A month after migrant rescue, tanker off Malta awaits port

ROME (AP) — A month after it rescued migrants in the Mediterranean at Malta’s request, a Danish-flagged chemical tanker awaited at sea Friday with low supplies and its passengers so despairing of ever making landfall that they say they feel like jumping into the sea.

The Maersk Etienne rescued 27 migrants, including a pregnant woman and a child, from a flimsy fishing boat just before it sank in the central Mediterranean. Its owners, Maersk Tankers, said food and fresh water are running low.

But despite weeks of contacts between Maltese authorities and company representatives, the 186-meter-long (610-foot) vessel remains stuck in international waters 17 miles off the small island nation with no solution in sight, Maersk Tankers said.

Malta, like Italy, often balks at taking in rescued migrants, insisting that other EU nations should share the burden of caring for people rescued in the central Mediterranean, especially since many of the trafficked migrants want to reach northern Europe.

The hardline positions have triggered other standoffs in the central Mediterranean, but this is one of the longest — and it’s not over yet.

What’s more, the Etienne’s plight could make other cargo ships reluctant to rescue migrants, even though the law of the sea requires them to save lives when possible.

Malta had asked the tanker to rescue the migrants on Aug. 4.

“We still don’t have any sight to a clear solution, there is no timeline, and that is adding to the frustration,” Tommy Thomassen, the company’s chief technical officer, said in a phone interview.

The migrants were given blankets by the 21-member crew and have been sleeping on makeshift beds in the stern, where plastic sheeting has been set up to create a section for them.

The migrants, most of whom are from northern Africa, have expressed gratitude to the captain and crew for saving their lives, “expressing that they were really sorry for being a burden,” in a message scribbled on the back of one of the paper plates they are served their food on, Thomassen said.

But the last thing the migrants wrote on the plate was: “Look, if no one wants us, if there is no solution, then we might as well just go back into the ocean,” the company official said. “It’s simply heartbreaking.”

The captain, Volodymyr Yeroshkin, pleaded for help.

“We really need to disembark these people,” he said in a video released by the company. But so far, none of those who could authorize disembarkation in some port has done so.

“These people are not given their basic right to step ashore. The vessel is just paralyzed and cannot sail anywhere with these people,” the captain said.

The Maltese government has made no public comment on the standoff, but Maltese media have cited government sources as saying Malta was sticking to its policy of insisting there be a European solution to such rescues in the Mediterranean.

Thomassen branded the stalemate as “a completely unacceptable situation to put the migrants in, to put our people in and to also put the ship owner in.”

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