Captain Carola Rackete is a brave, determined woman. Up to recently, she was an unknown, young, well-educated and multilingual German girl who has been an activist for NGOs such as Greenpeace and Sea-Watch. In the past, she was also at the helm of an icebreaker at the North Pole. Now, over the past few weeks, she has become a hero in the eyes of some Italians, and a criminal according to others.
As she stepped off the Sea-Watch 3 ship, finally docked at Lampedusa harbor, she bore a regal demeanor and a dignified expression on her face. Nothing in her attitude indicated that she was about to be escorted to the police station by several officers, because, by entering the port of Lampedusa without authorization from the Italian authorities, she had broken the law.
Almost 20 days ago, her ship, the Sea-Watch 3, had rescued at sea, more than 40 migrants fleeing the Libyan detention camps—places where, according to the UN agencies, systematic human rights violations occur—refusing to leave them in the hands of the Libyan Coast Guard. The latter, in fact, would have brought them back to the hellish camps in the African country.
Stuck for 15 days off the coast of Lampedusa, Carola waited for the authorization from Italy to enter its territorial waters, but such a long and exhausting wait has not been rewarded. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini promised his electorate that he would never allow the NGO’s ship onto Italian territory: “They can wait till Christmas,” he said, labeling Carola as a “snotty brat.” The Captain and some of the migrants on board also appealed to the European Court for Human Rights, requesting it to implement interim measures that would have resulted in asking Italy to allow the vessel to disembark migrants. However, as the ship had already disembarked the most vulnerable of them, the European Court denied those measures. “The Court,” the ECHR press release explains, “grants such requests only on an exceptional basis, when the applicants would otherwise face a real risk of irreversible harm.” Additionally, the Court indicated to the Italian Government that in any case, “it was relying on the Italian authorities to continue to provide all necessary assistance to those persons on board of Sea-Watch 3, who are in a situation of vulnerability as a result of their age or state of health.”
On the 16th day, after several appeals to the Italian authorities had gone unanswered, Carola decided to break the naval blockade–and Italian law–and to enter Italy’s territorial waters. When she realized that the Italian Government would not give the authorization to disembark migrants in any case, on the 17th day, in the middle of the night, she also entered Lampedusa harbor. “At this moment the Sea-Watch 3 is entering Lampedusa harbor. It’s been almost 60 hours since we declared a state of emergency. No one listened. No one took responsibility. Once more it’s up to us, to Captain Carola Rackete and her crew, to bring the 40 people to safety,” the NGO wrote on Facebook.
It was a long and difficult night for Lampedusa. When the ship finally entered the port, there were many people on the dock, staring at the Sea-Watch 3 and waiting for new developments. Some of them warmly greeted Carola as she left the vessel, conducting herself with dignity while being escorted by the police officers. Many others, instead, shouted at her, insulted her, and even expressed the hope that she would get raped by “illegal migrants” (“clandestini” in Italian).
Early in the morning, the migrants finally set foot on dry land. They were brought to Lampedusa Hotspot, where the Captain herself was taken for identification after being arrested. They heartily welcomed her; she had saved their lives. She was aware of the consequences of her action. She knew she could be arrested, and charged with facilitation of illegal immigration.
And so it happened, indeed. The captain was also accused of violating Article 1100 of the Navigation Rules, and of “attempted shipwreck”, as her ship clashed with the Financial Police’s patrol boat while trying to enter Lampedusa harbor. According to the Italian press, she apologized for that. She didn’t apologize, though, for having saved human lives. She could have violated Italian laws—among them Matteo Salvini’s recently approved security decree—she could have made a mistake when she clashed with the patrol boat. However, while helping those human beings, she was undoubtedly respecting international law, which requires saving people who are at risk of drowning and bringing them to the nearest and safest port. That port, in this case, was for sure Lampedusa harbor.
Carola is a strong and brave woman who believes in humanity and solidarity. She lives at a time in which those values seem to have gone out of fashion, outlawed, and doing good is confused with do-goodism. Carola didn’t give up, and now she will pay the price.