The migrant rescue ship Aquarius, at the centre of a dispute between Italy and Malta in June after both refused to accept more than 600 people it picked up, will begin a new mission in the southern Mediterranean, organisers said.
The 77-metre vessel, operated by Franco-German charity SOS Mediterranee, will sail from Marseille on its tenth operation of the year, having rescued some 3,000 people this year, many fleeing from Libyan shores.
“The ship goes back to sea this afternoon,” Francis Vallat, president of SOS Mediterranee, told reporters.
“If only one reason was needed, it is that during June, according to the latest figures, there were seven times as many deaths this year than in June last year because of the lack of NGO rescue ships. We’re going back.”
In June, Aquarius picked up 629 migrants, including children and seven pregnant women, off the coast of Libya. It planned to take them to the nearest European port, the usual practice with rescue missions.
The then new Italian government, a coalition including the anti-immigrant League party, asked the ship to go to Malta rather than Italy. Malta said it was not the appropriate destination or capable of taking the migrants in.
This led to a stand-off that drew in the European Union and France. Political tensions still persist between Rome and Paris.
Eventually the migrants were taken in by Spain, now facing a renewed flood of people fleeing North Africa.
The Aquarius is one of a number of NGO-supported ships carrying out rescue operations in the southern Mediterranean, alongside the Italian navy and EU-led missions.
More than 10,000 migrants drowned in the region since 2014, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
Italy, which has brought ashore more than 650,000 migrants since 2014, wants migrants returned to where they left. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini accused SOS Mediterranee and other charities of being a Mediterranean “taxi service” for migrants.
Frederic Penard, director of operations for SOS Mediterranee, said there was no question of Aquarius rescuing migrants and taking them back to Africa.
“We always refuse to disembark people in Libya,” he said. “Libya cannot be considered safe. Everyone agrees with that for the moment.”