Woman Ship Captain Defies Odds to Help Refugees
Carola Rackete, the woman captain of a rescue ship carrying 40 refugees, was arrested for breaking an Italian naval blockade that was trying to stop her from docking the vessel in Lampedusa. For 17 days, she received no support at all by any authority. The only indication that she got was to disembark the people in Libya, a country at war and the very same country from where the people that she rescued were escaping.
The cramped rubber dinghy was drifting, directionless, with 53 migrants on board. The coast of Libya, from which the boat had set out, was 47 miles to the south and the nearest part of Europe was out of reach, about 140 miles north. The boat was spotted on 12 June by a French plane. The plane’s crew of volunteers had been scouring the Mediterranean for people in distress, and they alerted another rescue team on board a nearby charity ship, the Sea-Watch 3. The crew of the Sea-Watch 3 made their way. towards the distressed dinghy and rescued those on board.
At that point, the crew could have handed the migrants over to Libyan coastguards, but the Sea-Watch 3’s captain, a 31-year-old German named CarolaRackete, did not consider that an option. Libya has in recent years descended into a lawless, chaotic state policed by armed militias, and Sea-Watch, a German charity, had already vowed never to return migrants to its shores. “Forcibly taking rescued people back to a war-torn country, having them imprisoned and tortured, is a crime that we will never commit,” the charity said in a statement recently.
The next closest port to the Sea-Watch 3 was on the Italian island of Lampedusa, but the Italian government had banned rescue ships bearing migrants from docking at its ports. Rackete spent two weeks in international waters, before deciding on 29 June that the health of those on board was at risk. Italy, where her human cargo was not welcome, was the only option.
The Italian government’s position is that Libya’s coastguard should take migrants back, and that rescue ships are acting as a taxi service that facilitate traffickers’ work. On 11 June, Italy’s cabinet passed an emergency decree ruling that any vessel that sailed into Italian waters without permission would face a fine of up to €50,000. It was the following day that Rackete received the distress call about the drifting migrant boat.
After more than two weeks in limbo, Rackete said conditions on board the Sea-Watch 3 were beginning to deteriorate. Rackete decided to guide the ship into port in the middle of the night on 29 June. Soon after Sea-Watch 3 arrived in Lampedusa, the migrants were taken off the ship, and Rackete was arrested and warned she could face 10 years in jail. In the end, the judge sided with Rackete and with her interpretation of maritime law: as the ship’s captain, she had a duty to protect the lives of those on board. She was carrying out that duty, judge Alessandra Vella said. Rackete stated: “I have white skin, I was born in a rich country, I have the right passport, I was allowed to attend three universities, and I graduated at the age of 23, I feel a moral obligation to help those people who did not have the foundations that I did.”