The Aquarius rescue ship enters the port of Valencia
The Aquarius rescue ship enters the port of Valencia

The Aquarius, a rescue ship chartered by the French NGO SOS Mediterranee, is to set sail again. The ship spent days at sea with 629 migrants in June after being denied port by Italy and Malta.

The migrant rescue ship Aquarius was to set sail again on Wednesday for the waters between Libya, Malta and Italy, the charities operating the ship have said.

It is one of only two private rescue vessels still operating in the Mediterranean after an increase in restrictions by European governments.

"Despite a radical shift in the operational context for humanitarian interventions in the Mediterranean, the Aquarius operations are driven by the same conviction that there is no alternative to saving lives in distress at sea, and by the same principle rooted in the maritime tradition that no human being should be left drowning at sea," SOS Mediterrannee, a French NGO which charters the ship, said in a statement on Wednesday.

The Aquarius was forced to make a 1,500-kilometer (810-nautical-mile) journey in June across the Mediterranean Sea while carrying 629 migrants after being denied port by Italy and Malta. Spain eventually allowed for the ship to dock in Valencia.

The ship has undergone checks and updates since the voyage, according to its operators.

SOS Mediterrannee said the Aquarius has rescued 29,318 people since it first left port in February 2016, including 2,979 in 2018.

The odyssey of the Aquarius

Aquarius and the refugee debate

The ship's voyage to Spain in June rekindled a debate inside the European Union regarding the fate of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

In addition to the Aquarius, Italy's interior minister, Matteo Salvini, turned away Germany's Lifeline, a ship carrying more than 200 migrants, in June, forcing it to dock in Malta. He has since blocked all charity-run search-and-rescue vessels from docking in Italian ports.

Italy has seen 600,000 migrants, mostly from Africa, enter its borders in the past five years. The country's new populist government has vowed to crack down on the massive influx of migrants. Salvini himself is from the anti-immigrant and euroskeptic League party.

So far this year, 1,111 migrants and refugees have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean. That is less than half of the 2,239 deaths at this point in 2017, but the rate at which deaths occur has increased — there have been less than 33,000 attempted crossings this year as opposed to 105,000 last year.

dv/rt (AFP, dpa)

First published: August 1, 2018

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