Amidst a longstanding campaign by Italy and other EU governments to close international borders to migrants and refugees and to delegitimize the work of NGOs, it has become increasingly difficult to carry out search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean. For political reasons, the Aquarius was stripped of its flag registration twice over the course of two months – first in August 2018 by Gibraltar, then in September 2018 by Panama under threats from the Italian government. In November 2018, legal action was taken by the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Catania requesting the seizure of the Aquarius over allegations of illicit waste trafficking and “infectious hazards” in Italian ports further complicated MSF’s prospects to maintain search and rescue operations on the Aquarius.
With no real progress in securing a flag in combination with legal challenges, MSF and partner organization SOS MEDITERRANEE announced on 7 December 2018 that they had been forced to end the mission of the Aquarius. Over the month of December, MSF and SOS teams on board the Aquarius decommissioned the vessel by moving supplies, equipment, and medicines off the ship and into storage so that they could be used for future search and rescue operations.
Since the start of its search and rescue mission in February 2016, the Aquarius has assisted nearly 30,000 people in international waters between Libya, Italy and Malta. The Aquarius’ last active period of search and rescue ended on 4 October 2018, when it arrived in the port of Marseille following the rescue of 58 people. Together with MSF’s previous search and rescue vessels – the Bourbon Argos, Dignity, Prudence and Phoenix – MSF has rescued or assisted more than 80,000 people in the Mediterranean Sea since 2015. Despite recent efforts of other NGOs at sea, Today, there are only a few dedicated rescue boats operating in the Central Mediterranean.