Italy Allows Maersk Boxship to Offload Migrants in Sicily

Image courtesy Mission Lifeline / Hermine Poschmamm

Published Jun 26, 2018 12:11 PM by The Maritime Executive

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, the government of Italy relented to pressure from shipowners and rights groups and allowed the boxship Maersk Alexander to offload rescued maritime migrants at Pozzallo, Sicily. She had been waiting at anchor with more than 100 survivors on board since the weekend.

“The crew on Alexander Maersk has done a heroic job in the past days, and we are very proud of the way they handled this difficult situation. It has been a stressful time for the crew and we will focus on providing them time to rest and recover as well as offer any needed crisis counselling,” Maersk Line said in a statement. 

Under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, Italy's new minister of the interior and leader of the right-wing League party, the Italian government has begun blocking foreign-flag vessels carrying rescued maritime migrants from entering Italian ports. The ban is targeted at sea rescue NGOs, but it has also affected the U.S. Navy fast transport USNS Trenton and the 1,000 TEU feeder Alexander Maersk

On Friday,  the Alexander's crew responded to a distress signal at an unspecified location in the Mediterranean. Working together with small-boat teams from the NGO rescue vessel Lifeline, the Alexander rescued 113 maritime migrants. A Maersk spokesman told media that the boxship had anchored off Pozzallo, Sicily and was awaiting instructions from Italy's MRCC on how to proceed. The Italian Coast Guard reported Sunday that five of the 113 individuals on board had been brought ashore for medical treatment, but the remaining migrants - and the Alexander Maersk - waited at anchor.

Shipowners' associations responded with disapproval as the wait continued. “It is not acceptable that a merchant vessel, saving migrants on its own or called upon to assist in search and rescue activities, is confronted with this kind of problems. Problems that potentially affect the safety and well-being of the migrants and the crew,” said Martin Dorsman, the secretary general of the European Community Shipowners' Association. 

The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) - the global trade association for ship operators – said that it is  increasingly concerned about the new policy of the Italian government to close its ports to migrants and to the ships that rescue them. "If correct, this refusal by Italy to allow prompt and predicable disembarkation from merchant ships, which are complying with their obligations under maritime law, could have serious humanitarian consequences,” said ICS secretary general Peter Hinchliffe. “If the policy is extended this would also have significant implications for the movement of trade throughout the Mediterranean."

Hinchliffe also called upon EU leaders to "get to grips" with the problem of EU states refusing to disembark persons who have been rescued by merchant ships. Merchant vessels are required by international law to rescue persons in distress at sea and deliver them to a "safe" port, creating a potential catch: without a port to receive survivors, good samaritan vessels must interrupt their commercial voyage until a destination is found.