VALLETTA, Malta: The captain of a German humanitarian ship that spent nearly a week searching for safe harbor before being allowed to bring 234 migrants rescued at sea to Malta on Wednesday declared during the odyssey: “Saving people is not a crime.” Still, once he was on land, he was placed under investigation for allegedly breaching maritime regulations.

It is part of a growing trend in Europe and the United States: Private groups responding to images of human suffering and deaths targeted by authorities who are often under political and popular pressure to stem the migration tides.

In announcing that Captain Claus-Peter Reisch would face investigation, Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat placed the blame for the impasse that kept the migrants at sea while European nations haggled over their fate squarely on the captain, who he said went “against international rules and ignored directions.” French President Emmanuel Macron also criticized the captain, saying he “acted against all the rules,” by not turning the migrants over to Libyan authorities after they were found floating in rubber dinghies in Libyan waters.

Humanitarian groups have pushed back. Doctors without Borders, Amnesty International and two other NGOs asked to meet with Macron over his assertion. “Engineered panic and fear-mongering by European politicians over migrations is steering the EU toward very dangerous waters,” Human Rights Watch said in a prepared statement.

Italy’s new hard-line interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has been instrumental in raising the level of confrontation, closing Italian ports to humanitarian groups that he accuses of acting like taxi services for migrant smugglers operating out of lawless Libya.

His refusal to grant safe harbor, coupled by that of Malta, forced the French aid ship Aquarius to sail an additional 900 miles to Spain, which agreed to take in the migrants at its port in Valencia.

While Muscat emphasized that the latest case involving the ship Lifeline was unique because of the alleged violations of its captain, the refusal until Wednesday to let the ship dock — and the haggling among EU states over how to distribute the migrants — showed a hardening of positions as EU leaders head into a summit Thursday where migration policies are expected to be the focus.

Reisch is accused of disobeying orders to turn over the migrants, who were rescued in Libyan waters, to the Libyan Coast Guard. Muscat also said the Lifeline turned off its transponder to hide the ship’s location. He cited Dutch authorities as saying the ship’s registration document is merely a proof of purchase and that it is listed as a pleasure craft, which precludes it from participating in rescues.

Lifeline said it obeyed all maritime instructions as long as they were “in compliance with international law.”