Over 3,500 and counting

Vessels from Maersk Line and Maersk Tankers have picked up over 3,500 refugees since 2013. Hear it from the captain how he sees his crew rise to the challenge, although a long-term solution requires the attention of government authorities.

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On May 4, the Maersk Alexander picked up 203 refugees off the troubled waters of the Mediterranean, one of the latest rescues in what has been a crisis with seemingly no light at the end of the tunnel.

Migrants from homelands in the African continent besieged by armed conflict, and countries such as Syria and Iraq, risk their lives in treacherous crossings, often in inadequate vessels in the hope of reaching European shores.

Not for shipping lines to handle

Bounded by the laws of the sea, merchant vessels, which ply the popular Europe-Asia trade route, have been picking up desperate refugees from the waters for years, whether through chance encounters or dedicated search and rescue missions in tandem with coast authorities. But the situation has been escalating recently.

The situation is for politicians to solve, and not the shipping lines. Our vessels are not equipped for this, and we need to think about the safety and welfare of our crew in such situations.
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Steffen Conradsen, Head of Incident and Crisis Management at Maersk Line

Tommy Thomassen, Maersk Tankers Chief Technical Officer, agrees: “Our crews  have performed impeccably, and we are very proud of them. However, they do not have the necessary training to perform these rescue missions, and our ships are not equipped to deal with these kinds of challenges.”

“Undoubtedly, we need to step in and help when there are human lives at stake. Nevertheless, these situations represent an immense burden to our crews.”

Steffen Conradsen, Head of Incident and Crisis Management at Maersk Line, says: “The situation is for politicians to solve, and not the shipping lines. Our vessels are not equipped for this, and we need to think about the safety and welfare of our crew in such situations.”

Food, water, shelter, medical attention and crowd control

The main concerns when rescuing migrants are namely - food, water, shelter, acute medical attention, and crowd control. For a typical crew of about 20 to 25 onboard a Maersk vessel, the ratio of refugees to crew could be as high as 10:1 or more, given the hundreds that are rescued.

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Captain Andrew Lewington, Master of the Maersk Regensburg.

Captain Andrew Lewington, Master of the Maersk Regensburg, who has participated in multiple rescues, says his crew has risen to the challenge with aplomb, but worries remain. The safety and health of his crew is the main priority.

He recalls: “When we arrived to our anchorage off Sicily last year at sunset, we were advised that disembarkation would only take place during daylight hours the following day. The migrants became very stressed and restless as they wanted to disembark immediately.”

“We withdrew all crew from the main-deck and locked ourselves in the accommodation overnight just for safety reasons. Thankfully, nothing happened. Most migrants are grateful to be rescued and cooperative.”

According to Captain Lewington, each rescue is different and poses its own set of challenges. He adds: “If faced with a situation with migrants in the water, the biggest decision would be whether to put a rescue boat with crew members into the water, as this could easily become overwhelmed, threatening the safety of my crew.”

“Thankfully it’s a decision I have yet to be faced with making.”

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Although we have thankfully never encountered an actual case of an armed human trafficker onboard a migrant boat, it is a security concern that we have to take into consideration. Crew are instructed to keep a lookout and search all as they board. The one entrance to the crew accommodation is keypad locked and continuously guarded by crew with radio contact to the bridge.

Crew have performed well in the face of crisis

Captain Lewington says that because migrants embark in a dehydrated state, water is the first priority, and all crew save empty water bottles and keep a large stock of bottled water in readiness.

He adds: “On the rescues, my cook and steward have done an incredible job of providing Muslim food for all over a period of two days, generally served on deck by the crew. I have observed inexperience crew exhibit excellent crowd control on the go, and they are firm but compassionate. Some even provide suggestions, such as identifying a leader among the migrants and having him wear a labelled tabard for easier communication. My crew have also given their own clothes to migrants who may be inadequately dressed.”

According to Maersk Line Marine HR, all crew are trained in standard search and rescue drills annually, but there is no specific training for extreme situations such as these where hundreds of people are involved.  Because of its route and higher chances of encountering rescues, the Maersk Regensburg conducts its own regular drills on-board.

Marine HR confirms that counselling is available for sea-farers, given the trauma that some may encounter in such distressing situations, but so far “none has been requested”.

Says Captain Lewington: “Initially at the briefing meetings, health and safety concerns are raised by the crew, but as we demonstrate we have an action plan in place which has been tried and tested, we increase their confidence.”

He concludes: “After disembarkation of the migrants, all crew are fatigued and relieved , but we also have a great sense of pride in the task achieved.”

Statistics from Maersk Line and Maersk Tankers

Pick-ups from 2013–2014

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