Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Shocking Treatment of Tanker Which Answered a Distress Call Continues

Authorities Debase Themselves by Avoiding Responsibility
Shipping News Feature

DENMARK – MALTA – MEDITERRANEAN – When the skipper of the tanker Maersk Etienne answered a distress call from the Maltese authorities over a month ago to assist a vessel in distress the decision was already made. Attending a vessel in distress is sacrosanct and to not do so would have left Captain Volodymyr Yeroshkin, his crew and company as pariahs, attracting harsh and rightful criticism from all and sundry.

Without hesitation the 37,000 dwt vessel changed course to look for the casualty. This turned out to be an overcrowded, wooden fishing boat carrying 27 African migrants, amongst whom were a pregnant woman and a child. The condition of the craft meant the need to rescue those aboard who were drifting in Tunisian waters.

All appeals to dock in Malta and deliver the refugees safely were refused, once again the authorities, having requested help, ignoring requests to bring the casualties safely ashore. Not, unfortunately the first time this situation has arisen, in May the German owned container vessel Marina rescued 79 migrants after a similar call from Maltese authorities who subsequently, together with Italy, refused permission to land.

The two countries also refused permission to the livestock carrier Talia in July which had picked up 52 migrants headed for the Italian island of Lampedusa. It took a week of living in appalling conditions on a vessel that had just discharged a full complement of livestock before permission was granted to let them land.

The Maersk Etienne rescued her quota on 4 August, by 7 September it all proved too much for three of the rescued who threw themselves into the sea, fortunately they were spotted and the ship’s crew managed to rescue them. Now pressure is mounting to resolve the situation as the mental and physical health of the migrants is doubtless beginning to deteriorate. The deck of a chemical tanker with limited crew and supplies is no place to live.

At the end of August the European Commission made a direct appeal to the countries involved to land the migrants, now appeals have come from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) for resolution.

Those in the industry have also been forthright in their criticism of the international authorities including Erik Hånell, President and CEO Stena Bulk, who commented:

"We at Stena Bulk are closely following the development of the situation on board the Maersk Etienne and all on board are in our thoughts. It is important that those in distress at sea can rely on others close by coming to their assistance and hopeful rescue. This is one of the fundamental rules at sea and something we as merchant shipping companies would never do differently.

”Therefore it is very important that we also can trust we get response from the relevant authorities to take over when the most acute situation is over. We join Maersk Tankers in their plea for urgent action from relevant authorities so that the 27 immigrants on board are safely disembarked and given the attention needed and Maersk Etienne is able to continue its journey."

Another who was prepared to be critical of the inaction of the international politicians was CEO of fellow product tanker group Hafnia, Mikael Skov, who said:

"Hafnia supports you 100%. It is tragic to see that both refugees and crew are left abandoned and helpless on board Maersk Etienne. The obligation to help those in distress is something we support wholeheartedly. People. First. Always. But a ship’s crew can only do so much. The relevant authorities need to take over to ensure the refugees receive the proper care they deserve. We hereby raise our voice in support of the refugees and Maersk Tankers, calling on the authorities to act urgently."

Franck Keyser, Chief Executive Officer, Ship Management, V.Ships also reacted with horror at the situation, speaking at some length to express the attitude of all in the seafaring community thus:

”The situation on board the Maersk Etienne calls for politicians and governments to take immediate responsibility. While it is great to see the Danish government working hard to ensure the safety of the 27 refugees picked up by Maersk Etienne it is with a mixture of disappointment and frustration that we witness the situation. The captain and his crew on board Maersk Etienne have followed the ethics of every professional seafarer in the world and rendered assistance to those in peril at sea. It is not only a key part of the seafarer’s moral compass but also required by international law.

”Put simply, theses seafarers’ did the only right thing to do. The result of being a good global citizen is now that the owners of the vessels are paying a high cost for their representatives adhering to the law and the seafarers’ code of conduct. Let’s be clear, this is a human rights issue and it is disappointing to see the indifference coming from certain parties involved.

”It is shameful to see that the human rights of refugees and the 21 seafarers involved are being ignored and that they are being ‘sacrificed’ for the sake of ‘not wanting to create precedents’. It is in situations like these that the maritime community needs to have trust in those that the industry serves to ensure they are not left in limbo, as they are now.

”The fate of Maersk Etienne represents a dangerous precedent for creating a new heartless attitude at sea, an attitude where it does not pay to be a professional and decent seafarer and human being. Turning a blind eye to fellow human beings in distress at seas MUST NEVER become an acceptable act. That would be detrimental for the whole moral codex at sea and truly negatively impact the trust between people that international trade promotes.

”We are calling for governments to take actions and let the refugees on board Maersk Etienne come ashore and have their situation resolved by the proper authorities and let the captain and his crew commence their voyage.”

Maersk themselves have been appealing for help in every way possible since the crisis began, through formal channels and also on social media with Robert Maersk Uggla, CEO of A.P. Moller Maersk Holdings saying:

"It’s deeply concerning that authorities have not come up with a solution for the 27 refugees, including a pregnant woman, rescued at the specific request of Malta and held on deck on the Danish flag vessel Maersk Etienne for a month under unacceptable living conditions, ignoring their plight and undermining the eternal obligations of good seamanship."

"The case sets a terrible precedent for the global merchant fleet and the Mediterranean trade lane. While our Group has rescued thousands of people over the years, we struggle to remember ever having a case, where a vessel and its crew have been left without support from authorities for so long. Not only is the industry dumbfounded by the inaction of relevant states, but Human Right Watch’s CEO [Kenneth Roth] has raised humanitarian concerns.

"While many of us acknowledge the challenging political considerations, we are desperately awaiting Malta and Denmark to find a solution for the refugees, with EU or other relevant parties, so the ship and its crew are released."

The final word comes from Captain of the Maersk Etienne Volodymyr Yeroshkin, who said:

”It is really shameful what the authorities are doing to us. The crew did their job honourably. But the people we rescued are abandoned and the vessel is paralysed. We need action."

Photo: Migrants have been forced to sleep on the open decks of the tanker for over a month.(Courtesy of Maersk Tankers)