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Bracing for standoff, charity migrant ship stripped of flag sails to France

FILE - In this Saturday June 25, 2016 file photo, a woman looks out of the porthole from aboard the 'Aquarius' rescue vessel after arriving in Sicily, Italy with more than 600 migrants aboard the ship rescued by SOS Mediterranee and the medical aid group
AP Photo/Bram Janssen, File
Panama revoked the registration of the last charity ship working to rescue migrants stranded at sea.

Following alleged pressure from the Italian government and its anti-migrant campaign, the Panama Maritime Authority revoked the registration of Aquarius 2, the last search and rescue ship operating in the area in which migrants traveling to Europe have been stranded.

Unless the ship can secure approval to fly under another country’s flag, there will not be any migrant rescue ships operating in the central Mediterranean sea.

Following the decision, as soon as the Aquarius enters port, it will be stripped of its Panama flag and will not be allowed to operate unless it finds a new flag.

The Aquarius has been operating in the central Mediterranean since February 2016, and has been the source of controversy in the past few months as European leaders attempt to deal with the influx of migrants at their borders.

The boat is leased by two charity groups, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) and SOS Mediterranée.

Italy has repeatedly turned away the ship as it attempted to dock in Italian ports with migrants, forcing the ship to dock in Malta and Spain. In August, Italy was embroiled in a diplomatic crisis when it refused to let the ship dock.

AP Photo/Sima Diab

Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has largely been the face of the popular crackdown on immigration and has accused SOS Mediterranee and other charities of acting as “taxi services” for migrants.

However, Salvini denied that Italy put any pressure on the Panama government, Reuters reported.

The ship is reportedly heading for the port of Marseille with 58 migrant passengers on board, the vessel’s operators announced Monday.

The French government must now decide if they will allow the migrant ship to dock in its port, setting the scene for a fresh standoff.

Italy’s crackdown on the seas

Migration is a hot-button issue in Italy, where hundreds of thousands of people have arrived since 2013, fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Public backlash against migrants helped bring Italy’s far-right coalition government to power this June.

Under EU rules, people must seek asylum in their country of arrival, but Rome has increasingly barred boats from docking at its ports.

Yet Salvini has routinely attacked the EU for failing to act on immigration and has also threatened that Italy will refuse to support the EU bloc’s multi-year budget.

“They can change their name and flag another thousand times but Italy’s ports will remain shut to these gentlemen,” he said.

Thee ship’s operators say they have repeatedly ignored demands from Italy to return the rescued migrants currently on board the Aquarius to Libya, saying the country is not safe for refugees

French President Emmanuel Macron has accused Italy in the past of violating international maritime law by refusing the Aquarius. France has argued that Italy cannot turn away the Aquarius because Italy is closest to the boat’s operational area.

Following Salvini’s refusal to allow entry to 80-some migrants passengers aboard the Aquarius in June, France offered asylum to around 80 migrants who had been rescued at sea.

- Mediterranean deaths rising -

Panama launched "an official revocation procedure" after Italian authorities complained the Aquarius's captain had "refused to return migrants and refugees back to their point of origin".

Mediterranee's Vallat said the pressure put on Panama by Italy was "unprecedented" and called on Panamanian authorities to reconsider their decision, or for European nations to register the Aquarius and provide a flag.

"We do not want to stop and we will not give in to force or coercion," he said.

AP Photo/Darko Bandic

Between January and July, more than 58,000 asylum seekers and migrants reached Europe's shores after crossing the Mediterranean Sea -- 41 percent fewer than during the same period in 2017, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

But the agency warned that Mediterranean crossings were now "deadlier than ever", with the rate of deaths at sea rising sharply.

At least 1,730 people have died trying to make the treacherous crossing in flimsy boats this year, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Repeated rows who should take in the Aquarius' rescued migrants have came to symbolise the deep discord in Europe over how to share responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of people landing on European shores since 2015.

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