LONDON — The Aquarius was the last search-and-rescue ship operating in the world's most deadly migration route, saving almost 30,000 people from the Mediterranean Sea since 2016.
On Friday, the charity that runs the vessel said it was being forced to end its work, blaming "smear campaigns and maneuvers to undermine international law" by governments in Europe.
"This is a dark day," Nelke Manders, said general director of Médecins Sans Frontiers, which is also known as Doctors Without Borders. "The end of Aquarius means more deaths at sea, and more needless deaths that will go unwitnessed."
The group said several governments were to blame, but singled out Italy, whose hard-line nationalist interior minister, Matteo Salvini, says other countries should accept a greater share of migrants.
Salvini alleges rescue ships like the Aquarius encourage more migrants to take to the sea. He has repeatedly closed Italian ports to the Aquarius, forcing it to sail for days while carrying migrants to find ports in other countries.
In addition, the European Union has increased cooperation with the Libyan coast guard to intercept people attempting to leave, a policy criticized by the United Nations as "inhuman." Returning them to Libya, MSF said, exposes people to "arbitrary detention, violence, and unsafe conditions."
Italy's ISPI think tank warned in October that closing ports had actually increased the number of deaths at sea. For the past two months, the Aquarius has remained at port in Marseille.
"This is the result of a sustained campaign, spearheaded by the Italian government and backed by other European states, to delegitimize, slander, and obstruct aid organizations providing assistance to vulnerable people," MSF said.
Maders added: "Not only has Europe failed to provide search and rescue capacity, it has also actively sabotaged others' attempts to save lives."
Alexander Smith is a senior reporter for NBC News Digital based in London.