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From the BBC:

Carola Rackete was arrested at the Italian port of Lampedusa after a two-week stand-off with police at sea.

Her vessel, Sea-Watch 3, was banned from docking, but it eventually entered the port on Friday night.

On Saturday, Mr Salvini called Ms Rackete a "rich, white, German woman" who had committed "an act of war".

Couldn't Carola Rackete of Sea Watch 3 have chosen another harbor?

How political is her decision of steering to Italy? Italy has, as for now, a (let's call it politely) far-right with an attitude government, so, if you are left-wing and want to annoy someone, then, Italy is your place to bring refugees.

It's clear that if you want to (or pretend that you want to) save people, you won't bring them back to Libya. However, in the 2 weeks at high sea, couldn't she have contacted and landed on France, Greece, Turkey, Spain?

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    While I'm not in a position to speculate as to what her motivations are, I am in a position to say that travelling between Italy and Spain by ferry can take around 20 hours, and even getting to nearly Greece is 8 hours from Italy. So logistics themselves are a likely factor.
    – Joe C
    Jun 30 '19 at 13:02
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    imo.org/en/OurWork/Facilitation/Documents/… useful background. Carola Rockete is basically following the law. Italian government is clearly not. Dutch government arguably neither.
    – Evargalo
    Jun 30 '19 at 14:31
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    @JoeC Two weeks waiting is longer than even 20 hours! Jul 2 '19 at 11:01
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    It is NOT a plane and can easily steer off to another port with enough fuel. The whole saga is also mean to bring out a political message. In fact, the whole Libya SNAFU is caused by The USA.
    – mootmoot
    Jul 3 '19 at 16:55
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    She could have landed in Tunisia, which is next to Libya. Or in Libya itself - most ports are under stable control of a local warlord.
    – Sjoerd
    Jul 9 '19 at 23:51
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A sea captain is committed to obey to international sea law. After rescuing people, she is bound to coordinate with Rescue Co-ordination Centre (in this case, the Italian Coast Guards Operations Centre) and bring the survivors to the closest place of safety (in this case Lampedusa). Carola Rackete did both.

There has been discussions whether Tunisia can somehow be considered as a place of safety. In case of asylum seekers, most organisations consider that it isn't, notably because Tunisia lacks an administrative procedure to enforce asylum-seeker status.

The meaning of a place of safety becomes broader when those who are rescued are migrants. In this case, other requirements come into play that are tied to the need to enact administrative procedures connected to the asylum-seeker status of those rescued.

Meanwhile, the International Maritime Rescue Federation guidance notes that

3.1 A ‘place of safety’ is defined in the IAMSAR Manual as “a location where rescue operations are considered to terminate; where the survivors' safety of life is no longer threatened and where their basic human needs (such as food, shelter and medical needs) can be met; and, a place from which transportation arrangements can be made for the survivors' next or final destination. A place of safety may be on land, or it may be on board a rescue unit or other suitable vessel or facility at sea that can serve as a place of safety until the survivors are disembarked at their next destination.”


The United Nations and the International Maritime Organisation have built a corpus of international treaties about Search and Rescue Operations, most notably:

  • International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) , which has been ratified by The Netherlands (Sea Watch 3's flag country), Germany (Rackete's nationality, although it is irrelevant here), Italy (closest place of safety for the survivors), and Tunisia (the other closest country). The recognized government of Lybia (de facto, western Lybia only) also abides to the SAR and defined his SRR (Search and Rescue Region) in 2017.

  • United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), adopted in 1982.

  • International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), in force since 1980

IMO's guidelines(pdf) for shipmasters (page 6-7) includes

5.1.6. seek to ensure that survivors are not disembaked to a place where their safety would be further jeopardized;

Meanwhile Italian government and Rescue Co-ordination Centre have failed several of their own obligations:

6.3 A ship should not be subject to undue delay, financial burden or other related difficulties after assisting persons at sea; therefore coastal States should relieve the ship as soon as practicable.

6.5. Each RCC should have effective plans and arrangements (...)[to] cover how the RCC should co-ordinate:
.1 a recovery operation;
.2 disembarkation of survivors from a ship;
.3 delivery of survivors to a place of safety;

According to international law, C.Rackete could not expect Italy to close its ports for disembarkation. In particular, having Sea Watch 3 wait for two weeks was clearly illegal, even though Italy (as well as other European countries) had already be pointed at for failing to meet its obligations.

Sailing to Spain, Greece or wherever without a clear order given by the RCC after an agreement between Italy and a safe port where survivors could disembark, would not only have been dangerous for the refugees but also illegal under international sea law.


On Wednesday morning, 3rd of July, an Italian judge ruled that Rackete was

doing her duty saving human lives

and freed her.

She will still face Italian justice though:

Sea-Watch said the judge considered she had acted "in the performance of a duty", to save lives at sea, and had no choice but to come to Italy as Libya and Tunisia could not be considered safe ports.

Rackete is also separately being investigated for assisting with irregular immigration, as is often the case when an NGO ship unloads refugees and migrants in Italy.

The case is due to be heard on July 9,(...)


Update 5.7.19:

UE Commission just released its recommendation about Human Rights of refugees in the Mediterranean Sea. It is built on the state of law and events until the 24th of May, so it is not a reaction to Sea Watch 3's odyssey or other most recent events. It repeats international sea law, and notably that :

Member states should respect shipmasters’ discretion not to disembark rescued migrants and refugees in places that are not safe, and should not penalise, sanction or otherwise take negative action against shipmasters for decisions to safeguard the lives of rescued persons.


Update 9.7.19:

In an interview (full text behind paywall) (summary) for French magazine L'Obs, Carola Rackete claims that she has contacted authorities in France, Malta and Germany when she was stalled outside Italy's territorial waters, but never received authorization to bring the rescued people to Marseille, Valletta nor any of the German ports she asked access to.

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    It is also worth pointing out that her arrest was declared illegal by the tribunal of Agrigento exactly because she was fulfilling her obligations under international law (and so couldn't be considered to have acted illegally) Jul 3 '19 at 13:51
  • -1 She did NOT go to the nearest safe port. The nearest port is Libya itself, and second in line is Tunisia. She went to the nearest European port instead, which is a different thing.
    – Sjoerd
    Jul 9 '19 at 23:48
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    @Sjoerd there are two paragraphs in the answer about the definition of safe port, and why Sea Watch 3 didn't sail to Tunisia. Do you want me to add references to demonstrate why Lybia is not safe for migrants?
    – Evargalo
    Jul 10 '19 at 6:01
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    @Sjoerd How someone could argue with a straight face that Libya is a safe port after the recent events is beyond me. Note that it is illegal under international law to just dump the rescued people in the middle of a war zone Jul 10 '19 at 8:20
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These people have two connected goals:

  • Safeguard the life of the individual humans they have rescued from inadequate boats at sea.
  • Establish the principle for the benefit of all life-savers at sea that refugees who try crossing the Med shall be processed by the nearest European state.

Your proposed course of action would have met the first goal, if it had been started soon enough. But where would it end? Rescue craft shuttling all the way around Gibraltar and into the North Sea, adding weeks to each voyage?

Put yourself into the shoes of a commercial freighter or ferry captain. You are on the Mediterranean with a hold full of cargo and a schedule to keep. Your lookout informs you that directly ahead there are people in the water, clinging to the remains of an inflatable boat. What should you do?

  • Pick them up, and accept days or weeks of detours?
  • Radio the coastguard, knowing that the people might drown in the meantime?
  • Tell the lookout to pretend he never saw that, and you never heard it?

The best way to help the captain do his moral and legal duty would be to let him disembark the rescued people at his next port of call, without fuss or lawsuits.

Of course this logic would have a "perverse incentive" for the refugees -- try to get into the Med in a leaky vessel and go to the EU, try to go the legal way and stay in camps under inhuman conditions. So bring them all back to Libya? It is known that conditions there are terrible.

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    The tricky point is: she was waiting for 2 weeks, because she wanted to go to Italy, no matter what, even risking that someone committed suicide. And that just to "Establish the principle that refugees who try crossing the Med shall be processed by the nearest European state." I do not dispute this principle might be a fine idea, but who is she to impose it? There were acceptable alternatives to save the people, even Tunesia would be acceptable. Jul 2 '19 at 12:07
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    @QuoraFeans : A sea captain doesn't establish international sea law, but she has has to abide to it. Lampedusa being the closest safe harbour for the rescued people, this is where she was supposed to bring them once they were in distress. Also, note that she couldn't know at first that the Italian authorities would deny her entrance for two weeks ; obviously she was expecting to disembark the refugees within a few days.
    – Evargalo
    Jul 3 '19 at 11:49
  • We don't deal here with commercial freighter but with specialised [pick one: refugees rescue / human traffic] ship.
    – Shadow1024
    Jul 3 '19 at 14:32
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    @Shadow1024, read my second bullet point closely. I believe that it is the intent of Seawatch to establish the principle of processing by the nearest EU state. The company owning a freighter would be unlikely to fight for the principle, even if it applies to them.
    – o.m.
    Jul 3 '19 at 14:44
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    @mootmoot, he has a point regarding European solidarity, even if it is the pot calling the kettle black. There has to be an EU-wide solution. I heard a news report (didn't google details) that Italy currently has a net population loss because Italians are leaving or dying faster than people come, but it should not be smugglers who decide who can come.
    – o.m.
    Jul 3 '19 at 17:50
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Disclaimer: this answer outlines the position expressed by the Dutch government and Sea Watch, as there are so many sides to the story (from a geopolitical perspective), I will not give my educated analysis as it would require too much background info.


It's clear that if you want to (or pretend that you want to) save people, you won't bring them back to Libya. However, in the 2 weeks at high sea, couldn't she have contacted and landed on France, Greece, Turkey, Spain?

It seems that she has.

Since the ship sails under the Dutch flag, even Dutch ports were considered, but in addition to that being too far, no Dutch port offered to take the ship. From Dutch state broadcaster NOS (in Dutch):

Even was er sprake van dat de Sea-Watch 3 naar een Nederlandse haven zou kunnen komen. Maar in Nederland bood geen enkele haven zich aan en bovendien was Nederland te ver varen.

Translated by me:

At one point, there was talk of See-Watch 3 being able to go to a Dutch port. But the Netherlands did not offer a port and it would have been too far anyway.

The Dutch government disputes this. In a letter from the Dutch Directorate-General for Migration to the Italians (PDF):

The captain could also have opted for the home port of Sea-Watch 3 in the Netherlands. Contrary to what you state in your letter, she never requested for disembarkation in the Netherlands.


The article also goes into Sea Watch's position, writing (again in Dutch):

De Duitse hulporganisatie Sea-Watch heeft felle kritiek op de Nederlandse regering. De Duitsers hadden hulp verwacht bij het vinden van een haven voor hun schip de Sea-Watch 3, omdat het onder Nederlandse vlag vaart.

Daar is niets van terecht gekomen, zeggen woordvoerders van de non-profitorganisatie. "De Nederlandse regering is weggedoken voor haar verantwoordelijkheid."

Volgens Marie Naass van Sea-Watch was Nederland verplicht de coördinatie op zich te nemen, toen duidelijk werd dat Italië zijn havens voor de Sea-Watch 3 gesloten hield. "Maar er kwam niks. We moesten dagenlang wachten op antwoorden", aldus Naass.

Translated by me:

The German aid organisation Sea Watch has expressed sharp criticism of the Dutch government. The German had expected help finding a harbor for their ship, the Sea Watch 3, because it sails under the Dutch flag.

Nothing came of it, spokespersons of the non-profit organisation say. "The Dutch government has ducked responsibility."

According to Sea Watch's Marie Nass, the Netherlands was obligated to take on coordination when it became clear that Italy would not allow the Sea Watch 3 to enter its ports. "But noting came. We had to wait for answers for days, according to Naass"

The Dutch government disputes this too. In the same letter from the Dutch Directorate-General for Migration to the Italians (PDF):

Regarding the responsibility of a flag state, I refer to the earlier exchanges of diplomatic notes on this subject. It is the captain who is primarily responsible for finding a safe port in coordination with the respective SAR authorities in the region. According to responsibilities assigned by international law, the flag state can provide assistance to the vessel in finding a Port of Safety (PoS). The Netherlands government once again emphasizes that this does not imply an obligation for the flag state to take over rescued persons.


How political is her decision of steering to Italy?

It is not on Sea Watch's part, depending on where the migrants were picked up. As other answers have pointed out, Sea Watch is following international law by going the nearest safe port. Where that safe port is has not been without dispute. Again, quoting from the letter from the Dutch to the Italians (PDF):

NGOs should take the business model of migrant smugglers into account, including the likelihood that human traffickers count on them to save people. This means that instructions by responsible SAR authorities, including the Libyan, should be respected and that persons rescued at sea should be carried to a nearby safe port, in line with international legal obligations. Hence disembarkation in a safe port in Northern Africa should be considered as one of the options.

I regret, with you, the choices made by the captain of Sea-Watch 3. She could have let the Libyan Coast Guard proceed with the SAR operation. The situation did not qualify as an emergency, yet she hurried to take the migrants on board. She could have sailed to Tunisia and request permission for disembarkation there. Instead she intentionally, and unilaterally, decided to set course to Lampedusa and enter Italian waters, knowingly breaking Italian law.

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Lampedusa, Italy is the closest point in Europe to Tripoli, Libya. The next closest (at least that's not also part of Italy) is Malta. It may help if I point out that Lampedusa is an island south of Sicily, not a town on the Italian mainland.

In any case, to get to France or Spain, you would have to go past Lampedusa. To get to Greece or Turkey you would be going further east, so arguably not past Lampedusa, but still much farther. That of course assumes that they are starting from Tripoli (or further west). If the journey started from Benghazi or further east, Crete would be closer.

It's also not clear if she would have received a better welcome from France or someone else. And off shore of Lampedusa, they are safer than traveling through open water. Presumably if the ship sank, the Italian version of the coast guard would have rescued people near Lampedusa. If they are in the middle of the ocean, potential help is farther away.

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  • What's wrong with going to Tunisia?
    – Sjoerd
    Jul 9 '19 at 23:49
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    @Sjoerd Question: "couldn't she have contacted and landed on France, Greece, Turkey, Spain?" Tunisia is not one of those four countries. Whether she should have gone to Tunisia or Libya seems out of scope for this question.
    – Brythan
    Jul 10 '19 at 4:36

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