As It Happens

Crew of migrant rescue ship vows to stick to its mission after captain arrested in Italy

The captain of the Sea-Watch 3 was detained on after the vessel rammed a border police motorboat blocking its way as it docked without permission.

'We stand by our humanitarian imperative,' says Haidi Sadik of the Sea-Watch 3

A handout photo made available by Sea-Watch on Thursday shows migrants holding up banners asking for 'Open Ports' and 'Open Hearts' while at sea in the Mediterranean. (Sea-Watch/EPA-EFE)

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Crew members on board a migrant rescue ship anchored off the coast of Lampedusa are awaiting their fates after Italian police arrested their captain.

Carola Rackete, the German captain of the Sea-Watch 3, was detained after the vessel made contact with a border police motorboat blocking its way as it docked without permission at the Mediterranean island on Saturday, authorities said.

The 40 migrants on board have been taken in for processing, while Rackete is on house arrest, accused of violence against a war ship and attempting to cause a shipwreck.

Before Saturday's tense standoff, the Dutch-flagged ship, operated by German charity Sea-Watch International, had been at sea for more than two weeks with dozens of rescued African migrants on board.

Sea-Watch's Haidi Sadik spoke to As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner from aboard the vessel on Monday. Here is part of their conversation. 

Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has said it's completely illegal for your ship to have entered the port of Lampedusa, and he has called the captain, Carola Rackete, a criminal. What's your response? 

This criminalization tactic isn't new. This fits within wider EU policy to criminalize those who rescue people at sea, including captains and other voluntary crews on different ships, and in general also other people who work with refugees or provide services to them, or even show solidarity to them across Europe.

This smear campaign and this calling us pirates and criminals and people traffickers, it's all to distract from the fact that Europe as a continent and our EU member states, including Italy, are failing in upholding the law.

Everything that we've done on this ship and that Carola has done as a captain is entirely lawful and respects international maritime law and human rights law, in that she rescued people in distress, which is a duty. It's a legal obligation. And then she took them to the nearest safe port, trying to end their suffering rather than prolong the emergency that they were in — which is exactly what Italy has done.

Carola Rackete, the 31-year-old Sea-Watch 3 captain, is escorted off the ship by police and taken away for questioning in Lampedusa on Saturday. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

While the Sea-Watch 3 was was making its way into port, while it was docking, Ms. Rackete collided with a police boat. Why did that happen?

The manoeuvre was very, very slow. And so a slight contact happened that obviously was not intended in any hostile way. And after this slight contact, the boat finally decided to make its way out — the other vessel — which it could have done far, far earlier, but it was trying to hinder us from physically docking.

What was it like on the boat before it was docked for those people that you're talking about and for the crew? 

You can compare it to an ambulance trying to make its way to hospital and being hindered from every direction. It's not meant to take that long. 

In and of itself, being rescued at sea is a highly traumatic experience, and it is an emergency. That is made worse by the fact that the people we had onboard departed from Libya, where they faced incredible human rights abuses. They were imprisoned, tortured, sold as slaves. The stories are horrific and almost every single person that we spoke to onboard had experienced one or more of these types of violations of their rights, of their dignity.

So what's likely to happen to them now?

We know it is a failing system of reception of refugees in Europe, but to some extent, their rights can be guaranteed. If the right institutions get involved and due process is followed, then these people might be able to claim the international protection they're seeking and their rights can be guaranteed. 

But, obviously, there is the other question of how will they be treated by society? The first thing that ... met them at arrival in port was right-wing activists shouting racist slurs at them and saying, "You're not welcome here" and "Go back." Is that really a place where you want to be? Is that a place where you feel safe? I don't know.

Haidi Sadik is a spokesperson for Sea-Watch International and a cultural mediator on-board the Sea-Watch 3, a migrant rescue boat anchored off the coast of Lampedusa. (Sea-Watch International )

Salvini says Italy is just defending its borders against human trafficking, and he has, in fact, accused people like you that run these rescue boats, your organization, of working with smugglers to bring migrants to Europe for profit. What do you say to that?

I almost want to laugh because that is an unbelievably misleading accusation.

We are doing the job that governments are supposed to be doing. We are out there trying to make sure that people don't die while they look for safety because our governments look away and would rather see people drown then take responsibility for them and follow and respect law.

When we meet people at sea, the first thing they ask us is, "Are you going to take us back to Libya? Back to the smugglers, back to the human traffickers, to the people who have locked us up and beaten us and treated us like animals?"

To liken us to them and to compare us to them is unbelievably misconstrued.

Obviously, it serves the narrative of pointing the finger. If our governments need a scapegoat, they will point to us NGOs because we're the loudest voice exposing the failures of European migration policy. And it's deadly at that.

Rackete's crew is standing by their captain, insisting she did not intend any hostility. (Till M. Egen/Sea-Watch/EPA-EFE)

You're still on board the ship as we speak. What happens to you and the rest of the crew waiting on the Sea-Watch 3?

To be honest, I don't know.

The ship is currently under probationary confiscation and we're not allowed to go anywhere except by order of the Italian authorities. And so we don't know where we'll be taken next and what will happen.

But, I mean, we can always expect there will be some level of intimidation and criminalization because we've seen that across other NGOs as well.

Is Carola Rackete's arrest going to change how the Sea-Watch operates in the Mediterranean?

No. We stand by the laws that we work to respect. We stand by our humanitarian imperative. And we will continue to do this work. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.