An oil tanker holding migrants off the coast of Malta has become “embroiled in a political struggle” that is “totally unacceptable”, an association representing Danish shipowners has said.

Danish Shipping hit out amid a stand-off between Malta and other EU states over the fate of 27 migrants the Maersk Etienne was sent to rescue more than two weeks ago.

Since the 16-year-old oil tanker picked up the group on August 5, the vessel has been anchored at Hurds Bank, waiting for permission to take them to shore.

Maria Schwenn, an executive director for Danish Shipping, which represents shipowners including the maritime giant Maersk, said it was working with the Danish ministry of foreign affairs amid talks with the Maltese government to try to resolve the problem.

Merchant vessels might end up ignoring their duties

“We are reaching out to find an amicable solution. The situation is totally unacceptable as our vessel has become embroiled in a political struggle which is not of its own doing,” she said.

“Our priority is safe disembarkation, as soon as possible. It is not for us to decide where this should happen; our crew was following international and humanitarian obligations to save lives at sea. They should not be punished because of political posturing.”

The organisation also expressed concerns about the crew being out at sea for too long, and that the situation might start to deteriorate if nothing changes.

She said that the vessel is not equipped for the needs of 27 migrants, who include a mother and child.

“The crew is doing their utmost to keep the situation bearable, but time is running out,” she said. 

If the migrants are not disembarked, merchant vessels might end up ignoring their duties to aid vessels in distress to avoid getting caught in the same situation, she added.

Sources close to the government have previously told Times of Malta that it is seeking a “European solution” and also that talks are being held with other European Union states to discuss how to “share the burden”.

Schwenn said Danish-operated vessels have regularly had to come to the aid of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. She said support from agencies, like the EU’s coastguard Frontex were “limited and certainly not enough.”

She said that the safety and wellbeing of the migrants were the major concern of the group, and that the expenses were of no major concern. “It’s not about money, it’s about morality,” she concluded.

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