BERLIN (Reuters) – A ship’s captain being investigated for bringing migrants ashore in defiance of Italian coastguard orders has warned against her case becoming a distraction from the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean Sea.
Carola Rackete, who piloted the Sea-Watch 3 into port on the Italian island of Lampedusa last month, was speaking from an undisclosed location in Sicily where she is in hiding because of threats she has received.
“While a lot of attention is on me, the situation in the Mediterranean Sea continues just as before,” Rackete, 31, said in an interview conducted by Sea-Watch, the charity for which she works.
“Every day there are boats which are leaving from the Libyan shore, refugees which are fleeing from the civil war which is going on in Libya,” the German added. “They are kidnapped, they are tortured, they are sold as slaves.”
After a sharp fall in migrant arrivals, numbers have picked up since June, with people-smugglers increasingly towing packed boats deep into international waters to escape the Italian-funded Libyan coastguard.
Libyan officials have denied allegations of abuse and say migrants are detained for their own protection.
Rackete’s arrest provoked a diplomatic row between Rome and Berlin, with German officials criticising the decision to bring charges against her for allegedly risking the lives of police officers when she docked her vessel, which was impounded.
Those charges have since been dropped, but the flurry of attention on her case has propelled migrant deaths in the Mediterranean back towards the top of the political agenda.
A flurry of diplomacy at the weekend led to Malta agreeing to let some other rescue ships land so long as the migrants are then rehoused around the European Union.
Rackete is no longer in detention but remains under investigation for defying orders by docking the vessel.
Italy, whose Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has staked much of his political credibility on a drive to halt migrant flows, plans to throw more resources into its fight against boat arrivals, an official said on Tuesday.
Barely 300 rescued migrants have been transferred to Italy so far this year by charity rescue ships following moves by Salvini to shut the nation’s ports to non-governmental organisations.
The German-flagged Sea-Watch 3 and Italian sailboat Alex have both been impounded and their owners face fines of around 50,000 euros for defying the ban.
“What we demand is very clear,” Rackete said. “All the civilian rescue ships which have been detained must be freed so that rescue once again becomes possible.”
(Reporting by Reuters TV; Writing by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Alison Williams)