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Parliamentarians call for Aquarius to fly the Swiss flag

Das Rettungsschiff Aquarius fährt in den Hafen von Senglea in Malta
Will the rescue ship Aquarius (pictured here in a port on Malta) soon fly the Swiss flag? Domenic Aquila/EPA

A group of Swiss parliamentarians are calling for the Swiss flag to be hoisted on the rescue ship Aquarius. The 58 refugees aboard the ship disembarked on Malta over the weekend. But, without a flag, the ship must cease service in the Mediterranean.

Chartered by Doctors Without BordersExternal link (MSF) and SOS MéditerranéeExternal link, the Aquarius rescues migrants in distress. It is the last remaining NGO rescue ship in the central Mediterranean. Since Italy closed its ports to humanitarian boats, NGOs have withdrawn from the area.

On September 22, Panama announced it was removing its flag from the Aquarius, arguing that the ship disregarded international laws of the sea. In August, Gibraltar deleted the ship from its maritime registry. Without a flag, the Aquarius can no longer conduct rescue missions.

Last week, three Swiss parliamentarians called for a humanitarian gesture by interpellationExternal link to give the Aquarius the Swiss flag. One of those is Kurt Fluri, a member of the House of Representatives for the centre-right Radical-Liberal Party.

Kurt Fluri im Parlament
Kurt Fluri, a parliamentarian for the centrist Radical Party Alessandro della Valle/Keystone You have the reputation for being a realist. Does this humanitarian idea have a chance of passing?

Kurt Fluri: What moves us are the tragedies that take place in the Mediterranean. It is potentially a solution to alleviate the problem. I don’t know if it is an illusion. That is why we posed the question to the government. Switzerland has a small merchant fleet of 30 vessels. Why should Switzerland, of all countries, give the flag to the Aquarius?

K.F.: We’re in total agreement that this is an exceptional situation. For me, this doesn’t change the fact that we should first and foremost try to ensure that people don’t try to cross the Mediterranean in the first place. But if they do, we must make sure that they don’t drown and are admitted to Europe. According to the law, the Swiss flag is reserved for trade vessels. If the law is changed to respond to your request, it will take a lot of time for the flag to be hoisted on the Aquarius. Yet a quick solution is required…

K.F.: The meaning of our interpellation is to clarify the conditions under which it would be possible to achieve something. What we do in concrete terms will depend on the government’s response.

Migranten auf einem Kahn im offenen Meer
Migrants continue to try to cross the Mediterranean despite the threat of drowning. This group of refugees was rescued by the Aquarius. Guglielmo Mangiapane/SOS Mediterranee/EPA If the Aquarius were to fly the Swiss flag, would this automatically result in a demand for the rescued refugees to be taken to Switzerland?

K.F.: Here as anywhere, the Dublin process applies. It defines which country is in charge of evaluating requests for asylum. The applicants must request asylum in the first country in the European Union or accord signatory countries, like Switzerland, where they arrive. The decision about distribution is made after this.

However, the European Union is called upon to conduct a fairer distribution in order to relieve the Mediterranean countries – Italy, Greece and Spain – of refugees arriving at their borders as quickly as possible. Panama withdrew its flag from the ship on the grounds that it violated international maritime law.

K.F.: In my opinion, it was to protect themselves. Panama wants to offload its duty which apparently became a burden for the country. MSF and SOS Méditerranée say Panama removed its flag under pressure from Italy. Does that seem possible to you?

K.F.: There have certainly been some pressure attempts. Could pressure also be exerted on Switzerland if it intervenes?

K.F.: It is possible. We support the call for the EU to decide on the more equal distribution of refugees. Then, Italy would also be satisfied. Unfortunately, the EU is failing in this regard.

Parliamentarians for Aquarius

Switzerland should grant permission for the Aquarius to fly the Swiss flag. This is the demand of three members of the House of Representatives: Ada Marra of the Social Democratic Party, Guillaume Barazzone of the Christian Democratic Party and Kurt Fluri of the Radical Party. Aline Trede of the Green Party has also submitted a political proposal on the same subject.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR