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Leading migrant rescue alliance falls apart over coronavirus handling disagreement

NGOs ended collaboration in Mediterranean amid lack of support from EU governments during pandemic
Inflatable dinghy belonging to Ocean Viking ship carries migrants rescued from Mediterranean Sea last August (AFP)

Europe's leading migrant rescue alliance has fallen apart because of a lack of assistance from governments in the region amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee, two French charities that have rescued thousands of migrants from the Mediterranean Sea over the past four years, said they could no longer continue their joint sea-based mission, citing a disagreement related to the handling of coronavirus.

In a statement released on Friday, MSF said it had "taken the very difficult decision to end our partnership with SOS Mediterranee" after a disagreeing over how to deal with pressure from European governments.

The two NGOs had worked together since 2016, rescuing more than 30,000 migrants and refugees from the central Mediterranean, most recently with the Ocean Viking ship.

MSF operations manager Annemarie Loof accused European countries of using the pandemic as an excuse to "shirk search and rescue obligations" to those trying to cross the Mediterranean.

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Furthermore, EU states have created "hostility" towards NGO search-and-rescue operations by "shutting their ports, leaving few assurances of a place of safety for disembarking rescued people," Loof said.

"Although both MSF and SOS Mediterranee agree on the vital need for our lifesaving work at sea, SOS Mediterranee felt further assurance from states regarding a place of safety was necessary before sailing," she added.

"For MSF, the humanitarian imperative to act was immediate, with or without such assurances: we could not stand by with a fully equipped search and rescue ship in port as people continue to flee Libya and risk drowning."

SOS Mediterranee's Sophie Beau told AFP she could not guarantee the safety of either the crews or the people being rescued.

"We could not take responsibility for going back to sea when all the indicators are in the red," she said.  

More than 100,000 migrants tried to cross the Mediterranean last year, with at least 1,200 dying in the attempt, according to the UN's International Organisation for Migration (IOM). 

Many disembarked from ports in war-torn Libya and headed for Italy, whose government caused outrage among NGOs last week by closing its ports to restrict the spread of coronavirus.