German migrant rescue group Mission Lifeline Wednesday denied breaking the law when it took on board more than 230 African asylum seekers and refused to hand them over to Libya's coastguard.
Lifeline also said its ship remained in waters off Malta amid "deteriorating weather conditions and an increasingly fragile health situation of the rescued people", despite news Tuesday that it could dock there and that the migrants would be taken in by six EU countries.
Italy and France have accused the charity of acting illegally by refusing to hand the shipwrecked migrants over to the coastguard during the June 21 rescue, arguing that such operations play into the hands of human traffickers.
But Lifeline argued that the migrants would not be safe in Libya, where they have faced abuse and rape in holding centres, and that returning them there would breach international refugee law.
"There have been a number of false accusations that Lifeline ignores orders by different MRCCs (maritime rescue coordination centres)," said the group's co-founder Axel Steier in a statement.
"The only order the ship denied was to hand over people to the so-called Libyan coastguard, as this would have been not in line with the Geneva Refugee Convention and therefore criminal."
Lifeline said it followed the principle of non-refoulement under international law that forbids returning asylum seekers to a country where they likely face persecution.
The vessel's fate has hung in the balance since last week as EU members remain at loggerheads over how to handle the influx of people fleeing war and misery to reach the continent.
The decision by Italy's new hardline government and Malta to turn away rescue vessels has plunged Europe into a political crisis over how to collectively respond.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Tuesday, after days of bickering between EU member states over the ship's fate, that Malta would allow it to dock and the migrants be distributed to six EU countries.
However, Macron also criticised the German NGO running the ship for contravening "all the rules" by coming to the migrants' rescue when the Libyan coastguard was already intervening.