On Wednesday evening the NGO boat Lifeline was eventually able to dock in Malta after waiting for days to be given access to a harbour. It had 230 migrants on board who it had picked up off the Libyan coast.
But as various EU governments harden their stance towards NGO rescue ships, no state was willing to give the boat access to its harbour. As the migrants waited on board packed onto the small ship, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer reportedly said in a closing sitting in parliament that the ship’s crew would be brought to justice when the boat landed. Meanwhile Berlin did not offer to take in any of the migrants, a move which could have ended the deadlock sooner.
When Malta did allow the boat to dock, six migrants had to be taken to hospital, one of them was a baby. Meanwhile police at the harbour questioned the ship's captain Claus-Peter Reisch on suspicion that he had ignored orders from the Italian state.
Reisch is suspected of refusing an Italian order to let the Libyan coast guard rescue the migrants. The Libyan coast guard would have brought them back to the North African state that they set out from.
The NGO, which is based in Dresden, stated on Thursday that the Libyan coast guard were too slow to arrive at the scene and that they therefore chose to ignore the Italian order.
But a statement issued by the NGO head Axel Steier on Wednesday suggest they willingly defied the order, due to what they perceive as human rights abuses in Libya.
“There have been a number of false accusations that Lifeline ignores orders by different MRCCs (maritime rescue coordination centres),” said Steier in a statement.
“The only order the ship denied was to hand over people to the so-called Libyan coastguard, as this would have been not in line with the Geneva Refugee Convention and therefore criminal.”
Seehofer’s hardline stance, which follows on from a hawkish insistance on turning back some asylum seekers at the German border, was met with stark criticism, both from the NGO and by left-wing politicians.
“It is shameful that the government is hindering maritime rescue and is therefore contributing to people dying in the Mediterranean,” the Lifeline NGO said in a statement on Thursday.
The NGO also called on Seehofer to explain what crime exactly they had committed.
“Is it a crime in your opinion to save people whose lives are in danger?” they asked.
Left-wing politicians in the Bundestag (German parliament) were just as scathing in their criticism.
Michael Brandt, an MP from Die Linke, said that the government “talks about European values and human rights while bodies are washed up at the walls of Europe.”
On the far-right of the political debate, the tone was rather different. Georg Pazderski, deputy head of the Alternative for Germany, described the Lifeline as “a smuggler’s boat” and called for it to be detained along with all other NGO boats “so as to close the route across the Mediterranean.”
Pazderski was echoing a commonly held view in Germany that people smugglers account for the fact that NGOs will pick people up off the coast of Libya and that they can therefore send them to sea in boats that are incapable of making the entire crossing to Italy.
'Everyone has corpses in the basements'
More differentiated views were to be found in the broadsheet press.
Die Welt’s lead opinion writer Jacques Schuster said that the NGO was motivated by the fundamental European value of compassion. But he criticized them for being too one-sided in their compassion.
“What use is the unlimited acceptance of migrants into European society when our society could break apart because of it? Is it not enough that right-wing populists have become stronger than ever before across the continent?”
“Even someone who only thinks about helping migrants and doesn’t care about their own society surely recognizes that many NGOs in the Mediterranean are helping people smugglers,” he added.
Writing in Die Zeit, Urlich Ladurner said that the fact that the boat had to wait for days before it was allowed into harbour is “a scandal.”
But he was said that NGOs “have been able to act outside of politics for years… as if their actions had no political consequences. But the fact that smugglers account for them in their business model is proof that this isn’t the case.”
“Neither NGOs, nor European governments, nor the media can claim to have remained clean on the migrations question. They all have their blind spots, they all have corpses in their basements.”