by Susan Smith, Muslim Cohort 

In solidarity and support of migrant justice work everywhere, and with a vision for a world of love and equality that knows no borders, the Community of Living Traditions and Fellowship of Reconciliation USA has sent me to volunteer for one month on the Sea-Watch 3 as a cultural mediator. I am there now, living on the boat with its amazing crew of activists praying that we may soon set sail to save lives. We are sharing discussions of the horrific struggles for human rights endured on both sides of the Atlantic --- perpetrated with great complicity and responsibility by the EU and US. 

Susan SeaWatch3It has been 24 days since the search and rescue ship was impounded by Italian authorities after it landed without permission on the island of Lampedusa on June 29th. This came after a 17-day stand-off during which the vessel, with its 42 migrants rescued off of the coast of Libya, was refused safe harbor. The Italian Government rejected the ship in spite of numerous urgent calls by the captain requesting permission. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Italy was required to accept the rescue ship as the nearest safe harbor. During the stand-off, Sea-Watch had put out the request for sanctuary to nearby European nations on the Mediterranean, but was refused.

In the international imbroglio that ensued when the Sea-Watch 3 broke the blockade, Captain Rackete was arrested and the ship was impounded as state’s evidence. Rackete was charged with entering Italian waters illegally and for illegal trafficking of migrants. Far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini added to anti-immigrant vitriol accusing Rackete of committing an act of war when the Sea-Watch 3 made light contact with an Italian border police boat that came between it and the dock. Rackete apologized for this saying it was an accident. Germany called for her release of the ship, which is operated by a German NGO. Its Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted “Saving lives is a humanitarian duty” and called upon Italy to throw out the allegations. The 31-year-old female captain with dreadlocks has since become a symbol of the divisive immigration debate in Italy, Europe, and the United States, where the provision of humanitarian aid on the borders is criminalized. She faced a maximum penalty of ten years in prison, however the judge overturned the arrest three days later, saying the captain had acted to save lives. Prosecutors are still investigating whether there is enough to make a case against her.

Show-downs such as these are not likely to end soon. Italy has closed its ports to rescue ships, making safe passage nearly impossible as humanitarian corridors are sealed. Meanwhile, the European Union continues to train and finance the failed state of Libya’s Tripoli-based Coast Guard to thwart migration across the Central Mediterranean. As a result, thousands of refugees are subjected to the horrors of sustained detention, human trafficking, torture, slavery, rape and other crimes against humanity. Many are murdered or drown at sea, sometimes in plain view of the Libyan authorities, in spite of the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and International Convention on Refugees, which mandate sea rescue and protecting passage to a safe third country.

Summer is the most favorable season for refugees to attempt the perilous Central Mediterranean Sea crossing, and boats and dinghies operated by smugglers frequently arrive on Europe’s shores. However, many that set off from Africa don’t complete the journey and very few rescue assets are free to sail. It is imperative that the Sea-Watch 3 and other search and rescue ships be allowed to resume their missions.

After two days in Lampedusa, the Sea-Watch 3 was moved to the Sicilian port of Licata, where it now sits impounded by the Italian Coast Guard. Its international crew of volunteers remains fully staffed, is actively maintaining the vessel, and ready to sail pending approval by the Italian authorities. Hopes are high that they will be able to save lives soon.

The ship is in good company. Next to it is the Mare Jonio operated by SOS Mediterranea, and other detained rescue boats. Meanwhile, there is growing outrage at the European Union and Italy’s asylum policy, as exemplified by the plight of the Sea-Watch 3 and arrest of its captain. Carola Rackete recently told reporters, “I hope that the European Commission, after the election of the new parliament, will do its best to avoid this kind of situation and that all the countries will accept migrants saved by civilian rescue ships.” In the meantime, the valiant crew of the Sea-Watch 3 and other rescue boats will continue to intervene where governments fail.

This article was initially published by Fellowship of Reconciliation (USA), and a version of it was later published in Waging Nonviolence.