Maersk Boxship Delayed due to EU Migration Debate

The Alexander Maersk waits off Pozzallo (Pierpaolo Ruta / Twitter)

Published Jun 24, 2018 5:21 PM by The Maritime Executive

The container ship Alexander Maersk has been delayed off Sicily with 113 maritime migrants aboard as Europe's debate over maritime migration continues. The delay confirms an earlier warning from the International Chamber of Shipping about the dispute's effects on merchant ships, which are obligated to rescue individuals in distress. 

ICS has warned that shipping will bear a greater burden of rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean now that Italy is blocking NGO search and rescue operations. "Following the election of the new Italian Government, the crisis now seems to be taking an ever more political direction,” ICS said in a recent statement. “If NGO vessels are prevented from disembarking rescued persons in Italy, this would also have significant implications for merchant ships and the movement of trade throughout the Mediterranean, as merchant ships would again have to become involved in a greater number of rescues."

For several years, NGO-operated fishing boats, patrol boats and OSVs have pulled thousands of maritime migrants from the waters off Libya, then delivered them safely ashore in Sicily. On June 10, Italy refused the NGO-operated rescue vessel Aquarius permission to enter a Sicilian port to offload 629 rescued migrants, effectively closing its doors to NGO rescue vessels. Matteo Salvini, the recently-appointed minister of the interior and the leader of the right-wing League party, said in a statement that "rescuing lives is a duty, transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp is not." 

Salvini has since shut Italy's ports to all foreign-flag vessels bearing rescued migrants - even military vessels of NATO allies. The U.S. Navy fast transport USNS Trenton rescued 41 migrants on June 12, but was delayed off Augusta, Sicily for several days while negotiations continued over whether she could bring them ashore. Ultimately she did not, and they were transferred to an Italian Coast Guard vessel instead. 

This weekend, Italy's Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) asked NGO rescue vessels not to assist with rescue operations off Libya and referred distress calls to the Libyan Coast Guard instead. Spanish rescue NGO Proactiva Open Arms indicated that it had been effectively sidelined during seven distress calls for an estimated 1,000 migrants. 

With less response capacity on scene, at least one merchant vessel appears to have been caught up in the dispute. On Friday, the container feeder Alexander Maersk responded to a distress signal at an unspecified location and rescued 113 maritime migrants. A Maersk spokesman told media that the Alexander had anchored off Pozzallo, Sicily and was awaiting instructions from Italy's MRCC on how to proceed. Italian Coast Guard spokesman Commander Cosimo Nicastro told CNN on Sunday that five of the 113 individuals on board had been brought ashore for medical treatment. As of Sunday night, the Alexander's AIS signal indicated that she was still awaiting orders off Pozzallo, incurring operating costs and delays. 

Under SOLAS, the captains of merchant vessels are required to rescue individuals in distress at sea, without reference to their origin. To comply fully, they are also obligated to bring survivors ashore at a "safe" port. Italy seeks to return all maritime migrants rescued at sea to Libyan shores, but the UN notes that migrants are routinely abused by Libyan authorities and militias - bringing the "safety" of Libyan ports into question for the disposition of sea rescue survivors. Sea rescue NGOs argue that the only viable option is to bring them to Europe instead, and due to location and EU policy, most of the arrivals have landed in and remained in Italy. The volume of the arrivals has led to a backlash among the Italian public, and surveys suggest that most Italian voters support Salvini's policies.