A ship used by Doctors without Borders could be seized by the Italian government on charges that it illegally dumped medical waste and other trash at different Italian ports.
Police say 24 tons of waste was dumped at 11 ports from January 2017 to May 2018 by the Aquarius and the Vos Prudence, another ship chartered by Doctors Without Borders. They are also accused of dumping food waste and “contaminated clothing worn by non-EU citizens.”
The Aquarius has been used to ferry migrants to Europe this year and has been the focus of some controversy.
Rome prosecutors also ordered the charity’s bank accounts in Italy frozen.
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The non-governmental medical group condemned the seizure, calling it the “umpteenth trumped-up attack to block” Doctors Without Borders from performing “life-saving activities at sea.”
“All our port operations, including waste management, have always followed standard procedures,” the group said in a statement. “The relevant authorities have not contested these procedures or identified a public health risk since we started our activities at sea.”
Gabriele Eminente, general director of Doctors Without Borders in Italy, called the accusations baseless and plans to work with Rome to prove it.
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“This year alone, more than 2,000 people have perished in the Mediterranean, while still others continue to take the dangerous sea journey with no dedicated search and rescue vessels left to save their lives,” Eminente said in a statement. “Those who do survive are returned to inhumane and arbitrary detention in Libya, in complete disregard for international maritime and refugee law.”
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has accused charitable groups of human trafficking and declared Italy’s ports closed to all NGO vessels.
“I was right to block NGO boats,” he tweeted. “I stopped not just the smuggling of immigrants but also, so it seems, the smuggling of waste.”
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DWB coordinator Karline Kleijer called Italy’ claims “sinister.”
“After two years of defamatory and unfounded allegations of collusion with human traffickers, judicial investigations, and bureaucratic obstacles against our humanitarian work, we are now accused of organized crime aimed at illicit waste trafficking,” Kleijer said in a statement.
The Aquarius is docked at Marseille, France, and has been stripped of its flag by Gibralter and Panama. The Vos Prudence is no longer operated by Doctors Without Borders.