Aquarius dispute highlights intra-EU differences on migrants

Italy’s foreign ministry summoned the French ambassador for talks on Wednesday June 13th, following criticism by France of Italy’s refusal to accept 629 migrants on rescue ship Aquarius, which had been situated in the Mediterranean close to Italy and Malta.

1977-built, Gibraltar-flagged, 1,812 gt research vessel Aquarius is owned by Aquarius GmbH care of manager Jasmund Shipping GmbH of Germany. It is entered with Gard P&I (Bermuda) on behalf of MV Aquarius GmbH.

French President Emmanuel Macron said that international law required that Italy accept the migrants. Italy responded by calling France hypocritical.

The migrants are to be transferred from the Aquarius, which has a maximum capacity of 500, onto other vessels for the voyage to Valencia, Spain. The new Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez stepped in to resolve an impasse between Italy and Malta over who should take in the new migrants, with both refusing to take the German rescue vessel.

SOS Mediterranee, a non-governmental organization which operates the ship, said that the journey to Spain in deteriorating weather conditions would be too dangerous. The crew had been ordered to clear the decks to take on supplies and prepare to disembark passengers.

On June 9th Aquarius received MayDay messages from a number of disabled small boats. After picking up many more people than its capacity, the boat headed back towards Italy, but the country’s new interior minister Matteo Salvini banned the ship from docking, saying that he wanted to prevent the country becoming a “huge refugee camp”. Salvini said that Malta should accept the boat and its passengers. Malta declined.

Two Italian boats moved alongside the Aquarius on Tuesday to pick up the migrants before heading for Spain through forecast stormy seas.

It will take the Aquarius about 10 days to make the trip to Spain and back, leaving Netherlands-flagged Sea Watch 3 alone off the coast of Libya looking out for migrant boats in distress.