Rescue and relief organisations SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have announced they are ending the Aquarius refugee rescue mission in the Mediterranean Sea after what they call “a relentless ongoing political, judicial and administrative campaign backed by several European states”.
The decision, made public late on Thursday, came after the Aquarius had to remain in port for the last two months following allegations of breaking the law.
“Repeated and targeted attacks against life-saving aid organizations, coupled with the EU states’ criminal disregard of their maritime and international obligations, lead to mounting life-threatening risks for people,” Director of SOS Mediterranee Germany Verena Papke said in a statement.
“The Aquarius has helped in filling void in the Mediterranean and now the repeated unacceptable attacks resulted in stopping it,” she added.
“Today, search and rescue at sea is nearly non-existent, portraying the failure of Europe.”
⚡️Breaking news⚡️End of Aquarius charter for prompt resumption of search and rescue missions. SOS MÉDITERRANÉE determined to go back at sea while death toll in #Mediterranean rises https://t.co/ePZ7RrdwsE
— SOS MEDITERRANEE (@SOSMedIntl) December 6, 2018
The Aquarius ship has been in the Mediterranean since February 2016 and has so far rescued about 30,000 people who tried to cross the sea from the African shores into Europe.
But in recent months the ship has regularly run into problems with European countries. In June, Italy’s new Interior Minister Matteo Salvini blocked the Aquarius, carrying 629 refugees and migrants, from docking at its ports.
Salvini has accused the Aquarius of being a “taxi service” for migrants coming from Libya to Europe, and said he wanted it permanently blocked from his country’s ports.
The move by the far-right leader, who is also a co-deputy prime minister, caused a public outcry in Europe, with thousands in France taking part in rallies to express their anger at the efforts to stop the last migrant rescue ship operating off Libya’s coast.
Eventually, the ship sailed to Spain where the refugees were allowed to disembark.
Last month, Italian authorities ordered the ship to be seized after an accusation that the vessel was being used to illegally dump toxic waste at ports in southern Italy in what was called a “politically driven attack” by SOS Mediterranee.
Despite the decision to no longer operate the Aquarius, SOS Mediterranee said it was looking at new options regarding rescue missions in the Mediterranean.
“Ending operations of the Aquarius vessel was an extremely difficult decision to make, but one that will enable our teams to resume search and rescue work as soon as possible,” the organisation said.
Those that are still trying to cross to Italy are now being intercepted and returned to Libya, where they’re usually locked up in indefinite detention.
Since February, 2017, the EU has been funding the Libyan coastguard to intercept boats, and UNHCR says more than 14,000 people have been returned to Libya by the coastguard this year.
However, many refugees and migrants in Libya say being sent back just means they’ll have to try and cross the Mediterranean again, because the country is so unsafe and the conditions in detention centres are so bad that they have no other option.
“People would rather die in the sea than in detention centres,” a 28-year-old Eritrean, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told Al Jazeera through via Whatsapp using a hidden phone.
The man, who tried to reach Italy in February, said without legal routes to Europe from countries with high refugee populations, like Sudan and Ethiopia, refugees will keep trying to find ways to get there.
He said he was hoping to be evacuated and resettled by UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, but now believes his chances are too low because he’s a single man.
“I don’t have hope to evacuate by UNHCR,” he said. “I only know that I will pay money and try again to the sea.”
He said desperate conditions in the detention centres – including a lack of food, medical card and abuse by guards – mean that his life is in danger by staying there too.
A 17-year-old Somali, who escaped a detention centre run by Libya’s Department for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM) during the fighting in Tripoli a few months ago, also said he was trying to save up money to pay smugglers, who regularly hassle migrants and refugees, encouraging them to pay $2,000, the cost of another chance at crossing the Mediterranean.
A 19-year-old Eritreanin a detention centre in southwest Tripoli told Al Jazeera that smugglers are now charging $800 to take people to Tunis, up from $400 a month ago.
“They are making (it) expensive because many people are going there,” he said in a Facebook message, adding that this route is dangerous too.
“Even they have started kidnapping people. First they will make a deal with you to take you to Tunis. After that they will sell (you) or another mafia group may kidnap you.”
But those that still want to get to Europe will have to wait for about three months for the weather to improve, to try again.
Until then, many are raising money so they can pay for that trip, which in some cases will be the second time they try to undertake it.
And when they take off from the Libyan shores, SOS Mediterranee hopes to be there for them, making sure they survive the perilous trip.
“As long as people will continue attempting the most dangerous sea crossing in the world, SOS MEDITERRANEE will fulfil its maritime duty, responding to the emergency by all professional means possible,” the organisation said.
“We refuse to remain idle on shore as people continue to die at sea.”
Additional reporting by Sally Hayden