Stopping NGOs from operating rescue ships in the Mediterranean would mean abandoning migrants to their deaths, the crew of one such vessel has warned after being forced to cease operations halfway through a mission.

The Seefuchs was one week into its mission in the Libyan search-and-rescue zone when its crew received a call informing them that they would have to return to Malta after the ship’s flag status was called into question.

Hours later, as they sailed back, they received word of a migrant vessel in distress, not far from where they had been. Some 200 people drowned, they said.

“It was painful for us as a crew; it was horrible to face,” Maike Jaeger, one of the volunteer crew, told the Times of Malta aboard the Seefuchs, now berthed in Marsa.

“We would have been there, we could have helped, but because of these stupid technical issues we had to turn back and leave those people there. That’s not something you ever want to be responsible for,” she added.

Carlotta Weibl, another member of the crew, said: “We shouldn't be in a situation where we feel guilty. This is on the politicians. They made these decisions and they created the situation we’re in right now.”

We’re just trying to save people from drowning

The Seefuchs’ current troubles arose after Italy – as part of its wider push against NGO vessels – questioned its registration with the Dutch naval authorities, under whose flag the ship sailed.

The Netherlands has denied responsibility, but Sea Eye, the German NGO which operates the vessel, insists it is properly registered and that the dispute concerned only whether it is registered for commercial operations.

The organisation has suspended operations while the legal issues are resolved. For the crew, however, the dispute is a technical one which pales in comparison to the diplomatic wrangling that has left vessels such as the Aquarius and Lifeline stranded at sea for days after rescuing migrants.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” Ms Weibl said.

“We want to continue – we have to continue – but at the moment it’s not possible. If we go out, we can’t bring people back. We’re just trying to save people from drowning, but it would only be a matter of time until we’re stuck there next to Lifeline.”

The crew dismisses as “ridiculous” the accusation, levelled among others by Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini that their work amounts to a “taxi service” ferrying migrants to Europe.

“That can only come from someone who doesn’t understand the complexity of the situation,” Ms Weibl said.

“People are leaving either way, because they have no other choice. They know that their chances of survival are at best 50-50. How desperate do you have to be to get on a boat and put your children on that boat in the vague hope that an NGO will pick you up?”

Asked how the situation in the Mediterranean might play out over the course of the summer, the crew said it was hard to predict, but that a political solution was the only way to prevent more deaths.

“It’s absurd that the EU has been unable to distribute these people,” Ms Jaeger said.

“Obviously Malta – or even Italy – cannot take all these migrants itself. But Europe must make it possible for them to be brought here safely and then taken to other countries: to Germany, to France, to Spain.

“They’ve tried so many times already, but now that the situation has got to this stage, they have to find a solution.”

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