Shipping Interests Call for Immediate Disembarkation of Migrants from Stranded Maersk Tanker

Mike Schuler
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September 7, 2020

FILE PHOTO: Migrants sit in a boat alongside the Maersk Etienne tanker off the coast of Malta, in this handout image provided August 19, 2020. Maersk Tankers/Handout via REUTERS

The International Chamber of Shipping is calling on the International Maritime Organization to urgently intervene in the case of Maersk Etienne, which is currently stranded at sea after coming to aid of migrants in distress off Malta last month.

In a letter to the IMO Secretary-General, the ICS urges the agency to “send a clear message that States must ensure that Maritime Search and Rescue incidents are resolved in accordance with the letter and spirit of international law.”

The crew of the Maersk Etienne rescued the 27 migrants, including one pregnant woman, from their sinking wooden dinghy in early August off the coast of Malta.

Since then, the Maersk Etienne has been denied entry by several countries, leaving the ship and its crew stranded with the migrants on board with limited food stores, water and blankets. Over the weekend, the Captain of the Maersk Etienne reported that three of the migrants had to be rescued after jumping overboard from the ship.

The ICS, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are now calling for the immediate disembarkation of the migrants.

International law and maritime conventions make clear the obligations for ships and coastal States to ensure people in distress are rescued and promptly disembarked in a place of safety. The Maersk Etienne fulfilled its responsibilities, but now finds itself in a diplomatic game of pass the parcel, according to the ICS.

“The absence of a clear, safe, and predictable disembarkation mechanism for people rescued in the Mediterranean, continues to pose avoidable risk to life,” said IOM Director General Antonio Vitorino.

“IOM and UNHCR have long called on states to move away from the current ad hoc approach and establish a scheme whereby coastal states take equal responsibility in providing a port of safety, followed by a show of solidarity from other EU member states,” Vitorino added.

According to the ICS, the incident involving the Maersk Etienne is now the third incident this year in which a merchant vessel has been stranded after coming to the aid of migrants in distress at sea.

In May, the Marina was delayed for six days with some 80 rescued people on board before being able to disembark, while in July, the Talia took four days out of its scheduled journey to care for 50 people who were finally allowed to disembark in a place of safety after 4 days. This latest incident represents a significant escalation of the situation, the ICS says.

“The conditions are rapidly deteriorating onboard, and we can no longer sit by while governments ignore the plight of these people,” said Guy Platten, Secretary General of the International Chamber of Shipping. “This is not the first time that this has happened, and we need governments to live up to their obligations. Time is running out and the responsibility for these people’s safety and security rests squarely with government ministers. This is not COVID related; this is a humanitarian issue pure and simple.”

“The shipping industry takes its legal and humanitarian obligations to assist people in distress at sea extremely seriously, and has worked hard to ensure that ships are as prepared as they can be when presented with the prospect of large-scale rescues at sea. However, merchant vessels are not designed or equipped for this purpose, and States need to play their part,”added Platten.

“Rescue at sea is a basic humanitarian imperative”, said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “The Maersk Étienne has fulfilled its maritime obligations and prevented further death in the Mediterranean. The EU and its Member States must now do their part to complete this life saving rescue by allowing those rescued to be disembarked, and should also show some solidarity amongst states, particularly through an effective and predictable relocation mechanism.”


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