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The deflagging of the Aquarius, the last migrant rescue ship in the Mediterranean, represents a “dark moment” in European history, setting a dangerous precedent for states to flout international humanitarian laws.

A report by the charity Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) cited “inconsistencies in reasoning” given by Gibraltar and Panama for revoking the flag of Aquarius, which it said had acted transparently.

The UK-based charity accused the flag states of putting commercial interests ahead of well-established obligations to save lives, and warned that it was “only a small step” for commercial vessels carrying out search and rescue operations to avoid taking those rescued to certain coastal states for political reasons.

The report coincides with a warning on Monday from the Med’s AlarmPhone network that 150 people, including pregnant women and children, were fleeing Libya in a boat with a broken-down engine.

It follows claims by the two charities operating the Aquarius, which has been unable to sail in the Mediterranean without a flag, that Panama’s maritime authority had bowed to “blatant economic and political” pressure from the Italian government to revoke its licence.

“We cannot allow this incident of the deflagging of the Aquarius to be swept under the carpet,” said David Hammond, the founder of HRAS. “When there is established rule of law at sea that includes humanitarian actions to rescue people at sea, you can’t play politics with that and you can’t put commercial interests before saving lives.”

Hammond said he had written to the International Maritime Organization. “We have asked the IMO to look at the issue, to see whether or or not the deflagging of the Aquarius is the start of a precedent of removing the ability of search and rescue vessels to operate lawfully at sea to save lives.” Read more

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