Stand-off over Aquarius rescue ship ends as six countries offer help

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
Some of the 141 people aboard the Aquarius (Getty)

An international stand-off involving the UK over who should help 141 people stranded at sea on the Aquarius charity rescue ship has been resolved by a deal involving six countries.

Malta is to allow the Aquarius safe harbour to disembark the people on board before they are distributed to five other countries: France, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain.

The people pulled from two wooden boats in the Mediterranean on Friday include 73 children – the majority of them unaccompanied – and two pregnant women.

Most of them are suffering from “chronic malnutrition”, according to the Doctors Without Borders group which helps run the humanitarian rescue ship.

Frédéric Penard of SOS Méditerranée, the NGO behind the Aquarius, welcomed the compromise at a press conference in Paris.

He said: “Maybe European states have finally understood that this concerns our common border at the south of Europe, that this is a problem for the 28 member states, and that we can’t avoid responsibility and should work together.”

The ship has been waiting in international waters while European countries argued over who should take responsibility.

Charity rescue ship, the Aquarius, which carries the Gibraltar flag (Getty)

Italy and Malta, the two closest countries, had both refused to let the ship dock. Italy’s government instead called on the UK to take responsibility because the Aquarius carries a Gibraltar flag.

In response, the UK government said it was “deeply concerned” for the welfare of those on board but insisted that they should be disembarked “at a nearby safe port.”

Today’s “responsibility sharing exercise” was brokered by the governments of Malta and France with the support of the European Commission.

In a statement, the Maltese government said it was “making a concession” by offering the Aquarius safe harbour because it has “no legal obligation to do so.”

“The Maltese government considers this to be a concrete example of European leadership and solidarity,” it said.

European commissioner for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, commended the countries who had offered to help.

But he added: “We cannot rely on ad-hoc arrangements, we need sustainable solutions. It is not the responsibility of one or a few Member States only, but of the European Union as a whole.”

MORE: Italy tells UK to help 141 people stranded at sea on Aquarius rescue ship