The 27 hostages in the Maersk Etienne case are finally released in Europe. Mediterranea’s mission continues.


The image of the bus departing from Pozzallo pier towards the Syracuse reception centre marks the end of the ordeal inflicted by the Maltese authorities and European governments on 27 shipwrecked people saved on 5 August by the merchant ship Maersk Etienne and abandoned in the middle of the sea for 40 days.  

People, human beings, already victims of torture in the Libyan detention camps, fleeing from that hell where a civil war is also raging, a war by proxy where the great powers fight over the division of oil wells as if the country was a Risk! board, but where the corpses are real. 

The Mare Jonio is moored at the quayside. The crew greets the new brothers and sisters they met in the middle of the sea, where everything is shared, even the horror of an illegal and inhuman frontier among the most dangerous in the world. We went to pick them up after the captain of the commercial ship that had rescued them had spent 28 days desperately asking for help without ever receiving a reply. The technique of rescue omissions, scientifically applied by two European countries such as Malta and Greece, is part of the strategy of “push-backs by proxy”, which centres around the role played by the so-called “Libyan Coast Guard”.

The current Italian government, continuing on the same line as the previous ones, is financing through a bilateral treaty signed in 2017 with the puppet government of Tripoli, and paying hundreds of millions of euros to train and equip a real “border police”, set up in a hurry by recycling known criminals and human traffickers well known to the public.

How many crimes have been committed against thousands of women, men and children and endorsed due to State Reasons? Today we can only look at the facts that happen in front of our eyes, and in front of which, on October 3, 2018, we decided to put ourselves on a ship and go where these things happen.


The Maersk Etienne is a merchant ship of a big Danish company. She sails back and forth across the sea that has been turned into a giant mass grave, as hundreds of other ships and boats of all kinds do every day. It is the first great paradox of frontiers: anything can go through it, all kinds of goods, but for a certain category of human beings, the sentence inflicted is death. These are frontiers that these brothers and sisters seem to have drawn on their skin from birth. Whether it is a police check-point in a district of Minneapolis, or an island in Greece turned into a prison, or the waters of the Central Mediterranean. These perpetually open borders become a wall in front of a family, a child, a pregnant woman or a 20-year-old boy. The colour of their skin often brings these migrants together, they come from the South of the world and go north. They also have something else in common: they are all poor.

The Mare Jonio of Mediterranea Saving Humans left the port of Licata on Thursday afternoon at 2.40 pm for its ninth mission in the Libyan SAR area, in international waters in the central Mediterranean Sea. Monitoring missions during which we have never failed to rescue shipwrecked people, to respond to requests for help, to reports of boats and people in danger. As dictated by international conventions and maritime law although these norms seem to be only respected on paper, judging by the behaviour of national and European authorities.

“To help is an obligation”, claim charters undersigned by various governments. Rules written in the Italian Constitution.

Unfortunately we know that this is not the case. The opposite is the case.

On the evening of Thursday 10th September, after sailing south for 40 miles, an e-mail arrived on the bridge of the Mare Jonio, sent directly by the captain of the ship Maersk Etienne, which had been off Malta for 37 days. He asked the Mare Jonio for help: the situation on board had worsened, in particular that of a pregnant woman who needed medical attention. The Etienne has been in this condition since she rescued a sinking boat on 5th August.  Aboard 27 exhausted people, plucked from the sea just before sinking. The Etienne, as her captain says, could not leave them to die. But the “punishment” for those who help and save lives is very hard: abandonment. Malta, responsible for that stretch of sea, refused to grant a Place of Safety (POS). Italy, the nearest coastal state, leaves the responsibility to Malta. The ship is registered in Denmark, and the Danish government tried to organise the deportation of the shipwrecked people to Tunisia (an unsafe country). The European institutions, despite the appeal to Brussels by dozens of parliamentarians, do not intervene. The ordeal of the Etienne becomes one of Europe’s most shameful episodes, along with the financing of the concentration camps in Libya and the burning Moria camp in Greece, with its 13,000 innocent prisoners inside.

The Mare Jonio does what needs to be done: once it heard the call for help, it changed its course and headed for the position. In the early hours of the morning on Friday 11th September, the ABBA1 rescue boat leaves the Mare Jonio to reach the Etienne, bringing our medical staff to the merchant ship. In 37 days no one had even deigned to send a doctor.

The report from the medical team leaves no doubt: the psycho-physical conditions of the 27 shipwrecked people is very dramatic and the medical condition of the pregnant woman aboard is very serious. The situation cannot be sustained a minute longer. The commander of the Etienne formally requests the Mare Jonio command to authorise the transfer on our ship, which has a medical team and an infirmary equipped to provide first aid. Instructions are requested from Malta, but no response is received. The transfer takes place while the sea is rising: getting off an oil tanker with the bulkheads tens of metres high through a rope ladder is not an easy or safe operation, and it must be done quickly.

The transfer operation was completed at around 5 p.m., while the Maltese and Italian authorities have been kept constantly updated on the situation. Malta replies only to say that it has no intention of dealing with the case and that it will not grant any port to the shipwrecked people. “Turn to Italy” is their contemptuous reply.

The MRCC of Rome initially wrote to Mare Jonio advising that Malta was responsible, but after 24 hours waiting on the government’s instructions, it finally assigned Pozzallo as the port of disembarkation. The pregnant woman aboard and her husband had been evacuated from the Mare Jonio on Friday evening for hospitalisation. The others are welcomed on the pier of Pozzallo on Saturday 12th September at 9.00 p.m..

This brings to an end the 40-day odyssey. The Mare Jonio did what needed to be done, the right thing to do. Above all, the dignity of 27 people was restored. 27 people who had been rejected, treated like unwanted goods, abandoned first in Libya and then at sea.

But there are other meanings behind the facts.

What is the meaning of this behaviour of national and European authorities towards the Maersk Etienne? The message, given through what we consider a shameful behaviour and a blatant violation of the law, was clear: if commercial ships and fishing boats try to help, they will be blocked in the middle of the sea, abandoned there to lose a lot of time and money and go through a lot of trouble. Don’t try to help, you have to let them die. This is the attempt to make the omission of help into routine, to turn it into practice and then into norm. As if we could put it on the same level as the right to asylum, as the Geneva Convention and its Article 33 which prohibits refoulement. Maersk Etienne was a weapon in the hands of those who, from the top of their national and European sovereignty, want to change laws, conventions, treaties through a consolidated criminal practice. Their plan is to impose laws against life, against humanity, against the poor. They think that then everyone will be forced to obey these laws and will have to return to the ranks. But obedience is no longer a virtue, said Don Milani.

A different Europe travels on the ships of the Civil Fleet. A different world travels on that bus.

Good luck, brothers and sisters