Sea-Watch 3 navigates unjust asylum laws in quest to save migrant lives

While the Sea-Watch 3 search and rescue ship remains impounded in Italy, hopes are high that it will soon be saving lives again.
(Sea-Watch/Tim Wagner)

It has been 23 days since the Sea-Watch 3 search and rescue ship was impounded by Italian authorities, when it landed without permission on the island of Lampedusa on June 29. This came after a 17-day stand-off during which the vessel, with its 42 migrants rescued off of the coast of Libya, was refused safe harbor. The Italian government rejected the ship in spite of numerous urgent calls by the captain requesting permission. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Italy was required to accept the rescue ship as the nearest safe harbor. During the stand-off, Sea-Watch had put out the request for sanctuary to nearby European nations on the Mediterranean, but was refused.

Sea-Watch Captain Carola Rackete

In the international imbroglio that ensued when the Sea-Watch 3 broke the blockade, Captain Rackete was arrested and the ship was impounded as state’s evidence. Rackete was charged with entering Italian waters illegally and for illegal trafficking of migrants. Far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini added to anti-immigrant vitriol accusing Rackete of committing an act of war when the Sea-Watch 3 made light contact with an Italian border police boat that came between it and the dock. Rackete apologized for this saying it was an accident. Germany called for her release of the ship, which is operated by a German NGO. Its foreign minister, Heiko Maas, tweeted “Saving lives is a humanitarian duty” and called upon Italy to throw out the allegations. The 31-year-old female captain with dreadlocks has since become a symbol of the divisive immigration debate in Italy, Europe, and the United States, where the provision of humanitarian aid on the borders is criminalized. She faced a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, but the judge overturned the arrest three days later, saying the captain had acted to save lives. Prosecutors are still investigating whether there is enough to make a case against her.

Show-downs such as these are not likely to end soon. Italy has closed its ports to rescue ships, making safe passage nearly impossible as humanitarian corridors are sealed. Meanwhile, the European Union continues to train and finance the failed state of Libya’s Tripoli-based Coast Guard to thwart migration across the Central Mediterranean. As a result, thousands of refugees are subjected to the horrors of sustained detention, human trafficking, torture, slavery, rape and other crimes against humanity. Many are murdered or drown at sea, sometimes in plain view of the Libyan authorities, in spite of the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and International Convention on Refugees, which mandate sea rescue and protecting passage to a safe third country.  

Summer is the most favorable season for refugees to attempt the perilous Central Mediterranean Sea crossing, and boats and dinghies operated by smugglers frequently arrive on Europe’s shores. However, many that set off from Africa don’t complete the journey and very few rescue assets are free to sail. According to Austrian crew member Jakob Frühmann, “It is imperative that the Sea-Watch 3 and other NGOs be allowed to continue their nonviolent means to provide safe passage until the political aim of establishing humanitarian corridors is achieved.” 

After two days in Lampedusa, the Sea-Watch 3 was moved to the Sicilian port of Licata, where it now sits impounded by the Italian Coast Guard. Its international crew of volunteers remains fully staffed, is actively maintaining the vessel, and ready to sail pending approval by the Italian authorities. Hopes are high that they will be able to save lives soon.

In an interview with Waging Nonviolence, the ship’s current captain, an Australian named Malcolm Holland, said that the crew is making the best of being confined to harbor for these weeks. “A ship like the Sea-Watch 3 does require continuous upkeep, so our volunteers are making good use of the time — it’s a reset. At the same time, being subject to punitive measures only strengthens our resolve in resuming and continuing the mission, just as soon as the legal process allows.” Regarding the criminalization of his predecessor, Holland reflected, “For myself I’ll say, there’s a real underlying sense, at the existential level, of frustration in finding ourselves in this moment of Carola’s story. Yet, there are promising indications that local prosecutors in Italy hold international precedent and custom — regarding sanctity of life at sea — above the cynical work of populists to channel fear into concentrating state power. And I’d acknowledge the fear is founded, the world is changing before our eyes. But it’s my tendency to hold the view that humanity has the capacity to navigate this crisis. Europe presents itself as progressed. We have to believe in our human capacities to adapt.”

Michael Gordon, PhD candidate in political science from McMaster University in Toronto, Canada, is presently volunteering on the Sea-Watch 3 and conducting research for his dissertation on humanitarian rescue ships and the fluid, often conflicting and changing interpretations and applications of international and national laws on the sea and their jurisdiction. He explained, ”Standoffs at sea are another political tool now commonly employed by E.U. member states that works to marginalize the efforts of NGOs at sea. While most visible and vocal with the Italian government, this is part of a wider trend in the European Union that has seen the increasing criminalization of rescue, humanitarianism and solidarity.” One example of this is that search and rescue vessels such as “Ocean Viking” operated by Doctors Without Borders, and the “Alan Kurdi” operated by the German NGO Sea-Eye, have just arrived in the Central Mediterranean SAR zone north of Libya. However, Libya with E.U. complicity has arbitrarily expanded its SAR zone to 76 miles and won’t let NGO rescue boats enter. According to Gordon, “The EU is working to preserve a violent and exclusionary border system that produces an increasing number of barriers for mobility and very directly harms people on the move.” As a result, people fleeing Libya by dinghies and other small vessels face the likelihood that they will drown or be returned to land by the Libyan Coast Guard, where they will be persecuted or killed. 

This situation in the Central Mediterranean highlights the unresolved and growing conflict between the International Convention on Refugees protocol prohibiting the return of refugees to an unsafe country, and abrogating laws instituted by the European Union and the failed Libyan state. It also underscores domestic confusion that can arise in implementing the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea covenant, which requires the country closest to a vessel that has performed a rescue to provide safe harbor. On July 27, the Italian Coast Guard rescued 135 migrants, however Italy would not allow its own ship safe harbor. Instead, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini called upon European countries to commit to resettling them prior to landing and disembarking the boat. Usually such stand-offs occur with NGO rescue ships, not Italy’s own fleet. 

Aboard the impounded Sea-Watch 3, Luk is on her second mission with the NGO. Although she could be earning a good salary as a medical doctor in Berlin, she said she chose this profession not for financial gain, but to give medical care to those who cannot afford it. “This is not a hobby for me,” she said, “but a way of life. Solidarity is different from simply being an ally or giving charity, as it takes place between equals and actively challenges implicit power relations. I live in a post-colonial world in which European countries profit from the oppression and exploitation of African countries, which causes forced migration.” Michael Gordon concurs: ”We cannot ignore the longer colonial and imperial linkages with the Global South and the exclusionary politics of the E.U. border regime which have deep roots in the precarious migrant journeys we now see.”

For the time being, the Sea-Watch 3 remains impounded in Licata Harbor, but in good company. Next to it is the Mare Jonio, operated by Mediterranea-Saving Humans, and other detained rescue boats. Meanwhile, there is growing outrage at the European Union and Italy’s asylum policy, as exemplified by the plight of the Sea-Watch 3 and arrest of its captain. Carola Rackete recently told reporters, “I hope that the European Commission, after the election of the new parliament, will do its best to avoid this kind of situation and that all the countries will accept migrants saved by civilian rescue ships.” In the meantime, the crew of the Sea-Watch 3 and other rescue boats will continue to intervene where governments fail.

This story was produced by Fellowship of Reconciliation


As an interfaith organization, FOR-USA's mission is to organize, train, and grow a diverse movement that welcomes all people of conscience to end structures of violence and war, and create peace through the transformative power of nonviolence.

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