On 3 October 2013 the world witnessed the most dramatic human disaster in the Mediterranean Sea since the Second World War. Of a fishing boat that left Libyan waters with 518 Somali and Eritrean refugees, only 155 made it to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Rescue workers recuperated over 300 corpses from the swelling waters, while others remained stuck in the wreck. Survivors stated that a few passengers, including, apparently, the ship’s captain, set fire to a sheet to attract attention from passing vessels.
The Lampedusa tragedy does by no means constitute a unique event. The organization United for Intercultural Action calculated that 17.000 migrants died on Europe’s borders over the last 20 years, 7.000 of which fell in the Sicilian Chanel since 1994. Lacking the means to enter the Union legally, for many migrants coming from Africa’s conflict zones and so-called ‘non-states’ (which now, ironically, also includes Libya and Syria), the Mediterranean has come to constitute an increasingly important route to reach Europe. Though constituting only a fragment of illegal refugees to Europe (most clandestine immigrants are visa over-stayers), Africa’s boat people have progressively become a focal point of media and policy attention. The result has been what Paolo Cuttitta, a research fellow at Amsterdam Free University, calls the political ‘spectacle’ of the border. The conscious dislocation of the process of migration control towards the margins of European national sovereign legislations has generated an increasingly repressive climate, involving a series of violent, and sometimes even extralegal, measures to combat what in European foreign policy making is uniformly titled as a war, this time not against terrorism or drug trafficking, but against illegal migration.
Many signals indicate that this border spectacle only covers the true consequences of what, in effect, is a dislocation of sovereign authority towards Europe’s legal and geographical margins. Although the repressive crackdowns of European national governments against cross-continental migration occasionally raise resistance from its juridical institutions (one of such instances concerned Italy’s prominent pushback operation against 24 Eritrean and Somali refugees, who were directly sent back to Libya in 2009 and caused Italy a condemnation from the European Court of Human Rights), European institutions often invoke the same humanitarian values to underpin increasingly aggressive border control operations that are outsourced to non-state bodies like Frontex and Eurosur, and which make their effects feel deep into the African continent.
At the end of the day, therefore these internal contradictions between Europe and its member states appear to resuscitate a kind of Sophoclean drama, whereby the greater laws of humanity are sacrificed for the sovereignty of the ruler. In a context whereby migrating bodies are reduced to bare live and their death reduced to mere destiny, a whim of uncontrollable forces, the Italian writer Barbara Spinelli notes, the protection of human rights becomes a purely residual objective, an ornament to Europe’s absolute values of security and stability. Rather than mitigating this ‘critical’ emergency in the Central Mediterranean, its perpetuation at a subjective, human level has become a key element in the justification of a forceful border regime that is officially aimed at keeping criminality at bay but which, through its effects, enhances a system of interests and relationships that has almost become an end in itself. To quote the British scholar David Keen, for some wars, waging them is more important than winning them.
Instead, Europe, which has the capacity to project its sovereignty deep into the African continent to outsource its borders, to fund detention centres, patrol and repel migrant bodies, rather has the moral duty to ensure that those who escape from death to reach Europe, do not demise on their way. That is why today, an increasing number of associations demand to place rights again at the centre of the debate. They explicitly demand a humanitarian corridor to guarantee that those who flee war and destitution are given the right to demand asylum without having to depend on dangerous human trafficking networks that often explicitly sell a ticket to death. The aim is to reach over 20.000 signatures, the same number of migrant deaths that were swallowed by the sea over the last two decades.
Sign the petition here.
Learn more about my colleagues from the Island detention Project here.