German Chancellor Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has defended private sea rescue in the Mediterranean against criticism, calling it a “humanitarian imperative.” She also said, among other things, that it wasn’t always the “poorest and weakest” who were coming to Europe. Meanwhile, the over 500 rescued migrants aboard NGO vessels Ocean Viking and Open Arms are still in limbo.

Angela Merkel, Germany’s long-time chancellor who has been praised and criticized alike for her refugee and migrant policy, is the latest prominent person to chime in on the heated debate about NGO vessels rescuing migrants trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea.

During a civil dialogue on Tuesday in eastern Germany, Merkel called private sea rescue a “humanitarian imperative.”

The conservative politician stressed that it wasn’t always the “poorest and weakest” who were coming to Europe. “We're talking with the African countries to see where we can help,” Merkel said, adding that “We don’t want to support smugglers and human traffickers.”

Merkel, Germany’s head of government since 2005, also noted that migration is a topic that is here to stay unless conditions in Africa improve. 

At the same event, Merkel defended her own migration policy. While she admitted she needed to live with the controversy around her refugee policy, she maintained that helping in a "humanitarian emergency" was the "right thing to do."

Merkel’s decision in 2015 to keep the borders open amid an influx of migrants and refugees, and not enforcing the Dublin Regulation , has been both lauded and harshly criticized ever since.

Merkel’s policy on migrants and refugees, under which more than 1.5 million people have arrived in Germany to seek asylum since 2015, has also arguably contributed to the rise of German far-right, anti-immigrant party AfD (“Alternative for Germany”), which is firmly opposed to her policy.

Stand-offs continue

Meanwhile, the impasse between private rescue organizations and European governments continues as NGO rescue vessels Ocean Viking and Open Arms together currently carry over 500 migrants waiting for a safe harbor.

Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking, operated by French charities SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), rescued a total of 356 migrants in four separate rescues in as many days. The vessel, however, is only equipped to carry 200 to 250 people.

Another 150 migrants are stuck aboard the Open Arms off the coast of Italy's southern Lampedusa island. Italy and Malta continue to deny entry into their ports to ships carrying rescued migrants.

Last week, Italy announced fines of up to €1 million for ships carrying unauthorized migrants that try to dock in Italian ports without permission. The country has ordered the seizure of such ships and NGO skippers to be arrested if they fail to obey the orders of police or navy ships.

UNHCR, celebrities demand help for stranded migrants

On Tuesday, the United Nations’ refugee agency called on European Union member states to “allow the immediate disembarkation” of the 507 passengers aboard the Ocean Viking and the Open Arms vessels. “Many of them suffered appalling abuses in Libya, and are from refugee-producing countries,” UNHCR spokesperson Charlie Yaxley said on Twitter.

“A port of safety should be immediately provided and responsibility shared amongst States for hosting them after they have disembarked,” UNHCR said in an online statement.

Merkel’s comments in defense of private sea rescue came after several other celebrities, including Spanish actors Javier Bardem and Antonio Banderas, expressed their solidarity with the rescued migrants over the past week.

Hollywood actor Richard Gere on Friday even boarded the Open Arms vessel to meet the migrants and to help bring them food and water.

In an ensuing spat with Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, the Italian politician told Gere, "Given this generous millionaire is voicing concern for the fate of the Open Arms migrants, we thank him: he can take back to Hollywood, on his private plane, all the people aboard and support them in his villas. Thank you Richard!" Salvini said in a statement.

With material from epd, kna, dpa


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