In June 2019, Carola Rackete, captain of the boat Sea-Watch 3, entered the port of Lampedusa and thereby defied the new Italian law against entering territorial waters. By doing so, she saved the lives of forty refugees who, in the intense heat, were suffering from thirst and threatening to throw themselves overboard – though few of them could swim.
She made a profoundly courageous decision, and the news of it spread, rightly, around the world and gave her notoriety as a heroine.
She was arrested on landing and charged with aiding clandestine and illegal immigration. The photograph of her being led off her vessel into a police car presents an exceptional study in contemporary politics – of the conflict between private citizens’ instincts and the demands of government and authority, of the gender demarcations that still rule – not only in Italy, but were intensified there, as Carola Rackete herself noted, because the Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini – a hard right Catholic populist politician who has the nerve to invoke the Virgin Mary on his side – was aghast that this rebellious captain was a young woman, especially as his nickname among his followers is Il Capitano.
In the photograph reproduced in the book Rackete has written about the events, six coast guards in uniform, one policeman, and three officials – one possibly a priest, and all male – are ushering her on her own into the police car; she is waving at the crowd, her mouth is set, her eyes grave.
The men are not touching her, and trying to read their expressions, I think embarrassment predominates. In some cases, they look resigned; another looks anxious, eyeing the crowd, behind the photographer. None, it is good to see, is proud of this moment. They are complying with Rome’s then strong man (Salvini failed to be re-elected three months later), but they aren’t comfortable with what he is ordering them to do.
Lampedusa has a long, valiant record of receiving refugees, and the former Mayor, Giusi Nicolini, is a woman of immense stature and acuity. 
When I first heard of Carola Rackete’s bravery, I thought she was working for one of the magnificent NGO teams involved in rescuing the passengers of gommoni, the inflatable rubber dinghies that are so often inadequate to the task of navigating a treacherous sea. Rackete was indeed part of one of these endeavours, but only because, being trained in engineering and nautical knowhow, she had put her name down on a list as available in case of an emergency. She had been on a rescue expedition in the Mediterranean before, but her profession, her main concern, her life’s work is ecology. When the designated skipper on the Sea-Watch 3 mission couldn’t make it, Rackete was in the Highlands of Scotland, happily collecting data on the butterfly population and rebuilding footpaths and bridleways. ‘Deep down,’ she writes, ‘I did not want to leave.’ But she felt she must do what she had signed up to do if necessary.
Her action in Lampedusa is immensely significant, because it attracted attention to the illegal exclusionary laws in Europe, represents an event of exemplary civil disobedience, and at the same time, makes clear one of the chief catalysts of the massive flight of people northwards. That the captain of a refugee rescue boat was primarily a full-time environmentalist communicated to the larger public that people are leaving home because home is no longer habitable – but degraded, desertified, barren, exhausted. She has helped yoke together the two crises – displacement and climate change – in wider consciousness.
After an unpleasant time in the glare and hubbub of international media attention, she has returned to the quiet and seclusion of her environmental work – in the Antarctic (she has worked for Greenpeace and been on five missions on the RV Polarstern, an ice-breaker, and wrote her Masters degree on restoring the ecosystems – and the seal population – of the island of South Georgia).
In 2019, after she was acquitted – and released from prison – for breaking Italian law, she published her book Il est temps d’agir (It’s time to act) – so far, there’s no English version). She writes self-effacingly about her own actions, and passionately and knowledgeably about the ecological factors that are impelling the mass migrations: chief among them, monocultural farming, leading to pollution, steppification, and desertification.
The men, women and children who cross the Mediterranean in their thousands and the millions who have been displaced into camps in bordering territories, are chiefly recognised as victims of war and genocide: in West Africa, the young men who leave to endure the hardships and dangers, including slavery, of reaching the coast of Libya and embarking for Europe are indeed frequently fleeing enrolment in militias in the many civil conflicts between different sects and factions, tribes and religions. But these are proximate causes: the deeper reasons for the tumult, the exodus, and the desperation are ecological. As Rackete writes, the internal strife, the violence and ruthless extremism are stoked by the competition for resources – for water, above all, for land, and for the sustenance that water and land provide.
The poet Warsan Shire, who was born to Somali parents in the vast refugee camp of Dadaab in Kenya, and settled in the UK when she was a year old, speaks directly of these causes in one of her most searing poems:
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land…
The nations of West Africa, from which so many thousands attempt to cross the Mediterranean, are suffering from depleted resources: thirty years ago, Lake Tchad covered 10,000 sq. km. It has now shrunk to a tenth of that size: 1,250 sq. km.
Gambia is a small country on the banks of a river. It used to be bountiful, filled with enough fish to sustain the population living on the banks. In Mali, another country from which many arrivants are coming, the pastoral way of life of villagers, with their herds and their pastures and vegetable plots, is being increasingly undermined by the ambitions of entrepreneurial companies, often involved in dams and other major projects on the River Niger.
In her book Land, Investment and Migration, the anthropologist and economist Camilla Toulmin returns to Dlonguébougou, the village in the central region where she first lived and studied in the Eighties; thirty-five years on, she finds its way of life under severe stress, the villagers’ irrigable land encroached and parched as Chinese agro-business develops large sugarcane fields which drain their water supply, thus driving away the younger men – and some of the young women, too – to seek their wherewithal elsewhere.
From Guinea, many are fleeing the marauding militias, who grab any young man to conscript them into the internecine violence that has been destroying civil life there over the last decade; to avoid such a life, a man or woman will cross into Senegal, where there is the promise of something better, work, education, but then find that is not the case. Possibilities might open up, they hope, if they keep moving north towards the coast. The Sahara they then cross has itself been a scene of extraction for decades. Ibrahim al-Koni, a novelist of mystical intensity, has chronicled, in Gold Dust and The Animists, the plunder of new colonialists – oil prospectors, mineral hunters, speculators of every sort, including collectors of rare reptiles and traffickers in human beings. Al-Koni was born a Touareg, one of the nomadic people who have wandered and understood the vast desert for centuries, regulated its resources and oriented travellers in its shifting contours.
Once across the immensity of the desert and all its hazards, the forced migrant will reach the Maghreb. But there, depredations continue, different in kind but not in degree, in the collision of the Global North’s hunger for ore and water and labour, and the Global South’s needs – which those demands keep exacerbating.
The anguished, lyrical Desert Trilogy made by the Tunisian storyteller and cineaste, Nacer Khemir, opens with The Wanderers of the Desert (l984) about unknown demonic forces – djinn – who steal away the population, turning them into ghost-zombies haunting the village, glimpsed but never met again. Without declaring the message in so many words, the schoolmaster, played by Khemir himself, is experiencing the depopulation caused by departures for the north – as he himself was to do, leaving to live and work in Paris.
As Rackete writes, ‘With our appetite for energy and the emissions it generates, we are damaging the climate, and the consequences of this… touch in the first place in a massive way those countries who have least contributed to the warming of the planet. In this way we maintain the poverty in the world – and partly create the reasons for the migration.’ (p 57, my trans).
Carola Rackete has withdrawn from the public eye, but when she broke the law and saved the men and women on her boat from dying of thirst, she disclosed the links that connect us to every one of them, in our unholy symbiosis, as we turn on a tap, flick on the switch, tap on our devices and expect the natural resources that support these comforts to be there for us to use, unthinkingly.
 The German title means Acting Instead of Hoping: A Call to the Last Generation (Munich: Droemer, 2019); Carola Rackete, with Anne Weiss, Il est temps d’agir, trans from German by Catherine Weinzorn (Paris: L’Iconoclaste, 2020).
 https://www.facinghistory.org/standing-up-hatred-intolerance/warsan-shire-home Accessed March 29 2021
 Camilla Toulmin, Land, Investment and Migration: Thirty-Five years of Village Life in Mali (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2020), pp.215-216.
Marina Warner writes fiction and cultural history. Her books include Stranger Magic (2011) and Fairy Tale: A Very Short Introduction (2016). She is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck College and President of the Royal Society of Literature. Her latest book, Inventory of a Life Mislaid (2021), is an ‘unreliable memoir’ about her childhood in Egypt where her father opened a bookshop in l947.