Italy has allowed 37 African refugees aboard a German relief ship off the coast of Sicily to come on land. But authorities have arrested the ship's captain and the head of the German aid group.
Italian police officers awaited the ship in the harbor
After nearly three weeks on the German rescue ship "Cap Anamur," the refugees, mostly from Sudan, will now be brought to a refugee center near the Italian town of Agrigent, Italian officials said on Monday morning.
"Port police has given us permission to enter the harbor," Stefan Schmidt, the ship's captain, told reporters, adding that the entrance to the harbor, Porto Empedocle in southern Sicily, was no longer blocked by coast guards.
However the situation has become complicated with Italian authorities taking the ship's captain, Stefan Schmidt, and the organization's head, Elias Bierdel, in for questioning about aiding illegal immigration, then arresting them.
On Sunday, the Italian government had permitted the ship to enter Sicilian waters, Italian news agency ANSA reported. It did not, however, allow the ship from the Cologne-based relief organization to dock.
Two ships from the Italian coast guard were blocking entry to the port, according to the organization's director Bierdel, who referred to the action as "a degrading show of force." The ship's captain had reported earlier that the situation on board was deteriorating rapidly, with some refugees threatening to jump overboard if the vessel didn’t dock soon.
The Italian government, however, had strictly refused to take in the Africans -- mostly Sudanese -- because, it said, the ship had previously entered Maltese territorial waters, which under EU rules would have made Malta responsible for accepting any asylum applications. In an interview with German public broadcaster ARD, the ship’s captain confirmed the ship had approached Malta, but only on "transit" to Italy and that the government in Valetta (the Maltese capital) had no responsibility for the refugees.
Officials at Cap Anamur said Sunday that the refugees had applied for political asylum in Germany. The organization said the refugees’ hand-written asylum applications would be promptly delivered to the responsible federal authority in the southern German city of Nuremberg.
German government officials meanwhile said they did not believe the refugees could apply for asylum in the country, saying that the country the refugees first entered would have to decide about their applications.
Plucked from the sea
Just over two weeks ago the 37 Sudanese refugees were plucked from the sea off the coast of Malta. The German ship then set sail for the closest harbor - on the southern Italian island of Sicily. Initially the crew believed there would not be a problem, said Bierdel.
"We did everything according to the book, asking for entry into the harbor and initially we got the go ahead. But when we arrived we were held up by gun boats and helicopters. I felt reminded of a maritime battle," Bierdel said.
While the German aid organization claims that no reason was given for the authorities' change of heart, Italian sources said that the information on the identity of the refugees was insufficient. Cap Anamur has deplored the delay, saying that the ship could be rescuing other people instead of waiting for the resolution of this particular problem.
'We're trying to save lives'
During the 1970s, the Cap Anamur made a name for itself by saving as many as 8,000 so-called "Boat People" refugees from Vietnam
"We are a humanitarian organization. We have a ship and we are trying to save lives. We are very surprised to find the European Union now uses gun boats to prevent us from doing that," Bierdel said.
Dozens of illegal immigrants attempt to cross the Mediterranean from northern Africa to southern Europe each day – many of them die trying. An estimated 5,000 African immigrants drowned on the sea crossing in the past year alone.