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Row Simmers Over Arrest of German Aid Workers

The founder of a German aid group, whose boat helped 37 African asylum-seekers reach Italy this week, has criticized members of his own organization for their handling of the situation in the Mediterranean Sea.

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The African refugees face an uncertain future

Scouting for refugees in the Mediterranean last month, German aid group Cap Anamur's boat spotted a stranded rubber dinghy carrying nearly forty supposed Sudanese asylum seekers.

It picked them up and waited for three nerve-wracking weeks for Italy to give permission to dock.

Cap Anamur vor Sizilien

The Cap Anamur aid ship nears the Sicilian Harbour of Porto Impedocle on Monday, July 12, 2004

Once the group was allowed to come ashore earlier this week in Sicily, Italian police arrested three members of Cap Anamur's crew, including Captain Stefan Schmidt and the organization's head, Elias Bierdel, on charges of aiding illegal immigration.

Italian police had discovered once the refugees had disembarked that they weren't Sudanese asylum-seekers, but illegal immigrants mostly from Ghana and Nigeria.

Boat should have docked in Germany

The arrest of the German aid workers has sparked an outcry in Germany and Italy and triggered a debate on the fate of the illegal immigrants.

Rupert Neudeck, Cap Anamur's founder and former head has now weighed in and said the group's boat should have docked in a German harbor instead.

Rupert Neudeck

Rupert Neudeck, founder and former head of Cap Anamur

"If I was asked what to do in the situation -- a ship registered in Germany with the name Cap Anamur crossing the Mediterranean, that could have rescued 37 people -- I would have advised it to go right back to the city of registration," Neudeck said.

"Go right back to Hamburg or Lübeck, because you're always in a better situation there. Regardless of the way that German Interior Minister Otto Schily has described the legal situation," Neudeck said.

"Just aid workers, not criminals"

Bundesinnenminister Otto Schily

German Interior Minister Otto Schily

Schily has said that if Cap Anamur was smuggling humans, it was a serious offence.

"If the suspicion is confirmed that members of Cap Anamur's crew were participating in smuggling immigrants, this would be a serious matter that may have to be taken up by Germany's criminal prosecution authorities," Schily said in a statement.

Neudeck however doesn't agree.

"The three sailors aren't criminals. They are aid workers and the German government should put pressure on Italy to release them from jail. Only then, could we talk about whether there were possible mistakes in the operation," he said.

Restrictive immigration policy

Not everyone in Germany agrees with Schily's stance.

German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul has called for the release of Cap Anamur's crew workers.

Bierdel should not be punished "because he wanted to help people in dire need," Zeul said in a statement. "Humanitarian actions must not be criminalized," she added.

Pro Asyl, a refugee aid organization has said that Schily is responsible for helping conceive a highly restrictive European immigration policy that reinforced the notion of Europe being a fortress to outsiders.

A German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said a diplomatic official had been sent to Sicily "to provide consular support for those involved."

An Italian judge is scheduled to rule at a hearing Friday whether the three German workers should remain in custody. Prosecutors have not said for certain whether to go ahead and charge the sailors, who would face up to 12 years in prison and a €15,000 fine for each of the 37 immigrants.

Asylum-seekers' future unsure

Cap Anamur Flüchtlingsschiff Sudanesiche Flüchtlinge Italien

African immigrants aboard the German Cap Anamur aid ship

The fate of the 37 African asylum-seekers remains uncertain. Germany has refused to accept them. Italy is meanwhile insisting that under EU rules, their case for political asylum should be heard in Malta -- a country with stricter immigration rules than Italy -- because it was their first port of call.

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