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How anti-immigrant politics forced rescue ship Aquarius off the Mediterranean

Due to political pressure and harassment from European governments, Doctors Without Borders is ending operations of its last rescue ship, Aquarius, which has saved an estimated 30,000 lives in the Mediterranean. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant, who spent three weeks aboard in 2016, explains what the ship’s decommissioning means for fleeing refugees who already face a hazardous voyage.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Doctors Without Borders is calling for the urgent establishment of what it calls safe pathways to enable refugees and economic migrants to reach the European Union.

    The humanitarian organization fears that thousands will continue to drown in the Mediterranean now that Doctors Without Borders is decommissioning the last rescue ship, the Aquarius, because of what the groups says is untenable political pressure.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant spent time on board in 2016. Now he looks at the legacy of a ship with a unique spirit.

  • Vickie Hawkins:

    The Aquarius has saved about 30,000 lives over the last three years, people that without that dedicated search-and-rescue capability on the Mediterranean Sea would otherwise have died as they undertook that perilous journey.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The head of Doctors Without Borders in the U.K., Vickie Hawkins, is angry at those who've engineered the end of the ship's humanitarian mission.

  • Vickie Hawkins:

    Our decision comes on the back of a year-and-a-half of an essentially concerted campaign to force us to stop. We have been obstructed, we have been criminalized. The vessel has been stripped of its flag twice. And we have been shot at and harassed by the Libyan Coast Guard.

    So, today, there is no dedicated search-and-rescue capability left in the Mediterranean.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Which will delight the ultra-right-wing Generation Identity movement.

  • Man:

    Every week, every day, every hour, ships packed full of illegal immigrants are flooding the European border. An invasion is taking place.

  • Man:

    This mass immigration is changing the face of our continent. We are losing our safety, our way of life, and we will become a minority in our own country. Our future is under attack.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    And this is perhaps the greatest architect of the Aquarius' demise, Italy's right-wing Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.

  • Matteo Salvini:

    Italy has welcomed over 700,000 immigrants who have disembarked in the last few years, but that's enough now. Our ports are closed. Italy cannot continue to be the refugee camp of Europe.

    There's a reason why, all throughout Sicily, there are cities that have Greek names. People have been making this passage for thousands of years.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    New York doctor Craig Spencer spent several months on board the Aquarius in 2017.

  • Craig Spencer:

    The idea that migrant hordes or waves of refugees are coming to destroy Europe or destroy our countries is, I think, really just a diversion from concentrating on what's really needed, and that is durable, sustainable, long-term solutions.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The polar opposite to what you're saying is that you and your colleagues are contributing to the ultimate demise of Europe because the demographics are such that, within decades, Europe is going to be overtaken by people coming from North Africa and elsewhere.

  • Craig Spencer:

    Yes, that's interesting because that's a complaint we often hear. We want unfettered migration, we want to let all of Africa into Europe.

    And that's not the case. And we came together as a global community and said, these are things that we think are important as human rights and human values. And just because these people are coming from a different place and may speak a different language or have a different skin color doesn't mean that their situation can be any different.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    In the summer of 2016, I spent three weeks aboard the Aquarius for the "NewsHour" as it patrolled off the Libyan coast

    It was the height of the migrant and refugee crisis in the Middle East and North Africa, and the numbers of people desperately trying to reach Europe was skyrocketing.

    International relief agencies say they're extremely concerned about the major upswing in the number of children who are making this most perilous of journeys. The voyage between Turkey and Greece is bad enough, but this one is many, many, many times worse.

  • Man:

    Fifteen dead bodies.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    They may have frequently encountered death, but they also welcomed new life as well.

  • Question:

    Who is this?

  • Woman:

    It's Newman, my new baby.

  • Question:

    And why did you call him Newman?

  • Woman:

    I call him Newman because he's a new man to me, and a new man to God, and he's a very lucky boy.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The baby was delivered by midwife Jonquil Nicholl.

  • Jonquil Nicholl:

    Many, many women who are traveling are pregnant. And it's very — it's inconceivable to think about what that journey was like for these women.

    But they have no option. Once they're on this journey from their homes, wherever they are, whether it's sub-Saharan Africa or West Africa or East Africa, they are — they have to go. They can't — don't have the choice.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Newman is now with his parents in Southern Italy, but, to their distress, he doesn't yet have a national identity.

    Without exception, Aquarius crew members like Nicholl reject suggestions that the ship provided a taxi service for migrants between Africa and Italy.

  • Jonquil Nicholl:

    There's a reason that they left. And I think we can't belittle that reason. That reason is often really fundamental. It's either because they're in danger of their lives, or they have no prospects, or they have no prospects for their children.

    We had many women who were leaving because they knew, if they stayed, they would undergo female genital mutilation or their daughters would. And so they were traveling. They needed to leave their countries.

    And to put up walls and to force them back to the countries they came from is outrageous, and it's not humanitarian at all. We're all humans. We should be treating other people as humans.

  • Vickie Hawkins:

    What we need are safe and legal pathways that enable people to move, whether they are fleeing violence and conflict or whether they are looking to legally migrate.

    This is a global phenomenon that is going to be with us for decades to come. And the only way through is to look how we can have humane global migration policies that allow people to move in a managed and safe fashion.

  • Ferry Schippers:

    We're going to throw this flower in the water out of respect for the people who died in the boat.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Dutchman Ferry Schippers ran the humanitarian operation on board.

  • Ferry Schippers:

    Aquarius has become a symbol of humanitarian aid. The Aquarius gave back those people the dignity they deserve.

  • African Refugee:

    The journey was very hard to us, all of us. The journey was very hard to us. But thank God we have reached Italy. Thank all of you people, because you are the people who saved our lives.

  • Ferry Schippers:

    The Aquarius is special. And I sincerely hope that other ships will start, go there, and just be there for these people.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Doctors Without Borders says it may charter other rescue ships in the future, but not this one. The age of Aquarius is over.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant.

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