Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is urging European Member States to facilitate the immediate disembarkation of 629 people rescued over the weekend in the Mediterranean and now on board the Aquarius, a dedicated search and rescue vessel run by SOS MEDITERRANEE in partnership with MSF. Aquarius remains in international waters off Malta and Italy, the countries with the closest ports of safety but which continue to refuse permission to dock.
MSF welcomes the important gesture of humanity from Spain to disembark in Valencia. However, this would mean already exhausted people rescued at sea would have to endure four more days exposed to the elements on the deck, in an overcrowded boat already well over maximum capacity and in deteriorating weather conditions. The better option would be to disembark the rescued people in the nearest port, after which they can be transferred to Spain or other safe countries for further care and legal processing.
“Disembarkation cannot be delayed further,” said Dr David Beversluis, MSF’s doctor on board Aquarius. “The priority must be to immediately disembark all 629 people – including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children and 6 pregnant women – at the nearest port of safety. The medical situation on board remains stable for now but people are exhausted and stressed.”
MSF is particularly concerned about several critical drowning and hypothermia patients who had to be resuscitated. These patients are being closely monitored on board as they could quickly develop significant pulmonary issues after swallowing sea water. Many rescued people have reported aspiration and are therefore at risk of developing pulmonary disease or pneumonia over the coming days. There are also 21 patients on board who have suffered severe chemical burns after being exposed to a toxic mixture of sea water and fuel for an extended period of time. These patients are stable but will need ongoing wound care and dressing changes over the coming days and weeks. Finally, there are several serious orthopaedic cases with associated infections that need immediate surgical evaluations and operations, which MSF is unable to provide on the ship.
Once people rescued at sea have been disembarked in a port of safety, the next priority is for EU governments and institutions to step up and find shared solutions to support countries on the frontline, such as Italy, who are dealing with the burden of arrivals of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants by sea.
“Denying disembarkation to desperate people rescued at sea cannot be considered as a victory: it is the wrong response to the lack of responsibility and burden sharing between member states,” said Aloys Vimard, MSF’s project coordinator on board Aquarius. “All EU governments and institutions must step up and support countries on the frontline dealing with sea arrivals such as Italy, to guarantee shared solutions and stop unacceptable silence and inaction from EU states.”
Rescues and transfers over the weekend of 9-10 June 2018
The 629 people currently on board Aquarius were rescued during the night of Saturday to Sunday, when Aquarius carried out six rescue and transfer operations in the space of nine hours – all under instruction from the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (IMRCC).
The rescue of two rubber boats turned critical when one boat broke apart in the darkness, leaving over 40 people in the water. After rescuing 229 people from these boats, the Aquarius was requested by the IMRCC to accept a transfer of people who had been rescued by Italian navy and coastguard ships on 9 June. The Aquarius received 129 people from one Italian coastguard ship (CP 312), 64 from a second Italian coastguard ship (CP 319), and finally 88 from a third Italian coastguard ship (CP 267). The ship San Giusto then assisted the Aquarius teams in a final transfer of 119 shipwrecked people from Italian merchant ship MV Jolly Vanadio to the Aquarius.
The IMRCC coordinated all these actions from the start and took responsibility for the rescue of all these people. The Aquarius is now receiving supplies coordinated by the IMRCC, whose intention is to transfer 500 people from the Aquarius to two Italian ships, with the other 129 remaining on the Aquarius.
All three ships would sail to Valencia, Spain, together and disembark all the rescued people there. This would mean already exhausted people rescued have to endure four more days travel at sea.
MSF, SOS MEDITERRANEE and the captain of the Aquarius are waiting for the IMRCC action plan and will then assess whether it is safe and acceptable to proceed.