Italy orders seizure of migrant rescue ship Aquarius for ‘illegal waste treatment’

Italian authorities have ordered the seizure of the migrant rescue ship “Aquarius” in the French port of Marseille, alleging it has illegally disposed of infectious waste in 11 ports in the southern Italy.

Médecins Sans Frontières, the French NGO which operates the ship, called the move to seize assets and freeze bank accounts an “unfounded and disproportionate” measure aimed at further criminalising rescue efforts that have saved 80,000 people at sea over the last three years.  More than 2000 migrants have perished this year alone trying to cross the Mediterranean.

"After two years of defamatory and unfounded allegations of collusion with human traffickers, judicial investigations, and bureaucratic obstacles, we are now accused of organised crime aimed at illicit waste trafficking. This latest attempt by Italian authorities to stop humanitarian, lifesaving search and rescue capacity at any cost is sinister," said Karline Kleijer, MSF’s head of emergencies.  

Prosecutors coordinating the police investigation allege that two MSF-operated ships, the Vos Prudence and the Aquarius, illegally disposed of 24 tonnes (24,000 kg) of refuse  – discarded clothing, food leftovers and medical waste – on 44 occasions in the Italian ports between January 2017 and July 2018.

According to a statement released by the prosecutor’s office, 24 individuals are accused of “systematically sharing, planning and carrying out a criminal project of illegal disposal of a large quantity of hazardous waste at infectious risk, deriving from relief activities."

Prosecutors said port health authorities had registered 5088 medical cases – including scabies, meningitis, tuberculosis, AIDS and syphilis –  among the 21,326 migrants rescued by the ships.

In 37 instances for the Aquarius and seven for the Vos Prudence, investigators allege that the ships communicated they had nothing dangerous to declare, thereby avoiding more complicated disposal treatments necessary for infectious waste. Instead, the waste was disposed of as normal urban refuse in dumps, prosecutors say.

MSF representatives pledged to cooperate with investigators, but say they will appeal the seizure order, insisting they followed standard procedures and never received public health hazard warnings from Italian authorities.  

"We are more than ready to clarify the facts and stand accountable for the operational procedures we followed, but we strongly reaffirm the legitimacy and legality of our humanitarian work”, said Gabriele Eminente, General Director of MSF in Italy.

Italian prosecutors named 24 suspects, including staff at the MSF operations centres in Amsterdam and Brussels who managed and financed the ships’ missions. In total, eight members of MSF are named, including Belgian, Dutch, Italian and British nationals, as well as the Russian captain and Ukrainian first captain of the Aquarius, and two Italian maritime agents who coordinated with the ships.

Libyan coast guard authorities have begun intercepting migrant boats, but those rescued are often returned to arbitrary detention in the conflict-torn country, a practice which MSF claims breaks international maritime and refugee law. 

The Aquarius is now stuck in the port of Marseilles after having its registration flag revoked twice in two months, due to what they claim has been concerted political pressure by Italy.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini hailed the investigation as additional proof he was justified in denying NGO rescue ships the right to dock in Italy’s ports. “I did the right thing to block the NGO ships as I blocked not only the traffic of migrants but from what is emerging also that of waste,” Mr Salvini wrote on Twitter, adding the hashtag “closed ports.”

The order to seize the NGO ship  comes the day after Italy announced it would intensify efforts to crack down on its own internal waste management catastrophe – the illegal burning and dumping of toxic waste north of Naples that has plagued residents for over a decade.