Sea-Watch Captain Carola Rackete 'We Were All in a State of Total Despair'

Carola Rackete saved 53 migrants adrift at sea. In an interview, she discusses the hardships on board, her arrest in Italy and the failure of European immigration policy.

 Sea Watch 3 Captain Carola Rackete in Lampedusa, Italy
Alessandro Serrano/ action press

Sea Watch 3 Captain Carola Rackete in Lampedusa, Italy

Interview Conducted by


DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Rackete, you have become a heroine to many because of the considerable risks you took to save people from the Mediterranean. Many others, however, are hostile to you. How do you see your role?

Rackete: I've been surprised by how personal things have gotten. It should be about the issue, about the European Union's failure to fairly distribute those who have been rescued and to take shared responsibility. That's what it should be about, not about individuals like me, who just happen to have become visible. It's not a situation I wished for. I was only filling in for a colleague who had originally been scheduled.

DER SPIEGEL: Describe what you have experienced in the past few weeks?

Rackete: It was difficult. We were traveling for almost 17 days with the refugees on board. After we arrived in Italian waters off Lampedusa and knew that we would not be allowed to go in to port, 10 particularly urgent medical cases were taken from the ship. Shortly afterward, we continued -- even though we had medical concerns, because our medical station is only equipped for emergencies.

DER SPIEGEL: You then spent several days cruising off the coast of Lampedusa.

Rackete: We were trying to figure out what to do. First, we issued an urgent appeal against the Italian entry ban, which was immediately rejected. Then we tried at the European Court of Human Rights. Thirty-four of the rescued people on board and myself, as captain, filed the complaint, but it took a lot of time.

DER SPIEGEL: What were conditions like on Sea Watch 3?

Rackete: With each passing day, the medical and hygienic situation worsened. Then came the negative verdict. Our situation seemed hopeless.

DER SPIEGEL: Was there any direct contact with the Italian coast guard?

Rackete: At some point, a medical evacuation became necessary because one of our passengers was ill and needed to be taken off the ship immediately. We called the sea rescue center and the Italians arrived within two hours and helped, even though we were outside Italian territorial waters. It went quick, but it was an exception.

DER SPIEGEL: Why?

Rackete: We sent medical reports to the rescue center in Rome, to the Netherlands flag state and to the port in Lampedusa every day. But nobody listened and we didn't get an answer. All they said in Rome was that they had forwarded our reports to the Italian Interior Ministry. That was it. Our doctors felt like the world had been turned upside down. Nothing happened politically either. Sea-Watch made inquiries with Malta, with France, there was a constant series of inquiries sent to the German Foreign Ministry and the German Interior Ministry.

 Migrants resting on board the Sea Watch 3 off the coast of Italy
Guglielmo Mangiapane / Reuters

Migrants resting on board the Sea Watch 3 off the coast of Italy

DER SPIEGEL: And there were no responses?

Rackete: They always said: We'll do something. But there just wasn't a solution on the horizon, at least nothing concrete.

DER SPIEGEL: Did that surprise you?

Rackete: It was clear to me that it was going to be difficult. The problem of distributing (the refugees) has been unresolved for ages. It's been this way for all rescue ships for about a year now. Just think of the Lifeline case in Malta or the Aquarius. The question was always: Who's going to take these people this time? Each ship is handled separately.

DER SPIEGEL: In other words, that was all completely clear to you when you began your mission.

Rackete: We keep going because it's necessary. But, of course, we launched the Sea-Watch knowing full well that nobody wanted to take in the refugees. Not even Tunisia, which European governments like to view as a safe alternative. While we were out there, the Mare Dive, a cargo ship with 75 rescued people on board spent 15 days waiting off the coast of Tunisia. But the Tunisians also don't want to become the next port for unloading. Nobody wants these people.

DER SPIEGEL: What is life like on board your ship?

Rackete: The refugees are essentially confined. There is very little space and no privacy. Most people sleep on the aft deck in a tent on the floor, everyone has a blanket. There are three portable toilets. There isn't enough water for people to take showers regularly -- they can only take one every few days. Doctors without Borders used to operate the ship, but at that time they had people on board for a maximum of three days. It's not designed for more.

DER SPIEGEL: What does that mean for the mood on board?

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Rackete: We couldn't promise people anything that wasn't there. No one wanted to take them in. This hopelessness often blends with post-traumatic stress disorders. Many have suffered human rights violations, have been tortured, sold, have had to work under slave-like conditions or have experienced sexual violence. We wanted to project confidence, but the longer things took, the more we lost people's trust.

DER SPIEGEL: In explaining why you decided to sail into the port of Lampedusa, you referred to the fact that you were carrying people at risk of suicide on board.

Rackete: Some had told the medical team about previous suicide attempts and asked them: Please look after me, I'm not doing well. There were three people in particular.

DER SPIEGEL: What did that mean for you?

Rackete: At the beginning of the mission, we defined red lines in the team and discussed when we had to go to a safe harbor. When those lines were crossed, we headed into port.

Sea-Watch 3 rescue ship prior to entering port in Lampedusa: The ship is currently being held by the Italian authorities.
Guglielmo Mangiapane/REUTERS

Sea-Watch 3 rescue ship prior to entering port in Lampedusa: The ship is currently being held by the Italian authorities.

DER SPIEGEL: What were those red lines?

Rackete: Many passengers needed treatment from specialists. We suspected there might be a case of tuberculosis. It's not possible on board to test for something like that or to treat it. With others, we could only treat them with painkillers, without a diagnosis. Almost all needed psychological care, but we didn't have a psychologist with us. When we keep people in these conditions for two weeks, it can get explosive.

DER SPIEGEL: What did the Italian authorities say about that?

Rackete: The Guardia di Finanza had been on board and had checked our documents. They said: Captain, please don't get so worked up. There will be a solution -- just wait. At that point, I thought, OK, we'll wait. The Italian parliamentarians who visited us on board the Sea-Watch also gave us hope, telling us that there were talks between France, Germany and Portugal. Salvini said that if countries were ready to take the refugees in, we could go ashore.

DER SPIEGEL: What happened in the final hours before you arrived in Lampedusa?

Rackete: We had a second medical evacuation the night before. A passenger urgently had to go to the hospital -- he was in severe pain, apparently he had kidney stones. From that point on, the situation was no longer tenable. The feeling among the people on board was: Do we all have to get sick first, do we have to throw ourselves overboard for something to happen? There also came a point where the crew couldn't take it anymore. It became more exhausting by the day, and in the end, we were all in a state of total despair.

DER SPIEGEL: In the meantime, European governments continued negotiating who would take in the refugees and when.

Rackete: That's also what the parliamentarians were telling us: The solution is imminent, it will come in the next few hours. I didn't want to go to port, I didn't want to break the law. We intensified the watch duties on board so that no one would try to harm themselves. That was on Thursday night. On Friday, I woke up at 6 a.m. and asked the parliamentarians: Where's the solution? Of course, there wasn't one. I didn't know what to do then. But it couldn't go on. I could no longer guarantee safety on board.

DER SPIEGEL: What happened then?

Rackete: On Friday afternoon, the Guardia di Finanza boarded again and handed me some papers informing me that I was being investigated for illegal entry into territorial waters and for aiding and abetting illegal entry. They took the ship's log with them and wanted to leave again. I asked them: What about my 40 rescued people -- do you want to take them? And they said: No, we know nothing about that. A short time later, the word from Berlin was that Salvini was again blocking a solution. I didn't want to take responsibility for another night with the refugees, so I decided to take the ship in.

Captain Carola Rackete: "I didn't want to break the law."
TILL M EGEN/ SEA-WATCH HANDOUT/ EPA-EFE/ REX

Captain Carola Rackete: "I didn't want to break the law."

DER SPIEGEL: When you arrived at the port ...

Rackete: ... the Guardia di Finanza tried to block our way. We sailed in extremely slowly, stopped the ship and turned it around because you have to dock backwards. Then I saw that the Guardia di Finanza had docked in the middle of the pier to prevent us from mooring there. The fact that we collided was not an attack on a warship, as I was accused of. It was an accident.

DER SPIEGEL: Did you expect that you would be arrested?

Rackete: I was afraid of something like that.

DER SPIEGEL: How were you treated?

Rackete: The officers were nice. After eight hours at the Guardia di Finanza, I was taken to the refugee camp in the middle of the island. That's where the only police station that can carry out identification measures is located. The people we rescued were also sitting on the floor there, and they began to applaud when they saw me. My fingerprints were taken. From there, I was put under house arrest. On Monday, I was taken by ship to Sicily for a hearing.

DER SPIEGEL: What did you tell the judge?

Rackete: I explained my reasoning to her and described the collision with the boat from my point of view. After that, I was placed under house arrest at another location.

DER SPIEGEL: Were you aware of the attention your case was generating? That you had become a hero to some and the devil to others?

Rackete: Not really. I was under house arrest, after all. But I was glad I didn't have to burden myself with what others were saying. During the second house arrest, the woman hosting me switched on the television and the images were being broadcast, but I didn't want to see them at all.

DER SPIEGEL: How are you coping with the role of the hero? Just like the young climate protection activist Greta Thunberg, you have now become the champion of migrants.

Rackete: It hasn't really hit me yet. But I'm a person who prefers taking action to talking. And I think that this action speaks sufficiently for itself.

DER SPIEGEL: On Tuesday evening, a judge decided to release you.

Rackete: Surprisingly, she accepted our reasoning on almost all points. She also wrote that we did not enter territorial waters illegally. And that we are not migrant smugglers. The entry ban applies only to smugglers.

DER SPIEGEL: What is the next legal step?

Rackete: A second hearing is to be held on Tuesday. It concerns aiding and abetting illegal entry and entry into territorial waters. As I understand it, these allegations have been dropped in other cases. But it can take months.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you like the fact that you are being portrayed as Salvini's opponent?

Rackete: I don't take note of what he says. I do know how Italy voted in the European elections and that many Italians support his policies. But there are also many solidarity movements in Italy. The country is divided.

DER SPIEGEL: What would you like to say to him if the two of you ever came face to face?

Rackete: Salvini is not a person I want to meet. His policies violate human rights. His way of expressing himself is disrespectful and inappropriate for a top politician.

DER SPIEGEL: How do you explain the fact that Salvini has you in his sights?

Rackete: Anyone who is currently a captain on a rescue ship knows that they are being criminalized. The odd thing is that it has become so extreme in this instance. There was a strange chain of circumstances: After we already had the refugees on board, Salvini pushed through this decree prohibiting aid organizations from entering Italian ports. It was done in expedited proceedings. We saved the refugees on Wednesday and the decree was brought through parliament in Rome on Friday and published online shortly afterward. There was a lot of political pressure to do it so fast.

DER SPIEGEL: Have you been provided with sufficient support from Germany?

Rackete: I felt left in the lurch. Of course, there were individuals who wanted to help -- cities that wanted to take in our refugees, for example. But those efforts failed because of German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who had no desire to accept the cities' offers. My impression was that, on a national and international level, nobody really wanted to help. They kept passing the buck, even though we still had 40 rescued passengers on board.

DER SPIEGEL: What would have to happen at political level to improve the situation?

Rackete: We need a solution in Europe for taking in people who have fled to us. And for distributing them fairly. The Dublin system, which puts the responsibility on the shoulders of those countries with external borders, isn't fair. (Eds: Under the Dublin rules, a refugee must apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter.)

DER SPIEGEL: What should happen until such a solution is found?

Rackete: I'm curious to see what will happen with other rescue ships that are currently out at sea and which will take refugees on board -- the Open Arms, for example, which is operating near the North African coast.

DER SPIEGEL: What will now happen with the Sea-Watch 3?

Rackete: I assume our ship will be released soon. It was only held to secure evidence. There will then be some technical work, and after that, we'll head back out to sea. It's just hard to find a captain willing to take the risk.

DER SPIEGEL: Would you do it again?

Rackete: At the moment, my lawyers are discouraging me from such a thing. But if the charges against me are dropped, I'd head back out.

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Rackete, thank you for this interview.

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