By Daniel Howden

Prologue: August 14 began calmly for Riccardo Gatti. On the first morning of a new search and rescue mission in the central Mediterranean, the former yachtsman turned activist walked the grayed wooden deck of the Golfo Azzurro, a trawler that has been stripped of its bulky fishing equipment to make space for life jackets and water bottles.

Its previous mission had tested everyone’s patience when several Italian ports refused to allow the vessel to dock and unload its rescued asylum seekers, a sign of the increasing political pressure on rescue charities such as Gatti’s Proactiva Open Arms. The only consolation had been that the ship’s unwanted cargo were in fact a trio of Libyan musicians who serenaded the crew as they searched for a safe port.

Now stationed 27 nautical miles off the coast of Libya, Gatti’s vessel was on standby for boats in distress. Instead they were approached by the C-Star, a vessel chartered by European anti-migrant activists. The Golfo Azzurro crew braced for a confrontation.

The C-Star dispatched its speedboat, which came alongside and slapped a sticker on the hull emblazoned with the group’s name: “Defend Europe.”

The two groups of Europeans, one intent on saving lives, the other on stopping migrants from reaching their continent, exchanged words “that were not kindly,” Gatti said. The confrontation was emblematic of the heated debates over immigration that have come to dominate the public square in Europe, turning the Mediterranean into both a political stage and a graveyard.

It was the arrival of a third vessel on the scene that served as a reminder these arguments have real consequences beyond Europe.

Rescued migrants shelter on the deck of the Golfo Azzurro in January, 2017 (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti) 

The Golfo Azzurro hailed the Italian coast guard, which has been coordinating search and rescue operations off Libya in the anarchy that followed the ouster of the Gadhafi regime in 2011, but no help was offered. When they appealed to the European Union naval mission to counter smuggling, the answer was the same.

We were under attack and we were on our own,” Gatti said.

The Libyans demanded that the Golfo Azzurro lower its ladder to be boarded. The rescue ship ignored the order and set a lateral course at low speed to gain time. Once it came within 24 miles (39km) of Libya’s coast it would be inside the country’s “contiguous zone,” an extension of territorial waters, and could be lawfully boarded.

We knew if we enter 24 miles we are fucked,” Gatti said.

For the next hour and a half the Golfo Azzurro was threatened repeatedly. Then, after a seven-minute radio silence, came a curt order to head due north. The standoff was over. But the parting line from the supposed coast guard boat was chilling: “If we see you again we’ll kill you.”