NGO Accused of Taking on Maersk Etienne's Rescued Migrants for Pay

maersk tankers
The rescuees aboard Maersk Etienne on the day of the transfer, September 2020 (courtesy Maersk Tankers)

Published Mar 1, 2021 5:52 PM by The Maritime Executive

Prosecutors in the Sicilian city of Ragusa have accused an NGO rescue vessel operator of receiving money in exchange for taking 27 rescued migrants off of a Maersk product tanker last year. 

The vessel in question was the Maersk Etienne, which was stranded off Malta for more than five weeks after Maltese officials refused to allow a group of rescuees to disembark. The tanker's crew saved 27 maritime migrants in the Mediterranean in August 2020, but when she transited to the nearest port of refuge - Valetta - she was turned away. The Maersk Etienne's crew described an increasingly tense atmosphere on board, with the survivors housed in makeshift conditions on a vessel that was never intended to carry passengers. The situation worsened when three of the migrants jumped overboard, requiring another rescue operation. The group also threatened a hunger strike. 

Maersk Tankers made arrangements with NGO Mediterranea Saving Humans for a health assessment for the migrants, taking advantage of the medical team onboard the nearby migrant rescue vessel Mare Jonio. After an assessment, Mare Jonio took all 27 aboard. 

“We are relieved and grateful. The rescued persons can now finally get the medical care they need and our crew can continue their voyage safely," said Tommy Thomassen, the chief technical officer for Maersk Tankers, in a statement after the transfer. 

Afterwards, the Maltese government followed the same protocol and refused to allow Mare Jonio to enter port. Instead, she transited to Pozzallo, Sicily, where she offloaded all 27 migrants into Italian custody. 

Pozzallo falls within the jurisdiction of the Ragusa public prosecutor's office. In a statement Monday, the prosecutor alleged that the migrant transfer occured “after the conclusion of an agreement of a commercial nature between the owners of the two ships, by virtue of which . . . the Mare Jonio received a large sum as consideration." Four people connected to the legal owner of the Mare Jonio are under investigation. 

In a series of raids on Monday morning, dozens of police officers executed search warrants around Italy, targeting Mediterranea's employees' homes, offices, and its ship. In a statement, the NGO denied any wrongdoing and said that the allegations will "melt like snow under the sun."

"The charges are serious but the real target is the civil rescue operation at sea that Mediterranea has carried out since 2018," the NGO responded. "What happened today is a true and real 'judiciary theorem' in which the activities of search and rescue are assumed to be prearranged as profit-making schemes. This hypothesis so contrived that the primary and true objective of this operation is obvious: to create 'a mud slinging machine.'"

The controversy does not appear to have slowed Mediterranea's operations: it is commissioning a new vessel this spring to take on Mare Jonio's migrant rescue activities, and it is actively recruiting new crewmembers.