One year ago, on 5th August 2020, in the Central Mediterranean Sea, the tanker MAERSK ETIENNE, flying the Danish flag and owned by the company Maersk Tankers, picked up an Alarm Phone alert and, under the coordination of the Maltese Authorities, went to the rescue of 27 people (including a woman and several minors) in distress on board of a small wooden boat. Once the people were embarked on the vessel, a real odyssey began for the rescued people and the ship’s crew, punctuated by a long series of open violations of international maritime law, serious omissions and guilty inactions by the European Institutions and States involved in the case: Malta as the first responsible party, Denmark as the flag country, the Brussels Commission and coastal countries such as Italy.
Despite appeals from European and worldwide associations representing shipowners, civil society and United Nations organisations, the Maltese Authorities refused to assign a Place of Safety (PoS) for the disembarkation of the shipwrecked people rescued by the MAERSK ETIENNE, resulting in the longest stand-off on the high seas in the history of the Mediterranean. The Danish merchant vessel was totally inadequate to host for weeks 27 people who had already endured years of unspeakable horrors of detention in Libya and had just lived the terrible experience of drifting at sea and being shipwrecked. While States and European Institutions stood by and watched, after 38 days of useless suffering on board for the survivors and great discomfort for the crew of the tanker, when the situation had become totally unbearable, only the emergency intervention of our ship MARE JONIO, which set sail on 10 September 2020 from the port of Licata for mission #09 of MEDITERRANEA Saving Humans, put an end to this shame.
The 27 shipwrecked people were transhipped onto the MARE JONIO, where they could receive first medical care and count on a proper reception. Then, in the face of repeated refusals by the Maltese Authorities to assume their responsibilities, on the evening of 12th September our ship disembarked all the people in the port of Pozzallo, with the authorisation of the Italian Ministry of the Interior and the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome (IT MRCC) and the applause of the international community. For this case – despite the fact that all the actors involved, first of all us, have provided wide documentation to prove that they acted in full compliance with international and national maritime law – eight MEDITERRANEA shipowners, seafarers, and activists are under investigation since 11 months, with very heavy charges, by the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Ragusa. We are sure that, in the end and we hope soon, the truth will emerge in all its clarity.
But the real issue is that one year after that rescue, nothing at sea has substantially changed. On the contrary! European States continue to discourage and openly obstruct rescue operations by merchant vessels. Captains and shipowners who perform their duty to protect human life at sea are, in most cases, faced with problems and difficulties from the very authorities that are supposed to coordinate and facilitate search and rescue operations. Or, even worse, it is the European States that ask or impose on Masters and Owners of commercial ships to openly violate international law, either by not intervening or by handing over people in danger into the hands of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, thus favouring the deportation of women, men and children to the hell of Libya.
One year after the beginning of the MAERSK ETIENNE case, MEDITERRANEA Saving Humans reaffirms, with conviction and strength, that we will never stand by and watch; that we are and will be on the side of people fleeing and in danger, on the side of the crews of merchant vessels, of the maritime Workers’ Unions and of the Shipowners’ organisations, for the absolute safeguard and protection of human life at sea, and to force States to respect international law. In a few weeks’ time, our ship MARE JONIO will be returning to sea and we can already assure you that we will continue to operate according to these unwavering principles.
MEDITERRANEA Saving Humans
5th of August, 2021