[WATCH] ‘If we let those people sail on, we know they will die’ | Carola Rackete

Sea-Watch and Lifeline are two vessels currently impounded in Malta, as per a new government policy not to allow voluntary NGO rescue ships the use of our harbours. Carola Rackete, spokesperson for Seawatch International, defends her organisation’s mission to save lives at sea

Carola Rackete. (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Carola Rackete. (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Sea-Watch is currently impounded in Malta, as per a new government policy not to allow voluntary NGO rescue ships the use of our harbours. Carola Rackete, spokesperson for Seawatch International, defends her organisation’s mission to save lives at sea

SeaWatch International has been on a mission to save lives in the Central Mediterranean since the end of 2014. Before turning to the current situation: what does a typical rescue operation entail, before and during the point of contact with a vessel in distress? Is there a pattern to how things unfold?

There is a pattern, usually. It either starts when we are informed by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome that there is a boat in distress somewhere. They would call us on the bridge by telephone, and inform us of a boat spotted by the Italian navy. Sometimes, people have satellite phones, so they call the MRCC and they [in turn] forward the information to us.

The MRCC is a huge coordination centre [...] where they have an overview of all the merchant or rescue ships in the area; but not of the naval vessels. So, if they hear of a boat in distress, they will find the closest ship and inform us. The other way that we sometimes find boats is by spotting them ourselves. We are at sea, always looking for rubber boats with binoculars; or we use our radar to find them. And sometimes, depending on the possibilities, we also have our own search airplane in the air...

With regard to the boats you spot yourselves – i.e., cases where you are not ordered to intervene by an MRCC – what are the rules of engagement? Would you consider any boat transporting asylum seekers to be in need of rescue, whether or not they send out a distress call?

Yes, absolutely. ‘Maritime distress’ is defined as such that, at the moment of encountering a boat, if you are certain that it is absolutely impossible for it to reach any port safely, you have to treat it as a boat in distress. For various reasons: first of all, we have seen many boats sinking. I have seen this personally, with my own eyes.

They are very unstable; built very cheaply; they don’t have enough fuel to reach Italy or Malta... they are often overcrowded; there will be sick or physically weak people on board... so we know that, if we left these people to sail on, someone could easily die on the boat. This has happened. Or they could all die, if the boat sinks. There is no stable situation on this kind of boat, because it’s overloaded from the beginning, and can never reach a port safely. That makes it a distress case.

Your mission is specifically to conduct SAR in Libya’s zone. Yet the rescue operations, as you say, are co-ordinated from Rome. At the same time, the EU is funding the Libyan coastguard to take over; and Italy has withdrawn the Mare Nostrum mission. Where does that leave responsibility for people rescued in that area?

For quite a few years, I think more than 10 years, the Italians have voluntarily taken over responsibility for [the Libyan Search and Rescue area]. So, we can say that by habit, we used to coordinate with Rome. Another reason is that, after Gaddafi lost power [in Libya] and the country fell into civil war, there are no authorities in Libya; no one who can be responsible for that area.

There is no stable, central government; and there is still a civil war going on. So, the Italians voluntarily took over the coordination of this rescue zone. Just until 28 June, there was no co-ordination centre in Libya. Only 10 days ago, the IMO recognised the notification of a Libyan RCC in Tripoli, funded and built up by Italy.

This may explain why both Malta and Italy expect those rescued in Libya’s SAR to be taken to Libya. Yet your NGO refuses to do this. Can you explain why?

Maritime law clearly states that you have to take people to a ‘port of safety’. There is no port of safety in Libya, which is still in a state of civil war. You can find many testimonies from people who have come out of Libya – the Red Cross, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, and even the ships have sometimes collected records – and it’s always the same story.

We know that people get kidnapped a lot; they get enslaved, there is forced labour; people get murdered; people get tortured; people get raped; there are a lot of human rights violations of all types. Not only in the private prisons of smugglers, but also in these so-called ‘official’ detention centres: which are under the authority of different... let’s say, different ‘groups’: because the country is not under the rule of a central government...

Your NGO has been accused of disobeying orders from an MRCC. Does that include refusing to hand over rescued migrants to Libyan coastguard, or take them to a Libyan port?

Yes. We will not do this. We have always said we will not do it, because it puts people’s life in danger. [...] Also, the 1951 Refugee Convention has a paragraph about ‘refoulement’, which means that if there is a refugee, you are not allowed to return him to a country where he will be facing this type of abuse.

In the Lifeline case, however, the rescue vessel went to Lampedusa, not a Libyan port...

It is important to clarify that the ship itself doesn’t decide on the port of safety [...] It is standard practice that the coordination centre is responsible for finding you a safe port; so depending on their negotiations, or availability, they appoint you a port, and you just go there...

In this case, the appointed port was Lampedusa. But when Lifeline got there, it was denied entry into harbour... resulting in a stand-off between Italy and Malta. How do you account for Italy’s apparent change of heart?

Basically, what happened was that the MRCC in Rome declined responsibility for that case; which is very strange, because in the beginning, when they were informed about this boat, they had assigned it a case number. Case numbers started at 1 in 2018; now, we’re at number 200-something. [...] But they assigned it a case number; in this way, actually taking responsibility and knowledge of the case.

Then later, they passed on the coordination to the so-called ‘Libyan coastguard’; and then didn’t want to deal with the case any more... even though they had assumed responsibility for it beforehand.

Meanwhile, Sea-Watch has encountered similar problems in Malta, which – like Italy - has closed its ports to rescue NGOs. Moreover, your search airplane has been reportedly grounded. What reasons have you been given for this?

Technically, the word ‘grounded’ means that we would not be allowed to fly at all, to anywhere. But we’re not grounded on technical reasons; what happened is that we were informed that we’re no longer allowed to come back from Libyan territory to Malta. 

We have been operating the same way for 18 months; but at the end of May we were informed that we now need a special permit to come back from the Libyan airspace to Malta. This is quite strange, because first of all we haven’t been told which exact regulation this refers to... we still don’t know where this is written down. We have been requesting this [information], and we are in touch with lawyers to find out about this regulation.

But at the same time we had a meeting with the Civil Aviation director, and we asked: ‘Ok, if we need a permit, what do we need to supply in order to get the permit?’  But we haven’t been told what documents we actually would need [...] This is quite interesting, because we’re not landing in Libya; we have never landed in a Libyan airport.

When we fly out of the Malta airport, we go to the local [domestic] flight terminal – because we fly Malta to Malta. Also, we never enter Libyan territorial airspace. We never go closer than 12 miles. We have all the flight checks to prove it. Of course, we do enter the Libyan air information area. There is a border between the Maltese and Libyan air traffic control areas, so to speak.

When we fly over it, we call Tripoli and tell them where we are, just to avoid collision with any other aircraft in the area. This is a normal thing. But we never enter territorial airspace.  Now, they request a permit, basically for us to come back to Malta after flying into the Libyan area... and first they don’t tell us how to get the permit; and secondly they don’t tell us where exactly that regulation is actually written down.

There are also reports that Sea-Watch is currently under ‘investigation’. Have you been told over what?

We are not sure, exactly. We have been informed that we cannot leave the harbour; but when Transport Malta officials boarded the vessel, they only asked for standard documentation, without telling us exactly what the investigation is about. Again, we have asked what specific documentation we are expected to provide; but we haven’t been given an answer.

As you are aware, there is considerable resistance to Sea-Watch’s activities in the Mediterranean, both from governments and certain sections of the population. Some argue that rescue NGOs ‘facilitate’ human smuggling, by providing ‘drop-off’ points for them to dump people at sea. Others suggest that there may even be collusion; that some NGOs are paid by smugglers. How do you respond to those accusations?

The facts and the numbers show that there have always been people trying to cross the [Mediterranean] sea. Smuggling exists, so long as there are no legal and safe routes to Europe. People have crossed for tens of years; they used to cross to the Canary Islands, for example; but when the Libyan civil war started, the [Central Mediterranean] opened as a prime smuggling route, because there was no government control. And smugglers just make money out of people; they never care if there’s anyone out there to rescue them or not.

So, after 2014, when Italy didn’t continue the Mare Nostrum mission – which was actually the last mission by a state to rescue people; when that was abandoned due to lack of funding, there was a huge gap in rescue efforts; and people set out anyway. That was in 2014, when we saw these pictures of mass casualties... when large boats capsized, and 3-, 4-, 500 people lost their lives in one day. That was when, for example, the head of our organisation decided to use his own private money, and buy a boat to do something. So, NGO vessels actually came in when governments, and the EU, abandoned this rescue zone.

This seems to echo Maria Pisani, of the local Integra Foundation, who recently said that the EU’s ‘final solution is to let them drown’. Do you agree? Is there a deliberate attempt to deter people from attempting the crossing, by making it as dangerous as possible?

Yes, there has definitely been a choice to turn a blind eye. And this choice was made as early as 2016. And even more than that, there is active support – training and funding for the so-called Libyan coastguard – to hold back people in Libya. So, the sole interest of the EU is to prevent any people from entering Europe, without consideration for any human rights, or the maritime and refugee laws.

The EU has now adopted another action plan to address the issue, after the recent summit on immigration. How do you interpret the latest policy?

The priorities of the EU clearly seem to be restricting migration by any means possible. There is absolutely no focus on refugee rights, or human rights. We know [...] about human rights abuses taking place in Libya. Irrespective of where people originally come from, when they pass through Libya they pass through a system of kidnapping, torture, forced labour, enslavement and other human rights abuses. This has been well known for years. The people in the EU know this; the European Parliament knows this; yet they continue to deal with the government in Libya on a daily basis.

The alternative, it is argued, is to bring all rescued migrants to either Malta or Italy. Many people here argue that Malta is too small, and its resources too limited, to cope with a problem of this magnitude. Don’t they have a point?

We clearly understand that for Malta, it would be very hard to receive as many refugees as, for example, Italy has received. But there is a more general problem, and that is the Dublin system. We have long been advocating for a change to the Dublin distribution system of refugees, which is clearly detrimental to all the countries in the south of Europe: be it Spain, Greece Italy and now maybe also Malta. So there needs to be a fair distribution of refugees, and there should be solidarity in the EU on this issue. Because this is a responsibility that needs to be shared between all member states.