A Heroine and a Figure of Hate Carola Rackete and Europe's Troubling Refugee Policies

Seventeen days at sea, chaos, distress and an act of desperation: The drama surrounding German captain Carola Rackete has exposed the cynicism behind European migration policy. The EU is no longer rescuing drowning migrants and the number of refugees continues to fall. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
Portrait of Carola Rackete, german captain of the Sea Watch ship.

Portrait of Carola Rackete, german captain of the Sea Watch ship.

Foto: Karl Mancini/ DER SPIEGEL

It's been four days since Isaac, Fréderic and their friends arrived in the port of Lampedusa on board the Sea-Watch 3, captained by Carola Rackete. They can hardly believe they're really here. The sun is setting and the temperature has become a bit more bearable as they sit on the steps of the San Gerlando church.

It is shortly after 9 p.m. on this Tuesday and they have just received a message on their smartphones: "Carola libera." Carola is free.

The reference is to Carola Rackete , the 31-year-old German captain of the Sea-Watch 3 who has become a rival to Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini -- and a figurehead for a less restrictive migration policy.

But the migrants standing in front of the church merely see her as the woman without whom none of them would have made it to Europe. They cheer when they read the news that she has been released.

"Carola Rackete saved our lives. Without her, we would all be dead," says Fréderic Samassi, a 24-year-old from Ivory Coast. He says he spent three years in Libya, most of it behind bars, an ordeal during which he says he saw many terrible things. Now, he has reached the goal that he had imagined when he left his home in 2016: Europe.

Like most of those here, he spent almost 17 days on board the Sea-Watch 3, center stage in a European-wide drama. Samassi tells the story of how their vessel began taking on water two days after setting out to sea from Libya. He relates how the Sea-Watch 3 approached, how they clamored aboard in heavy swells. "The crew gave us water, we were almost dying of thirst," says Isaac Hagan, 21, from Ghana. They then handed out food, clothes and medicine. "They treated us like brothers and sisters."

Rackete, the captain, promised to bring them to a safe harbor. But days went by and the situation on board became increasingly untenable, the stench growing unbearable. At night, they could see the lights of Lampedusa and some of the migrants wanted to jump overboard and swim for it. "That would have been suicide," says Hagan.

He speaks of the desperation on board before Rackete decided to break through the port blockade, a move that transformed her into a European heroine for some, and an object of loathing for others.

Hagen says he cried when he heard she had been arrested.

'I'm Bringing Them To Safety'

Similar to the way Greta Thunberg has become a star of the movement to save the climate, Rackete has now become an icon of the debate over refugee policy. She became famous as a result of videos in which she soberly and precisely described the situation on board the ship and announced her plan to head for the Lampedusa port despite the ban. Her sentence: "I'm bringing them to safety" went around the world.

At the same time, an outpouring of hate directed at Rackete has also flooded social media networks. Salvini, meanwhile, refers to her as "lawless" and as a "rich German."

In an interview  with DER SPIEGEL, Rackete says the role in which she now finds herself isn't one that she wanted. It's "not about individuals like me," she says.

But the case of Sea-Watch 3 and Rackete has laid bare just how contradictory the European Union's migrant policy is. And it has again shone the spotlight on the brutal reality of what is taking place in the Mediterranean. Namely, that the EU is allowing migrants to drown  and is pursuing a policy that, just a few years ago, only right-wing populists dared propose.

This spring, the EU completely ceased all efforts to save refugees from the Mediterranean and is now only monitoring the situation from the air. It is also cooperating with the Libyan coast guard, which has been expanding its area of responsibility since 2017. The Libyan ships intercept migrants off their coast and bring them back, where they are confined in camps  and many are subjected to torture and rape. Some are reportedly forced to take part in the country's ongoing civil war.

At the same time, private persons who have set out to sea to save migrants from drowning have been criminalized by Italy and Malta. The countries have closed their ports to such ships and are pursuing charges against those who operate them.

According to a poll carried out by German public broadcaster ARD, almost three-quarters of all Germans believe that migrants should be assisted when they run into trouble at sea and that those who help them should not be subject to prosecution. Sixty-three percent find it incorrect that the EU has ceased efforts to save migrants.

The reality is that there are hardly any private aid ships currently operating in the Mediterranean. It used to be that up to a dozen ships were patrolling the waters at any given time, but now, there aren't any at all on some days. One of the few that is still operating is the Alan Kurdi, operated by the German organization Sea-Eye.

Almost no Mediterranean country is willing to take in migrants who have been saved from the sea. According to the German Interior Ministry, there have already been six conflicts focusing on which EU member state would accept refugees from an aid ship. In the case of Rackete's ship, the conflict involved France, Portugal, Finland, Luxembourg and Germany.

Europe More Divided Than Ever over Migrants

Yet Europe is more divided than ever when it comes to finding a joint political solution to the migrant question. The only area of agreement seems to be on allowing Libyan militias to do the dirty work. The primary EU goal appears to be deterrence. It's effectiveness can be read in the last semi-annual report compiled by the EU Mediterranean operation Sophia.


According to that confidential report, which DER SPIEGEL has obtained, migration across the central Mediterranean has dropped by 83 percent within one year. Part of that reduction is the result of expanded support for the Libyan coast guard, with the report noting that an additional 325 members have been trained. The "deterrent presence" has led to a reduction in the smuggling of humans, weapons and oil, wrote Italian Rear Admiral Enrio Credendino, leader of the Sophia operation, in a letter to the EU in January. The "reduced presence of NGO ships," he added, allows the Libyan coast guard to "act more effectively."

The numbers make it look as though the EU has been successful in reducing migration. But there hasn't just been a reduction in the number of migrants risking the crossing, there has also been an increase in the death rate among those who do try. It is more than twice as high as it was three years ago.

And there are still a lot of people who are unwilling to accept the situation as it is. People like Carola Rackete.

Standing Up To Salvini

Ekkehart Rackete is sitting in his garden swing in the Lower Saxony town of Hambühren and trying to make sense of it all -- the ship's captain from the news and Carola, his daughter, who still has her own room in the white, single-story home.

The streets in the neighborhood are named Hedgehog, Badger and Rabbit and most of the neighboring homes have carefully tended lawns, in contrast to the overgrown yard of the Racketes. Ekkehart Rackete, 74, is wearing a blue T-shirt to match his blue shorts. He served for a time in the military before a career in "defense technology," as he describes it. He's now retired.

When asked how it is that his daughter decided to stand up to someone like Matteo Salvini, he responds: "That's just how she is."

After she finished high school, she chose to study nautical science. Her father says he doesn't really know why she went that route. "Carola always knew what she wanted, and she went out and did it." Rackete says that his daughter overcomes all obstacles -- "which explains her weakness for icebreakers." He says that when she would call home via satellite telephone from a job she had in the polar region, she would speak excitedly about the meter-thick ice the ship had to fight through.

An acquaintance told Carola Rackete about the organization Sea-Watch in 2015. She has since taken part in six missions and captained her own vessel as early as 2016. Even back then, her focus was on saving lives, says Sea-Watch spokesman Ruben Neugebauer, adding that she would ignore the rules and take refugees onboard rather than putting them on life rafts alongside the ship.

Still, she hadn't initially been assigned to the mission that made her famous. A fellow captain told Sea-Watch that he was unavailable, so Rackete jumped in to replace him.

On the Saturday before her departure, she had lunch with her parents. "We were surprised," Rackete's mother says. "After her first mission, she had said that it was too much responsibility for her." Her parents say they didn't try to talk Rackete out of the mission, even though they knew that Italy no longer intended to allow NGO ships into its ports.

A Welcome Contrast

Ekkehart Rackete says he doesn't really know where his daughter stands politically, adding that she is leftist, but not at all militant about it. Carola Rackete's contribution to the book "Neuland," in which Sea-Watch activists write about their experiences, provides more of a clue. She describes how she ended up with the organization. "If you can't find anyone else who is better qualified, then I'll do it," she said, according to her account. And they couldn't, in fact, find anyone who is "stupid or crazy enough to take on responsibility for a mission for which nobody could predict how it would go."

In the piece, she argues that there needs to be an EU mission to help save migrants who run into trouble in the Mediterranean -- or, at least, more funding should be made available to private organizations. Plus, she writes, a possibility for applying for asylum in embassies overseas must be established. The text sounds pragmatic, just like she sounds in conversation, a welcome contrast in a debate where screaming has become the norm.

There is almost no government in Europe that wants to take responsibility for the conditions in the Mediterranean. And the Continent's political leaders are in a difficult position: Most voters don't want people to drown, but they also aren't interested in open-border policies of the kind that some refugee activists are demanding.

The problematic situation in the Mediterranean is less the product of a master plan and more the result of failure: For years, the EU has been unable to agree on a joint migration policy. Leaders can't agree on new rules for the distribution of refugees or for border protection. And the seven-part asylum package remains stuck in the European Council, the powerful EU body that represents the leaders of the member states, with no agreement in sight.

The German government left Italy alone with the migrants for several years. Two years ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel even expressed her regret that the EU, Germany included, didn't do enough to support member states on the external EU border. Since then, though, little has changed.

Because the situation is so complicated, Brussels and Berlin are still hoping that countries in North Africa will solve the problem for them. Several years ago, the Interior Ministry developed a plan for sending those saved from the Mediterranean to places like Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria or Egypt -- where the United Nations could then take care of them.

The African countries, though, are not particularly inclined to take the problem off of Europe's hands.

The Effects of EU Policy

The case of Umar, a Sudanese man whose name has been changed for this story, goes a long way toward explaining the effects of the EU's present-day migration policies.

Shortly before his story of flight, torture and death began, Umar relates, he experienced a day of happiness. The day was July 20, 2016, when he married his wife Hala. More than 100 guests came to their village in Janub Kordofan and the newlyweds set aside the cash gifts they received to finance their new lives. It was to pay for the migrant smugglers.

Six weeks later, they set out for Libya on their way to Europe. Umar didn't know at the time that the journey would take almost a year and that his wife wouldn't survive it.

Umar told his story in the Paris bureau of DER SPIEGEL. One reason he wants to share his ordeal is that it's part of a case that the International Criminal Court in The Hague has opened in response to the conditions in Libya's prison camps. National prosecutors in Europe have already filed cases alleging crimes against humanity in Libya.

Since early June, the European Union has been a defendant in the case, brought by a team of lawyers under the leadership of the Paris-based jurists Omer Shatz and Juan Branco. The key element of their 241-page brief is the accusation that the EU is partly to blame for the crimes in Libya because Brussels works together with the Libyan coast guard, which, according to the legal brief, participates in torturing, abusing and killing refugees.

Human-traffickers organized Umar's and Hala's trip, and in September 2016, they crossed the Sahara in a pickup, driving for a day-and-a-half without stopping. The Sudanese couple was then handed over to Libyan smugglers, who separated them from each other and put them in a camp.

They lived in containers in the camp with very little daylight. Umar didn't know where his wife was or how she was doing. He heard that refugee women were raped by the guards. Frequently, he was told by other prisoners, drunk guards would rape the women in front of others to humiliate them.

Umar himself says he was beaten and more, but he declines to offer additional details.

After two weeks, Umar and Hala were sold to a farmer as laborers because they had no money to buy their freedom. Umar says his wife broke down in tears when he asked her what had happened to her in the camp.

'Concentration Camp-Like Conditions'

Even then, in January 2017, the German Embassy in Niger reported to the Chancellery and several Berlin government ministries on the conditions in Libya's refugee camps. "Authentic mobile phone photographs and videos document the concentration camp-like conditions." The paper continues: "Executions of migrants who can't pay, torture, rape, extortion and people getting abandoned in the desert are daily occurrences."

After several months, Umar and Hala were able to escape and in Sabratha, a town on Libya's Mediterranean coast, they once again put their fates in the hands of migrant smugglers. One night, they and 80 other migrants climbed into a fishing boat for the journey to Italy. After an hour, the smugglers headed back in a dinghy and not long after that, a Libyan coast guard ship turned up. On deck were men armed with machine guns and two men in uniforms jumped onto the fishing boat and ordered them to turn around.

Such incidents are hardly a rarity on the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy. In Umar's case, there is no indication that Europeans had anything to do with it. But the lawyers Shatz and Branco have documented numerous other cases and claim that the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) , based in Rome, has repeatedly directed ships operated by private organizations away from refugee boats so that the Libyan coast guard can intercept them and bring them back to Libya.

Dire Conditions

According to their documents, the situation at sea is bordering on lawless: coast guard boats have forced away NGO ships and refugees have been threatened at gunpoint. One incident, again involving Sea-Watch, grabbed international headlines in 2017. The Libyan coast guard spent hours preventing a Sea-Watch ship from taking 150 passengers from a refugee vessel onboard. Only after several hours was the Sea-Watch ship able to save 59 people, with more than 20 migrants drowning, including a child.

Forty-seven of them were brought back to Libya, with some reporting dire conditions after their forced return to Libya. They say they were locked into cells along with hundreds of other prisoners -- a fate that was also awaiting Umar and Hala, when they were brought back to a camp in Libya. Umar says they only got one glass of drinking water each day.

According to United Nations statistics from early June, more than 2,300 people have been intercepted on the Mediterranean by the Libyan coast guard this year and put into camps where conditions are abominable. Only when Umar and Hala paid ransom with money sent by their families back home were they set free. Two weeks later, they were back on the very same wooden boat on which they had previously tried to get to Italy. They were escorted by two dinghies and a Libyan coast guard ship.

"It was the same men in uniform who had sent us back before," says Umar. "I am sure of it." If that is true, it would prove the lawlessness of the Libyan coast guard and that they work together with migrant smugglers. Umar says the Libyans accompanied the refugee boat as it sailed for Italy and that at 4 a.m., they were transferred to the NGO ship Aquarius, which brought them to Sicily.

On July 27, 2017, they were finally in Italy and were examined by doctors in the Trapani camp. Umar says Hala had been four or five months pregnant and that she fell ill on the second day in the camp and was taken to the hospital. She died there 48 hours later. Umar says she died of exhaustion, and he buried her in Sicily in an unnamed grave. He said he'll be able to find his way back to the grave for the rest of his life.

Umar now lives in a refugee hostel in Paris. He filed for asylum on Feb. 11 and is now waiting for it to be approved.

After that, he says, he'll have to learn to live with the feeling of guilt he has. But the question is: Who else bears guilt for everything that Umar has been forced to endure? And why should people like Carola Rackete be treated as criminals for pulling people like Umar out of the water?

A 'Coalition of the Willing'

Gerald Knaus has been thinking about such questions, and about how to improve European asylum policy, for years -- and he would like to see a pragmatic approach. Originally from Austria, Knaus heads up the Berlin-based think tank European Stability Initiative and played a significant role in refugee agreement signed between the EU and Turkey. He says that a serious debate is needed along with realistic goals, adding that the EU hasn't pursued the latter for years.

He believes that the idea of distributing migrants across the EU according to a quota system never had a chance of succeeding. The first step, he says, is putting together a "coalition of the willing" that could set a good example. Knaus recommends establishing "common asylum centers in the locations where people are arriving -- places where human rights are respected and rapid, fair proceedings can take place." The goal, Knaus says, should be that nobody who is denied protection in the EU seeks to come across the sea.

He believes that Germany, France, Spain and Greece, all of whom have felt the effects of irregular migration, could form an immediate cooperation. Only very few countries, he argues, have an interest in an EU-wide distribution system without of a policy of return from asylum centers to the external borders.

Knaus is convinced that once a few willing countries have demonstrated how viable European asylum centers are, others will follow suit. "The first places where we need to immediately establish rapid proceedings are the Greek islands -- and for those in Malta or Corsica who were saved from the Mediterranean."

Lampedusa, by contrast, is a good place to see -- once the news cameras have gone -- just how cynical migration policy functions in reality. Refugees on rafts arrive almost every day. In the first two weeks of June, around 400 people managed to complete the journey without the assistance of organizations like Sea-Watch.

Salvatore Martello is the left-wing mayor of Lampedusa. "I'm a fisherman," he says. "We fishermen have a creed: Those in distress must be saved." Several times in the last two years, he has written to the government in Rome to ask for assistance and to invite Salvini to the island. He has never received a response. "Lampedusa doesn't exist for the Italian government," Martello says. He says that Salvini is only using the closed ports for election propaganda.

Martello has set up two maritime cemeteries in Lampedusa, one from 2018 and the other from 2019. They are full of washed up refugee vessels, small mountains of rafts and boats, each of which bears witness to private tales of flight and suffering. "Those who believe that no migrants are coming anymore should see them," says the mayor.

The refugees brought ashore by the Sea-Watch left Lampedusa on Thursday for Sicily, where they can apply for asylum. None of them really knows what they plan to do after that. Isaac Hagan of Ghana wants to become a professional football player. His friend Fréderic Samassi, who says Carola Rackete saved his life, wants to go to school and then to university. "Without an education, you're not a real person," he says.

And Rackete? She is scheduled to appear in court again on Tuesday, after which she hopes to leave Italy. Not by air though -- she's concerned about the climate.

By Markus Becker, Markus Feldenkirchen, Lucia Heisterkamp, Frank Hornig, Martin Knobbe, Steffen Lüdke, Milena Pieper, Mathieu von Rohr, Britta Sandberg, Fidelius Schmid, Carolina Torres and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt

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