The Mediterranean is once again turning into a watery grave. Since the beginning of 2019, about 2,000 people have crossed from North Africa to Italian waters and nearly 350 have died en route. That is a death rate of around 18 per cent. 

At every stage of the migration process, the failures become apparent, with EU leaders simply ignoring an inconvenient reality for fear of losing domestic support, as frontline countries like Malta, Italy and Greece continue facing the problem almost single-handedly. 

Prodded by right-wing Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, Italy is now blocking NGO boats who rescue migrants from the sea. Salvini thinks that stopping humanitarian vessels from operating would stop the flow. History has taught us that desperate people will still take the risk.

In a scene which would have been considered unthinkable in the past, last Saturday Italian police arrested the NGO vessel Sea Watch 3 captain, Carola Rackete, after docking her vessel stranded for days with African migrants on the island of Lampedusa. The move provoked outrage from human rights organisations who rightly claimed that the captain’s only crime was that she rescued migrants facing death. 

Rackete, who had been locked in a two-week standoff at sea with the Italian authorities, was led away in handcuffs, charged with abetting illegal immigration and forcing her way past a naval vessel that blocked her way.

The start of the incident goes back to mid-June when Rackete rescued 53 migrants off the Libyan coast who were found drifting in an inflatable raft. She rejected an offer by the Libyan government to have them disembark in its port of Tripoli, claiming they would not be safe there.

The attack on a migrants’ detention camp outside Tripoli last Tuesday, which killed more than 44 people is testament to NGOs’ constant claims that Libya is not a safe country. 

Sea Watch 3 docked without permission, after Rackete declared a state of emergency on board. The captain said she feared for the safety of the migrants who had been confined on the ship for 17 days as Italy refused to allow access to its territorial waters or ports. The NGO said she upheld the law of the sea by bringing people to safety.

Rackete was arrested for “resisting a warship”, an offence that carries up to 10 years in jail and a fine for ignoring instructions from the Italian Navy. 

But an Italian judge ruled on Tuesday that Rackete was free to go, on grounds that the anti-immigration security decree was “not applicable in the case of rescues”.

The decision was met with fury by Salvini who dismissed the idea that the actions of the “outlaw captain” were justified by a health emergency, calling her actions against the Italian police speedboat “a criminal act, an act of war”.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the fate of the captain was a legal, not a political issue. The Sicilian prosecutor, noting Reckete’s action against the police boat, declared that humanitarian reasons cannot justify inadmissible acts against those who work at sea for the safety of everybody.

On the other hand, international maritime law is clear. The 1979 Hamburg convention rules that anyone rescued at sea must be taken to the nearest safe port, which in this case was Lampedusa. 

Let us hope that the well-established international maritime law – and overriding humanitarian reasons – is not trumped by Italian national law, and populist, dangerous politics. 

Lack of solidarity from other EU states should not give leaders the right to put people’s lives at risk.