Captain Faces Prison for Rescuing Refugees at Sea

Refugees, including three pregnant women and four children, rest on Sunday after being rescued at sea by the Open Arms aid boat. Its captain was arrested. (AP Photo/Olmo Calvo)

CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — A 31-year-old German woman who captained a ship that rescues refugees at sea was arrested by Italian authorities over the weekend, opening a new chapter in the political and ideological clash over how the European Union should handle immigrants and refugees from Africa and Asia.

Carola Rackete, captain of the Sea-Watch 3, was to appear before an Italian court Monday in Agrigento, southern Sicily. She faces up to 10 years in prison and $56,000 in fines for her decision to disobey Italian orders and enter Italian waters.

Her arrest stems from a continuing confrontation between rescue ships and Italy’s new government, which has been run for the past year by a coalition of maverick political parties strenuously opposed to immigration. In recent years, Italy has become a primary entry point for people fleeing poverty and war in Africa and Asia, leading to a rise in xenophobia in Italy.

The Sea-Watch cruised into the port of Lampedusa on Friday with 42 Africans aboard picked up from a dinghy off the coast of Libya. The Dutch-flagged ship was stopped by Italian authorities one mile from the port and then escorted into port by police.

After docking, Rackete was taken off the ship and arrested to cheers and jeers. Her arrest immediately became a cause célèbre in Europe.

Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas expressed support for Rackete.

“Saving lives is a humanitarian duty,” he said. “Sea rescues must not be outlawed.”

Other German politicians, especially those on the left, also rallied behind Rackete and Sea-Watch. Germany’s Green Party leader, Robert Habeck, accused the Italian government of nefariousness.

Italian authorities claim Rackete struck a police vessel that was escorting the Sea-Watch 3 into port. She may also face charges of illegally aiding and abetting immigrants.

The confrontation is about more than the fate of the young sea captain: It goes to the heart of a burning clash in Europe between left-wing and right-wing politics over the issue of immigration. Generally, those on the left say Europe should welcome immigrants while those on the right say Europe is overburdened by immigration.

On the right, the anti-immigration champion is Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, the leader of a far-right party called the League. His party is gaining in strength throughout Italy and came out on top in recent European Parliament elections.

After taking office in June 2018, Salvini closed Italy’s ports to humanitarian rescue vessels and has sought to prevent immigrants and refugees from landing in Italy. He has forced other European nations to take those who do make it to Italy’s shores.

His hard-line policy continues to provoke tensions between Italy and other European nations. Europe has struggled to come up with an overarching strategy to cope with the influx of immigrants and deal with the root problems driving people to flee their homelands in search of a better life in Europe.

Sea-Watch 3 Captain Carola Rackete was arrested as she landed a rescue ship on Lampedusa, Italy on Thursday, with 42 refugees aboard. (ANSA/Matteo Guidelli via AP)

Over the weekend, Salvini was relishing his new fight against Sea-Watch. He called Rackete’s actions an “act of war.”

On Italian television, Salvini lashed out at Holland, Germany and the EU for allowing Sea-Watch to continue operating and claimed that his hard-line policies have dramatically reduced the number of people arriving by boat to Italy.

“Think about it: In August 2016, there were 13,000 landings of people in four days on Lampedusa,” he said during one appearance on RAI, Italy’s national broadcaster. “This year, from January 1 to today – that’s six months – we’re up to 2,000.”

Lampedusa is a small Sicilian island not far from the North African coast and has long been a point of entry for thousands of refugees and immigrants who cross the 185 miles from Libya to Lampedusa.

At the recent European elections, Salvini’s League party picked up a majority of votes in Lampedusa. Until recently, Salvini’s party was a political force only in northern Italy. In the early days, League politicians went out of their way to be disliked in the south as they ranted against the south, portraying it as a Mafia-run wasteland. The League’s recent rise in the south shows just how deep animosity towards immigrants and refugees is throughout Italy.

Salvini’s hard-line stance on immigration is viewed by many in Europe as cruel and leaving people to die at sea. Thousands of people have drowned in attempting this crossing. Since the 1990s, more than 34,000 people have died seeking to enter Europe, with a majority of those deaths in the Mediterranean.

To prevent such drownings, a flotilla of nongovernmental humanitarian vessels sprang up about six years ago and began cruising the Mediterranean to help refugees and immigrants get to Europe safely.

Typically, refugees board dinghies and other small craft in Libya and are set adrift into the Mediterranean toward the islands of Malta, Lampedusa and Sicily, which all are part of the EU. Such crossings tend to pick up in the spring and summer when the sea is less turbulent.

In recent days Italy has seen an uptick in arrivals, with the latest vessel showing up in Sicily on Monday with 42 people aboard. It had launched from Tunisia, Italian media reported.

However, the flotilla of rescue vessels run by nongovernment organizations like Sea-Watch has been systematically driven out of the Mediterranean by European authorities who say the vessels encourage people to attempt the crossing.

In the past two years, crews have been arrested and ships have been seized. Police in Malta, Italy and France have taken action against the rescue operations.

The Sea-Watch 3 is one of the last ships still conducting sea rescues and its fate will be keenly litigated. Along with the arrest of Rackete, Italian authorities also placed the Sea-Watch 3 under police custody.

It is a matter of legal dispute whether Italy can legally bar rescue vessels from entering its waters. Under international maritime law, a captain has an obligation to rescue people in distress at sea and take them to the nearest safe port.

Libya is not considered a safe place for people picked up at sea and Sea-Watch and Rackete say they had a moral obligation to take them to Lampedusa. Before entering Italian waters, Rackete said concerns about the refugees’ mental state forced her to enter Italian waters without authorization.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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