The tanker Etienne has been at anchor near the Maltese coast since August 5, when it rescued 27 people. The government in Valletta refuses to authorize them to land. The Danish company Maersk, owner of the ship and one of the largest shipowners in the world, had chosen not to speak to the press for 29 days, placing its trust in the authorities. On Wednesday, they changed their minds, and Tommy Thomassen, Maersk’s technical director, gave an interview to il manifesto.
You only broke your media silence now. Why?
We tried to resolve the situation by dealing with every relevant political and institutional level, either directly or through the Danish Maritime Association. We have found good intentions and a lot of sympathy, but there is still no solution. There is no date set. The situation on board is very difficult. The ship is not built to accommodate so many passengers. The tension is enormous. We want to make our call for help loud, to all the competent institutions.
What is happening on board?
We rescued the shipwrecked almost a month ago. The captain and crew provided all possible assistance, shared everything they had: food, clothes, water. But the ship is an oil tanker. It is unable to accommodate others beside the 21 people of the crew. Now there are more than twice as many people. We have arranged an area to accommodate them, on a deck and below. But too much time has passed. Time is a decisive factor. We have found ourselves in similar situations before. The company I represent has always done its duty: we don’t let people down. But we thought the situation would be resolved in a few days. We never thought we would stay in this situation for a month. We are very worried. The crew is not used to having so many people on board. There are more people than the sailors themselves. Everyone is under pressure. What do we do if the migrants hurt themselves, or take their frustrations out on the crew because of the situation?
Are you seeing any negative signals?
We’re talking to them every day. Recently, a young man expressed a lot of frustration, saying that he was thinking about jumping in the water to try to break the stalemate. They know there are no solutions in sight. It’s really unfair to put our crew in this situation. They are heroes: they rescued 27 people, they did their duty. It is not possible to treat them like that.
Sources in the Maltese government claim that they didn’t coordinate the rescue operation. Is this true?
I cannot speak on behalf of the Maltese authorities, but we have been called to carry out this operation by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Valletta. And we responded. We have done our duty, now it is up to the competent authorities.
On Monday, a spokesman for the European Commission said that they were working on the redistribution of the 27 migrants. Have you heard anything about this?
We have had many direct and indirect contacts. We have spoken with the Maltese, Danish and Tunisian governments. Signatures were collected in the European Parliament in our support. We have lobbied through diplomatic channels and with the UNHCR. But nothing has happened yet. Time is running out and we risk that something bad will happen. For us it’s not important whether the solution comes from national governments or European institutions. We just want the 27 people to get to land.
How do you feel after a month in this situation?
From our constant dialogue with the captain, I’d say—frustrated. We have rescued people, we have fulfilled our obligations under international law, but it is really frustrating that no one can find a solution. It is clear that the authorities must solve cases like this. What has happened to us is unacceptable. We have never seen anything like this, for a whole month.
Would you do it all over again?
We will always rescue people. I assure you. That is what every decent shipping company must do. We have been doing it for 100 years, and we will continue to do it for another 100 years. This will not change our values and principles. But now we expect the authorities to do their duty as well. As we have done.