Maersk Etienne

Three migrants jump overboard Maersk’s tanker after being stranded on board for over a month

The situation onboard Maersk Etienne, a tanker owned by Maersk Tankers that rescued 27 migrants from Tunisian waters on August 4, escalated over the weekend with three migrants jumping overboard.

Image courtesy: Maersk Tankers

The tanker shipping company said on September 6 that the three persons were recovered quickly from the water by the captain and the crew, adding that they were being provided with the necessary care on board the vessel.

“The incident comes after the migrants have been left stranded on the ship for over a month, following the responsible authorities’ failed attempt to find a solution to safely disembark them.

“We continue to plead for urgent humanitarian assistance for the 27 people onboard the Maersk Etienne and ask that they are immediately given the attention and care they need,” the company pointed out. 

The 27 people rescued on August 4 include a pregnant woman and at least one minor.

Image courtesy: Maersk Tankers

The company has been calling for weeks for the migrants to be disembarked as their supplies are depleting and the vessel is not equipped with the necessary amenities to provide accommodation and care for so many people.

Reports indicate that the rescued migrants are seen sleeping on the ship’s deck.

The company’s calls for quick resolution of the situation have not been met with understanding as Maltese authorities refuse to allow the ship to disembark migrants at its ports.

Over a month stuck on board a tanker vessel, the migrants are in a desperate situation and are even considering going back to sea, as disclosed in a letter to the ship’s captain.

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Maltese authorities have been reluctant to allow the ship to dock and disembark the migrants amid heightened measures introduced by the country due to coronavirus as well as its position that it was being disproportionately affected by the migrant crisis.

Mediterranean states like Italy, Spain, and Malta have been under huge pressure in the past years due to a great inflow of migrants to their shores.

Italy has also employed a stricter policy on allowing migrants to enter its ports insisting the EU needs to own up to its responsibility in the matter and share the burden of caring for migrants.

This has often meant that migrants who were picked up from the sea were turned away from Italian ports and sometimes even taken back to Libya.

The shipping industry has been aware of these developments, especially in the wake of an ever lower number of NGOs sending rescue ships out to the Mediterranean to save lives.

As a result, industry bodies have been warning that commercial shipping might be required to pick up more migrants stranded at sea amid dangerous crossings in overcrowded inflatable boats.

This wouldn’t have been such a major issue if ships didn’t end up entangled in the migrant crisis and political skirmishing over responsibility leaving ships in limbo at sea unable to return to trade.

Commercial shipping has been picking up the slack for the lack of inadequate response from the European Union to the migrant crisis for years now.

In 2014 alone, commercial ships rescued over 42,000 migrants in the Mediterranean upholding the duty to render assistance to vessels in distress at sea.

Ever since the industry has been calling for a large-scale response to the crisis and transparency in European policies and shared responsibilities.

Nevertheless, the moral duty to render assistance and provide aid seems to have been rewarded by inaction, further disincentivizing such efforts.

Seafarers have unfortunately been at the forefront of governmental inaction when it comes to their fates as well, battling to overcome a humanitarian crisis of their own for months now amid the inability to carry out crew changes.

Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there is a lack of a systematic and comprehensive solution for migrants.

The question boils down to how much more will commercial shipping be willing to accept.

In a letter to the organization’s Secretary General, the International Chamber of Shipping has called on the International Maritime Organization to urgently intervene and “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.” 

ICS said that international law and maritime conventions place clear obligations on 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,” a joint release from the ICS, UNHCR and IOM reads. 

“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 Maersk Etienne is the third incident this year in which a merchant vessel has been stranded caring for people rescued 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.

Maersk Tankers said that this was a new and unfortunate record for migrants held abroad a commercial ship.