The captain of the MV Clementine Maersk, one of the largest container ships in the world, has been criticised in the tabloid press for bringing 27 refugees who were rescued in the Mediterranean Sea near Sicily, to the UK.
According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has praised the captains actions, late in May a small boat carrying mostly African refugees ran into trouble in the Mediterranean off the coast of Sicily. For eight days, the boat drifted while other vessels passed it by but refused to help. They promised to inform the coastguard but no one came.
Then on 31 May, the boat was spotted by the crew of the MV Clementine Maersk which went to help. The 27 refugees, mainly Somalis but including two Tunisians and one Palestinian, were rescued and taken on board.
The ship then made its way, as scheduled, to Felixstowe. There, one week later it docked amidst a ‘storm’ of concern in the tabloid press. A security perimeter was set up around the ship and it was surrounded by police and immigration officials. The refugees were all interviewed and then transferred to immigration detention. Twenty-six of them, including two teenagers, claimed asylum. A Tunisian man who asked to be returned to his home remained on board.
The captain of the MV Clementine Maersk has been criticised for bringing the refugees to the UK rather than taking them to a port closer to where they were picked up. A spokesperson for the Maersk has since commented that the refugees’ boat was in ‘distress’, which is why the captain went to their aid. Dock-workers at the port were also apparently unhappy that the unloading of the ship had to be delayed until the refugees had been interviewed by the immigration service. The Daily Express reported the rescue on its front page with the headline ‘MAD: Illegal immigrants rescued in the Mediterranean and the ship’s captain brings them 2,000 miles… to Britain.’
Pirkko Kourula, Director of the UNHCR Europe Bureau, later commented: ‘We are very grateful that the captain followed international maritime law and custom, as well as his moral instincts, and rescued the group from their boat. But we are also disturbed to hear that other ships apparently ignored them and left them to what might have been a disastrous fate.’
Research by the Institute of Race Relations found that there were 670 recorded deaths of migrants attempting to enter Europe by sea from January 2002 to June 2003.