[WATCH] ‘Please tell my family I am alive’ – Maersk Etienne migrant’s message in a bottle

Desperate migrants want to get off tanker after 30 days at sea: ‘We don’t even need to come to Malta if the Maltese don’t want us. We just want to get off this ship’

Aboard the Maersk Etienne: these 27 migrants are desperate to leave the ship after 30 days at sea. Photos: Karl Azzopardi/Mediatoday
Aboard the Maersk Etienne: these 27 migrants are desperate to leave the ship after 30 days at sea. Photos: Karl Azzopardi/Mediatoday

Call my family, please. Tell them I am still alive.

From aboard the Danish-flagged tanker Etienne, Gasin came near the ship’s bow, scribbled his message and placed it inside a plastic water bottle. The drenched paper read: “I’m Gasim… just to confirm my family and my friend that I’m still a life.”

In it, the Sudanese phone number of his family home – a message of hope for his loved ones back home to tell them the treacherous Mediterranean had not claimed his life.

Message in a bottle: One of the migrants aboard the Etienne passes on a message to MaltaToday. Photo: Karl Azzopardi/Mediatoday
Message in a bottle: One of the migrants aboard the Etienne passes on a message to MaltaToday. Photo: Karl Azzopardi/Mediatoday

Gasim is one of 27 migrants rescued by the Maersk shipping line over 30 days ago. But a hard line from European states is keeping these people out at sea, denied a chance to request asylum inside the EU.

Malta is refusing to allow the disembarkation of the group. Prime Minister Robert Abela’s hard-line refusal is that the Etienne situation “is not Malta’s responsibility” because it ships under a Danish flag and was not in the Maltese SAR area when the rescue happened. “Why should Malta bear the brunt?” he said.

‘Please tell my family I am alive’ – one of the Etienne migrants’ message in a bottle. Photo: Karl Azzopardi/Mediatoday
‘Please tell my family I am alive’ – one of the Etienne migrants’ message in a bottle. Photo: Karl Azzopardi/Mediatoday

The migrants include one child and a pregnant woman, and have now been on board the ship for more than one month.

Embetta, from Cameroon, is three months’ pregnant. She called out for help in desperation.

“Help us, please help us. We can’t stay like this for too long,” she said. “We don’t even need to come to Malta if the Maltese don’t want us. We just want help, we want to get off this ship.”

The group of 27 migrants includes one woman, from Cameroon, who is three months’ pregnant. Photo: Karl Azzopardi/Mediatoday
The group of 27 migrants includes one woman, from Cameroon, who is three months’ pregnant. Photo: Karl Azzopardi/Mediatoday

The migrants said they spend their days looking out at sea. One of them says: “I can’t even go to sleep, because when I go to sleep all I can think about is my family. My family don’t know where I am. To them I might have been killed in Libya, or I might have drowned during the crossing, they know nothing.”

We don’t even need to come to Malta, says one of the migrants. “Just let us off the ship.” Photo: Karl Azzopardi/Mediatoday
We don’t even need to come to Malta, says one of the migrants. “Just let us off the ship.” Photo: Karl Azzopardi/Mediatoday

He says his parents are dead, but his sister is still in Libya. “I’m desperate. I feel like I’m in jail. Where is this European solidarity? We feel like animals.”

The Maersk Etienne tanker picked up the migrants on 5 August after being alerted by the migrant rescue charity Sea-Watch of the people in distress.

But both Malta and Italy have hardened their positions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the increasing number of migrant departures from Libya.

A friendly wave from the crew of the Maersk Etienne tanker. Photo: Karl Azzopardi/Mediatoday
A friendly wave from the crew of the Maersk Etienne tanker. Photo: Karl Azzopardi/Mediatoday

As MaltaToday approached the tanker at Hurd’s Bank, a low-depth area outside Maltese territorial waters, the migrants gathered near the ship’s bow. They are once again the cast in an old play, in which human beings rescued at sea are refused by European states who complain there is no European equity in taking on asylum claims.

Humanitarian organisations have called for the 27 migrants to be immediately disembarked. Ship captain Volodymyr Yeroshkin said the migrants were anxious to disembark and get in touch with their loved ones and family. Last Sunday, three migrants aboard the vessel jumped overboard in despair.

The Chamber of Shipping (ICS), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said Malta’s refusal to allow disembarkation was in contravention of international law. “The ship’s crew have been sharing food, water and blankets with those rescued. They are however not trained or able to provide medical assistance to those who need it. A commercial vessel is not a safe environment for these vulnerable people and they must be immediately brought to a safe port,” they said.

The ICS also called on the International Maritime Organisation 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.”

‘All we do is look at the sea’, say desperate migrants board the Maersk Etienne. Photo: Karl Azzopardi/Mediatoday
‘All we do is look at the sea’, say desperate migrants board the Maersk Etienne. Photo: Karl Azzopardi/Mediatoday

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.

But the absence of a clear, safe, and predictable disembarkation mechanism for people rescued in the Mediterranean, continues to pose an avoidable risk to life, IOM director General António Vitorino.

Amnesty International also accused the Maltese government of taking take unlawful, and sometimes unprecedented, measures to avoid assisting refugees and migrants.

Amnesty said these tactics included arranging unlawful pushbacks to Libya, diverting boats towards Italy rather than rescuing people in distress, illegally detaining hundreds of people on ill-equipped ferries in Malta’s waters, and signing a new agreement with Libya to prevent people from reaching Malta.

“Malta is stooping to ever more despicable and illegal tactics to shirk their responsibilities to people in need. Shamefully, the EU and Italy have normalised cooperation with Libya on border control, but sending people back to danger in Libya is anything but normal,” regional researcher at Amnesty International, Elisa De Pieri said.

“EU member states must stop assisting in the return of people to a country where they face unspeakable horrors,” she said.

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