31-year-old German national Carola Rackete made headlines recently after deciding to bring her ship carrying 40 migrants into Italian waters without authorization. She was arrested by Italian authorities on June 27, 2019 after docking the ship, Sea Watch 3, owned by a German NGO, in Lampedusa.
Rackete cited her reasoning behind the decision, saying that she was “responsible for the 42 rescued at sea and they can’t take it anymore. Their lives are more important than any political game.” Rackete’s ship had been at sea for over two weeks, and the captain cited that the situation onboard had become “tense”, causing her to fear for her passengers’ physical and psychological well-being. The migrants had been rescued off of Libya’s coast on June 12th but Italian authorities had not permitted the ship to enter the port.
Sea Watch, the German NGO that owns the ship, has supported Rackete, saying that she “enforced the rights of the rescued people to be disembarked to a place of safety”, and there has also been widespread support for Rackete across the EU. There have been calls for EU leaders to protect Rackete and other activists, as this arrest is not the first time that the captain of a civil society vessel has been arrested or charged with a crime. Captain Pia Klemp is another German female captain who faces up to 20 years in prison on charges of promoting illegal immigration, also levied against her by Italy.
Rackete is German-born and cites her commitment to helping migrants as stemming from her self-purported “privileged upbringing.” A conservationist and activist who speaks five languages, Rackete holds a degree in Nautical Sciences in Germany, as well as a Master’s in Environmental Conservation, which she studied in the UK. She obtained her certificate to become a First Mate from Germany’s Federal Office of Navigation and Hydrography. Shortly after receiving this certificate, at the age of 23, Rackete left on an icebreaker boat and worked in the North Pole until 2013. She then worked for Greenpeace and began collaborating with Sea Watch in 2016.
As of July 2, 2019, an Italian judge has ruled that Rackete should be released from house arrest, though she could still face a fine of between €10.000 – 50.000. Judge Alessandra Vella said that Rackete had acted according to “her duty to protect life”, while French and German governments have severely criticized the Italian government’s handling of the incident. Two fundraising appeals have arisen to pay for any potential legal fees Rackete could incur, or, if not necessary, to buy and equip a new ship for Sea Watch if Sea Watch 3 is not able to return to the water.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has defended Rackete’s arrest by saying that anyone jeopardizing Italian law and order should be arrested, with the implicated NGO paying a fine, the ship being seized and the migrants onboard being distributed to various European states. He has also responded to Rackete’s statements about the influence of her personal life on her activism by saying that she should volunteer in her home country of Germany, and not in Italy. Importantly, several racialized and sexualized slurs were yelled at Rackete by onlookers as she was taken off the ship, some as chilling as saying that they hoped she get raped by multiple black men, an apparent allusion to the fact that the migrants had been picked up from Africa. Racist and xenophobic comments such as these are bad enough, but it also seems key to highlight that this element of sexual violence would likely not have been a factor had Rackete been a man.
Overall, however, Rackete’s actions and decision to place value on the migrants’ lives has gained much admiration and support around the world. By standing by her values and promoting the rights of her passengers, Rackete is an example of empowerment and strength, particularly as a woman in a profession dominated by men.
By Corinne Schoch, WAVE Intern.
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