Since its launch in 2016, the Aquarius, has put out to sea 44 times. According to the ship’s records, it has saved the lives of 29,523 people trying to cross the sea. — and in doing so has become synonymous with the refugee crisis, both provoking hate and earning respect every time it sets out.
Politically, European nations are ignoring the deaths in the central Mediterranean, outsourcing the problem to the Libyans. Culturally, Europeans are tired of the arrival of refugees and migrants — as demonstrated by the shift to the right in elections across the continent.
This has translated into the life-saving mission of the ship becoming harder and harder. The International Organization for Migration states that 128,082 successfully made the journey in 2017, but only 39,145 have done so this year. The journey has never been so dangerous: In July of this year, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) put the figure at one person drowning for every seven who cross the Mediterranean. Approximately 14,743 men, women, and children have died attempting to cross the sea from starting points in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia since 2014, according to the Missing Migrants project.
The Aquarius is one of the few NGO boats still working to save lives in the central Mediterranean. The 2,000-ton ship costs approximately $12,600 daily to run — split between SOS Méditerranée and Doctors Without Borders (also known as Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF) — and operates in international waters off the Libyan coast, where the majority of rubber and wooden boats depart. When a boat is located, SOS Méditerranée teams launch two inflatable motorboats to scoop people from the water and transfer them back to the Aquarius. MSF’s onboard medical team — a doctor, a midwife, and two nurses — immediately triage and treat the rescued people. Then, the Aquarius takes those it has rescued to Europe and immediately returns to international waters to continue working.
At least, that’s how it used to work. Now whenever the Aquarius enters the waters off Libya, it now faces another problem: The radios go silent. Speaking to BuzzFeed News, the crew were unable to explain why since their last mission (more than a month previously) the ship has no longer been receiving the standard radio messages — usually transmitted across a channel available to all vessels in the area — once it enters the seas under the authority of the Libyan coast guard.
An agreement with the Libyan government was negotiated by the Italian politician Marco Minniti in 2017, whereby the Libyans receive 43 million euros of EU funds to tackle Europe’s refugee crisis from their shores. The number of boats towed back to Libya increased by an estimated 194%, or roughly 13,000 people, since the agreement.
Germany, once seen as the continent’s cheerleader for migration, has witnessed the far right marching against and attacking migrants, turbo-charged by rumors online. France tightened its immigration rules in July, including a measure that would allow unauthorized migrants to be detained for up to a year, much to the dismay of human rights groups. Spain has taken only 11% of its EU quota of refugees, and the new leader of the country’s right-wing Popular Front recently promised to “defend the borders” against “millions” of migrants.