crimes we see today at sea. Around 2,000 people have perished in the Mediterranean this year only, others continuing to take the journey with no vessel left to save their lives, survivors returned to inhumane and arbitrary detention in Libya, in complete disregard for international maritime, humanitarian, and refugee law.”

According to the charity Human Rights at Sea, merchant ships will be increasingly involved in mass rescue efforts in the Mediterranean in the absence of search and rescue vessels. However, it notes that merchant operators may not be trained to carry out these activities, and may not have the necessary equipment.