I’m beginning to wonder if I should turn these weekly blogposts into a Hero of the Week feature. There’s no shortage of villains (I’ll happily leave you to draw up your own list), so perhaps I should do more to find people who seem – against the tide – to make the world a marginally better place than it would otherwise be.
Last week, I drew your attention to Janet Barker, the Greenpeace protester who was ejected from a City of London banquet by a none-too-gentle Foreign Office minister, Mark Field. (He was immediately suspended from his job by Theresa May, who was said to have found his decision to frogmarch Ms Barker out of the room with his hand around her neck ‘very concerning.’)
This week, I offer you Carola Rackete, a German environmentalist and activist with the charity Sea Watch International who was arrested in Italy last weekend for having rescued 53 migrants from an inflatable raft off the coast of Libya and landing them, without permission, on the Italian island of Lampedusa.
According to the Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini, who makes Nigel Farage look like a dyed-in-the-wool bleeding heart liberal, she is a ‘pirate’ and an ‘outlaw’ and her actions were an ‘act of war.’
On the contrary, said a judge who cleared her of having endangered the lives of four Italian police officers when the rescue ship she was captaining collided with a patrol boat that was trying to prevent her from docking. The judge, Alessandra Vella, ruled that Rackete had not broken the law and was carrying out her duty to protect human life. (Signor Salvini said he was ‘disgusted’ by the ruling.)
So three cheers for the judge, three cheers for Carola Rackete, and three more cheers for the thousands of people in Germany and Italy who immediately donated more than a million euros to her defence fund. (No cheers, on the other hand, for those people who have threatened her life and forced her to go into hiding.)
But why are desperate migrants still risking their lives by trying to reach Europe by sea from the north African coast? Thousands are still trapped indefinitely in appalling conditions in detention centres in Libya – just this week, more than forty were killed in an air attack on the Tajoura detention centre outside Tripoli. Little wonder that even the risk of drowning seems preferable.
And why are they having to endure such appalling conditions? Because that is what EU governments have demanded, preferring that they should rot out of sight in Libya than be granted asylum in Europe. According to the human rights organisation Human Rights Watch, Libyan coast guards have intercepted more than two thousand people at sea since the beginning of this year and returned them to detention in Libya.
In a report published last January, the organisation said it had found in Libyan detention centres ‘inhumane conditions that included severe overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, poor quality food and water that has led to malnutrition, lack of adequate health care, and disturbing accounts of violence by guards, including beatings, whippings, and use of electric shocks.’
All of which would be quite bad enough, even if it weren’t for the fact that the Libyan authorities are being given millions of euros by the European Union and its member governments to help them to intercept and detain migrants in these conditions. We all must shoulder our share of the blame.
And even as I write these words, I read reports of dozens more migrants feared drowned off the coast of Tunisia when their boat capsized on Wednesday.
Truly, Carola Rackete deserves a Hero of the Week award.