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Malta must take the Maersk Etienne asylum seekers

The Mediterranean country needs to live up to its humanitarian obligations

Maersk Etienne and its crew upheld the law of the sea, at Malta’s behest, when it came to the aid of 27 migrants in a small boat in the Mediterranean a month ago, and has been proving that no good deed goes unpunished ever since

MALTA operates the European Union’s biggest ship register and is home to a major transhipment port, together with a sizeable cluster of maritime lawyers and other professional services.

Precisely because it is a maritime nation, it should willingly accept the responsibilities that go with that status.

In its refusal to take asylum seekers that were picked up by a product tanker last month after Malta’s express request to render assistance, it is failing to do so.

In his actions, the master of Maersk Etienne was mindful of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (known as Solas) and the simple duty to save lives.

But four weeks later, the vessel sits anchored southeast of Marsaxlokk, with food and water for crew and asylum seekers alike running low. As the old adage has it, no deed goes unpunished.

Although Maersk Tankers will not say how deeply all this has left it out of pocket, having a product tanker off hire for a month will not come cheap.

Meanwhile, several senior figures — including AP Moller Holding chief executive Robert Uggla — have expressed frustration at the deadlock.

The Maltese government has yet to respond to requests for comment.

The answer is simple; Malta needs to live up to its humanitarian obligations and let the asylum seekers in.

These people have committed no crime. Indeed — unpopular though it is with increasingly xenophobic electorates across Europe to point this out — the right to seek asylum is enshrined in international law.

But unless they have all relevant documentation, chances are they will be locked up indefinitely in an immigration detention facility, as is the grim fate of so many who flee war and persecution.

However, the bigger picture is a question for the conscience of politicians, not Maersk. We echo its call that Maersk Etienne be allowed literally to deliver the goods.

It is moreover crucial that this case does set a precedent. The all-too-foreseeable outcome of providing major disincentives to observe Unclos and Solas is that Unclos and Solas will not be observed, to the detriment of all.

If Malta would rather eschew the morality, it should at least ponder the reputational risk. As the world’s sixth-largest flag state, Valetta is ostensible home port to more than 5% of the world fleet.

Unions have branded it a flag of convenience; Malta rejects the designation as calumnious.

To our mind, an irreducible element of being a genuine high-quality register is the unflinching willingness to do the right thing. Time for Malta to step up to the plate.

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