/The uncertain future of the Aquarius

The uncertain future of the Aquarius

SOS Méditerranée’s and Doctors Without Borders’ Aquarius rescue boat calls on European governments to provide them with the necessary flag that allows them to be back in international waters.


Uncertainty is the keyword to describe Aquarius migrant ship’s future. After its arrival on the 4th of October to the southern French port city of Marseille, the vessel is struggling to go back to international waters. The flagship of the NGO’s SOS Méditerranée and Doctors Without Borders requires the need of an official maritime flag. Without it, it is unable to operate in a legal capacity.

Tom de Kok, Doctors Without Borders’ Project Coordinator on board Aquarius, says: “If the Aquarius and other rescue boats like it are no longer able to conduct their work, then even more people will die at sea.”

“Last month (September 2018), an estimated 1 in 5 people who tried to leave Libya by crossing the Mediterranean have died, or have gone missing. This is the highest rate of death since figures like these started being recorded! Right now, there are just not enough search and rescue boats in the Mediterranean, and it’s because some governments are preventing rescue boats from working.”

Before it docked in Marseille, the Aquarius was known for being the last active civil rescue ship in the Central Mediterranean. Its first mission took place on February 2016 and since then, it has saved over 29.000 lives.

“The Aquarius and its crew provide lifesaving assistance by rescuing people who are at risk of drowning. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer rescue boats like ours, even though migrants and refugees are still leaving Libya and attempting to cross the Mediterranean sea.”, says Tom de Kok.

Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA/EFE

Earlier this year, it faced major setbacks when trying to reach the Italian port of Lampedusa. The boat, carrying nearly 630 migrants who had to look for another secure port before running out of supplies. Eventually it docked in Valencia where the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms was waiting for them.

Gerard Canals, Proactiva Open Arms operations coordinator, says: “Our background missions are the same and as we were in Castellón, near Valencia, as soon as we heard they were coming we went there to receive them.”



The Aquarius isn’t the only migrant rescue ship that is in a legal limbo. Since the refugee crisis began, back in 2015, member states of the European Union have faced political tension.  Now, some of the member state governments have agreed on keeping sea rescue NGO’s away from the European coasts.

According to Tom de Kok some politicians are trying to prevent migrants and refugees from reaching Europe at all costs, so they have made it more and more difficult for civilian rescue boat like the Aquarius to continue working. He adds they think that if there are no more rescue boats like the Aquarius, people will stop trying to leave Lybia and reach Europe.

“What is clear is that they want to prevent the people from being rescued and brought in by all means. To try not to give people any motivation to come because those who have tried before have been found dead adrift and their bodies have been returned to their country of origin,” says Gerard Canals.

Europe was founded on human rights, but since the refugee crisis started, those rights have been questioned more than once. Italy is one of the latest countries closing its doors.

“Clearly, the Europe that once stood as a guardian of human rights is now interfering with organisations like ours, which want to prevent people from dying at sea,” says Gerard Canals.

Tom de Kok says, “The European Union is actually adding to the problem and increasing the humanitarian needs on the Mediterranean and in Libya.”

He continues stating that the European Union gives money and technical support to the Libyan coastguard, which in turn allows the Libyan coastguard to more efficiently intercept people at sea; meaning that people are taken back to Libya and put in detention centres, where they are forced to live in horrible conditions.

“This very act of taking people back to Libya (a country that cannot be considered a place of safety), is a violation of International Law”.

Future for the Aquarius and other sea rescue vessels is now uncertain. What’s clear is that refugees won’t stop trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Europe needs to decide whether it is going to help them.