Lampedusa (Italy): Carola Rackete, the 31-year-old Sea-Watch 3 captain, is escorted off the ship by police and taken away for questioning on Saturday.—Reuters
Lampedusa (Italy): Carola Rackete, the 31-year-old Sea-Watch 3 captain, is escorted off the ship by police and taken away for questioning on Saturday.—Reuters

LAMPEDUSA: Sea-Watch 3 skipper Carola Rackete faced jail time on Saturday after forcing her way into Italy’s Lampedusa port with a shipload of rescued migrants to end a lengthy standoff with authorities.

Sea-Watch spokesman Ruben Neugebauer said the 31-year-old German captain was seized after manoeuvering the ship into port without authorisation on Friday night.

Rackete, described as a “pain in the neck” by Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, was detained for forcing her way into port past a police vessel trying to block her, a crime punishable by between three and 10 years in jail.

She was escorted from the vessel and taken away in a car as Salvini slammed what he termed a “criminal act, an act of war,” demanding that she be imprisoned.

“Humanitarian reasons cannot justify unacceptable acts of violence towards those wearing uniform at sea,” Italian media quoted regional prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio as saying.

Rackete will appear before a state prosecutor within 48 hours, her lawyer Leonardo Marino told reporters.

The 40 migrants on board were allowed to disembark and were taken to a reception centre on the island, some smiling, others in tears as they prepare to travel on to either France, whose interior ministry said it would take in ten of them, or to Germany, Finland, Luxembourg and Portugal.

The Italian coastguard then took control of the boat, anchoring it just off the coast.

“We put ourselves in the way to prevent (the ship) from entering the port.

If we had stayed there, (the vessel) would have destroyed our speedboat,” a police officer said in video footage posted on social media.

Residents and activists had gathered on the pier to watch the Sea-Watch 3 dock.

While a group of supporters applauded Rackete, others hailed her arrest, shouting “handcuff her”, “shame” and “get lost!”.

Polar scientist-turned rescuer of migrants

Sea-Watch 3 captain Carola Rackete may be a “pain in the neck” for Italy’s anti-immigration interior minister but she is a hero to dozens of migrants rescued from an uncertain fate at sea.

Born in the German city of Kiel on Germany’s Baltic coast, Rackete studied nautical science and conservation management.

Tanned and at home in a tank top, Rackete is a specialist in Arctic and Antarctic polar research and a sailor for the past eight years, “I’ve always really loved polar zones because they are very beautiful and inspiring. But working there is sometimes sad because you see directly what humans are doing to the planet,” she has said.

From Arctic into the fire

From her concern for the environment was born a social commitment which moved Rackete to spend spare time away from working on ice-breakers to volunteer missions in the Mediterranean with German NGO Sea-Watch.

Rackete’s first mission came in the summer of 2016, when Italian and European military ships still viewed the flotilla of humanitarian vessels as key support in the rescue of repeated waves of migrants from Libya.

That swiftly brought home the scale of the human drama for Rackete, with rescuers often finding just a handful of survivors aboard the rickety vessels in which they had escaped, surrounded by the corpses of those who had perished.

They would encounter many a stranded child desperate for affection after losing a parent, and hear many stories of torture from the fleeing migrants.

Over time, the navy vessels became fewer and fewer, leaving their humanitarian counterparts in the front line.

‘Ready to go to jail’

For Rackete, there is a principle at stake. “It doesn’t matter how you end up in distress. Firefighters don’t care about that, hospitals don’t. Maritime law doesn’t.

“If you need to be rescued, everyone has the right to come to your aid,” is how she sees it.

At sea, “rescue ends when people reach a safe place.” The battle is also a political one.

“We Europeans have allowed our governments to construct a wall at sea.

There is a civil society fighting against that and I am a part of it,” Rackete has said. The captain insists she is scrupulously complying with maritime law and stresses that “I am ready to go to jail for that and defend myself in court if I have to because what we are doing is just.”

Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2019