Migrant aid group deploys Mediterranean rescue ship to Asia as Rohingya crisis worsens
MOAS launched its lifeline for those attempting the perilous sea crossing from North Africa to Europe in 2014
A rescue ship that has plucked tens of thousands of migrants from the Mediterranean is shifting operations to Southeast Asia to help Rohingya refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar.
The Malta-based MOAS, or Migrant Offshore Aid Station, announced the decision after Pope Francis had called for an international response to help the Rohingya Muslims.
It said in a statement Monday it would provide aid on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border “where a deadly exodus is unfolding.”
The ship – named Phoenix – has rescued tens of thousands of migrants from smugglers boats that were distressed, sinking or capsized in the Mediterranean since it began operating in 2014.
However, the number of migrants leaving Libya’s lawless coast has plummeted since July. The decrease has been attributed to increased Libyan coastguard patrols and an Italy-backed deal cut with the Libyan militias that long facilitated trafficking to crack down on smuggling instead.
Watch: Malta-based MOAS on a Mediterranean rescue mission
“At the moment it is unclear what is going on in Libya to the detriment of the most vulnerable people there. Their rights should be safeguarded both in line with international law and to defend the principle of humanity,” the aid group said.
“MOAS does not want to become part of a mechanism where there is no guarantee of safe harbour or welcome for those being assisted and rescued at sea.”
Nearly 90,000 Rohingya have flooded into Bangladesh in the past 10 days following an uptick in fighting between militants and Myanmar’s military in strife-torn western Rakhine state.
The impoverished region bordering Bangladesh has been a crucible of communal tensions between Muslims and Buddhists for years, with the Rohingya forced to live under apartheid-like restrictions on movement and citizenship.
The recent violence, which began last October when a small Rohingya militant group ambushed border posts, is the worst Rakhine has witnessed in years, with the UN saying Myanmar’s army may have committed ethnic cleansing in its response.
MOAS said it would deliver “much-needed humanitarian help and aid to the Rohingya people” on the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
MOAS is the fourth group to stop patrols for migrants trying the deadly Mediterranean crossing in the past month.
Last month, Doctors Without Borders – or Medecins Sans Frontieres – followed by Save the Children and Germany’s Sea Eye all suspended operations. They said their crews could no longer work safely because of the hostile stance of the Libyan authorities.
That leaves Proactiva Open Arms, Sea Watch and SOS Mediterranee still running rescue operations. On Monday, the Aquarius, operated by SOS Mediterranee with Medecins Sans Frontieres medical staff, was the only rescue ship in the Mediterranean.
Catrambone said MOAS does not want to risk having to take migrants back to Libya, where they are locked up for months or even years in overcrowded warehouses with little food, no healthcare and no idea of when they will be freed.
Since 2014, MOAS has rescued or assisted 40,000 migrants in the Mediterranean. In August, MOAS for the first time conducted a rescue at the orders of the Libyan Coast Guard, but in that case the migrants were brought to Italy.
Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Reuters