The International Chamber of Shipping has called on the International Maritime Organisation to "urgently intervene" in the Maersk Etienne standoff, which has seen 27 migrants stranded on the oil tanker that rescued them.

The tanker has been anchored on Hurd’s Bank, just outside Maltese territorial waters, for more than a month.

“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," the chamber (ICS) said in a letter to the IMO.

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 Etienne fulfilled its responsibilities, but now finds itself in a diplomatic game of pass the parcel, the chamber said in a statement issued in collaboration with the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Although the narrative has been challenged by Maersk, rescue organisations and international migration organisations, the Maltese government has insisted that the rescue by the Etienne on August 4 was never in Malta’s search-and-rescue zone.

On Sunday Prime Minister Robert Abela insisted that Malta bore no responsibility for the fate of the people on board. He placed responsibility for the migrants on the Danish government as the tanker flies the Danish flag.

His comments came moments after three migrants aboard the oil tanker jumped overboard. Crew members acted quickly to bring them back on board. 

On Monday, ICS’ Secretary General, Guy Platten, insisted that the responsibility for these people’s safety and security “rests squarely with government ministers”. 

This was not a COVID-related issue, but a humanitarian one, he 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,” Platten said.

'Coastal states should take equal responsibility in providing safety'

ICS, UNHCR and IOM reiterated their call for the immediate disembarkation of the 27 people, including a child and a pregnant woman. 

“Governments have been refusing permission for the ship’s master to disembark the migrants and refugees who fled Libya, 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.”

IOM Director General António Vitorino believes that 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 and UNHCR have long called on states to move away from the current ad hoc approach and establish a scheme through which coastal states take equal responsibility in providing a port of safety, followed by a show of solidarity from other EU member states,” he added.

The 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.

Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth has also taken to Twitter to express concern: "they are rescued, but this potentially suicidal step reflects their desperation. Will no EU government let them in," he asked.

 

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