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Maersk Etienne ordeal will not compromise migrant rescues

Maersk Tankers says its ships will always go to the rescue of those in peril at sea, despite the political impotence that kept Maersk Etienne stranded for 38 days

Chief technical officer Tommy Thomassen says Maersk Tankers will not ignore those in need of help at sea, despite the five-week ordeal that saw 27 rescued migrants unable to disembark from one of its ships. However, he wants politicians to step up and do their duty as well

MAERSK Tankers will not ignore the plight of those in peril at sea despite the five week ordeal of the Maersk Etienne crew who rescued 27 migrants in the past month.

That is the unequivocal message from the Danish company which insists its vessels will continue to go to the aid of anyone in danger, regardless of the commercial consequences

“If people are in need of help, we will step in, and if we are called on to help [by one of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres] we will do that,” said Maersk Tankers’ chief technical officer Tommy Thomassen at the weekend.

Amid unconfirmed reports that some ships are turning off their Automated Identification Systems when close to areas where they may be asked to render assistance to migrants, Mr Thomassen promised that Maersk Tankers would always provide help.

“Those instructions are the ones we have had for 100 years,” he said in an interview. “When people are in need of help, we will step in. We have always done that. It is the duty of every seafarer. It is so deeply ingrained in our DNA and our values. And that is what the captain of Maersk Etienne did.”

Speaking to Lloyd’s List the day after the Maersk Etienne migrants were transferred to another ship, Mr Thomassen said that if a similar situation arose today, “we would do it again, that is just how we are, we will do our duty”.

But he said the shipping industry expects the authorities to do their duty as well.

Political failure

Danish-registered Maersk Etienne was requested by the Maltese authorities to rescue the 27 migrants, but then was not allowed to disembark them in Malta.

The Danish government tried to find a solution and even asked Tunisia to accept them.

But as conditions on board deteriorated, the company approached the non-governmental organisation Mediterranea, which agreed to take the group onto its vessel Mare Junio, which had medical facilities. The migrants were transferred on Friday, but the political fall-out continues,

“This particular case has taken too long and led to high risks and a lot of frustration and tension on board, and that is unreasonable and unfair,” said Mr Thomassen. “We need the political system, wherever that is, to shape up to ensure there is a system in place in order to lift the burden off the shoulders of shipowners, migrants and crew.”

The lack of political will to find a rapid solution has drawn anger from across the maritime industry.

Maersk Tankers is owned by AP Moller Holding, having been sold three years ago by AP Moller-Maersk, which operates Maersk Line. It has withdrawn from energy-related activities in order to become an integrated transport and logistics company.

AP Moller Holding, the investment arm of the AP Moller Foundation which has a controlling interest in AP Moller-Maersk, is run by Robert Maersk Uggla.

But even with the backing of such a powerful owner and one of the most influential families in shipping, the impasse continued for more than a month as politicians struggled to find a way of disembarking the migrants.

“We are a shipping company and one of the big ones, but we are not politicians or diplomats. We will do our duty but we also expect the politicians to do their duty,” said Mr Thomassen. “A situation that takes 38 days to resolve is simply not acceptable, and it sets a very unfortunate precedent for what may happen in future.”

The migrant crisis in the Mediterranean has prompted claims that some ships have gone silent rather than risk being asked to rescue asylum seekers.

Mr Thomassen said that he, too, had heard the rumours about ships suddenly becoming deaf when passing through certain areas, but had no evidence that the reports were correct.

However, he pointed out that the entire Mediterranean area is closely monitored, so if ships were switching off their radios, the authorities would be able to see that and could take action if they wanted to.

No 'turning a blind eye'

Mr Thomassen also stressed that Maersk Tankers would not succumb to pressure from charterers to take a different route or turn a blind eye to distress calls rather than risk being caught up in another similar situation.

Maersk Etienne was not carrying any cargo at the time it rescued the group of migrants on August 4. The company has not disclosed the cost of having a ship out of service for more than a month.

The tanker, which had stayed in one position close to Malta since the start of the emergency, finally set sail on Friday afternoon and is now heading west towards Gibraltar, but will not necessarily berth there.

The company is looking for a port where the ship can stay for some time, while the crew is given medical checks, and to make sure they are either able to continue or wish to be granted leave.

According to the captain, they are all in good spirits

The North African refugees picked up by the 37,300 dwt product carrier slept on spare mattresses and blankets that were available.

“You can do that for a few days, but doing that for 38 days is simply unreasonable, it is not fair,” said Mr Thomassen.

The group were transferred to the Italian-registered Mare Junio on September 11. A pregnant woman who was among those rescued is understood to have been taken on shore.

The need to find a solution gained urgency over the past week following an incident when three of the asylum seekers jumped overboard and had to be rescued by Maersk Etienne crew.

“It was pure luck that none of them was injured or killed,” said Mr Thomassen.

Then the group threatened to go on hunger strike in order to draw attention to their plight. But at no time did the vessel’s crew ever feel threatened or in danger, according to Mr Thomassen.

Nevertheless, “we need to keep pushing through trade associations,and whatever channels we have, into the political system to fast track a solution”, he added. Finding a solution to the migrant crisis “is not our job, it is the politicians who need to find a solution.”

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