activism books human rights

Book review: The Time to Act is Now, by Carola Rackete

This month the British government announced an illegal, inhumane and impractical new policy to deal with asylum seekers: give them a one-way ticket to Rwanda. There’s a lot to say about it, but I thought I’d comment by way of a book review.

Carola Rackete is a German ecologist, formerly ship captain, who found herself in the middle of a media storm in 2019. She had been arrested for saving the lives of refugees in the Mediterranean. Her ship, the charity-operated Sea Watch 3, had taken on 53 refugees from a foundering boat. They were refused permission to dock in Italy, leaving the ship and its exhausted and hungry passengers stranded off the coast for a fortnight. Anticipating that some were on the verge of suicide, Rackete docked without permission in the night, and was arrested by the police on arrival.

The Time to Act is Now tells this story. In the process, it also attempts to explain how we have got to a situation where anyone could be arrested for a maritime rescue. How saving a life became an act of civil disobedience, and how the EU – like the UK – has failed to provide safe migration routes or address the global inequalities that lead to migration in the first place.

One striking aspect of the book is the first-hand, up-close insight into the conditions at sea, the desperation that drives people to undertake the journey. Most refugees don’t have life jackets and can’t swim, Rackete reports. “How much misery must a person have suffered to go through such danger?” Nobody undertaking this kind of risk does so lightly. They are already traumatised, with nothing to lose. And the response of the wealthy countries is to try and drive back the boats, refuse them entry, and criminalise those trying to help.

“Our governments wouldn’t leave a European exposed to these conditions” writes Rackete. “But our passengers obviously don’t have the right skin colour. They happened to be born in other countries.” It’s a stark demonstration of the fact that whatever liberal values the West may pride itself in, not all people are equal. Not all lives matter.

As we have seen in Britain recently, debates about migration focus on ‘people coming here’ and what to do with them. But “if we want to speak about refugees coming over to Europe in boats, the first thing we need to talk about is global inequality” says Rackete. Europe has extracted wealth and resources from Africa for centuries. The net flow of wealth is still towards the north, while we send the things we don’t want the other way: our recycling, unwanted clothes, e-waste. To that list the Conservatives would add asylum seekers.

Not only is Western wealth not shared, progress and prosperity elsewhere is undermined by our over-consumption. Greenhouse gases from the world’s richest countries destabilise the climate of the global South, disrupting rains, leading to floods and droughts. Climate change will be the biggest driver of migration in history, but “richer states, instead of taking responsibility, are walling themselves in.”

The Time to Act is Now is a witness statement from someone who is not prepared to accept this, who won’t turn a blind eye while she has skills that could help. “I do what needs to be done because others chose to do nothing” writes Rackete in her short, angry and striking book, which was written shortly after her arrest and while court cases were still pending. Charges were eventually dropped and Rackete was celebrated for her actions. The injustices of the refugee situation however, are ongoing, with countries announcing “new innovative solutions” to avoid taking responsibility.

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