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I Captain a Rescue Ship. Global Warming Is Sparking a Whole New Refugee Crisis.

Carola Rackete of Sea-Watch 3 spends her days dodging the law in an attempt to save lives in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.

Carola Rackete (Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

For my first voyage on an icebreaker ship in 2011, I was a ship’s officer and had just completed my bachelor’s degree in Nautical Sciences. I had an idea of what it would be like: There would be lots of ice that would be really hard to get through. It wasn’t like that at all.

There was very little ice, and we had trouble even finding an ice floe strong enough to support the type of scientific research station we wanted to build. You could talk to people who had been there 20 years ago, and they could tell you how much the North Pole had changed in their lifetime.

Visiting the North Pole was a shock. I had a lot of conversations with the scientists on board, who explained that the climate science was all there—it was the political action that was lacking.

Over the next two years, I started to feel that it was pointless to help produce more scientific facts if the scientific facts didn’t change anything. It’s not that I don’t think any science is necessary to evaluate what is going on on the ground. I do. But if I am looking at what is efficient—and maybe that is a very German approach—producing more scientific data, which then isn’t acted upon, isn’t the most useful thing I can do. We need to make political changes, so we need to engage in political work. That’s why I started to get involved with activism.

I first started to work for Greenpeace in 2015. I had a maritime license and thought it could be a good place for me. And that’s where someone told me about Sea-Watch, an organization rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean Sea. In 2016, Sea-Watch got in touch with me because a captain had gotten sick and couldn’t join. They were looking for someone at short notice, and since they couldn’t find someone else, I decided to help out. At that point, however, I was thinking that it was a kind of humanitarian mission: that there were just so many people crossing, all we needed was more ships.

But during the first mission, I realized that it was a political problem. Then it became clearer, particularly over the years, as the EU withdrew more and more of its support. In 2016, the EU was still involved and the Italian Coast Guard was there, and we had some successful cooperation with them. At that point a lot of people were trying to cross the Mediterranean, and the trouble was that even with all the military vessels and the civil society vessels, there were just accidents where everyone was too late.

In May 2016, there was one week when three wooden boats capsized. In each one of those accidents, about 200 people lost their lives. One of them we attended to together with one of the Italian military vessels and one of the Italian Coast Guard vessels. When we arrived, we already had 120 people on board, rescued from a rubber boat earlier. We arrived second to the accident. It was a capsized wooden boat. When we arrived, the Italians had rescued close to 100 people. The rest were dead. The bodies were floating everywhere on the surface of the water.

And that was the situation for all 2016. Then in 2017, the Italian government seized the vessel Iuventa, a small rescue boat operated by a German NGO called Jugend Rettet. The crew of that ship was then put under investigation based on anti-Mafia law for supposedly being a criminal enterprise. They’ve been accused of human trafficking, of making money by colluding with smugglers from Libya. Their boat has been confiscated for two years, and they’re still under investigation.

That was the moment when it became clear that the political opinions against sea rescue had changed, and that we were going to be criminalized for what we were doing.

Now the EU has trained the Libyan Coast Guard to handle rescues. The problem is that they admit the training is not working very well. If you call the phone number that they put online for the Libyan Coast Guard, often you will speak to an officer who doesn’t speak English, so when an aircraft team calls to notify them of an accident, for example, it is impossible to speak to them. Sometimes they lose electricity because of the civil war. In June 2019, with the Sea-Watch 3, we had been notified of an accident by the Libyan Coast Guard and were asked to bring the people to Tripoli. Once in international waters off the coast of Tripoli, we were waiting and didn’t hear anything from the Libyan Coast Guard until very late in the evening.* Then we got an email that said, “Well our email is so late because we had a power outage because of what’s going on here.”

And that’s supposed to be the emergency service.

Also, the Libyan Coast Guard takes people back to Libya, which is a country at civil war, with systematic human rights abuses—slave trade, kidnappings, torture, all very well documented. No EU vessel has ever brought people back to Libya or Tunisia because they very well know that would be a violation of international maritime law. You have to bring people to a safe port. And it’s very clear that Libya doesn’t have any safe ports.

Typically, people from the Global South say that they would like to stay in their homes if they could. They don’t want to leave. They are leaving because they are forced to. We already have nations in the Pacific Islands that are moving as whole communities from very low-lying islands to different areas, sometimes even other countries. (It’s also important to note that right now most people are being displaced in their own countries and don’t cross international borders.)

By 2050, there could be one billion people displaced by the climate breakdown. The ranges of how many people will be displaced by 2050 are quite wide, though, because it’s hard to define climate-forced migration: If someone loses their income one year because of a drought, then there’s a drought again the next year, and in the third year they decide to move somewhere else, it’s really hard to say whether that is an economic reason or climate migration.

I can’t predict the future, but I know that migration will increase when people have their livelihoods destroyed. The United Nations report from last April also made this very clear—that’s the report talking about “climate apartheid,” a term used by the lead author, Phillip Alston. He describes how the climate breakdown intensifies poverty around the world because, for example, when people’s houses get destroyed and they don’t have insurance, they don’t have the resources to rebuild their livelihoods. They don’t have any backup. On the one hand, they live in places that are more affected; on the other hand, they have fewer resources to protect them. So what he describes is a world where the rich nations will build a fence around themselves, and everyone else will be left to suffer.

The main question here is how the Global North is going to react. At the moment, we can see the answer in the EU, we can see it in the U.S., and we can also see it in Australia with its offshore prisons in Nauru and Manus. It’s basically the same approach with all these countries: to shut people out and not let them in, even if they are just looking for safety.

I’m with Greta Thunberg on the idea that you can only have hope after action. You cannot sit in your garden and wait for apples if you haven’t planted an apple tree. If you’ve planted your apple tree, then you can hope that the weather will be good enough so that you actually grow some apples. But hoping is always something depending on external factors that we cannot control. The climate breakdown is not beyond our control at all. It’s completely our responsibility as humans, albeit not all to the same degree. We have the technology to make changes. We just need to do something.

*This sentence has been corrected to reflect that the ship was in international waters at the time.