Thirty days ago, the tanker Maersk Etienne responded to requests from Maltese authorities to help a nearby boat in distress.
The crew found an overcrowded, wooden fishing boat carrying 27 African migrants — including a pregnant woman and a child — and quickly shuttled them aboard. The Maersk Etienne then waited for the customary approval to dock and drop off its unexpected passengers.
It is still waiting, and the captain says the situation has grown dire.
“It’s a real nightmare,” Volodymyr Yeroshkin, the captain of the Maersk Etienne, said in an interview. While there is enough food and water for those onboard now, he said, that will not be the case indefinitely.
Denying the discharge of refugees rescued by humanitarian vessels in the central Mediterranean has become the new norm for countries like Italy and Malta that are the front line of the migrant route into Europe.
But a weekslong refusal to allow a tanker from a major global company to dock is not the norm, new or otherwise. Maersk Tankers is one of the world’s largest global shipping companies, and the Maersk Etienne was transporting oil on a regularly used route when it was summoned to rescue the migrants.
International maritime law dictates that vessels near a boat in distress have an obligation to respond, and merchant vessels in the Mediterranean have long been involved in such rescues. Typically, the rescued migrants are then taken to the nearest safe port.
But after the Maltese government requested that the tanker rescue the migrants, it did not then allow the ship to come ashore. So the tanker lingers in the Mediterranean — and both the migrants and the crew are growing desperate.
“It is one of the rules of life at sea that you respond to those in distress, and we have always done that and we will keep doing that,” Tommy Thomassen, the chief technical officer of Maersk Tankers, said in an interview. “But the lack of a response here sends the wrong signals to those out there in the commercial fleet.”
He said the company had been in contact not only with the authorities in Malta, but with those in nearby Tunisia and in Denmark, where the tanker is registered. None have offered a way to get the migrants ashore.
“We’ve done our duty as a shipping company,” Mr. Thomassen said. “Now it’s up to the authorities to do their duty and find a solution.”
Maltese officials have been largely silent on the situation, and Malta’s Interior Ministry did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
The situation has reached a breaking point, the captain said, and while the crew has done its best to provide for the needs of the 27 additional people aboard, the tanker is ill equipped for humanitarian assistance. The ship has just 21 crew members on board, so the rescue more than doubled its passenger load.
Photos taken aboard the Maersk Etienne show people lying on mattresses and blankets, some wearing masks, scattered across the deck in an area clearly not intended to host passengers.
“Their living conditions are very far from being acceptable,” Mr. Yeroshkin, the captain, said.
International humanitarian groups and migration organizations have denounced the delay in allowing the Maersk Etienne to dock.
“A commercial tanker cannot be considered a suitable place to keep people in need of humanitarian assistance,” the United Nations refugee agency U.N.H.C.R. and the International Organization of Migration said in a joint statement.
The humanitarian drama unfolding aboard the Maersk Etienne is not the only one happening at sea. This week, according to the U.N.H.C.R., more than 400 rescued refugees were aboard three vessels in the Central Mediterranean. Most have now been transported to a quarantine vessel off the coast of Sicily.
Without a Europe-wide agreement to provide a safe and equitable discharge plan for migrants, rights groups say the situation will continue. In the meantime, though, that is “not an excuse to deny vulnerable people a port of safety and the assistance they need, as required under international law,” the U.N.H.C.R. and the International Organization of Migration said.
Nearby Italy has also taken a hard-line stance on allowing migrants rescued in the Central Mediterranean to disembark on its shores. It has impounded humanitarian vessels conducting rescue operations, and in recent weeks right-wing politicians have sought, without evidence, to blame migrants for a surge in coronavirus cases.
Merchant vessels have increasingly been caught up in the standoff. Some have been enlisted to take back migrants to Libya, rather than bring them to Europe. And some now take long detours around known migrant routes to avoid being swept up in the problem.
The International Chamber of Shipping, a trade association that represents over 80 percent of the world’s merchant fleet, has expressed concern about the situation.
Guy Platten, its secretary general, said that the shipping industry “takes its legal and humanitarian obligations to assist people in distress at sea extremely seriously.”
But “merchant vessels are not designed or equipped for this purpose,” he said. In the case of the Maersk Etienne, conditions are deteriorating onboard and time is running out.
“States,” Mr. Platten said, “need to play their part.”