Being arrested in the Italian port of Lampedusa drew a lot of media attention on me personally this summer as a young woman and a sea captain whose vessel, the Sea-Watch 3, had rescued 40 people from the Mediterranean and taken them to safety. My arrest came after two weeks at sea attempting to secure a political solution so we could legally land these refugees from the civil war in Libya. My ship entered Italian waters despite an order from Matteo Salvini, the far-right interior minister, so in the media I became the woman who defied the right in Italy and Europe.
I’m still under investigation by the Italian authorities (although a judge overturned my arrest because I was trying to save lives) but am I worried? Honestly, no, because my actions were justified. What I’m really scared of is the damage we are doing to our planet, and the hostility that may be unleashed against those fleeing drought, famine, fires and storms. To me, the dangers of climate breakdown and the need to help those trying to cross the Mediterranean are intimately linked.
A lot of people are understandably worried about discussing the links between migration and the climate crisis, fearing it will lead to more xenophobia and even tougher border policies. The thing is, this xenophobia and these hard border policies are already here. I have seen them with my own eyes, in the people I’ve pulled from the sea – and in those I was too late to save.
Climate breakdown exacerbates the reasons people already have for needing to migrate, such as desperate socioeconomic conditions or political oppression. In situations where people already struggle to survive, climate breakdown intensifies the pressure, whether through rising sea levels, water shortages, storm damage or crop failures. People living in the most disadvantaged places on Earth – who have contributed the least to the climate crisis – are also the first to face its effects. The devastating storms in Mozambique, the droughts in Somaliland that have killed most of the livestock, and the heatwaves in India are just a taste of things to come if we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. More and more people will have to move just in order to survive.
In the next few decades, millions will be forced to migrate to avoid ever-changing, ever-worsening environmental conditions.So far most of them are migrating internally, from rural to urban areas, or are moving to neighbouring countries. Only a handful travel longer distances. They are then stranded in front of the walls of countries that are often in part responsible for the conditions – both environmental and political – that they are fleeing. The global north conquered and plundered during its colonial heyday, and still holds those countries hostage for debt, but it is also now depriving people of life’s necessities through its own addiction to high-carbon luxury.
Yet we are seeing a rise of rightwing rhetoric across rich nations. This has terrible consequences for those affected, whether it is people taking their own lives in Australia’s notorious Manus and Nauru detention centres, dying in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody on the US-Mexico border, or drowning in the Mediterranean – right now the world’s deadliest border. Politicians justify these horrendous conditions on the grounds that they will deter more people from coming. But the numbers of migrants and refugees who keep coming suggest that this strategy is not working. Of course, not all migration is linked to climate breakdown, but the climate emergency will make any “migrant crisis” we have now look like a tea party.
A report by the UN special rapporteur on poverty and human rights warned recently of a future “climate apartheid”, where the global poor will suffer the worst consequences of climate breakdown while the rich buy their way to relative security. “Human rights might not survive the coming upheaval,” the report concludes gloomily. My greatest fear is that this dystopian vision of our future may come true. That the erosion of human rights was already well under way was very clear to me in Italy.
What the Sea-Watch crew and I did was a relatively small thing. A moment of solidarity with those facing an immediate threat to their lives. It’s only as an afterthought that I would agree to call it symbolic. It shows the hypocrisy of the EU’s stance on migration, but also states boldly what kind of future we want: a future of global equality, solidarity and justice.
Working on polar research vessels, I have seen the effects of global heating on nature first-hand. But while volunteering for Sea-Watch, I’ve seen a glimpse of what the future could hold for millions – even billions – of people. There are always those who either manufacture disaster or take advantage of it to gain wealth and power. The climate crisis will cause disasters that could help tyrants and fascists seize the reins. We need to do what we can to stop them from getting a foothold in Europe.
It is not enough for Europeans to applaud those who challenge the Fortress Europe ideology. We will not change anything through passive support – we must all be active in demanding and creating the future that we want. Join activist movements to demand action on climate breakdown. Reduce your personal carbon footprint – dramatically. Help migrants and refugees already in your country to integrate into your society. Support organisations such as Sea-Watch however you can. And speak up against – and vote against – the politics of hate and division.
As a German citizen, I have the privilege of risking arrest without fear of being deported to a dangerous place or being left to drown in the sea. But as a German I have another thought, too. Most of us wonder what we would have done in the 1930s, as racist rhetoric turned into racist policies and, eventually, genocide. My actions with Sea-Watch, I hope, tell me what I would have done had I been alive back then. The question I have for you is: what will you do now?