By Ellen Burney
In June, a German sea captain was arrested for defying the orders of Italian authorities and rescuing Libyan refugees from a dinghy by sailing them to safety.
Would she do it again? “No action is not an option anymore,” she says.
On the night of June 29 2019, German sea captain Carola Rackete rescued dozens of Libyans fleeing detention camps and sailed them into a safe port on the Pelagian island of Lampedusa, southern Italy, defying orders by Italian authorities.
Rackete, 31, who works for the German charity Sea-Watch, conducting search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea, was consequently accused of attempting to sink an Italian military boat and placed under house arrest.
Here, Captain Carola Rackete tells Vogue why her crew rescued 53 Libyan men, women and children from a rubber dinghy and how climate change is directly impacting the refugee crisis.
A state of emergency
“On 12 June, my crew had been at sea only a few days when we received a distress call from a boat, north of Libyan waters. Our doctors did what they could on our ship Sea-Watch 3, which was not particularly well equipped to handle wounds of torture, sexual abuse and illnesses that had been left untreated for months in the Libyan detention camps.”
“The situation on board was not tenable – imagine people having to sleep outdoors on deck for 14 days after all the horrors they had been through? We waited for Italian authorities to allow them into territorial waters and into a safe port, which was denied.”
“On 15 June, the coast guard evacuated the women with children and serious medical cases, 10 people in total, and the mood on board suddenly changed.”
“Passengers asked us whether they needed to be close to death before Europe would welcome them. We did everything we could and 60 hours before landing at the Italian port, I called out a state of emergency, but no one listened or took responsibility.”
“The last glimmer of hope was an urgent appeal we made to the European Court of Human Rights, but it was rejected because nobody was at risk of death any more.”
“I was asked many times why I did not try to find a different port, but Tunisia and Libya were out of the question; as a captain, I would face a trial for returning people to a country in which they are in likely danger of persecution.”
“And after the odyssey we had been through, to take them further to Malta or Spain was out of the question. People were threatening to kill themselves, the situation was really tense. It felt like imprisoning them a second time after they had spent months behind bars.”
“Nobody prepared me for this situation. I am usually assigned a safe port by the competent Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, so it shouldn’t be my responsibility to negotiate entry of a port.”
“For my nautical degree, I had to study maritime law and it clearly states that the rescue from distress at sea is only completed when every person is disembarked at a place of safety.”
Giving help to those who need it
“On 29 June, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal offered to welcome the guests on board Sea-Watch 3, but Italy would still not open its port. I knew I was risking jail, but I had to take a decision, so I brought the people to safety.”
“The atmosphere in the port was heated, many people yelled at me and it was clear they were supporters of Italy’s right-wing politicians. They cheered as soon as the police took hold of me and pushed me into a car.”
“Investigations against me are still running, even after a judge overturned my house arrest and let me go. But am I afraid? No. Saving human lives at sea is a duty, not a crime and I would take the exact same decision again.”
“I can understand the origins of the Italian anger I experienced that night in the port. We are looking at a crisis of solidarity in Europe, where for years on end Greece, Spain and Italy had to handle the registration and accommodation of hundreds of thousands without significant help from central Europe.”
“What we need is not only a different relocation system so that Italy stops blocking its ports, but an unconditional solidarity. People need to be evacuated from Libyan detention centres in a safe way and they require legal routes to ask for asylum.”
“What I witnessed in June on board Sea-Watch 3 is just the tip of the iceberg. In the next decades, millions of people will be forced to leave their homes due to the climate crisis.”
Few will have the economic means to travel to Europe — people will mainly stay in their region of origin, but the suffering will increase and Europe will not be able to shut its eyes and ports.
“I never planned to become the face of the search-and-rescue movement.”
“Back in 2016, I was one of many volunteers who could not bear to watch the crisis in the Mediterranean unfold. I am German, yes, but I am also a European and that’s why I see the Mediterranean as our European border.”
“I loved the spirit of our crews who knew we had a responsibility to act, collectively, as Europeans. The reasons why these people end up on a small rubber dinghy, that you or I would never embark on such a long journey, has a lot to do with our colonial history.”
The climate crisis and human rights
“I have previously worked on research vessels in the Arctic and Antarctic and for maritime conservation. During my first trip as navigation officer on a scientific expedition in 2011, I had the opportunity to steer our ship Polarstern all the way up to the North Pole.”
“The captain told me: ‘I have been there already, you go ahead.’ It’s incredible how differently you perceive your environment when there is only little to distract you.”
“The accounts of the scientists on board who had worked in the area for decades opened my eyes to how quickly the climate crisis is hitting an ecosystem, such as the Arctic.”
“That’s why I also decided to study conservation management. If we don’t wake up, if politicians and our society continue to ignore the looming ecological breakdowns around the world, we are facing social collapse.”
“The beginnings of what I have seen in my expeditions, glaciers and ice floes melting, will directly incite conflicts in places where the sea levels are rising, storms are devastating crops and droughts are forcing people to leave their land.”
“The patterns of migration will change and we won’t be able to say: ‘We close our ports, we are not responsible for this.’ We should not act because of fear or lack of control over our borders, but because we have a moral obligation and environmental debts to pay.”
Germany’s historic emissions are the fourth highest on the planet — we have emitted more than all African states together.
“With an exasperated climate crisis, human rights are eroding ever faster. This is why it’s time to act, on a local level, on a national level, on a global level.”
“We need to build alliances, between movements of people and the climate movement, between migrant communities and solidarity cities. Get involved in a local group, ask your neighbour what do they need, block the streets of your city to send a sign to your politicians: no action is not an option anymore.”