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MSF and SOS Méditerranée announced Thursday they will be ending the operations of the Aquarius migrant rescue ship, which has become a lightning rod for the controversy surrounding Europe’s policies on accepting migrants.
MSF (Médecins sans frontières or Doctors Without Borders) and SOS Méditerranée announced in a joint statement that they had “brought an end” to the ship’s rescue operations.
The decision was made to wind up the ship’s missions because the Aquarius itself had become a target, explained Françis Vallat, president of SOS Méditerranée, in an interview with FRANCE 24 shortly after the announcement.
But he vowed that the NGOs would soon “resume our activities”.
The ships have rescued thousands of migrants from the Mediterranean as immigration continues to be a hot-button political issue across the European Union.
MSF lamented “the attacks carried out in the last 18 months by some European states” and the “grotesque claims of trafficking in waste and criminal activity” targeting both NGOs.
“All our port operations, including waste management, have always followed standard procedures,” MSF said in a statement last month. “The relevant authorities have not contested these procedures or identified a public health risk since we started our activities at sea.”
The Aquarius was at the heart of a diplomatic row in June when it became stranded with more than 600 migrants on board following a refusal by Italy and Malta to take it in.
Under a deal reached in August, 141 migrants aboard the Aquarius were distributed among France, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain.
The ship has been repeatedly turned away by Italy and forced to stop in Malta and Spain in recent months.
Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has vowed to block the Aquarius permanently from his country’s ports, accusing it of offering a “taxi service” for migrants from Libya to Europe. Italy has seen more than 700,000 migrants landing on its shores since 2013.
French President Emmanuel Macron has clashed with the Italian government over the policy, accusing it of “cynicism and irresponsibility”.
But Macron faced criticism at home for not offering safe haven to the Aquarius after it first became stranded in June, although France eventually offered asylum to about 80 of the rescued migrants.
The International Organization for Migration said in October that 1,741 migrants had drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean so far this year. The group estimates that about 15,000 migrants have drowned since 2013.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)