Before Carola Rackete defied Italian authorities by sailing a shipload of exhausted migrants into the Sicilian port of Lampedusa, the tide was flowing against those carrying out rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Populism — and the fear of populism — had transformed the European migration debate from a discussion about economics and humanitarian assistance to a screaming match about security — with then Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini pointing to NGO search-and-rescue ships like Rackete’s as a breach of that security.
The German boat captain’s arrest in June refocused the conversation on people dying at sea. In the months since Rackete put her vessel and freedom on the line, a consensus has been emerging that the fate of migrants trying to reach Europe cannot be left to volunteer rescue workers. Days after Rackete’s arrest, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who has taken a hard-line approach on migration, called on Salvini to reopen Italy’s ports to NGO vessels. And in September, France, Germany, Malta and Italy (under a new administration) laid out a plan relocate asylum seekers rescued at sea. The ebb and flow of the debate is likely to continue, but for the moment the current has turned in Rackete’s direction.