Maersk Etienne migrants to be disembarked in Sicily after NGO rescue

Maersk Etienne migrants who endured 38 days in stand-off at Hurd’s Bank to be taken by Italy after rescue by Mare Jonio vessel

Aboard the Maersk Etienne: the 27 migrants  desperate to leave the ship. Photo: Karl Azzopardi/Mediatoday
Aboard the Maersk Etienne: the 27 migrants desperate to leave the ship. Photo: Karl Azzopardi/Mediatoday

Twenty-seven migrants who were stranded on board an oil tanker on Hurd’s Bank for 38 days are finally set to disembark in Sicily. 

Rescue NGOs announced on Saturday evening that the migrants stranded on board the Danish-flagged tanker Maersk Etienne since their rescue on August 4, will be taken to Sicily after Malta refused responsibility for their disembarkation, insisting the rescue had taken place outside the country’s search-and-rescue zone.  

On Friday, they were transferred to the rescue vessel Mare Jonio, operated by the NGO Mediterranea, for medical treatment. 

They were found in “serious psycho-physical conditions that make it impossible for them to stay on the petrol tanker”, according to the NGO.  

Mediterranea said that permission had been granted by the Italian coastguard and Interior Ministry for the migrants to disembark in Pozzallo for health-related reasons. “After 40 days, the nightmare is finally over for the castaways of the Maersk Etienne.” 

The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) had said that the Maltese government’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 has 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.” 

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 group stated that in this regard the Maersk Etienne fulfilled its responsibilities but now finds itself in a diplomatic game of pass the parcel. 

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