Gibraltar has decided to remove its flag from the migrant rescue ship Aquarius, in a measure that the NGO SOS Mediterranee called a "political maneuver" aimed at hindering the ship's search and rescue operations.
Gibraltar has taken its flag back from the ship Aquarius after it had asked the NGO to return to research activities and stop rescue activities in British waters, for which it is not registered.
The German-owned ship was registered in Gibraltar in 2009 for conducting research, but it has been rented since 2016 by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) for rescue operations, authorities in Gibraltar said. They added that they had "invited the Aquarius to suspend rescue operations in June-July 2018".
'Political maneuver' against rescues at sea
The ship's coordinator, Nicola Stalla, said the NGO will likely "ask German authorities to fly a German flag, given that the ship was previously registered in Germany and is German-owned". He said in any case, the NGO will be asking for a flag from another country, but that it will still refer to Gibraltar at least until August 20. SOS Mediterranee released a statement denouncing the "political maneuver" by the government of Gibraltar, which it said is aimed at hindering the ship's search and rescue activities.
The NGO said that it has "satisfied for the last two years all regulatory requests arising from the competencies of the Gibraltar Flag State, and all technical controls regarding security and safety of the ship" and that "no deficiencies were ever reported". It said the Aquarius has completed over 200 search and rescue (SAR) operations, "in complete transparency and regularly informing all the competent authorities". It said the Gibraltar government is "disguising a political maneuver behind an incoherent argument".
'Risk for survivors'
SOS Mediterranee said that by "pretending to concern itself with the fate of the 141 people aboard the Aquarius, and recalling its obligations in the face of the coastal countries of the central Mediterranean", Gibraltar's decision "could put at risk the possibility of rapidly protecting the survivors".
It said the decision "only shows a deliberate will to stop the rescue activity of the Aquarius, one of the last civil and humanitarian rescue ships in the Mediterranean". SOS Mediterranee concluded its statement by saying it is "available for an open, transparent and fair discussion with the Gibraltar Maritime Authority, in the strict respect of laws and regulations which are at the core of its mission".