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29.06.2019 Africa

Sea-Watch captain: polar scientist-turned rescuer of migrants

By AFP
Escorted off her Sea-Watch 3 charity boat by Italian police, skipper Carola Rackete  insists she has remained true to her humanitarian principles and is ready to go to jail for them.  By Anaelle LE BOUEDEC (LOCALTEAM/AFP)
JUN 29, 2019 AFRICA
Escorted off her Sea-Watch 3 charity boat by Italian police, skipper Carola Rackete insists she has remained true to her humanitarian principles and is ready to go to jail for them. By Anaelle LE BOUEDEC (LOCALTEAM/AFP)

Sea-Watch 3 captain Carola Rackete may be a "pain in the neck" for Italy's anti-immigration interior minister but she is a hero to dozens of migrants rescued from an uncertain fate at sea.

The polar researcher-turned rescue vessel skipper was arrested Saturday for docking without permission at an Italian port, despite threats of jail time, with a shipload of desperate migrants.

The dreadlocked 31-year-old offered no resistance as she was escorted from the Sea-Watch 3 without handcuffs to applause from supporters gathered pierside, but shouts of "Handcuff her!", "Shame!" and "Get lost!" from locals.

Born in the German city of Kiel on Germany's Baltic coast, Rackete studied nautical science and conservation management.

Tanned and at home in a tank top, Rackete is a specialist in Arctic and Antarctic polar research and a sailor for the past eight years,

"I've always really loved polar zones because they are very beautiful and inspiring. But working there is sometimes sad because you see directly what humans are doing to the planet," she has said.

From Arctic into the fire

An image grab taken from a video released by Local Team shows Rackete being taken away following her arrest for refusing to obey a military vessel, which could see her jailed for up to 10 years.  By Anaelle LE BOUEDEC (LOCALTEAM/AFP) An image grab taken from a video released by Local Team shows Rackete being taken away following her arrest for refusing to obey a military vessel, which could see her jailed for up to 10 years. By Anaelle LE BOUEDEC (LOCALTEAM/AFP)

From her concern for the environment was born a social commitment which moved Rackete to spend spare time away from working on ice-breakers to volunteer missions in the Mediterranean with German NGO Sea-Watch.

Rackete's first mission came in the summer of 2016, when Italian and European military ships still viewed the flotilla of humanitarian vessels as key support in the rescue of repeated waves of migrants from Libya.

That swiftly brought home the scale of the human drama for Rackete, with rescuers often finding just a handful of survivors aboard the rickety vessels in which they had escaped, surrounded by the corpses of those who had perished.

They would encounter many a stranded child desperate for affection after losing a parent, and hear many stories of torture from the fleeing migrants.

Over time, the navy vessels became fewer and fewer, leaving their humanitarian counterparts in the front line.

'Ready to go to jail'

For Rackete, there is a principle at stake.

"It doesn't matter how you end up in distress. Firefighters don't care about that, hospitals don't. Maritime law doesn't.

"If you need to be rescued, everyone has the right to come to your aid," is how she sees it.

Rackete swapped work as a polar researcher and committed environmentalist to skipper Sea Watch 3 in the belief everybody in peril at sea has the right to be rescued.  By HO (Sea Watch/AFP/File) Rackete swapped work as a polar researcher and committed environmentalist to skipper Sea Watch 3 in the belief everybody in peril at sea has the right to be rescued. By HO (Sea Watch/AFP/File)

At sea, "rescue ends when people reach a safe place."

The battle is also a political one.

"We Europeans have allowed our governments to construct a wall at sea. There is a civil society fighting against that and I am a part of it," Rackete has said.

The captain insists she is scrupulously complying with maritime law and stresses that "I am ready to go to jail for that and defend myself in court if I have to because what we are doing is just."

Salvini had been calling loudly for her arrest, describing her as a "pain in the neck" and adding that "those who flout the rules must be held accountable.

He added that "the captain of Sea-Watch (is) playing politics on immigrants' backs, funded by I don't know who."

Amid these comments and a slew of social media insults hurled at Rackete there are also many offering support.

Senator Gregorio De Falco, a former coastguard officer who has publicly backed Sea Watch as having the right to dock in Italy, saluted her as "a person of high moral dignity who shows considerable strength and coherence in the face of her responsibilities."

Supporters have raised more than 320,000 euros ($350,000) since Wednesday towards the potential legal costs of "Captain Carola."

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