The Maersk Etienne waited nearly six weeks at sea after it took aboard 27 migrants on August 4, 2020 | Photo: Kai von Kotze/
The Maersk Etienne waited nearly six weeks at sea after it took aboard 27 migrants on August 4, 2020 | Photo: Kai von Kotze/

27 migrants rescued by cargo ship Maersk Etienne have disembarked in Sicily after being stranded at sea for close to six weeks, ending one of the longest standoffs in the Mediterranean between a boat and EU governments. According to a local online service, the whole group tested negative for the coronavirus.

After spending 39 days -- close to six weeks -- stranded at sea, a group of 27 migrants was able to step ashore safely in southern Italy on Saturday (September 12).

The cargo ship Etienne, which is owned by the Maersk Tankers shipping company, had picked up the 27 migrants on August 4 in Tunisian waters after its crew had been alerted to the distress call by migrant rescue charity Sea-Watch. The group included one child and a pregnant woman.

The group then spent 38 days aboard the vessel off EU member state Malta, which refused to take them in despite multiple calls for assistance by the captain and the crew who asked for permission to disembark the migrants.

In a press release from September 7, UN refugee agency UNHCR and two other agencies stressed that the crew of the Etienne is "not trained or able to provide medical assistance to those who need it."

Under international maritime law, every ship is obliged to help boats in distress near them, no matter who is on the boat and for what reason the boat is in distress.

Mare Jonio facilitated landfall

On Friday, the 27 migrants were first transferred from the Etienne to the migrant rescue boat Mare Jonio and then disembarked in Pozzallo on the island of Sicily, late on Saturday. The Mare Jonio is operated by NGO Mediterranea Saving Humans.

"This puts an end to the longest and most shameful stand-off in European maritime history," the organization said on Twitter. In an online statement, it added that those rescued required medical care for both physical and mental health problems.

News agency epd reported that according to local online service Ragusa Online, the whole group was brought to a reception facility in Syracuse after being tested negative for the coronavirus.

Refusal to take action

Last Sunday (September 6), Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela said the migrants on board the Etienne were "not his country's responsibility as the vessel sails under the Danish flag."

But the Danish government also abdicated responsibility for the people on board the tanker, arguing that "the Danish government's assessment is that Tunisia should honor its responsibility for receiving the 27 people [aboard the Maersk Etienne]."

Back in April, Malta and Italy closed their ports to migrants as the coronavirus pandemic led to widespread lockdowns across the two countries. Malta said it needed all its resources to fight the pandemic.

Italy and Malta routinely complain that they have been left alone on the front lines of the migration crisis. The two Mediterranean countries argue that so many migrants end up on their shores or in their waters and because so few other European allies are prepared to help house or care for the arrivals.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 20,000 people have arrived on Italian shores by sea so far this year, almost twice as many as in all of 2019.

With dpa, epd


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