Denmark says Tunisia should take in migrants stranded on Maersk tanker

Three international organisations on Monday called on Mediterranean countries to take in 27 migrants who were rescued by a commercial tanker a month ago, saying their situation was becoming dire.

Denmark says Tunisia should take in migrants stranded on Maersk tanker
An aerial view shows migrants sitting in a boat alongside the Maersk Etienne tanker off the coast of Malta. Photo: Kai Von Kotze/Sea Watch/Reuters/Ritzau Scanpix

The crew of the Maersk Etienne picked up the migrants fleeing from Libya on August 4th following a request from Malta. 

But Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela has since said his country is not responsible for them.

The three organisations — the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), International Organization for Migration (IOM) and International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) — accused governments of breaking international law by refusing to allow the migrants to leave the ship.

The organisations did not single out Malta, instead calling for coastal EU countries to step up and for other EU nations to show solidarity by accepting relocated migrants.

“The conditions are rapidly deteriorating on board, and we can no longer sit by while governments ignore the plight of these people,” said ICS Secretary-General Guy Platten.

“Time is running out and the responsibility for these people's safety and security rests squarely with government ministers.”

Danish shipping giant Maersk revealed on Sunday that three of the migrants jumped overboard before crew members rescued them.

They said commercial vessels were not equipped to rescue or house migrants.

According to the Danish press, the migrants' boat had drifted in Tunisian territorial waters.

Denmark believes that “Tunisia is responsible for welcoming these people,” Danish interim foreign minister Kaare Dybvad Bek told AFP.

“The government is ready to help the Tunisian government,” he added in a written statement.

UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi called on the EU and its member states to “show some solidarity” and set up “an effective relocation mechanism.”

“The absence of a clear, safe, and predictable disembarkation mechanism for people rescued in the Mediterranean, continues to pose an avoidable risk to life,” added IOM Director General Antonio Vitorino.

According to the joint statement, the Etienne is the third commercial vessel to rescue migrants so far this year, but the other ships found places to disembark the migrants in just a few days.

In the first half of the year, 14,481 people took to the sea from Libya trying to reach Europe, according to UNHCR figures.

READ ALSO: Denmark resumes taking in refugees from UN

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Denmark suspends asylum centre talks with Rwanda

Denmark now aims to work with other EU countries to transfer asylum seekers to centres outside Europe and has suspended talks with Rwanda as it no longer plans to go it alone, its migration minister said on Wednesday.

Denmark suspends asylum centre talks with Rwanda

The Scandinavian country’s plans, first announced by the previous Social Democratic government, called for people seeking asylum in Denmark to be transferred to reception centres outside the European Union while their requests were processed.

A law adopted in June 2021 did not specify which country would host the centre, but said asylum seekers should stay there even after they were granted refugee status.

Discussions were launched with Rwanda and other countries, but they have now been suspended since the installation of a new Danish left-right government in December headed by the Social Democrats.

“We are not holding any negotiations at the moment about the establishment of a Danish reception centre in Rwanda”, Migration and Integration Minister Kaare Dybvad told daily Altinget.

“This is a new government. We still have the same ambition, but we have a different process”, he added. “The new government’s programme calls for the establishment of a reception centre outside Europe “in cooperation with the EU or a number of other countries”.

The change is an about-face for the Social Democrats, which had until now rejected any European collaboration, judging it slow and thorny.

“While the wider approach also makes sense to us, [Denmark’s change of heart] is precisely because there has been movement on the issue among many European countries”, Dybvad said. “There are many now pushing for a stricter asylum policy in Europe”, he said.


Inger Støjberg, leader of the Denmark Democrats said on Facebook that she was “honestly disgusted” by the government’s decision to delay plans for a reception centre in Rwanda, pointing out that Kaare Dybvad had said during the election campaign that a deal would be done with Rwanda within a year. 

“Call us old-fashioned, but we say the same thing both before and after an election. We stand firm on a strict immigration policy. The Social Democrats, Liberals and Moderates clearly do not,” she said. 

Lars Boje Mathiesen from the New Right Party accused the government of perpetrating a “deadly fraud” on the Danish people. 

“It is said in Christiansborg that it is paused. But we all know what that means,” he wrote on Facebook, accusing Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen of “empty words” in the run-up to the election. 

In the face of this reaction, Dybvad told the Ritzau newswire that although talks with Rwanda were not happening at present, the government had not given up on a deal with the African nation. He also said that he was confident that asylum reception centres outside of the EU would be a reality within five years.

EU interior ministers are meeting in Stockholm this week to discuss asylum reform. Those talks are expected to focus on how to speed up the process of returning undocumented migrants to their country of origin in cases where their asylum bid fails.

Denmark’s immigration policy has been influenced by the far-right for more than 20 years. Even Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, the head of the Social Democrats, has pursued a “zero refugee” policy since coming to power in 2019.

Copenhagen has over the years implemented a slew of initiatives to discourage migrants and made Danish citizenship harder to obtain. In 2020, it became the only country in Europe to withdraw residency permits from Syrians from Damascus, judging that the situation there was now safe enough for them to return.