Case spotlight: Maersk and the Mediterranean Migrant Crisis: Shipping in a Humanitarian Storm

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This case was featured in the December 2023 issue of Connect.

Who – the protagonist

Maersk, a Danish shipping and logistics company.

What?

On 4 August 2020, the tanker Maersk Etienne was en route to La Skhira, Tunisia, when the Rescue Coordination Centre of Malta requested that the vessel change course and assist a small migrant boat in distress.

As the night approached and weather conditions deteriorated, the crew boarded the 27 migrants, including a child and a pregnant woman, and provided them with shelter, blankets, food, water, and other necessities. Moments later, the migrants’ boat sank to the bottom of the sea.

A political deadlock ensued, with ports in Malta, Spain, France, and Italy refusing the migrants safe disembarkation.

After 38 days on the Maersk Etienne, they were transferred to the migrant rescue ship Mare Jonio, operated by NGO Mediterranea. The migrants then safely disembarked in Italy.

Mediterranean Migrant Crisis boat

Why?

During the standoff, there was never any doubt that Maersk would honour its obligation to assist migrants in distress. Yet with tens of thousands of migrants risking their lives every year to cross the Mediterranean, and given the lack of progress towards a political solution, many felt that the stand-off involving the Maersk Etienne was only the tip of the iceberg.

Private shipping companies like Maersk have played pivotal roles in hundreds of search and rescue operations, but it was clear that there was an urgent need for a more concerted effort to address the suffering unfolding in the Mediterranean, as well as to reconsider the role of the shipping industry.

When?

The origins of the Mediterranean crisis can be traced back to around 2011, when the number of people fleeing the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa started to increase significantly due to conflict and war, poverty, and the consequences of climate change. Since 2011, over 700,000 migrants have tried to reach Europe by crossing the Central Mediterranean on overcrowded boats, rafts, and inflatables.

Where?

With a distance of around 400 kilometres, the Central Mediterranean route that connects Libya to Italy is one of the shortest routes from the Northern coast of Africa to the heart of Europe.

However, it is also the deadliest migration route in the world. According to the UN’s International Organization for Migration, more than 20,000 lives have been lost in this stretch of the sea since 2014.

Key quote

“Using commercial vessels for large-scale rescues is both dangerous and remarkably costly. Some of the direct costs include humanitarian provisions, additional wages and stores, extra fuel consumed during and after the rescue, port charges assessed during disembarkation of rescued persons, and repairing, restocking, and cleaning the vessel itself. The indirect costs are likely to be even more substantial.”
As outlined in a legal analysis of the contractual uncertainty of humanitarian costs by Richard Kilpatrick Jr.

What next?

With little hope that political negotiations would lead to a prompt, effective, and sustainable solution, Maersk urgently had to reconsider how it would act on the tragic crisis. While predicating human mobility is complex and challenging, the consensus among UN forums and agencies was that the onset of climate change was likely to increase the number of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean over the next decade. How should Maersk respond?

AUTHOR PERSPECTIVE 

On the reasons for writing the case…

Jasper said: “This case has been very long in the making. Due to several tragic shipwrecks, including one during which more than 500 people died, the Mediterranean migrant crisis featured prominently in the news in 2023. Our case may, therefore, seem to be written in response to current developments. However, that is not the case.

“The Central Mediterranean has been the site of a humanitarian emergency for over a decade. As educators, we have discussed companies’ roles and responsibilities in this crisis and the complex dynamics of search and rescue operations in our classrooms ever since 2016.

“A grant from the Velux Foundations for our research on business and humanitarianism gave us the resources to write up this case for a broader audience. As recent events demonstrate, including in the Mediterranean and the English Channel, the issues of boat refugees and migration sadly remain tremendously relevant today. Our hope is that this case helps educators bring complex societal challenges into business school classrooms.”

On the case writing challenges…

Jasper continued: “One of the challenges was the tension between our desire to ensure that the case is accessible to students with varying backgrounds, and our desire to do full justice to the complexity and severity of the Mediterranean migrant crisis. The crisis itself is tremendously complex, multi-faceted, and politicised, and a dramatic example of a ‘wicked problem’.

“Furthermore, search and rescue operations can involve many actors and are governed by complex regulations. From our classroom experience, we knew that this placed a high demand on students and that we needed to carefully consider how to present the case. At the same time, given the magnitude of the crisis, which has seen tens of thousands of people perish since 2010, we felt a responsibility not to ‘dumb down’ the crisis or gloss over the hardships of migrants’ experiences. Ultimately, we decided not to compromise and to pursue both objectives - accessibility and complexity - in our writing.

“We have accomplished this by grounding the case in a concrete rescue operation involving the Danish logistics company Maersk, followed by a discussion on human smuggling that foregrounds migrants’ perspectives. From there, the case gradually ‘zooms out’ and introduces the legal and political context and the many actors involved in search and rescue. In a way, the case is therefore written ‘backwards’ from what we see in typical business cases.”

Mediterranean Migrant Crisis lifering

On teaching the case…

He added: “In our experience, the approach we took in writing the case has been surprisingly effective. Irrespective of whether we use the case at the bachelor’s or master’s level, we find that the case provides business students with the proper background knowledge needed to discuss both business-related challenges arising from the migrant crisis and political complications and solutions, while not losing sight of the ‘true’ victims in this case: the migrants and refugees. As such, we were relieved to notice that students find the case accessible despite the complexity involved and that it encourages students to discuss high-level solutions without de-humanising migrants.”

On how students react to the case…

He commented: “Students’ reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. Many students are at least somewhat aware of the emergency unfolding in the Mediterranean but lack a contextual understanding. We often hear that students are glad to understand better ‘what is going on’ and appreciate working on a case that speaks directly to events they read about in the national and international press.

“At the same time, students are often surprised to learn that private companies play and have played such a prominent role in search and rescue operations.

“Finally, students have indicated that they find it a pleasant surprise to realise how concepts and perspectives from business courses can be leveraged in the context of societal challenges.”

On case writing tips…

Jasper explained: “Somewhat paradoxically, our tip is to postpone writing a complete draft until you have an excellent sense of how students understand your case and the issues involved, and until you have heard students discuss possible solutions.

“The first few times teaching this case, we let students work directly off some of our source material – news clippings, reports, videos – instead of a written version of the case. This process gave us an excellent insight into what aspects of the case students struggled with, what needed clarifying, and what issues offered the most scope for constructive debate. It also gave us a better sense of the various learning objectives for which the case could be used. All of the insights we gained are reflected in how we wrote our case.”

Final word…

Jasper concluded: “Discussions about case writing often focus on the writing of the case itself. However, in our view, the accompanying teaching note is just as important: clear and comprehensive teaching notes really help other educators guide students toward achieving their learning objectives with your case.

“To this end, trying out different versions of your case in class - or having students directly engage with the source material - is invaluable. While such an iterative approach to case writing takes time, we believe this process enabled us to write a much more effective teaching note. As case users will see, the teaching note describes in detail how case discussions can be structured to serve different learning outcomes.”

THE CASE 

The case

Who – the protagonist

Maersk, a Danish shipping and logistics company.

What?

On 4 August 2020, the tanker Maersk Etienne was en route to La Skhira, Tunisia, when the Rescue Coordination Centre of Malta requested that the vessel change course and assist a small migrant boat in distress.

As the night approached and weather conditions deteriorated, the crew boarded the 27 migrants, including a child and a pregnant woman, and provided them with shelter, blankets, food, water, and other necessities. Moments later, the migrants’ boat sank to the bottom of the sea.

A political deadlock ensued, with ports in Malta, Spain, France, and Italy refusing the migrants safe disembarkation.

After 38 days on the Maersk Etienne, they were transferred to the migrant rescue ship Mare Jonio, operated by NGO Mediterranea. The migrants then safely disembarked in Italy.

Mediterranean Migrant Crisis boat

Why?

During the standoff, there was never any doubt that Maersk would honour its obligation to assist migrants in distress. Yet with tens of thousands of migrants risking their lives every year to cross the Mediterranean, and given the lack of progress towards a political solution, many felt that the stand-off involving the Maersk Etienne was only the tip of the iceberg.

Private shipping companies like Maersk have played pivotal roles in hundreds of search and rescue operations, but it was clear that there was an urgent need for a more concerted effort to address the suffering unfolding in the Mediterranean, as well as to reconsider the role of the shipping industry.

When?

The origins of the Mediterranean crisis can be traced back to around 2011, when the number of people fleeing the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa started to increase significantly due to conflict and war, poverty, and the consequences of climate change. Since 2011, over 700,000 migrants have tried to reach Europe by crossing the Central Mediterranean on overcrowded boats, rafts, and inflatables.

Where?

With a distance of around 400 kilometres, the Central Mediterranean route that connects Libya to Italy is one of the shortest routes from the Northern coast of Africa to the heart of Europe.

However, it is also the deadliest migration route in the world. According to the UN’s International Organization for Migration, more than 20,000 lives have been lost in this stretch of the sea since 2014.

Key quote

“Using commercial vessels for large-scale rescues is both dangerous and remarkably costly. Some of the direct costs include humanitarian provisions, additional wages and stores, extra fuel consumed during and after the rescue, port charges assessed during disembarkation of rescued persons, and repairing, restocking, and cleaning the vessel itself. The indirect costs are likely to be even more substantial.”
As outlined in a legal analysis of the contractual uncertainty of humanitarian costs by Richard Kilpatrick Jr.

What next?

With little hope that political negotiations would lead to a prompt, effective, and sustainable solution, Maersk urgently had to reconsider how it would act on the tragic crisis. While predicating human mobility is complex and challenging, the consensus among UN forums and agencies was that the onset of climate change was likely to increase the number of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean over the next decade. How should Maersk respond?

AUTHOR PERSPECTIVE 

Author perspective

On the reasons for writing the case…

Jasper said: “This case has been very long in the making. Due to several tragic shipwrecks, including one during which more than 500 people died, the Mediterranean migrant crisis featured prominently in the news in 2023. Our case may, therefore, seem to be written in response to current developments. However, that is not the case.

“The Central Mediterranean has been the site of a humanitarian emergency for over a decade. As educators, we have discussed companies’ roles and responsibilities in this crisis and the complex dynamics of search and rescue operations in our classrooms ever since 2016.

“A grant from the Velux Foundations for our research on business and humanitarianism gave us the resources to write up this case for a broader audience. As recent events demonstrate, including in the Mediterranean and the English Channel, the issues of boat refugees and migration sadly remain tremendously relevant today. Our hope is that this case helps educators bring complex societal challenges into business school classrooms.”

On the case writing challenges…

Jasper continued: “One of the challenges was the tension between our desire to ensure that the case is accessible to students with varying backgrounds, and our desire to do full justice to the complexity and severity of the Mediterranean migrant crisis. The crisis itself is tremendously complex, multi-faceted, and politicised, and a dramatic example of a ‘wicked problem’.

“Furthermore, search and rescue operations can involve many actors and are governed by complex regulations. From our classroom experience, we knew that this placed a high demand on students and that we needed to carefully consider how to present the case. At the same time, given the magnitude of the crisis, which has seen tens of thousands of people perish since 2010, we felt a responsibility not to ‘dumb down’ the crisis or gloss over the hardships of migrants’ experiences. Ultimately, we decided not to compromise and to pursue both objectives - accessibility and complexity - in our writing.

“We have accomplished this by grounding the case in a concrete rescue operation involving the Danish logistics company Maersk, followed by a discussion on human smuggling that foregrounds migrants’ perspectives. From there, the case gradually ‘zooms out’ and introduces the legal and political context and the many actors involved in search and rescue. In a way, the case is therefore written ‘backwards’ from what we see in typical business cases.”

Mediterranean Migrant Crisis lifering

On teaching the case…

He added: “In our experience, the approach we took in writing the case has been surprisingly effective. Irrespective of whether we use the case at the bachelor’s or master’s level, we find that the case provides business students with the proper background knowledge needed to discuss both business-related challenges arising from the migrant crisis and political complications and solutions, while not losing sight of the ‘true’ victims in this case: the migrants and refugees. As such, we were relieved to notice that students find the case accessible despite the complexity involved and that it encourages students to discuss high-level solutions without de-humanising migrants.”

On how students react to the case…

He commented: “Students’ reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. Many students are at least somewhat aware of the emergency unfolding in the Mediterranean but lack a contextual understanding. We often hear that students are glad to understand better ‘what is going on’ and appreciate working on a case that speaks directly to events they read about in the national and international press.

“At the same time, students are often surprised to learn that private companies play and have played such a prominent role in search and rescue operations.

“Finally, students have indicated that they find it a pleasant surprise to realise how concepts and perspectives from business courses can be leveraged in the context of societal challenges.”

On case writing tips…

Jasper explained: “Somewhat paradoxically, our tip is to postpone writing a complete draft until you have an excellent sense of how students understand your case and the issues involved, and until you have heard students discuss possible solutions.

“The first few times teaching this case, we let students work directly off some of our source material – news clippings, reports, videos – instead of a written version of the case. This process gave us an excellent insight into what aspects of the case students struggled with, what needed clarifying, and what issues offered the most scope for constructive debate. It also gave us a better sense of the various learning objectives for which the case could be used. All of the insights we gained are reflected in how we wrote our case.”

Final word…

Jasper concluded: “Discussions about case writing often focus on the writing of the case itself. However, in our view, the accompanying teaching note is just as important: clear and comprehensive teaching notes really help other educators guide students toward achieving their learning objectives with your case.

“To this end, trying out different versions of your case in class - or having students directly engage with the source material - is invaluable. While such an iterative approach to case writing takes time, we believe this process enabled us to write a much more effective teaching note. As case users will see, the teaching note describes in detail how case discussions can be structured to serve different learning outcomes.”

THE CASE 

The authors

Verena Girshik
Associate Professor of Business and Society
Jasper Hotho
Associate Professor of Business and Society
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