NGO-run Aquarius makes first rescue since Italy turned it away

Ship was not allowed to dock in Italy last month by order of new hard-line government

A woman is rescued by SOS Mediterranee organisation and Doctors Without Borders during a search and rescue (SAR) operation with the MV Aquarius rescue ship in the Mediterranean Sea, off the Libyan Coast, August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane
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A humanitarian ship rescued 141 migrants packed onto wooden boats off the coast of Libya on Friday in its first mission since it was caught in a standoff with Italy and Malta over their refusal to let rescued migrants ashore.

When Italy turned the Aquarius away in June and Malta followed suit, the ship spent a gruelling nine days at sea before eventually disembarking the migrants in Spain. The row also drew in the European Union and France and political tensions have persisted between Rome and Paris since.

Run by Franco-German charity SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders (MSF), the Aquarius rescued 25 migrants, including six women, from a small wooden boat about 25 nautical miles off the Libyan coast.

Conditions were calm and sunny on Friday but the boat, weighed down by too many passengers, sat low above the water line. Those aboard looked tense and worried as the rescuers approached, handed them life jackets and helped the onto the humanitarian ship.

Later 116 others were taken off a second wooden boat in the same area, including 38 women and 73 under the age of 18. Though larger, this vessel was also packed tight with passengers. Among them, a small frightened boy sat on the boat's rim, looking anxiously towards the rescuers.

Both boats were spotted from the ship's bridge.

The Libyan coastguard was informed and is the coordinating authority of the rescues, the Aquarius wrote on its online ship's log. The Aquarius set out last week on its 10th mission this year after a two-month pause.

Italy's new government, which took power in June, refuses to take in migrants rescued by humanitarian ships, accusing them of acting as a "taxi service" in a bid to get EU partners to shoulder more of the burden of migrant arrivals.

"In its callous refusal to allow refugees and migrants to disembark in its ports, Italy is using human lives as bargaining chips," Amnesty International's Matteo de Bellis said on Wednesday, condemning EU policies for the central Mediterranean.

The Aquarius has not yet been given a place of safety to disembark those rescued on Friday. According to international law, refugees cannot be put back in harm's way after being saved at sea.

"Aquarius is now waiting for instructions from the Libyan (rescue coordination centre)," the ship's digital log said.

The crew made clear before setting out that it would not return migrants to Libya, which is not considered safe harbour for migrants and refugees by both the United Nations and the European Union.


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Due to pressure from Italy and Malta, most charity ships are no longer patrolling off the coast of Libya. More than 650,000 migrants have come to Italy's shores since 2014.

Though departures from Libya have fallen dramatically this year, people smugglers are still pushing some boats out to sea and an estimated 720 people died in June and July when charity ships were mainly absent, Amnesty International estimates.