They gathered in their thousands, throughout France. Many wore orange, the colour of life-vests. Some carried placards saying: “We’re not the pirates,” “Saving lives: A duty not a crime,” and – more explicitly – ”Save the Aquarius.”
Their ultimate aim was to persuade European governments to provide a new flag for the Aquarius, which is operated by French NGOs, and which had been stripped of its latest flag by Panama. This effectively left the vessel stateless and therefore unable to operate.
An earlier Captain’s Blog discussed the predicament of the Aquarius, up to and including the point where it was refused entry to Italy, laden with African migrants. The Aquarius was eventually allowed to dock in Spain. But Italy – the bit of mainland Europe that lies closest to Libya, and has therefore received the lion’s share of migrants from North Africa (more than 100 Port Calls since February 2016) – didn’t want a repeat. So it began to put pressure on the ship’s operators the only way it could: by reportedly trying to persuade the countries that flagged the Aquarius to revoke their flags.
Every vessel has a flag. Seeking to enforce safety regulations and labour laws, Article 6 of the 1958 Geneva Conventions on the Law of the Sea stipulates that vessels must sail under one flag, and that the country that provides it has exclusive jurisdiction over the vessel on the high seas. Moreover, vessels that sail without flying a flag fall under universal jurisdiction i.e. any authority has the right to stop the vessel and board it, even when it’s in international waters. With a flag, the flag state country has to authorise such actions first. To put it another way, without a flag, a country that doesn’t want the Aquarius docking at its ports could board the ship and prevent it from doing so. So what’s traditionally been a very simple, dare I say, dull, part of the shipping business, now finds itself at the center of one of Europe’s most intractable problems: dealing with migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean for a better life in the EU.
This isn’t the first time the Aquarius has lost its flag. Up until August 2018, it was registered with Gibraltar. But then the Italians asked Britain – which controls Gibraltar – to take responsibility for the migrants on board. The UK disagreed. Gibraltar eventually went ahead and revoked the Aquarius’s flag. It seems a similar pattern played out this time around, with Italy complaining to Panama – one of the world’s most important flag registries, with more than 5,000 vessels on its books – that the ship’s captain had “refused to return migrants and refugees back to their point of origin“.
Panama and Gibraltar aren’t alone. The U.S. has – in the past – pressured Malta, Cyprus and Tuvalu to revoke flags for sanctioned Iranian tankers (and will likely do so again now it’s reimposing these sanctions). And Nigeria stripped its flag from Thunder, a notorious illegal fishing vessel, due to pressure from Interpol and environmental NGOs.
What happens next? It’s safe to assume that, unwelcome as the Panama registry decision was for the Aquarius and its supporters, its grounding probably represents a pause in its operations rather than the end (last time it happened, the Aquarius was out of action for a month). If protesters have their way, it’ll obtain an EU flag. Failing that, it could get back on the water by turning to one of over 30 so-called Flags of Convenience (FOCs). But all flags are not created equal. Earlier this year, the Paris MoU, an industry watchdog, published its white-grey-black list of flags. It designated 13 flags as having substandard vessels sailing under them. Interesting fact: although the Paris MoU rating is based on safety, security and labor standards, Windward research found that these same vessels were 10 times more likely to be involved in criminal activities than the rest of the world fleet.
In other words, flying certain FOCs wouldn’t look good when set against the Aquarius’s humanitarian mission. Better to have a respectable flag – hence the protests in Paris and across France. But it may decide that a substandard flag is better than having no flag at all. Either way, it could be back on the seas, rescuing migrants off the coast of Libya, within weeks.
Adina Fenton is a Pre-Sales Manager at Windward