Maersk has said a group of 27 migrants, including a pregnant woman, it rescued and housed aboard its Maersk Etienne tanker for more than five weeks have been disembarked following a medical assessment aboard an NGO vessel
The group of 27 migrants were on board 2004-built, 36,900-dwt product tanker Maersk Etienne from 4 August 2020 when they were rescued from the Mediterranean Sea.
A statement from Maersk said the physical and mental health of the migrants had deteriorated during their prolonged stay on the vessel.
"We have been increasingly concerned for the rescued persons’ physical and mental health," Maersk’s statement said. "The situation has worsened following the recent incident where three people jumped overboard, and we have seen continuous issues with minor medical aliments and a recent threat to go on hunger strike."
After requests for assistance, non-governmental organisation Mediterranea Saving Humans agreed to provide a medical assessment for the refugees on board their vessel, Mare Jonio.
"The transfer to the ship occurred following their assessment that the rescued persons’ condition called for immediate care in suitable medical facilities," Maersk’s statement said.
According to Mediterranea Saving Humans, "The Mediterranea volunteers simply did what the Maltese and European authorities should have done: they got on board, provided initial medical assistance to the 27 refugees and migrants rescued by the Danish ship and immediately noticed an unsustainable situation. Hence the decision to transfer the 27 to Mare Jonio".
Multiple reports say the migrants have now been allowed ashore in Sicily, and Mare Jonio’s AIS tracker showed the tug in port in Zona Portuale on the Italian island.
International law and maritime conventions require ships and coastal states to respond to people in distress and ensure those who are rescued are promptly disembarked in a place of safety.
Once Maersk Etienne fulfilled its responsibilities to rescue the migrants, it found itself in a diplomatic game of passing responsibility, according to a joint statement from the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organisation for Migration.
The statement noted that governments had refused permission for the ship’s master to disembark the migrants and refugees, which is in contravention of international law. The ship’s crew were sharing food, water and bedding with those rescued, the statement said.
"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,” ICS secretary general Guy Platten said.
“Rescue at sea is a basic humanitarian imperative”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said. “Maersk Etienne 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 among states, particularly through an effective and predictable relocation mechanism.”
Maersk’s vessel came the rescue of the 27 migrants in response to a request from Maltese officials on 4 August to attend a vessel stranded in Tunisian waters. According to a statement from Maersk some four weeks into the ordeal, the rescued had set "a new and unfortunate record for migrants held aboard a commercial ship".
Following the transfer of refugees, Maersk Tankers chief technical officer Tommy Thomassen thanked the NGOs involved and expressed "concern" over the incident.
“We are relieved and grateful. The rescued people can now finally get the medical care they need and our crew can continue their voyage safely. While we are appreciative of the support from Mediterranea in helping us to bring a closure to this unprecedented situation, we are at the same time deeply concerned that it has not been possible to find a solution before now. It has been very difficult for the rescued people and our crew,” Mr Thomassen said.
"The captain and the crew of Maersk Etienne have honorably fulfilled their duty at sea, and we are proud and greatly appreciative of their efforts," Maersk’s statement said. "Maersk Etienne will proceed to a suitable port where we will follow up with a debriefing of the crew and ensure they too get the care they need.