From the Mediterranean to Mexico, Capt. Pia Klemp Believes Rescuing Refugees Is Worth Facing Prison Time

If governments are criminalizing people who “show basic human decency, then I think that shows that we’re doing something very right.”

Pia Klemp on Oct 18, 2017. Photo: Lisa Hoffmann/Courtesy of Solidarity at Sea

In the early morning hours of November 6, 2017, the Sea-Watch 3, a stocky search-and-rescue ship with an azure hull and yellow masts, was patrolling the Libyan coast. At 6:31 a.m. a call came in: A much smaller and much less seaworthy craft, a rubber, inflatable pontoon boat carrying between 130 and 150 migrants attempting the treacherous voyage to Europe, had begun to sink nearby.

The Sea-Watch 3, which is operated by the German NGO Sea-Watch, was one of several vessels that convened at the scene that morning. Besides a Libyan coast guard vessel, a French army ship hovered in the periphery, and a Portuguese patrol aircraft and an Italian navy helicopter followed from above. Nevertheless, in the next three hours, over 20 people would slip between the waves to their deaths.

The Libyan coast guard reached the sinking pontoon boat first, but did not move to rescue the half-dozen people scattered and drowning in the water nearby. It radioed to the Sea-Watch 3 to keep away. It did not lower a dinghy into the water to save the people being tossed about in the swells. Its crew stood on deck, many simply watching. One man filmed on his cellphone.

This was par for the course; the captain onboard the Sea-Watch 3 that day, a German woman in her early 30s named Pia Klemp, refers to the “so-called Libyan coast guard.” When we spoke last week via Skype, she described the Libyan coast guard as essentially Libyan militias, a product of the country’s violent civil war, which have been empowered by the European Union to do everything possible to prevent migrants from reaching the shores of Europe. The Libyan coast guard was “trying to pull [people] from the sinking rubber boat on to their decks to kidnap them to bring them back to Libya,” Klemp told me of that morning. “We could see them whipping these people, threatening them, shouting at them.”


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Under Klemp’s direction, the Sea-Watch 3 lowered its two dinghies and began to pull people from the water. As the European vessels stood by, according to Klemp, as well as a video of the scene analyzed by Forensic Architecture, the Libyan coast guard interfered with its rescue, at one point hurling potatoes at the Sea-Watch boats. Nonetheless, 59 times that day, the Sea-Watch crew pulled a person to safety.

Among the 59 survivors was a mother whose 2-year-old son could not be resuscitated. In the days that followed, with Klemp at the helm, the Sea-Watch 3 was forced to linger in international waters, his tiny body still aboard. European authorities had not helped save the migrants from the sea; now they would not let the ship into port. Having no morgue, the Sea-Watch crew put the boy in a freezer. “The European warships did not want to take either the living people nor the dead boy from us, while at the same time, the European authorities on land denied us a port of safety,” Klemp told me.

“The European warships did not want to take either the living people nor the dead boy from us.”

This was not Klemp’s first brush with abject horror in the Mediterranean. A few months prior, another rescue ship she captained, the Iuventa, had been seized by Italian authorities. It turned out that Klemp and nine crew members had been under secret investigation for a year by far-right, anti-immigrant authorities. Iuventa’s crew learned that the Italian government intended to prosecute them for apparently aiding illegal immigration through their rescue operations in the Mediterranean. The Iuventa 10, as they’re called, estimate that they, alongside hundreds of onboard volunteers, have assisted more than 14,000 people in distress at sea. Each crew member could face 20 years in prison.


Refugees wait on a boat as Libyan Coast Guard help them during a rescue operation with the Iuventa, back center, off the Libyan coast on Nov 4, 2016.

Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

I spoke with Klemp about her rescue operations, the European Union’s policy of deterrence, her trial, and the criminalization of humanitarian aid around the world. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You’re from Bonn, Germany, and you’ve worked as a dive instructor and also helped run an organization that aims to stop illegal fishing. How does a person from Bonn come to be interested in the ocean in this way? 

My seafaring career started off when I joined the marine conservation organization Sea Shepherd. I have a very big love and feel a very strong connection to the ocean, especially to all the life in the ocean, so I wanted to do all I could possibly do from land to protect the marine environment, to stop illegal whaling and to stop illegal fishing, and all these horrendous things that we do to the biggest ecosystem on Earth without taking at all into consideration the consequences this has for this environment and ecosystem, but also for ourselves. So I decided to join Sea Shepherd and this is how I ended up on ships.

Were you raised in a family with political tendencies, or did you come to politics on your own?

I’ve definitely been very, very lucky with my family. They’re all very, very conscious people, very aware of the privileges that we have without having done anything for it, or even more the other way around — that these privileges that we have in the Western world, or so-called first world, are based on the exploitation of others, and that whenever you are in a position where you are able to help, it is your responsibility to do so.

We’re talking a couple days after the news broke that another German rescue boat captain Carola Rackete was arrested and then released, after she docked the Sea-Watch 3 on the island of Lampedusa against the orders of Italian authorities. What do you make of her case? Do you know her personally? Do you have some sense of solidarity with her?

Carola is a very dear friend of mine. I can unfortunately not say that I was surprised when I heard that she’s been arrested, because very obviously the European and especially the Italian authorities are playing a politically motivated game to stop, deter, and harass the actions of human rights defenders. I was very happy about her release and also the reasoning by the judge that very obviously the state of emergency on board the Sea-Watch 3 was actually what was happening and that therefore, the ship, the crew, and the captain Carola had all the rights in the world to bring the ship and the people on board to land. Nonetheless, there’s still an investigation against her.

“The European and especially the Italian authorities are playing a politically motivated game to stop, deter, and harass the actions of human rights defenders.”

You said that the Italian government is trying to deter search-and-rescue operations such as your own. Given the 20 years in prison that you’re facing, and the potential prosecution that Carola and many others face, have the Italian authorities been successful in their effort?

They’ve unfortunately been quite successful on many different levels. If we look at the number of NGO ships operating in the Central Med, where just two years ago there were more than 10 ships doing the search-and-rescue missions, there are hardly any today because all of them have to face problems on many different levels. You’re not allowed to enter port, you’re not allowed to leave port, ships are confiscated, flags withdrawn, crew investigated. There’s been a lot of stuff happening on this line of criminalizing the work of the NGOs and with that is a secondary result that it gets harder and harder to find crew. As a captain, you are the person with the overall responsibility, so the authorities will always pick you, and of course it gets more difficult to find people that will want to do that job. To put themselves in this exposed position.

Also, the merchant shipping industry, they changed their routes. We know about many cases where boats in distress are being ignored by other ships because the crews fear the repression and having to wait weeks and weeks and weeks in front of the European port before they can bring the rescued people to land. In that way, [the Italian government] has unfortunately been very successful with the consequence of a lot of people dying, drowning, in the Mediterranean, and also a lot of people being stuck in the detention camps in Libya, where torture, rape, death are daily methods.

Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has been a vocal proponent of the effort to crack down on migration and criminalize search-and-rescue operations. Part of the rationale behind his position, which includes removing rescue boats from the Mediterranean, is that these boats create a “pull factor” for migrants. That is, their mere presence off the coast invites migrants to embark on the treacherous journey because they know they will be rescued and might have a chance of making it to Europe. You’ve been out on the water. Have you seen this kind of thing happening?

This accusation of NGOs being a pull factor is something that the right in Europe just keep repeating. Just because something gets repeated, and shouted louder and louder, doesn’t mean it gains any more truth. There have been several studies that disproved this allegation, that very clearly said that NGOs are not a so-called pull factor. Also, if we just look at it with a bit of common sense, the NGO vessels were the answer to all these thousands of people in maritime distress on their way to Europe, and not the other way around.

We also see now where there’s hardly any NGO ships around, there are still all these boats coming, so there’s definitely no correlation in that sense. The only reason why people are taking this very often deadly route across the Mediterranean Sea are the reasons that they have to flee their homes and their home countries. Second, and more importantly, there is no safe and legal way to come into Europe to take up their human right of seeking asylum.

When does your trial start?

That is a very good question that I would love to be able to answer. We are still in limbo, waiting for the day that the charges will be pressed. That is, of course, part of this big political criminal charade to try to drain us, to put a bigger financial burden on us, to keep us from our actual actions on board for all the time that this trial is not happening, which in the end will most definitely end with an acquittal for all of us.

We don’t see that there’ll be too much of an urge or a rush from the side of the Italian authorities to start this. The longer this takes, the better it actually is for them. So we don’t expect charges to be pressed before the end of the year. And if that happens, that’ll be probably another six months until the court case would actually start.

You have rescued potentially thousands of migrants, including the mother whose 2-year-old boy did not survive. How do you deal, if at all, with grief or trauma in your work?

It’s not very much on my mind. These things happen, unfortunately, regardless of us being there and seeing it or not.

“Me, I can always go back to my perfect little privileged world in Germany if I choose to. And these people have nothing and nowhere to go.”

What I really wonder is how [the people we rescue] deal with their grief and the torture, the hardship, and the denial of any kindness and human decency from anyone else — how they deal with that. A lot of these people have been on the run for years and years and years. They’ve had to go through Africa, see a lot of their family members die in the desert, and they end up in these detention camps in Libya where the situation is absolutely horrendous. There’s almost no words for the situation, for the status of the people in these camps, when they’re at gunpoint forced onto these wrecked boats, which are completely unseaworthy. Like, the moment you set foot on them, they’re drifting around the Mediterranean Sea, no water, no navigation equipment. Not even enough fuel on board to get anywhere. They’re completely left alone, then they have to fear being intercepted by the Libyan militias, then they are denied a port of safety in Europe.

I think the much more interesting question is, how do all these people that have to endure real hardship deal with it? Because they’re so far away from any point of being able to rest and to breathe. Me, I can always go back to my perfect little privileged world in Germany if I choose to. And these people have nothing and nowhere to go. And we don’t want to give it to them.

There are some similarities between your case and the case of Scott Warren, the American humanitarian who faced 20 years in prison for providing two migrant men food, water, clothing, and shelter for three days last year. I wondered what you made of Warren’s case. Do you have a message for him and the other people facing prosecution for aiding migrants? 


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Well, I surely hope that they feel the solidarity as much as we do and feel also empowered through other cases of solidarity. In Europe it is unfortunately the same as the U.S.-Mexico border, where racist, if not fascist, systems are trying to be re-established, where we have a very clear divide between people that deserve to live and those that don’t deserve to live.

If these imperialistic capitalist states see that they’re left with no choice but to criminalize those people that act in solidarity, that show basic human decency, then I think that shows that we’re doing something very right. And I hope that they also feel that, and see that there’s many of us, and that it doesn’t make a difference if it’s a land border like Mexico and the U.S., or if it’s the Mediterranean Sea — there’s a lot of people out there that are trying their best to show solidarity and assist those that are in need and a lot of people that are ready to stand up and fight for this. 

Correction, July 10, 1:35 p.m.:
This post has been updated to clarify that, collectively, volunteers working with the Iuventa 10 have rescued 14,000 people, not that the Iuventa 10 specifically have.

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