The operators of the migrant search and rescue vessel "Aquarius," which had to discontinue its operations in early December 2018 after losing its flag registration, are hoping to find another ship to continue their work in the Mediterranean.
SOS Méditerranée Director of operations Frédéric Penard told the Agence-France Presse (AFP) news agency that the organization was looking into using other boats for its search and rescue missions in 2019, adding that there were no private refugee rescue missions left in Mediterranean waters.
The organization said it was actively looking for a vessel of roughly the same dimensions as the "Aquarius," capable of holding 700 people. It further specified that the boat would have to be able to operate in winter and also provide space to hold several life rafts.
SOS Méditerranée, a branch of the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) charity, saved tens of thousands of people in the Mediterranean using the "Aquarius," which ceased operations in December 2018 after losing its flag registration in the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar.
Flying the correct flag
Gibraltar explained that it had taken the decision to withdraw the flag from the vessel in August 2018 after the "Aquarius" had reportedly engaged in rescue activities in British waters – for which it is not registered.
Under naval guidelines, a ship has to be registered in a flag state in order to be allowed to dock on land. Following the withdrawal of the Gibraltarian flag, SOS Méditerranée briefly registered the "Aquarius" in Panama in late August 2018 – which only weeks later also pulled its flag following alleged pressure from the Italian government, which is trying to stem the flow of refugees and migrants across the Mediterranean.
The "Aquarius" was at the heart of a diplomatic row in June 2018 when it became stranded at sea with 600 rescued migrants on board following a refusal by Italy and Malta to accept the vessel at their ports.
Calling for help from the EU
Frédéric Penard said that because of these recent experiences, it is crucial for SOS Méditerranée to find a future vessel that is registered in a country that supports their work and is willing to allow their boats to dock after rescue operations.
Penard meanwhile also called for the European Union to work on a joint solution with regard to establishing emergency ports for rescue ships that are refused safe harbor by national governments, concretely suggesting Malta or Sicily as harbors that could serve this purpose. Under these plans, other EU countries would redistribute the migrants arriving at these ports among them.