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Europe’s Moral Compass Lost

Migrants are rescued by staff members of the MV Aquarius in the central Mediterranean Sea on June 10.Migrants are rescued by staff members of the MV Aquarius in the central Mediterranean Sea on June 10.

Human rights groups have denounced Italy and Malta’s refusal to allow a refugee rescue ship to dock at their ports, amid growing uncertainty for the hundreds of people on board, including 123 unaccompanied minors.

In a statement on Tuesday, Amnesty International accused the Italian and Maltese governments of “trampling the principle of rescue at sea and undermining the entire search and rescue system.”

“If allowed to go unchallenged, [this] will discourage and compromise the lifesaving work of NGOs leaving thousands of migrants and refugees adrift in the Mediterranean,” said Elisa De Pieri, Amnesty’s Italy researcher, Al Jazeera reported.

The Aquarius, which is jointly operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (known by its French acronym MSF), had rescued 629 people from the Mediterranean Sea and remained unable to dock since Saturday.

 Political Game

Karline Kleijer, an emergency coordinator for the MSF, said a political game is being played over the heads of 629 people.

“This standoff shows how Europe has lost its moral compass in the Mediterranean,” MSF quoted her as saying.

The people on board, including seven pregnant women, are from several African countries and had set off from the coast of Libya to reach Europe.

Aloys Vimard, a project coordinator for MSF who is on board the Aquarius, said on Monday that “although people are calm, we can see that they are getting anxious.”

“The boat is overcrowded and we are above capacity. We have very vulnerable people on board and most of them are exhausted.”

 Flicker of Hope

The Aquarius was denied the right to dock in Italy and Malta, the closest countries, before Spain’s new Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said he would give the ship “safe harbor” at the eastern port of Valencia.

But MSF officials said disembarking at the closest port was preferable to a journey of an extra four days, taking into account deteriorating weather conditions coupled with tensions and maximum capacity on board the Aquarius.

“The better option would be to disembark the rescued people in the nearest port after which they can be transferred to Spain or other safe countries for further care and legal processing,” the organization said.

The statement came as Italy’s coastguard announced it would send two ships to take on some of the refugees to relieve overcrowding and transport them to Valencia.

MSF also expressed concern over the condition of patients who had to be resuscitated after rescue, saying they could develop “significant pulmonary issues after swallowing sea water.”

“People rescued at sea must be disembarked in the nearest safe port.”

While De Pieri welcomed the Spanish government’s offer as a show of solidarity, she also said the move “highlights the calculated callousness of the Italian and Maltese authorities.”

“This sets a precedent that will inevitably cost lives,” she said.

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