She is being called La Capitana! Carola Rakete, the 31-year-old dreadlocked German captain of the Sea-Watch 3, has been lauded as a heroine by many after she was arrested following her challenge to the “closed port policy” of Il Capitano (aka Italy’s Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini). 

Rakete’s NGO ship was carrying migrants from Libya rescued from an unseaworthy vessel launched by Libya-based human traffickers. Salvini refused to let the ship dock in Lampedusa, one of the main Italian ports of arrival for refugees,  until other European countries agreed to take them. Rakete bravely decided the migrants had waited long enough and decided to dock without permission, saying it was a matter of human rights. Her organisation tweeted: “Its enough. After 16 days following the rescue, #Seawatch 3 enters in port.” Rakete hit an Italian police boat which was blocking her path to the dock which led to her arrest. 

While some deplored her actions – Salvini himself dismissed her as a “rich, white, german woman” who had committed an “act of war” – many were on her side, including UN experts who declared that “rescuing migrants in distress at sea is not a crime” and called on the Italian Authorities to “immediately stop the criminalisation of search and rescue operations”. 

The judge ruled Rackete was fulfilling her duty to rescue persons in distress at sea. She ordered her immediate release and dismissed the charges that Rackete had hit a police boat and ignored police by docking at Lampedusa. However, the judge has since been the target of sexist messages online as well as rape and death threats. 

Rakete remains under investigation in separate criminal proceedings, facing allegations that she endangered the lives of police officers and facilitated illegal migration. She could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted. Such a conviction would undoubtedly have a chilling effect on migrant rights defenders. 

Almost 700 deaths have been registered in the Mediterranean so far in 2019; nearly half as many as the 1,425 recorded in 2018. Libya is a main departure point for migrants and refugees attempting to reach Europe by boat in a bid to escape war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.  Italy is one of the main EU landing points. Until recently, it accepted nearly all of the refugees and migrants rescued by humanitarian groups at sea. However, when a populist coalition government took power in 2018, they swiftly moved to close Italy’s ports to NGO ships.

The EU ended its own Mediterranean rescue operations in March following disagreements on how those rescued should be divided between EU member states. UN agencies have called for a resumption of the naval patrols and for European countries to stop returning refugees and migrants to Libya where they are at risk due to the ongoing conflict and endure dire conditions. The agencies also said NGO rescue ships play a “crucial role” and must not be penalised for saving lives at sea. 

A tentative agreement, which aims to create a system for the European distribution of rescued people on a voluntary basis, has just been reached. It is hoped this will improve the situation for refugees and migrants, and that the vital EU rescue operations which save countless lives will now resume.  

If this does not happen, the situation for migrants in the Mediterranean will become even more perilous. 

The criminalisation or blocking of humanitarian help for migrants and refugees is an important human rights issue that we should all be concerned about. For five reasons why migration is also a feminist issue see: https:/ www.unfpa.org/news/five-reasons-migration-feminist-issue

 

Photo courtesy of Daniel Arrhakis via Flickr

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