UNHCR concerned over lack of Mediterranean rescue capacity

Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in a file photo dated 10 September 2018. [Salvatore Di Nolfi/EPA/EFE]

The Maltese authorities on Sunday (30 September) finally took 58 migrants from the Aquarius to Valletta after they had waited for days in rough seas on the rescue ship that can no longer go to port after its flag was pulled.

The migrants, including Libyans, sub-Saharan Africans and Afghans, boarded two buses at a Malta Armed Forces base in Valletta after being transferred from the Aquarius to a Maltese patrol boat in international waters.

Their number includes a five-month pregnant woman and Bella the dog, the first animal rescued with migrants in the Mediterranean and they are to be sent on to four European countries after a tense standoff over their fate last week.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR said that it had not yet been decided where which of the migrants – 18 children, 17 women, 23 men and a dog – would go.

“We hope that they will leave Malta in a few days,” UNHCR representative Paolo Biondi told AFP at the base.

France has agreed to take 18 of the migrants, Germany and Spain 15 each and Portugal 10.

The Aquarius, chartered by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Mediterranée, was the only civilian ship still trying to rescue migrants making the perilous journey from North Africa to Europe.

But Panama pulled its flag from the ship a week ago, meaning the unregistered Aquarius would not be able to leave any port, while other rescue vessels already impounded in Valletta fight a protracted legal battle.

UNHCR warned about growing uncertainty over future search and rescue capacities on the Central Mediterranean.

According to the organisation, this time last year, five NGOs were conducting search and rescue operations on the Central Mediterranean. In 2017, NGOs saved over 46, 000 lives according to the Italian Coast Guard.

The de-registration of the Aquarius is deeply worrying and would represent a dramatic reduction of search and rescue capacity at precisely the moment when it needs to be stepped up, UNHCR stated.

“Reinforcing search and rescue capacity on the Central Mediterranean and disembarkation in places of safety, has to be everyone’s goal,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “We are talking about people’s lives. Refugees and migrants cannot be continually put at risk while States argue over their responsibilities.”

UNHCR continues to call strongly for increasing search and rescue capacity in the Central Mediterranean and for leaving space for NGOs to contribute in a coordinated manner to these efforts.

“This is a collective responsibility, with saving lives as its primary concern”, UNHCR states.

With no flag, Aquarius was expected to sail for its home port of Marseille in southern France.

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