Skip to main content

The crew members of the Aquarius, a ship that has rescued nearly 30,000 migrants from the Mediterranean, await their fate as their vessel once again becomes a target of the anti-migrant Italian government.

The Aquarius lies stranded in the French port of Marseilles, about 1,500 kilometres from where it should be – off the Libyan coast rescuing migrants from dangerously overloaded boats as they try to reach Italy. Panama has revoked the ship’s registration flag, meaning it cannot legally sail.

But even if it finds a new flag – it’s appealing to several countries, Canada among them – the crew and others are under criminal investigation by the Italian authorities and the ship risks being seized if it docks at an Italian port or sails through Italian waters.

Open this photo in gallery:

In this file photo from Aug. 1, 2018, the rescue ship Aquarius leaves the harbour of Marseille, southeastern France, after having been docked for a month for maintenance work.BORIS HORVAT/AFP/Getty Images

Tom de Kok, a Canadian charity worker who was served the prosecutors’ documents on behalf of the Aquarius, said he considers the charges part of a “smear campaign” designed to discredit all rescue ships, build fear among Italians about migrants and bolster the career of Matteo Salvini, the populist Deputy Prime Minister and public face of Italy’s clampdown on all types of migrants.

“Italy doesn’t mind doing dirty tricks to keep the Aquarius out of the water,” Mr. de Kok said in a phone interview. “These charges are part of a long-time effort to impede our work. … Every day we are not at sea, migrants will die.”

Mr. de Kok, who is from Eastern Ontario, is project co-ordinator for the Mediterranean search and rescue efforts for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the medical charity that operates the Aquarius along with the SOS Méditerranée charity.

Last week, 24 people, some of them associated with the Aquarius and MSF, were put under investigation by prosecutors in Catania, the main city on Sicily’s east coast and a favoured migrant drop-off port for rescue ships (Mr. de Kok himself is not under investigation). The prosecutors allege some of the waste sent ashore by the Aquarius and another rescue ship was mislabelled and should have been identified as “toxic” waste.

The prosecutors said the accused “systematically shared, planned and executed an illegal waste-disposal project of enormous quantity” between January and May. The waste allegedly contained contaminated garments that had been worn by the migrants and medical implements such as syringes. The prosecutors said Italian health authorities have registered more than 5,000 medical cases – including scabies, meningitis, tuberculosis, AIDS and syphilis – among the migrants rescued by the ships, implying medical waste could carry dangerous diseases.

Mr. de Kok said there is no scientific evidence the waste material from the Aquarius contained toxic material. He said the charges were designed to whip up anti-migrant sentiment in Italy: “If you make them seem dangerous, you dehumanize them and that’s what’s happening now.”

Catania prosecutors also fined MSF €460,000 and froze some of its Italian bank accounts. Individuals at a Sicilian company that manages waste disposal are also under investigation. The MSF and Aquarius individuals, including the ship’s captain, deny all the allegations.

The Aquarius, a converted 77-metre former German coast guard vessel, has made 40 to 50 Mediterranean rescue voyages. Most of those migrants went ashore at Italian ports.

The ship has had a rough go since Mr. Salvini’s anti-migrant League party and the Five Star Movement (M5s), formed a populist coalition government in the late spring. Mr. Salvini announced measures to curb migration, even though crossings from Libya had fallen considerably, and started a campaign to stop charity rescue ships from docking at Italian ports.

In June, he refused to let the Aquarius dock at an Italian port when the ship was carrying more than 600 people rescued from the Mediterranean. The Aquarius then set sail for Spain, where the migrants went ashore.

Mr. Salvini’s popularity has soared in recent polls, ever since he stopped the rescue boats and ended a high-profile and largely successful migrant-integration project in Riace, a hillside town in the deep south. The town’s mayor, Domenico Lucano, had won international kudos for welcoming thousands of migrants over the years and giving them housing and jobs.

Last week, the United Nations special rapporteurs for human rights expressed “grave concern” over changes to Italy’s migration laws that would make it harder for migrants to access shelters.

“During the most recent electoral campaign, some politicians fuelled a public discourse unashamedly embracing racist and xenophobic anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner rhetoric,” the rapporteurs’ report said.

Mr. de Kok did not know when the Aquarius would be able to resume rescue voyages. It can’t sail until it is granted a flag that would allow it to operate in the central Mediterranean, between Italy and Libya. It is appealing to Canada, Switzerland, Portugal, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries for a flag.

The Aquarius has not been at sea for some 50 days and, with most rescue boats out of action due to the Italian government’s policies, migrants making the dangerous journey continue to drown. The International Organization for Migration said Friday that 2,075 migrants had died or gone missing crossing the Mediterranean so far this year.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe