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Europe

Berlin, Rome Spar Over Refugee Ship

The fate of 37 African immigrants now on land in Italy after spending weeks on a German relief ship remains uncertain as Rome and Berlin argue over which country should take them in.

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After three weeks at sea, African refugees disembark in Sicily.

The front page headline of a Vatican newspaper on Tuesday read, "Finally, humanity wins." But the story isn't quite over yet.

Although the group of African refugees plucked out of the Mediterranean by the German relief ship Cap Anamur were finally allowed to disembark and get medical attention, their fate is still up in the air as Germany and Italy now bicker over EU asylum laws.

Complicating the situation, Italian police have arrested the ship's captain, Stefan Schmidt, and the head of the Cap Anamur, Elias Bierdel, for aiding and abetting illegal immigration.

Italian interior ministry officials blasted what they called the "pack of lies" told by the German humanitarian organization, which they claim forced Rome to cave in under pressure from the international media and the Vatican.

"The Cap Anamur took the illegal immigrants on board with the precise aim of bringing them to Italy by telling a pack of lies," Italian officials said.

Cap Anamur vor Sizilien

Italian police stand guard over the harbor in Porto Empedocle in southern Sicily as the Cap Anamur approaches.

They said the government only allowed the boat to dock in Porto Empedocle in southern Sicily after Schmidt warned of unrest and suffering among the refugees, some of whom had reportedly threatened to throw themselves overboard.

Odyssey of inhumanity

German officials meanwhile have called for the release of Schmidt and Bierdel and voiced pride that a German had worked to end the "odyssey of inhumanity" that has pushed the refugee issue back into European headlines.

German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul hailed Bierdel's "courage and desire to help others." She insisted "humanitarian actions must not be criminalized."

Berlin's representative for human rights, Claudia Roth, said she "felt a sort of pride that it was a German ship, that it was this organization that saved human lives." She condemned the three-week stand-off that occurred while Italy, Malta, Germany and the aid organization argued over who was responsible for the 37 Africans.

"We must promise to take a fair look into their right to asylum," Roth said in a German radio interview.

Question of asylum status

But Germany and Italy have both said the refugees are ineligible for refugee status in their country. On Monday a spokesman for the interior ministry in Berlin said the Africans could not come to Germany since EU laws stipulated that asylum is to be granted in the first country of port.

Before docking in Sicily, it was reported that the refugees, who were believed to come from the war-torn Darfur region in Sudan, had achieved German asylum. This is not the case, the German ministry said. Moreover, it appears the Africans are not actually from Sudan, but rather from Ghana and Nigeria.

Flüchtlinge auf Cap Anamur

The 37 Africans, mostly from Nigeria and Ghana, will wait in holding center for illegal immigrants until their fate can be decided.

Italy has rejected granting asylum because it claims the ship passed through Maltese waters before setting sail to Sicily. Malta for its part says no one told them the 37 Africans were on board or asked for assistance.

A European-wide problem

Italy, which often serves as the gateway to Europe for African refugees, is particularly sensitive about the issue of asylum. On Monday, the president of the Italian refugee council, Dr. Christop Hein, said the situation illustrated the need for the creation of a centralized EU asylum policy.

"For five years we have been talking about a European Union wide asylum policy. What has happened here is quite disturbing. Nobody wants to take the responsibility and everybody is passing the buck in this case. From Germany to Italy to Malta, nobody wants to get their fingers burnt. Nobody wants to set a precedent. That's why we need a centralized European asylum policy."

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