Gibraltar has moved to strip a stranded migrant rescue ship of its registration amid a row over which country is responsible for taking in the 141 desperate migrants, including dozens of children, on board.
Maritime authorities in Malta and Italy refused the Aquarius' requests to dock Monday and allow the migrants, who were pulled from waters off the coast of Libya on Friday, to disembark.
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The migrants include 25 people who had spent 35 hours at drifting sea on a small wooden boat before being rescued, according to migrant rescue charity SOS Méditerranée.
Among the "weak and malnourished" migrants are two pregnant women and 67 unaccompanied minors, many from Somalia and Eritrea, some of whom reported being held in inhuman conditions in Libya, the charity said.
On Monday, Italian transport minister Danilo Toninelli urged the UK to "assume its responsibility" for the migrants because the ship sails under the flag of Gibraltar, a British territory.
The UK refuted the idea that the Aquarius was its responsibility, though it expressed concern for the welfare of those on board.
"It is well-established that responsibility for arranging disembarkation, at a nearby safe port, is assumed by the relevant regional Maritime Rescue and Co-ordination, and in accordance with the wishes of the ship's Master," said a government spokesperson in a statement.
After Gibraltar's move to revoke its registration, the Aquarius will now revert to the flag of its "underlying owner," Germany, according to a statement from the Gibraltar Maritime Administration (GMA). Germany has yet to issue a statement on the issue.
The humanitarian ship, operated by charities SOS Méditerranée and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), remains on standby in the sea between Malta and Italy, awaiting further guidance.
"MSF is particularly concerned about group of 38 children who are under 15 years of age and who do not have a parent or legal guardian with them," MSF tweeted on Monday. "The youngest is 12 years old."
SOS Méditerranée tweeted a separate video of the ship.
"The situation aboard the Aquarius is quite okay for now, but the situation is not sustainable in the long term," said a staff member on board.
"We have medical cases, (the) conditions could deteriorate at any moment. The people we rescued have been through hardship in Libya."
Ship 'ignored orders to stop rescues'
According to the statement from GMA, the Aquarius was chartered by the two charities as a "survey vessel," and wasn't authorized to conduct search and rescue operations.
It said the Aquarius was ordered to cease its search and rescue activities in June and July but failed to act, so its registration will be canceled on August 20.
SOS Méditerranée released a statement Tuesday accusing the GMA of "disguising a political maneuver behind an incoherent argument."
The charity "has satisfied for the last two years all regulatory requests arising from the competencies of the Gibraltar Flag State, and all technical controls regarding security and safety of the ship," the statement said. "No deficiencies were ever reported."
The statement claimed GMA was merely "pretending to care" about the migrants, and that the flag termination showed "a deliberate will to stop the rescue activity of the Aquarius, one of the last civil and humanitarian rescue ships in the Mediterranean."
A fractured Europe
The Aquarius was also briefly stranded in June while carrying 630 migrants after Italy and Malta refused to allow it to dock. France was thrown into the mix when French President Emmanuel Macron criticized Italy's position, escalating tensions.
Spain finally agreed to accept the migrants, but the diplomatic tussle revealed a fractured Europe, and the Aquarius became a symbol of the migration crisis in the Mediterranean.
In late June, weeks after the dispute, European Union leaders struck a deal on migration to more widely share refugees among member states. The EU agreed to provide more support to Mediterranean countries like Italy, but the voluntary deal lacked concrete details, and many questions remain unanswered.
The Mediterranean remains the world's deadliest migration route, despite sharp falls in the number of people trying to reach Europe by boat. That drop is partly ascribed to a deal struck between Italy and Libya last year, in which the southern European country pledged to bolster Libya's coast guard so it could spot departing migrant boats and house migrants attempting to cross.
As of August 8, there have been an estimated 1,524 deaths on the route this year, according to the International Organization for Migration, with the majority of the 60,309 migrants and refugees arriving through Spain and Italy.
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