Precarious Trajectories research with Forensic Architecture forms part of Turner Prize shortlisted Counter Investigations exhibition at ICA

FeaturedPrecarious Trajectories research with Forensic Architecture forms part of Turner Prize shortlisted Counter Investigations exhibition at ICA

The work of Forensic Oceanography ‘Death by Rescue‘ researchers Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani forms part of the Forensic Architecture Agency‘s Counter Investigations exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, which has recently been shortlisted for the prestigious Turner Prize. An exhibition of work by the shortlisted artists will be staged at Tate Britain from 25 September 2018 to 6 January 2019. The winner will be announced in December at an awards ceremony live on the BBC, the broadcast partner for the Turner Prize. The jury praised Forensic Architecture for developing highly innovative methods for sourcing and visualising evidence relating to human rights abuses around the world, used in courts of law as well as exhibitions of art and architecture.


Forensic Architecture’s Director Eyal Weizman front row far right (PT co-investigator) and Forensic Oceanography co-founder Lorenzo Pezzani back row third from right (PT Research Fellow).


The Counter Investigations exhibition at the ICA runs until 13 May 2018.


Calais Children: A Case to Answer


Forthcoming Screenings of Sue Clayton’s hard hitting documentary on the children of the Calais “jungle”.

University of York Stand Up To Racism Screening

1 May 2018, 6:00-8:30pm.
PX/001 in the Exhibition Centre, University of York, Heslington, York

Brighouse Sixth Form Screening

2nd May 2018, 9am-3.30pm
Huddersfield, Private event

Stand Up To Racism CALAIS Delegation (2)

5th May 2018, 4pm-8pm (French Time)
Centre Europen de Sejour – Auberge De
Jeunesse – Rue du Marechal de Lattre de
Tassigny 62100 Calais, France

Manchester University Screening

8th May 2018, Time TBC

University of Essex Creating Change Series Screening

11th May 2018, 4.30-7pm
University of Essex, Room TBC

Fleet Aid for Refugees

18th May 2018, 7:30pm
Zebon Copse Community Centre, 90 Danvers Dr, Church Crookham, Fleet GU52
Entrance £10. Refreshments available.

Oxford Screening and Q&A


22nd May 2018, Time TBC
Waterstones, William Baker House, Broad St, Oxford, OX1 3AF

Refugee Week 2018, 16-24 June

Menorah Synagogue Screening and Q&A

17th June 2018, 7.30pm-9.30pm
Menorah Synagogue, Altrincham Road, Wythenshawe, Manchester

Screening and Q&A as part of The Sea is the Limit Exhibition

20th June 2018, Time TBC
Yorkshire Museum Lecture Theatre, Museum Gardens, Museum St, York YO1 7FR, UK

Whitstable Screening and Q&A

24th June 2018, 5:30pm
Saint Alphege Church, High St, Whitstable CT5 1AY, UK
£5 on door

Croydon NEU/NUT General Meeting

26th June 2018, 5pm-6.30pm
Ruskin House, 23 Coombe Rd, Croydon


Intl screenings planned for USA, Rome, Ventimiglia, Lyon, Paris, Sicily and more…

Get in touch for more details!

Precarious Trajectories film showing + expert panel at Coventry Cathedral 30 January

Precarious Trajectories: voices from the Mediterranean migration crisis

cropped-event-header-17-6-16.png         chapterhouse

Film by Dr Simon Parker (University of York), followed by Q&A discussion with Dr Simon Parker, Dr Myria Georgiou (LSE), and Dr Vicki Squire (University of Warwick)

Monday 30th January, 6-7:30pm

Chapter House, Coventry Cathedral, Coventry

Set on location in Libya, Italy and Greece during 2015-2016, at the height of the Mediterranean migration crisis, Precarious Trajectories focuses on the perilous sea crossings that hundreds of thousands of refugees have undertaken in recent years in order to arrive at what they hope will be the safer shores of Europe through the eyes of Ruha from Syria and Ahmed from Somalia.

To register for the event and for further details, please visit the following webpage.

Organised by Dr Vicki Squire and the  Borders, Race, Ethnicity and Migration Network (BREM) at the University of Warwick.

I am Human: Precarious Journeys

Professor Sue Clayton (Precarious Trajectories co-investigator)  will be showcasing her documentary film making and interventions on behalf of the former children of the Calais ‘jungle’ as part of the Being Human festival which opens on Friday 18 November at Goldsmiths, University of London, New Cross. The opening night will feature Sue Clayton’s interactive video installation exploring the precarious journeys of refugees fleeing conflict to the UK.

Courtesy of ITV News

At 7pm, Professor Clayton will give a talk introducing the work and situating it within her documentary filmmaking practice and her recent experiences helping children escape the Calais ‘Jungle’.

About the exhibition

Trace the precarious journeys of refugees as they navigate the perils of land, sea and a deadly human landscape riven by geopolitical failure on an unprecedented scale.

This installation responds to three perilous spaces that refugees must navigate: the sea, the national border and the camp.

Featuring original music composed by Brian Eno, a soundscape of voices, the throb of tides, motorways and the human heart, visitors will be invited to interact with three short films activated by movement.

Refreshments will be available with a suggested donation to charity.


I am human: precarious journeys runs from Friday, 18 November to Sunday, 20 November. Free. All welcome.

Part of Being Human 2016 – A festival of the humanities.

Please support the crowdfunding initiative for ‘A Case to Answer‘ – the documentary film directed by Sue Clayton which explores the plight of lone child refugees from the Calais ‘jungle’ and the UK government’s response.



Precarious Trajectories features in new UNICEF ‘Children on the Move’ Research Special


Simon Parker, the principal investigator of the Precarious Trajectories project is one of 5 experts on child migration to feature in a new Research Watch multi-media resource produced by UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Office. Children on the Move includes 4 short films looking at Child Migration and the Law: Status, detention and court proceedingsResearch & Knowledge GapsInsights and Lessons from Recent Experience and Challenges in Protecting the Rights of Migrating Children. Children on the Move also includes two films featuring the testimony of young refugees including Joselyn’s story and Ali and Zafar’s stories. Simon talks about the particular difficulties and challenges experienced by child refugees and migrants in their journeys to Europe and the risks and harms that they are exposed to in their countries of origin, in transit and when they finally reach Europe, and what policies need to be put in place to ensure children’s rights are respected and their voices heard by those in power.




We are a group of research leaders who have been selected by the Economic and Social Research Council to promote greater understanding of the current refugee and migration ‘crisis’ as part of the Mediterranean Migration Research Programme. We welcome the report by the UN Secretary General In Safety and Dignity: Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants and support its recommendation to create a Global Compact for Refugees. It is only through such collective support that effective protection may be achieved.

The report affirms that all migrants are entitled to the respect, protection and full enjoyment of their human rights under core international human rights treaties, regardless of their human rights status and emphasises the need to protect migrants en route, at sea and at borders. Our research on migratory routes and experiences records the precarious journeys refugees undertake in order to reach a place of safety. We note that some nine out of ten migrants never cross the Mediterranean and that the world’s refugee populations are largely contained in poor states in the Middle East and Africa. Hence, we emphasise the obligation of European states to develop a more humanitarian response to the ‘crisis’.

The report also calls upon states to fund data collection for future migration planning, to protect human rights and to advance inclusion. Our research bears out the importance of data collection for the development of sound policy as well as the need for further research on migration. We note that while the UNHCR and its partners have sought to coordinate the provision of aid and assistance to refugees fleeing Syria, within the European Union there has been an absence of joined up thinking, which has undermined the protection of migrants’ rights for all to see. We share the Secretary General’s condemnation of the policy of erecting fences and walls and criminalising migrants. As our research has shown, the vast majority of arrivals to the European Union are people who have fled war and conflict zones and are in urgent need of safety and international protection. The mobility controls that have been erected across much of Europe simply reinforce vulnerability by creating spaces of destitution as we have seen in Calais and elsewhere, situations which never should have been allowed to develop. Rather than promote responsibility sharing, these repressive controls reinforce a beggar-thy-neighbour logic within Europe and shift responsibility onto neighbouring countries such as Greece and Italy — a point criticised by the Secretary General, and with which we concur.

Many commentators have suggested that pull factors including generous benefits are attracting migrants to our shores. Our research found virtually no evidence in support of this view. Having collectively undertaken over 1,000 interviews we can attest that motives for migration are much more complicated and cannot be neatly categorised in a migrant-refugee distinction. Above all, it is the absence of safety and a viable future which encourages people to flee. In order to qualify for refugee status, an individual must demonstrate that they have an objective claim of persecution and are unable or unwilling to avail themselves of protection in their home state. Such persecution may be structural and aimed at particular nationalities, ethnic groups and religious communities. However, pockets of repression exist everywhere and individuals may also suffer persecution even if they are coming from so-called ‘safe’ states. For this reason, it is essential that asylum claims are dealt with in a non-discriminatory manner. We need an adaptable, open and fair system of asylum.

n this context, we share the concerns raised by many human rights commentators and organisations regarding two worrying developments in particular. Firstly, the implementation of an agreement reached between the EU and Turkey, which includes forced collective returns, is neither lawful nor in compliance with the EU’s own Charter of Fundamental Rights. Moreover, Turkey maintained the geographical reservation to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention which limits refugee status to those fleeing Europe and cannot be considered a ‘safe third country.’ Secondly, the newly established ‘hotspots’, a far-reaching mechanism of direct EU-level intervention and administration at the local level, which also includes, consisting of closed reception centres to which humanitarian organisations and lawyers are refused entry, often leaves individuals without access to rights to asylum. In effect, the EU is creating an ever-growing population of illegally detained refugees, including vulnerable men, women and children, who are forced to live in appalling conditions and without recourse to justice.

We support the Secretary General’s call to states to find solutions for refugees including providing resettlement spaces and other legal pathways for admission. This is what responsibility sharing means in practice. Our research has found that the current system of reception is failing, in spite of the efforts of UNHCR, the ICRC and their partners. In many reception centres conditions remain sub-standard, and in those centres that do allow non-state actors access, the efforts of local support networks often stand in where a multitude of institutional actors fail. Moreover, our research indicates that people on the move feel compelled to undertake risky journeys in the absence of legal routes, with many suggesting that they do not have any other option under current conditions. We affirm the British government’s commitment to identifying and protecting vulnerable refugee children, wherever they are. In this context, we welcome the British government’s decision to admit more unaccompanied child refugees from within the European Union and trust that they will move swiftly to provide the protection these children urgently need. However, we also emphasise that more needs to be done in order to open up safe and legal migratory channels, in order that the tragedies repeatedly witnessed over the past several years do not become a normality of our time.

Dr Dia Anagnostou, ELIAMEP, Greece
Dr. Leonie Ansems de Vries, King’s College London, UK
Dr. Alessio d’Angelo, Middlesex University, UK
Martin Baldwin-Edwards, Middlesex University, UK
Professor Brad Blitz, Middlesex University, UK
Professor Sue Clayton, Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK
Professor Heaven Crawley, University of Coventry, UK
Dr. Angeliki Dimitriadi, ELIAMEP
Dr. Franck Duvell, University of Oxford, UK
Dr Jean-Pierre Gauci, People for Change Foundation, Malta
Professor Elspeth Guild, Queen Mary University of London
Dr Charles Heller, Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK
Dr. Elisabeth Kirtsoglou, University of Durham, UK
Professor Eleonore Kofman, Middlesex University, UK
Dr. Daniel Knight, University of St. Andrews, UK
Dr Iosif Kovras, City University London, UK
Dr. Steve Lyon, University of Durham, UK.
Dr. Nicola Montagna, Middlesex University, UK
Dr. Simon Parker, University of York, UK
Professor Joe Painter, University of Durham, UK
Dr Ferruccio Pastore, FIERI, Italy
Dr Lorenzo Pezzani, Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK
Dr. Stavroula Pipyrou, University of St. Andrews, UK.
Dr. Maria Pisani, University of Malta
Dr. Simon Robins, University of York, UK
Dr. Nando Sigona, University of Birmingham, UK
Dr. Vicki Squire, University of Warwick, UK
Dr. Dallal Stevens, University of Warwick, UK
Professor Giorgos Tsimouris, Panteion University Athens, Greece
Professor Nick Vaughan-Williams, University of Warwick, UK
Dr. Antonis Vradis, University of Durham, UK
Professor Eyal Weizman, Goldsmiths, Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK

Launch of ‘Death by Rescue’ Report on anniversary of 18 April shipwreck tragedy


‘The 18th April 2015 marks…the worst peacetime disaster in recent Mediterranean history’



The 18th of April 2016 marks the first anniversary of the tragic sinking of a fishing trawler off the coast of Sicily resulting in the loss of over 800 lives. Only 28 passengers on board the vessel survived. It was the worst peacetime disaster in recent Mediterranean history and the biggest single loss of life in a year that saw 3,735 suspected drownings by those attempting to make the perilous journey to the shores of Europe. However, days earlier on 13 April 2015, more than 400 people were thought to have drowned after another vessel sank some 60 nautical miles from the Libyan coast and 150 survivors were rescued. In just the month of April, shipwrecks cost the lives of over 1,200 refugees in one of the most heavily trafficked sea areas and surrounded by some of the best equipped search and rescue services and air and naval surveillance in the world.

How then was this human catastrophe possible and why do the events of April 2015 mark only the highest point in a rising death toll since the abandonment of the Italian government’s Mare Nostrum operation in October 2014?

The report which is launched on Monday 18 April at the A.M. Qattan Foundation in London (for details and to book a ticket click here) sheds new light on the recent history of national and EU sponsored search and rescue and border control operations since the fatal shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa, Sicily in October 2013 that led to the launch of Mare Nostrum.

18042015_ZOOMIN_B_LP2-01According to the detailed forensic research and witness statements collected by the report’s authors, Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani:

  • the merchant vessels involved did everything they possibly could to rescue the passengers in distress
  • the blame for the tragedies does not lie entirely with the smugglers who overcrowded the boats
  • EU agencies and policy makers bear responsibility for ending the Italian Mare Nostrum operation and replacing it with the much more limited Frontex-led Triton operation
  • European policy makers took this decision in full knowledge of the deadly consequences this policy shift would have, and knowingly created the conditions in which these incidents were bound to occur.

Heller and Pezzani comment:

 “Thanks to newly released documents we can show that the rationale for this retreat of state-operated rescue was to act as a deterrent for migrants and smugglers in the aim of stemming crossings”.

The authors will be joined at the launch of the report by Precarious Trajectories Project Director, Dr Simon Parker from the University of York, the Director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, London University Prof. Eyal Weizman, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, the Director of Statewatch, Tony Bunyan and Matteo De Bellis, Amnesty International. Chaired by Prof. Sue Clayton, Director of the Goldsmiths Screen School.

Book a free ticket through Eventbrite.





Palermo Open City: From the Mediterranean Migrant Crisis to a Europe Without Borders?



Leoluca Orlando is one of the longest lasting and most successful political leaders in post-war Italy. He has been elected mayor of Palermo – a city that was once the stronghold of the Sicilian mafia, no less than four times since 1985 – most recently in 2012 with over 70% of the popular vote. This despite campaigning to rid his city and region of what Orlando refers to as the plague of organized crime. A plague which nevertheless maintains its tenacious hold on important areas of economic, social and political life on the island.

The walls of the Council Chamber in Palermo are studded with plaques to the memories of public servants, priests and ordinary citizens who have been murdered by the Mafia, including several of Orlando’s closest partners. Indeed, it was the murder of Piersanti Mattarella – the then-regional president of Sicily in 1980 – that obliged the young human rights lawyer to abandon a promising university career for the highly dangerous vocation of public office. Piersanti’s brother Sergio is currently the President of the Italian Republic and remains a close friend and confidant of Palermo’s outspoken mayor.

Now aged 68 and three years into what may well be his final mandate, Orlando is fired with a new mission – that of restoring Palermo to its historical primacy as the cradle of a cosmopolitan “Arab-Norman” Mediterranean culture. “The city of Palermo is not a Mediterranean city,” argues Orlando, “it is a Middle Eastern city in Europe” that shares as much in common with Beirut and Djibouti as with Rome or Hamburg.

Although Palermo’s first citizen is often accused by critics of being better at performing the role of embattled mayor than at the practical politics of sorting out Palermo’s notorious transport problems (Orlando has even won an award for an acting role in a German feature film), the City Council has shown its commitment to recognizing Palermo’s increasingly diverse population by instituting a Council of Cultures (Consulta delle culture). The council’s members are elected from among the city’s some 125 different nationalities and 100 spoken languages.

The young President of the council, Adham Darawsha, is a Palestinian doctor who emphasizes the importance of representing the city’s diverse population – and, in particular, of “promoting the richness of culture and the capacity for dialogue among the various communities, uniting political representation with different cultural and social activities.’1 The Council of Cultures sees its role as guaranteeing that new residents of the city are able to take their place as full citizens in the city’s political and institutional life, regardless of their nationality or immigration status.

Mayor Orlando sums up the work of the Council of Cultures as “the practical application of a model where citizenship rights are related only to residence.”2

The rejection of “the tyranny of the residence permit” is a key principle of the Orlando administration’s support of international human mobility. The Charter of Palermo, which was approved by the City Council in March 2015, bears the subtitle: “From migration as suffering to mobility as an inalienable human right.”

By insisting “Io sono persona, I am Human,” Orlando – in his capacity as the regional President of the Association of Local Authorities, which includes other provinces across Sicily, and in working with his own administration – aims to deploy the institutional resources of the municipality on behalf of those whom the national authorities fail to protect. According to the Palermo Charter,

There is a need to . . . carry out a radical reform of the citizenship law [which has been] postponed for decades by the Italian Parliament. The archaic reference to jus sanguinis has to be abandoned . . . and time and red tape that hinder the recognition of Italian citizenship has to be reduced without leaving it to the discretion and/or the sensitivity of local administrations.3

The Charter also affirms the right to work, health care, social assistance, and housing. Its authors insist that with the abolition of the residence permit, which traps migrants in an inferior and precarious legal status, it will be more possible to treat migrants “as people, as human beings, regardless of the document that establishes their status . . . [I]t means seeing them as active citizens able to develop value for the community and for the place where they live.”

It is time that the European Union abolishes the residence permit for all those who migrate, affirming the freedom of movement of people, as well as of capital and goods, in the globalized world.4

Sicilians – who for centuries were forced to emigrate to the industrial north of Italy, Europe and the New World in search of land to farm or work to sustain themselves and their families – know the historical realities of a globalized world all too well. In more recent years Sicily has been the principle arrival point for a growing population of refugees and migrants traveling through Libya and across the Mediterranean in dangerous, overcrowded, unseaworthy vessels. The sinking of two migrant smuggler boats off the coast of Lampedusa on 3 and 11 October, leading to the deaths of nearly 400 refugees, caused such a level of international outcry that the Italian navy and coast guard launched the emergency search and rescue operation known as Mare Nostrum, which succeeded in saving over 150,000 lives before it was wound down in October 2014.

Faced with another tragic sinking in April 2015, taking over 800 lives when a smuggler vessel capsized during an attempted rescue operation, the European Union was forced to double the size of Operation Triton (launched as a more minimal search and rescue response following the cessation of Mare Nostrum). The Port of Palermo became a landing ground for dozens of rescue disembarkations. Survivors were often greeted on the quayside by Mayor Orlando and the Archbishop of Palermo, Corrado Lorefice.

Orlando has clearly been deeply affected by his encounters with the survivors of these perilous journeys – many of whom have been pulled out of the sea after having witnessed their fellow passengers drown. He is not afraid to repeat the accusation that the European Union is guilty of “genocide’ in the Mediterranean for failing to guarantee safe passage to millions of people who have been forced to put their lives into the hands of unscrupulous smugglers in order to avoid death and persecution.

“Sicily” is by contrast, in Orlando’s view, “a positive example for the rest of the world. Imagine in the last 20 months, 300,000 immigrants arrived in Sicily – you have not heard one single act of racism, one single act of intolerance. Neither a simple ‘go home!’ Nothing, nothing, nothing . . .” He encourages those who want inspiration for a more humane response to consider the fact that the small town of Pozzallo, with its 16,000 inhabitants, saw 38,000 immigrants arrive in the previous year – all with no acts of intolerance.

Orlando insisted that the previous practice of making newly arrived refugees to Palermo run a gauntlet of armed police had to stop. He has urged those looking for better ways of treating asylum seekers to “come to Palermo” because “everything is well organized – health care, cultural mediators, social help, the Caritas volunteers, the Red Cross, and anything are working well . . . [T]he tragedy is before they arrive, the tragedy is when they leave the Port of Palermo.”

The Palermo Charter also highlights why those who are keen to exploit the hapless victims of war, conflict and famine are just as present in the territory of Italy as in Africa: “The situation of . . . Italian hospitality is already very critical. If hospitality and integration processes . . . are not guaranteed, the protection system is likely to reproduce favor-seeking behavior and become a factory of marginalization that will impinge on all of us.”5 The Charter goes on to criticize the “opaque management and concentration of people in places that defy [the] possibility of control,” which is something of a euphemism for the ongoing corruption scandal surrounding the immigration “welcome” industry centered on Rome – “Mafia Capitale.”

Due to the large concentration of first reception centers (known as CARA) and smaller second stage accommodation facilities (known as SPRAR) in Sicily, lucrative contracts, which spontaneously created various “cooperatives” and “not for profit” organizations, have successfully and corruptly been obtained in Rome via the so-called “Tavolo di coordinamento nazionale sull’immigrazione” (national coordinating table on immigration). The migration reception and accommodation market across Italy, and especially in Sicily, has become a byword for criminality, exploitation and trafficking.

Indeed, as one of Italy’s leading human rights and immigration experts, Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo, has pointed out, the absence of a genuine policy of asylum support is the main reason why so many refugees and migrants who land in Sicily see Italy as a transit country to be crossed as soon as possible rather than as a place of refuge. Vassallo points to the recent case of a group of Sudanese refugees who were left without water in an occupied social center (Laboratorio Zeta) in Palermo, where they constantly faced the risk of eviction despite the fact that they had nowhere else to live. The Sudanese were forced to trek across the island in search of barely-paid, illicit agricultural work controlled of criminal gangs. Their lack of legal status and the often 3 year-long wait for a decision from the local asylum commission leaves refugees like the Sudanese in a limbo – a limbo that no charters or declarations from the marble halls of the Palazzo Municipale are capable of resolving.6 There are also well-documented accounts of young Nigerian women who were trafficked out of Libya as refugees and who – after only a few days in a Palermo reception “welcome center” – were found working as prostitutes around the streets of the port. According to local NGOs, many of them are under age and are left to the mercy of pimps and traffickers by the authorities. This is how the underground and criminal economy of the Italian South, as well as many northern cities, benefit from the precarious status and the denial of human rights that Italy’s failed asylum system perpetually reproduces.

But despite the propensity of European politicians to “imagine that the European people are intolerant,” in the view of the ever-optimistic Mayor of Palermo, “in the stomachs of European people there is a culture of welcoming.” Certainly, the many Austrians who volunteered to drive stranded refugees across the border when the Hungarian authorities refused to provide transport to the thousands of migrants trapped in Budapest support Orlando’s interpretation. Likewise, the spontaneous welcome committees that greeted exhausted refugees upon their arrival in the train stations of southern Germany must support Orlando’s interpretation. Yet, the “events of Cologne” on New Year’s Eve (the alleged sexual assaults on women by young male migrants) as well as the right wing, anti-migrant “patrols” in Sweden, France and Finland all point to a more troubling response to the refugee crisis. They point to the dangerous potential for political exploitation by chauvinist and xenophobic political parties and governments.

An apposite passage in Benjamin Barber’s If Mayors Ruled the World (2013), also cited by Zygmunt Bauman, seems to capture this crisis of governance, which has been revealed (rather than engendered) by the so-called migration crisis:

After a long history of regional success, the nation-state is failing us on the global scale. It was the perfect political recipe for the liberty and independence of autonomous peoples and nations. It is utterly unsuited to interdependence.7

This sentiment was also echoed by the Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, in a “Manifesto” for places of refuge (We, the cities of Europe) launched in September 2015. The mayors of Paris, Lesvos, Coruña, Cadiz, Santiago de Compostela, and Zaragoza have also adhered to this call:

We, the cities of Europe, are ready to become places of refuge. We want to welcome these refugees. States grant asylum status but cities provide shelter. Border towns, such as Lampedusa, or the islands of Kos and Lesbos, are the first to receive the flow of people seeking asylum, and European municipalities will have to take these people in and ensure they can start a new life, safe from the dangers from which they have escaped. We have the space, services and, most importantly, the support of our citizens to do so. Our municipal services are already working on refugee reception plans to ensure food, a roof, and dignity for everyone fleeing war and hunger. The only thing missing is state support.8

The manifesto continues:

For years European governments have spent most asylum and migration funds on reinforcing our borders and turning Europe into a fortress. This mistaken policy is the reason why the Mediterranean has become the graveyard for thousands of refugees attempting to come and share our freedom. It is time to change our priorities: to allocate funds to ensure refugees in transit are welcomed, to provide resources for cities that have offered themselves as places of refuge. This is not the time for hollow words or empty speeches, it’s time for action.9

Whether they are veteran champions of a Sicily freed from the blight of organized crime (such as Leoluca Orlando) or new political leaders who have emerged from movements for economic justice and the right to housing in the wake of globalized austerity (such as Ada Colau of Barcelona), we can detect in this new urban movement a strong demand for solidarity – a solidarity that extends not only across the Mediterranean, across the countries of Europe, but also across continents. Just as the medieval walls that once surrounded the fortified cities of Christian Europe had no purpose in an age of capitalist driven urbanization, so the barriers and borders that the European Union seeks to erect against those who demand the right to life and freedom cannot be maintained in the face of a global justice that is unequivocal and universal in its application and practice.

As the European Council and the European Commission attempt to rebuild and strengthen Fortress Europe from the ruins of Schengenland, humanitarian rescue and solidarity operations are being criminalized in the fatal waters and on the shores of the Aegean – from Dunkirk, Presevo, Idomeni and Lesvos to Lampedusa. Thousands of volunteers from Europe and around the world are thus forming an international brigade of support – a brigade that refuses to be fenced off, tear gassed into submission, or intimidated by border guards, riot shields and truncheons.

The struggle for a Mediterranean and a Europe without borders is also, as Leoluca Orlando put it, the struggle for “the right not to die in the country of one’s birth.” Having contributed to the generation of the conflicts from which over 80 % of the refugees are fleeing, it is now incumbent on Europe’s leaders to offer solutions instead of paying states with dubious human rights records to meet its own legal and moral obligations. The coming months and years will demonstrate whether the European Union’s determination to submit progressive migration policies (whether local, regional, or national) to a logic of exclusion and expulsion will hold together its crumbling acquis communautaires – namely, the accumulated legislation and court decisions comprising European law.

Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk may well have underestimated the determination of Mediterranean Europe’s progressive civic leadership to defend their politics of solidarity against the dehumanizing logic of the impermeable frontier. In this brave new world of nations on the move, a political class that refuses to accept the need (as Orlando reminds us) to re-imagine what it even means to be European will be condemned to deal with a far more dangerous prospect: an alienated and angry lost generation whose memories of their initial encounters with Europe risk being dominated by hostility, prejudice and fear.

Recommended citation: Orlando, Leolucca and Parker, Simon. “Palermo Open City: From the Mediterranean Migrant Crisis to a Europe Without Borders?” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016). [This article was originally posted in Near Futures Online at].

Ebbing and Flowing: The EU’s Shifting Practices of (Non-) Assistance and Bordering in a Time of Crisis


The movements of illegalised migrants and the bordering of the Mediterranean Sea have seen momentous transformations since the beginning of the Arab uprisings in 2011.*1 The fall of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia and the Qaddafi regime in Libya have allowed migrants to at least temporarily re-open maritime routes which had been sealed off through the collaboration between the EU and North African states. The civil war that has engulfed Syria since 2012 has in turn led to the largest exodus since the Second World War While the majority of population movements unleashed by conflicts in the region have occurred on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, record numbers of people have sought to reach the EU by boat, and equally unprecedented numbers of deaths at sea have been recorded – 3,195 in 2014 and 3,772 in 2015 according to IOM data.2 This intense and rapidly evolving movement of people across the sea but also on the EU’s firm land, where migrants have collectively overcome every single barrier that states have erected in front of them, has been labelled a “migration crisis.” This designation, in return, has enabled the deployment of exceptional military, humanitarian and political “solutions” (see “Keywords” in this issue). At sea we have witnessed a multiplication of actors involved in bordering and rescue practices. Border and Coast Guards have been joined by national and multinational military operations, civilian rescue missions and commercial ships and we have seen repeated shifts in their missions, operational logics, and institutional assemblages. On land, developments have been no less impressive. States have been desperately running behind migrants’ turbulent movements and re-erecting border controls between EU member-states and at the EU’s periphery. These newly staged bordering practices echo the changes to the EU’s political and economic geography in the aftermath of the EU’s “debt crisis” and the increasing polarisation between southern and northern European member-states. Rather than a “migration crisis,” then, we will argue that we are witnessing the crisis of the current EU border regime.

Seeking to account for these momentous changes, as we will try to do in the following pages, as well as understanding the forces and logics that have driven them, are certainly challenging tasks. We believe however that this sea-change may be condensed through a paradox: from 2011 to 2013, our research within the Forensic Oceanography project has focused on documenting incidents leading to the deaths of migrants at sea that resulted from what we have called practices of “non-assistance” (Heller and Pezzani 2014), such as the “left-to-die boat” case, in which 72 passengers were left to drift for 14 days in an area closely monitored by tens of military assets deployed in the context of the 2011 NATO led military intervention in Libya (Heller and Pezzani 2012).3 As we write at the end of 2015 however, we are faced with a growing number of cases in which the loss of life has occurred during and partly through rescue itself. This has been the case in the April 12 and 18, 2015 shipwrecks, in which migrants’ vessels capsized while commercial ships were approaching them to operate rescue. As a result, among the more than 2,900 cases of death documented in the central Mediterranean by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in 2015, more than 1,500 occurred during the rescue operation itself.4 In our current investigations, we are thus faced with the following paradox: rescue itself, the act of seeking to prevent imminent harm, has become entangled with death, or even become its very cause.

A survivor draws the collision-course between the migrants’ vessel and the King Jacob cargo ship. The wreck occurred on April, 19 2015; more then 800 people perished in the collision.
A survivor draws the collision-course between the migrants’ vessel and the King Jacob cargo ship. The wreck occurred on April, 19 2015; more then 800 people perished in the collision.

To make sense of this paradox, our hypothesis, to state it at the outset, is the following: the practice of rescue has become more deadly as the result of a shift in smugglers’ practices combined with persistent policies of non-assistance on the part of states. In order to account for this new and disturbing reality, we need to follow carefully the successive shifts in the practices of (non-)assistance and bordering that have occurred at the EU’s external frontier in the last few years. In what follows, the sea – and in particular the central Mediterranean – is the centre of gravity of our analysis. We first summarise the pre-October 2013 conditions that led to structural cases of non-assistance. We then describe the break constituted by the large-scale military-humanitarian operation Mare Nostrum which was launched by the Italian government following two infamous shipwrecks in early October 2013 near the island of Lampedusa. Finally, we chart the rapidly evolving practices of rescue and bordering that unfolded after Mare Nostrum was phased out in November 2014. In particular, we elaborate, the partial privatisation of rescue that filled the gap in the state’s rescue capability, and then, in the wake of the twin shipwrecks of April 2015, the unprecedented involvement of non-governmental rescue vessels and the beginning of what is probably the largest maritime anti-trafficking military campaign since the deployment of a British Navy squadron off the coasts of West Africa in the 19th century, namely EUNAVFOR MED. In seeking to understand these successive shifts in practices of (non-)assistance and bordering at sea, we argue that it is essential to attend to the way they have been articulated with their corresponding practices on firm land within and outside the EU. Land and sea have been locked into a continuum by the Europeanization of migration policies that we describe below.

If we were to imagine a map of these evolving practices, we might use the metaphor of “flows,” not to describe the movement of migrants, as it has long been the case, but rather bordering and (non-)assistance practices themselves.5 These might resemble the cyclical ebbs and flows of tides, expanding and retracting from the shoreline of coastal states across the Mediterranean, but also inward, from the shoreline into European land as well as onto the lands of EU neighbouring countries. The movements of this “mirror tide” flowing on land and sea would be related but non-synchronous. We would see recurrent patterns, but also cross-currents, in which practices of bordering and of (non-)assistance come together and apart, entering novel and surprising configurations, and constantly being stirred by migrants’ enduring and autonomous capacity to collectively move across borders. As we will try to show, it is only by attending to the “gravitational pull” exercised on this tide by, on the one hand, the sweeping geopolitical changes in North Africa and the Middle East, and on the other, the new economic and political geography that has been taking shape within the EU in the aftermath of the “debt crisis,” that we might understand the paradox described above.


Animation of the Left-to-Die boat. (Heller and Pezzani. Liquid Traces – The Left-to-Die Boat Case. 2014)

In the early hours of March 27, 2011, 72 passengers embarked on a small rubber boat, hoping to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa. After less than 24 hours, they noticed they were running out of fuel, and called for rescue with their satellite phone. Although the Italian and Maltese Coast Guards, NATO forces deployed at the time for military intervention in Libya, and numerous civilian vessels moving through the central Mediterranean were informed of the position of the boat and distress of its passengers, the immigrants were left to drift for fourteen days in the NATO maritime surveillance area. As a result, only 9 of the passengers survived. 63 people were killed by the reluctance of all actors to rescue them.

The left-to-die boat case, which we have reconstructed by using remote sensing devices against the grain, and which has led to several ongoing legal cases against states involved in the military intervention in Libya, is only one of several cases of non-assistance that have occurred in the last years and needs to be understood within the particular form of sovereignty and government of the Mediterranean Sea. As we have described in more detail elsewhere (Heller and Pezzani 2014), contrary to the popular vision of the sea as a homogeneous and lawless expanse lying outside the reach of state power, maritime territories are in fact crisscrossed by variegated and at times conflicting jurisdictional regimes of “unbundled sovereignty” (Sassen 2006). This allows states to simultaneously extend their sovereign privileges through forms of mobile government and elude the responsibilities that come with it (see Steinberg 2001, Gammeltoft-Hansen and Alberts 2010:18, Suárez de Vivero 2010). For instance, the strategic mobilization of the notion of “rescue” has in several occasions allowed coastal states to justify police operations in the high seas or even within foreign territorial waters for which they would otherwise have little legal ground, thus de facto extending their sovereign capabilities through their patrols.6 Conversely, for several years, the Mediterranean coastal states have been involved in diplomatic scuffles over their respective obligations to assist migrants distressed at sea. One of the most notorious and longstanding conflicts has been between Italy and Malta, which have repeatedly attempted to pass onto each other the burden of rescue, basing their claims on the different versions of the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) to which they each are signatories (Gammeltoft-Hansen and Aalberts 2010: 21). In the process, the international legal norms established to determine responsibility for assisting those in distress at sea have been used precisely for the purpose of evading and deferring this responsibility. Furthermore, the criminalisation of assistance by states has also been a disincentive for seafarers to comply with the obligation to provide assistance. Fishermen, for example, have repeatedly been put on trial for “assisting clandestine migration” after rescuing migrants. As a result, many migrants have been left unassisted, leading to human tragedies such as the case of the left-to-die boat.

Maritime jurisdictions in the Mediterranean. (Forensic Oceanography)
Maritime jurisdictions in the Mediterranean. (Forensic Oceanography)

How can we explain this drive to non-assistance by coastal states? In order to understand the politics of non-assistance at sea, we need to account for its articulation with the particular migration regime that has emerged on land with the consolidation of the EU. The current architecture of the European border regime is based on two main pillars: the Schengen and Dublin Conventions, both signed in 1990, and gradually enforced in the following years. The Schengen Convention, as is well known, instituted an area of free circulation inside the EU and, as a direct consequence, reinforced the EU’s external borders – including the Mediterranean Sea. This process has involved the increasing militarization of the EU’s outer rim but also the recourse to strategies of “externalization,”7 through which non-EU states have been turned into migration gatekeepers on behalf of the EU. These measures, however, did not stop migrants from reaching the EU but rather forced them to do so through clandestine strategies and therefore in increasingly dangerous ways, such as embarking on unseaworthy boats. What Schengen actually produced, then, was not the end of trans-Mediterranean migration but rather the creation of a mass of “illegals,” a cheap and easily exploitable labour force that has become a large-scale and permanent feature of EU states and their economies (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013; Düvell 2011a and b). The more than 20,000 migrant deaths at sea recorded by NGOs since the end of the 1980s are the necropolitical effect (Mbembe 2013) of this regime of illegalisation.8

Deaths at the Borders of Europe, shown by region and year. (Migreurop. Atlas of Migration in Europe. New Internationalist Publications, London: 2013)
Deaths at the Borders of Europe, shown by region and year. (Migreurop. Atlas of Migration in Europe. New Internationalist Publications, London: 2013)

The Dublin Convention and its successive amendments exclusively addressed asylum seekers and their allocation between member-states. To prevent them from filing applications in several EU countries, the regulation officiated that the asylum seekers first country of entry into the EU would be responsible for processing the asylum claims. Moreover, in order to facilitate enforcement, it made the fingerprinting of migrants and the sharing of this data within an EU wide system (EURODAC) mandatory. As a result, the Dublin Convention locked the EU’s external and internal borders, land and sea, in a continuum for the purpose of migration management (Kasparek 2015: 61). Because rescuing migrants at sea entailed the “burden” of processing their asylum requests once these had been disembarked (Guild 2006), Dublin regulations further created an uneven geography of allocation of migrants within the EU, which became increasingly problematic as the numbers of arrivals by sea increased at the turn of the 2000s. The Dublin Convention thus came to operate for northern EU states as the internal dimension of the policies of externalisation that were being applied outside the EU: a policy of internal externalization through which an inner rim of control was erected in order to select and control migrants’ movements. Furthermore, the Dublin Convention has played a key role in making southern EU coastal states principally reluctant to assist at sea and disembarkment.

Besides the strategies of non-assistance described above, coastal states have conditioned interception or assistance at sea (a process which, while legally distinct, has become increasingly blurry in practice) with swift deportation, thereby avoiding the burden of assistance on land. The latter strategy has been applied, for example, by Spain in relation to Senegalese migrants in 2006–2007 (Gagrielli 2008) and Italy in relation to Tunisian migrants in 2008 and 2011 (Cassarino 2013). Another related measure has been to couple interception/rescue with “push back” agreements which allow deportation of the intercepted/rescued migrants to the country of departure without allowing migrants to set foot on EU’s firm land. Such an agreement was signed in 2009 between Italy and Libya (Cuttitta 2014), and effectively sealed off the central Mediterranean route until its collapse in the Arab uprisings. Through these different strategies, southern European coastal states have managed to stop “peaks” in migration across the sea all the while preventing migrants from filing asylum applications once arrived on land. In these and other instances, what we observe is that the “high tide” of control of, and assistance to, migrants across the EU territory that was enshrined by the Dublin regulation, could only be predicated on a “low tide” of assistance at sea, and vice versa.

The border regime defined by the Schengen and Dublin Conventions, however, has been progressively undermined in the last few years. The above mentioned strategies to evade the responsibility for receiving migrants on EU territory were made inoperative by a succession of events and factors: the fall of the gatekeeper regimes in Tunisia and Libya in 2011, the outlawing of push back agreements by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2012 (Cuttitta 2014), and the fact that the political context in the country of origin of the majority of migrants arriving over the last years in principle qualify them for asylum in the EU. As a result, costal states were left with strategies of non-assistance as their only resort, thereby creating the conditions in which cases such as the left-to-die boat could occur. This, however, did not stem arrivals, but rather increasingly made apparent the EU states’ reluctance – and inability – to provide any form of assistance to migrants on land too. Cracks in the Dublin logic and its uneven geography of allocation of migrants across the EU became increasingly apparent in particular with the 2011 ECHR decision to stop Dublin deportations to Greece because of the appalling reception conditions there (Kasparek 2015: 72). These cracks were widened by the record number of arrivals on the EU’s shores, as of 2013, and by the effects of the global economic crisis, which, as Kasparek (2015: 73) notes, “affected the southern economies the strongest and impeded the ability of regional and national labour markets in the south to absorb illegalized migration.” As a result, southern European coastal states were left with a mass of unexploitable migrants (Feher 2015) whose unruly movements across the continent have eventually brought the whole EU border regime to a breaking point. The contradictions brought about by this situation would explode in all their intensity in the aftermath of two tragic shipwrecks in October 2013, when Italy launched the unprecedented Mare Nostrum operation at sea, but also retreated from assistance on firm land, thereby opening the Pandora’s box of the government of migration inside the EU.


The remains of a shipwreck that occurred near Lampedusa, on October 3, 2013. At least 366 people perished in the wreck. (Vigili del Fuoco)

On October 3, 2013, a boat carrying more than 500 migrants sank less than 1km from the coast of Lampedusa, causing the death of at least 366 people and a public outcry.9 Not only did this boat manage to cross the multiple layers of surveillance surrounding Lampedusa undetected, but the survivors of this incident have also claimed that a few hours before the boat capsized, 2 or 3 fishermen’s ships ignored their calls for help (this has not been confirmed or disproven to date). On October 11, when another boat carrying over 400, that was taking on water after it had been shot by a Libyan vessel, the deployment of rescue was delayed for over 5 hours due to the aforementioned conflicts of responsibility between the Italian and Maltese Coast Guards. As the investigation we conducted together with the WatchTheMed network and journalist Fabrizio Gatti revealed, in the end, rescue vessels arrived one hour after the boat had sunk and more than 200 people had died.10 Since both of these tragedies involved practices of non-assistance, they initially appeared as the tragic repetition of the left-to-die boat, with an even more exorbitant death toll.11 In hindsight, however, we can see that these shipwrecks were indices of much deeper changes.

First, these events signalled the impact of the ongoing shifts in the MENA region both in terms of intensity of the crossings and of their composition. As of summer 2013, escalating violence in Libya led a record number of people to attempt the crossing of the central Mediterranean. This trend was exacerbated by what would become the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War, the Syrian exodus. While until summer 2013, Syrians had mostly sought refuge in neighbouring countries,12 the increasing numbers of refugees quickly exceeded both the capacity of humanitarian organisations and neighbouring countries alike. The lack of prospects for refugees and the progressive reintroduction of visa obligations by neighbouring countries (Awad 2014) led more and more refugees to attempt to reach the EU by crossing the Mediterranean. The tacit acceptance by the EU of humanitarian encampment outside its territory as the first “solution” to manage the Syrian exodus thus began to collapse. Most migrants involved in the October 11 shipwreck were from Syria. The refugees of the Syrian conflict accounted for the highest share of arrivals in Italy in 2013 and 2014, before, as we will see, their proportion went down in 2015 with the opening of the so-called “Balkan route.”13

Second, the massive crossings that we have witnessed since the summer of 2013 were in part enabled by, and contributed to, a shift in smuggling practices. The smugglers in Libya had been operating a well-established business since the beginning of 2000 and their business relied on stable relations with the Qaddafi regime (Monzini et al. 2015). The fall of the Libyan regime and the ensuing political fragmentation led to changes in smuggling practices that have made the conditions of the crossing more dangerous. The increasing level of violence affecting Libyan society has touched migrants as well, and they have been subjected to multiple forms of violence at different moments in the commerce of passage (AI 2015a, Monzini et al. 2015: 42). The Libyan political fragmentation has led to more volatile relations between smugglers and the factions in control of particular areas – as the shooting of the vessel in the October 11 incident exemplifies – but has also allowed new actors who offered lower prices but did not always possess the know-how of safe crossings to enter the smuggling market (Porsia 2015). This in turn has meant that to guarantee a profitable margin, smugglers had to resort to subpar navigation equipment or load more migrants on board their failing boats. The fall of the Qaddafi regime thus allowed to re-open the central Mediterranean route, but in an increasingly precarious condition, which was further exacerbated by the deteriorating political context in Libya.

Finally, following the October shipwrecks politicians were swift to prescribe more of the same failed policies, including: extra funding for the European Border Agency, Frontex, and increasing surveillance through the launch of Eurosur, the European Border Surveillance System (Heller and Jones 2014). On the policy level then as well, these initial measures gave the impression of repetition. However, faced with the impossibility of ignoring the public outcry caused by these shipwrecks, within two weeks Italy single-handedly launched what has been by far the largest “humanitarian and security” operation in the Mediterranean: Mare Nostrum.14 By prioritizing the task of saving lives at sea, Mare Nostrum (MN) constituted a considerable break with the practices of non-assistance at sea described earlier. However, as we will see, MN’s extension of assistance at sea was conditioned on a shift in the logic of assistance on firm land.


Admiral Guido Rando of the Italy Navy shows the operational area of Mare Nostrum (in red). (Photo Ansa)
Admiral Guido Rando of the Italy Navy shows the operational area of Mare Nostrum (in red). (Photo Ansa)

One 135 meters-long amphibious vessel, two frigates, two corvettes, four helicopters, three planes and unmanned aerial vehicles patrolling for over one year just a few miles off the coast of Libya at the monthly cost of about 9.5 million euros: these figures provide an indication of the spectacular scale of the MN operation.15 As Paolo Cuttitta rightly notes, the involvement of the Italian Navy in the management of migration was not in itself completely new, and border control had for several years come cloaked in the language of humanitarianism (Cuttita 2014). The scale of MN, however, was unprecedented; so was the inscription of the humanitarian “duty” of saving lives at the core of MN’s mission which was coupled with the aim of bringing to justice those deemed responsible for putting their lives at risk, i.e. the smugglers. Thus MN constituted a clear shift from principled reluctance to operate rescue and the criminalisation of those who are engaged in it, such as fishermen and cargo ships, to proactively performing rescue and criminalising smugglers.16

This shift of mission produced several breaks in the way rescue and bordering at sea had been practiced until then. With Mare Nostrum the “tide” of rescuing activities reached an unprecedented expansion of the spatial deployment of the operations: whereas until then SAR operations in the undeclared Libyan SAR zone were a rare event and the majority of migrants’ boats reached Italian and Maltese coasts on their own or were just “escorted” for the last few nautical miles,17 now, military vessels were continuously positioned in close proximity to the Libyan coast, and intercepted and rescued every migrants’ boat that they encountered. In practice, then, we might say that the jurisdictional lines of SAR zones that served to allocate responsibility for coordinating and operating rescue vanished, and the Italian state extended its claim to rights and obligations at sea far beyond its normally accepted perimeter (even into Libyan territorial waters), effectively giving the full meaning to the imperial undertones of the operation’s Latin name “our sea,” first used by the Roman empire, and later by the Italian fascist regime. Moreover, while disembarkation had constituted a thorny problem for many years, with MN migrants rescued in the central Mediterranean were taken to Italy by default.

A map of the transit boats detected by Mare Nostrum and Joint Operation Hermes. The different colors on the map correspond to different countries of departure. (Frontex)
A map of the transit boats detected by Mare Nostrum and Joint Operation Hermes. The different colors on the map correspond to different countries of departure. (Frontex)

As Martina Tazzioli has importantly highlighted (2014, 2015), MN managed to focus public attention on the good “scene of rescue,” recasting the role of the state and the military as that of a merciful saviour. At the same time, however, this “scene” obscured other crucial aspects of the operation. First, it obscured the fact that, while a record number of people were rescued, a record number of deaths were also reported, and MN did not make the crossing less dangerous.18 MN assets deployed close to the Libyan coast came to operate as a “half-way bridge to Europe,”19 which still forced migrants to resort to the service of smugglers for the first stretch of their journey. Smugglers in turn provided this service with even more precarious and unseaworthy means, counting on MN’s assets to rescue migrants swiftly.20 During this initial section of the crossing, migrants were also at times intercepted by the diminished Libyan Coast Guard, which reportedly managed to conduct operations of “preventive refoulement” (Cuttitta 2014). That such a large operation geared specifically to rescue at sea could not put an end to deaths at sea only confirms that no rescue operation can undo the political violence of the EU border regime which forces migrants to resort to precarious means of crossing in the first place. The very term “rescue” might in this sense need to be replaced by a long descriptive denomination such as “the practice of preventing death of passengers whose lives have been put at risk by the EU’s migration regime and its production of illegality.”21

Our aim is not to simply debunk or verify the humanitarian discourse surrounding MN. Independent of truth or falsity, our interest is in considering MN’s humanitarianism in terms of the practices it enabled. We are interested in MN as a “moral technology” as elaborated by Didier Fassin (2012), as “spatial organizations and physical instruments, technical standards, procedures and systems of monitoring” which, as Eyal Weizman notes, despite being deployed in the name of alleviating human suffering, “have become the means for exercising contemporary violence and for governing the displaced, the enemy and the unwanted” (Weizman 2012: 4). Through this lens, we can see more clearly what MN actually produced beyond its stated “life saving” mission. In the frame of MN, saving lives and policing borders became one and the same thing. Not only did rescue operations allow the arrest of 330 alleged smugglers,22 these operations also allowed for summary identification procedures to happen already onboard the military ships, which for a time became floating detention centres, extending onto the high seas the biopolitical regime of identification normally applied on firm land.23 This, in turn, allowed for swift repatriation procedures for the nationals of countries with which Italy held readmission agreements, in particular Tunisians and Egyptians.24 MN thus epitomised what William Walters has called the “humanitarian border,” in which the limit between security and humanitarian logics is increasingly blurred (Walters 2011: 138).

A migrant is fingerprinted onboard the ship San Marco in November 2013. (Polizia di Stato)
A migrant is fingerprinted onboard the ship San Marco in November 2013. (Polizia di Stato)

Finally, the good scene of rescue ended at the harbour for all those migrants who were not deported and who, after disembarkation, were stranded for months in different types of camps waiting for the assessment of their asylum request, or left with no other choice than continuing their trip. The flip-side of Italy’s extension of its sovereign “privileges” at sea was in fact the retraction of its sovereign “duties” on firm land, i.e. the disinclination to fingerprint and assist rescued migrants once disembarked, thereby enabling their further movement across EU space.25 As a result, of the more than 170,000 migrants who arrived in Italy only 64,625 filed an asylum application in the country (EUROSTAT data). However, more than a deliberate decision and congruous governmental practice, non-fingerprinting and enabling further movement should be understood as having emerged from, on the one hand, the resolute refusal by migrants to enter the Dublin system so as to be able to choose their final destination and, on the other, the tacit acquiescence of Italian authorities. The sound of the slogan “No fingerprints!” which resounded across the streets of Lampedusa in July 2013 when over two hundred Eritreans staged a protest against identification procedures, corresponds, in a distant echo, with the statement of an Italian Navy official: “it is impossible to force them when all refuse… and, moreover, it is finally a good solution for both, since they could move and Italy does not have to host them” (quoted in Tazzioli 2015: 77). Italian authorities, then, used migrants’ desire and struggle to continue their journey into other European countries – which continues in Lampedusa and elsewhere as we write – to get rid of as many people entitled to international protection as possible, de-facto unlocking the bond between land and sea that the Dublin system had created.26 In other words, the “high tide” of assistance at sea within MN was predicated on the “low tide” of assistance on land.

This practice was not without consequences and caused ripple effects across the EU. As it had already happened following the arrival of Tunisians in 2011, intra-Schengen border checks were re-instated at the main points used by migrants to exit Italian territory towards other EU countries. In places like Ventimiglia,27 Chiasso,28and the Brenner Pass,29 renewed border checks, which in particular blocked “black” passengers, stirred a wave of protests from migrants and activists. While northern European states vocally deplored Italy’s lax attitude, claiming that Italian authorities were in contravention with EU regulations and unduly exporting the strain on their asylum system to their European partners,30 the Italian government retorted that migration was a “European problem” and that Rome could not bear alone the “burden” of providing for all the migrants who reached the Italian coasts. At stake in this tug-of-war was essentially the attempt by EU institutions and northern states to reverse the tide on land and sea: ending assistance at sea and forcing Italy to reinstate orderly assistance on firm land. EU politicians such as the UK Foreign Office Minister Lady Anelay echoed the Italian far-right in denouncing MN as a “pull factor” for people to cross the Mediterranean, thereby justifying her government’s refusal to fund the continuation of the operation.31 The European Commission pledged to foster a more limited European engagement in the central Mediterranean with a new Frontex operation that would be called Triton. On land, Italy was further pressured to step up its fingerprinting efforts and reinstate the processing of asylum applications.32 During its EU presidency, Italy demonstrated its diligence, taking the lead in an EU-wide policing operation labelled Mos Maiorum in mid-October.33 In late October, a few days before the beginning of the Triton operation and the simultaneous phasing out of Mare Nostrum, a circular by the Italian Ministry of Interior was leaked that requested local police forces to use “renewed care” in identification procedures, even if such a procedure required the use of force.34Finally, Italy took on a leading role in seeking to re-establish control over migration before the crossing of the sea, in particular through the “Khartoum Process” which was initiated through a high-level meeting between the EU and 28 African states in November 2014 and was dedicated to managing the movements of migrants coming from the Horn of Africa.35 This messy sequence of informal practices and EU wide negotiations demonstrates once again the inextricable link between the politics of migration on land and sea. Italy had challenged this link with operation MN and other EU member-states and institutions desperately sought to re-establish it. 2014 thus saw a phase of rapid tidal change in the politics of bordering and (non-)assistance across land and sea. 2015 would prove even more volatile, leading to contradictory currents and increased turbulence which would prove deadly for migrants.


The phasing out of Mare Nostrum in November 2014 and the beginning of the far more limited Frontex-led Triton operation36 was unanimously criticised by several human rights organisations who predicted that the change would not lead to fewer crossings but rather to more deaths.37 United Nations Rapporteur on Migrants Rights, François Crépeau, denounced the logic of ending rescue at sea on the grounds that it constituted a pull-factor amounting to using deaths at sea as a deterrent.38 To this criticism, the European Commissioner Malmstrom as well as Frontex officials39 responded on several occasions that Triton should not be considered a replacement of MN as it had radically different operational aims and means. Triton had a much smaller budget – initially 2.9 million euros per month – and fewer available assets which were patrolling a smaller area extending up to thirty nautical miles from Lampedusa.40 Moreover, the aim of Triton was border control and not rescue at sea, and it thus involved a very different spatial and operational logic: instead of proactively patrolling the waters immediately off the Libyan coast as assets within MN had, SAR activities were now only to be operated as a secondary outcome of its border patrols, and Frontex assets would only be deployed towards SAR operations if they were called upon to do so by the Italian Coast Guard. If MN signalled the flowing of state sovereignty at sea, Triton signalled its tactical retreat, the rapid ebbing of assistance at sea. Comparing the zone in which most rescues were conducted in 2014 as indicated on the map above with the patrol zone of Frontex’s Triton operation indicated in the animated map below, one could only be left wondering about the fate of all the migrants’ boats that would soon encounter situations of distress in this zone but risked being left unassisted.41

An animated map of bordering and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean between 2013 and 2015. (Forensic Oceanography)

In the first five months of 2015, the considerable gap in rescue capabilities left by MN’s (non-)replacement by Triton was partially filled by the massive recourse to shipping vessels as the agents of rescue operations.42 The commercial shipping community had already emerged as a crucial actor during MN, when it started to be involved in rescue operations on an unprecedented level43 but with the ending of Mare Nostrum, it took on an even more prominent role: of the 39,250 people rescued by May 20, 2015, 11,954 were rescued by cargo ships. This represented 30% of the total of the rescued people, thus making the shipping industry the first actor operating rescue in the central Mediterranean. Long opposed and criminalized as part of the politics of non-assistance, the “privatisation” of rescue activities was now not only encouraged but was actively called upon by the Italian Coast Guard. The latter, however, as established by the international legislation on Search and Rescue, still maintained the full control and coordination of SAR operations even in these cases of rescue by proxy. As a result, the scope of state intervention was not diminished, since the Italian Coast Guard actually extended its “SAR capabilities.” In fact, instead of the “privatisation” of rescue, we might speak in this instance just as adequately of the temporary “nationalisation of commercial shipping” to operate SAR.44 This development confirms Sasskia Sassen’s argument that “privatisation” should not be equated with a simple withdrawal of the state from its various regulatory functions, but rather understood as its “repositioning […] in a broader field of power” (Sassen 2002: 173-4). While commercial vessels have contributed to saving thousands of people, their involvement has also posed serious challenges in terms of safety. Commercial ships are not designed to safely approach boats that are much smaller, overcrowded and unstable. Furthermore, they often have a very limited crew, who are not specifically trained nor equipped to carry out the extremely perilous operations necessary to rescue an overcrowded boat on the open seas. As such, and without diminishing the importance of the efforts of the shipping community, it is not surprising that their massive involvement in rescue operations contributed to the two April 2015 shipwrecks, the largest to have occurred in the Mediterranean in recent history.

Map of AIS tracks of vessels surrounding the location of the April 12 2015 shipwreck (DC) off the coast of Libya, in which more than 400 people died. The frantic tangle of AIS ships’ tracks visualized above, typical of this kind of operation, offers a powerful trace of the dramatic moments of search and rescue and points to the disruption of commercial traffic. GIS analysis: Rossana Padeletti for Forensic Oceanography.
Map of AIS tracks of vessels surrounding the location of the April 12 2015 shipwreck (DC) off the coast of Libya, in which more than 400 people died. The frantic tangle of AIS ships’ tracks visualized above, typical of this kind of operation, offers a powerful trace of the dramatic moments of search and rescue and points to the disruption of commercial traffic. GIS analysis: Rossana Padeletti for Forensic Oceanography.

On April 12, 2015, around 4 in the afternoon, over 400 people died while several tug boats were directing themselves to rescue the passengers in distress. According to the survivors, the boat capsized when people onboard panicked while the tug boats were approaching them (the Asso 21 and 24, and OC Jaguar around 4 PM). Barely a week after, on April 18, 2015, over 800 people died in a shipwreck that occurred while the King Jacob, a 147m long cargo ship, was directing itself to rescue the passengers in distress. According to the testimonies we have collected, the boat driver rammed into the cargo ship when the latter turned on its spotlights.45 While we are currently investigating these cases further, it is clear that despite their intentions, the commercial vessels became not merely involved in the rescue efforts, but in the sequence of events that led to the situation of distress and ultimately death of the migrants. Stuck between the shifting practices of smugglers whose operational mode had been adapted to the presence of MN on the one hand, and the EU policy makers’ reluctance to provide assistance at sea on the other, the excessive mobilisation of private vessels for rescue operations led to assistance becoming deadly. In the process, it is as if the two “layers of sea” that had been held separate by the EU’s hierarchical mobility regime and the politics of non-assistance – the first smooth and speedy for privileged passengers and the goods transported by the shipping industry; the second slow and deadly for the “undesirables” of the earth (Agier 2011) – had collapsed into one another again, violently rubbing against each other. As a result, the zigzag movements of commercial ships operating rescue, captured as they were by automatic vessel tracking systems, increasingly came to resemble those of migrants.

The ebbing of assistance at sea resulting from the suspension of MN and its (non)replacement by Triton was thus a murderous policy, which was implemented with full knowledge of the deadly effects it would produce. The data on arrivals, crossing and deaths at sea for the first four months of 2015 tragically confirmed the predictions of human rights organisations: while in the first four months of 2014, more than 26,000 had crossed and 50 deaths had been recorded, in the same period of 2015 an almost identical number of crossings had occurred, but the number deaths had increased to 1,687. The probability of dying at sea had thus increased 30 fold, jumping from less than 2 deaths in 1000 crossings to 60 in 1000 (see statistical annex). Contrary to the claims of EU politicians who saw MN as a “pull factor,” ending MN did not lead to fewer crossings, but to more deaths at sea and a higher mortality rate. Regardless of whether the “high tide” of MN had proven untenable, what is clear is that the “low tide” of Triton and its spectacularly deadly consequences could not be maintained within the regime of the “humanitarian border.” Thus, exposed to the ensuing protests of activist groups and non-governmental organisations, and desperate to resolve the contradictions between its own conflicting imperatives, the EU border regime of (non)assistance and control on land and sea took yet again another direction.


Like the twin October 2013 shipwrecks, the twin April 2015 shipwrecks signalled another wave of impressive shifts in rescue and bordering practices. A first impressive shift has been the dramatic decrease in the rate of mobilisation of commercial ships for the purpose of rescue operations: the number of people rescued by commercial ships went from 14,796 in the first six months of 2015, to only 705 more in the following six (Italian Coast Guard data, see annex). Clearly, other actors stepped in to fill the gap in rescue capability still left open after the end of MN. First of all, Frontex’s Triton operation was impressively expanded. On May 13, 2015, the European Commission declared that “search and rescue efforts will be stepped up to restore the level of intervention provided under the former Italian ‘Mare Nostrum’ operation.” On May 26, Frontex adopted a new operational plan for Operation Triton, with an increased budget, additional assets and an expanded operational area from 30 up to 138 nautical miles south of Lampedusa, almost reaching the extent that had been covered earlier by MN.46 The expansion of Frontex’s operation in the central Mediterranean in the aftermath of the April shipwrecks can be seen as an implicit admission of guilt by the EU for its deadly policy of retreat.47 Nevertheless, Triton did not become a Europeanised Mare Nostrum overnight. Triton remained first and foremost a border control mission, and rescue continues to be a by-product of this primary mission. As such, Frontex assets continued to not be proactively positioned close to the Libyan coast. Furthermore, the situation in 2015 was markedly different in that the extension of Triton was accompanied by the deployment of other novel operations at sea: the military EUNAVFOR MED operation on the one hand, and non-governmental rescue vessels on the other.

EUNAVFOR MED emerged as the answer to the dilemma that the EU policy makers faced in the aftermath of the April shipwrecks: how not to save migrants – which would allow them to enter EU territory in great numbers at a time of economic downturn – without letting them die – which is untenable in the face of public opinion? The essential outlines of the answer to this apparently unresolvable question were provided on April 22, 2015 by the Prime Minister of Italy Matteo Renzi, in a New York Times OP-ED. The culprits for the unprecedented loss of lives in the Mediterranean, Renzi wrote, were the ruthless Libyan “traffickers” – not smugglers48– the “slave traders of the 21st century.” In order to stop shipwrecks, then, their vessels should be put “out of operation” and those who operate them “brought to justice.”49 While this line of argument of course totally confuses causes and effects, ignoring the fact that it is the very migration regime that forces migrants to resort to traders in the commerce of illegalised passage in the first place, it quickly attracted the consensus of EU policy makers.50 The very same day that Renzi’s article went to press, the EU Council committed to fulfilling these objectives and a project for an EU-wide military operation targeting “traffickers” was formulated.51 In the following weeks, it was further defined according to three operational phases, ranging from surveillance activities, interception and destruction of vessels used for smuggling on the high seas, to direct military action against smugglers inside Libyan territorial waters.52From the formal beginning of EUNAVFOR MED on June 22, 2015, the mission’s command started coordinating the several military vessels that had been deployed by different states in a more or less chaotic manner in the immediate aftermath of the April shipwrecks.53 With at least five planes and four ships, deployed by twenty-two different countries on a rotational basis close to the Libyan cost, EUNAVFOR MED came to reconstitute the naval force that the end of MN had left vacant.54 This time, however, rather than a “humanitarian and military” operation similar to MN, at work was “a police operation with military means,” as Rear admiral Hervé Bléjean, the Deputy Operation Commander in the Mediterranean, describes it; “the adversaries,” he contends, “are not combatants but criminals, and the aim is not to eliminate them but to bring them to justice.”55 Saving the lives of migrants has been far from the mission’s operational priority. This was clearly illustrated when it was revealed that the UK’s HMS Entreprise had not rescued a single migrant after almost eight weeks of deployment on intelligence-gathering missions near the Libyan coast.56 While it appears that after the summer more rescue operations were conducted, and by the end of 2015 (six months of activity) 8,500 people had been rescued by assets operating within EUNAVFOR MED,57 this number pales in relation to the rescue operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for example, which in eight months of activity rescued 20,129 people.58

Map indicating Search and Rescue areas (dark blue line), Frontex’s Triton and Poseidon area (red), EU NAVFOR MED’s (salmon), joint area of operations (light blue), and the location of interception and rescue missions near the Libyan coast during August 2015. (JO Triton/MRCC ROME)
Map indicating Search and Rescue areas (dark blue line), Frontex’s Triton and Poseidon area (red), EU NAVFOR MED’s (salmon), joint area of operations (light blue), and the location of interception and rescue missions near the Libyan coast during August 2015. (JO Triton/MRCC ROME)

While the operational priority of providing assistance to migrants at sea was stripped of the mission of state-led operations Triton and EUNAVFOR MED, non-governmental humanitarian actors took the initiative to launch a series of rescue operations, constituting a veritable civilian rescue flotilla (Stierl 2015). Here as well, while the involvement of non-governmental actors at sea was not entirely new (see Cuttitta 2014 and Pezzani 2015), it took on an unprecedented scale. In early April 2015, MSF (Holland) had already announced that it would join the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS, in operation since 2014) to provide medical assistance onboard the Phoenix.59 In the aftermath of the April 18, MSF launched two further rescue missions of its own on-board the boats Bourbon Argos (MSF Belgium) and Dignity I (MSF Spain).60 In May 2015 Seawatch, an independent first-aid and rescue operation initiated by a group of German citizens, sailed to the central Mediterranean. Finally, an additional initiative of this kind called SOS Mediterranée is soon to begin its first rescue mission.61 The main patrolling and rescuing zone of the vessels constituting this civilian flotilla lies immediately outside the Libyan territorial waters, between Tripoli and Zuwara, an area that had been covered by MN. While the civilian rescue activities have remained trapped in the “half-way bridge” conundrum that had already proven its limits in the frame of the MN operation – as their intervention could not prevent migrants from resorting to smugglers in order to reach them – their impact has been impressive on both symbolic and operational levels. Because MSF’s action is associated with medical assistance in a war context, its intervention signalled that both the scale of deaths and the militarisation of borders that lead to them have turned the Mediterranean into a war zone. This war zone, however, is created by the EU member-states and their policies, and as such MSF’s discourse can be described as a “reluctant humanitarianism”: it denounces the retreat and inaction of states that has followed the termination of MN and calls on them to redeploy a large-scale SAR operation immediately. In the absence of such an operation, MSF took it upon itself to intervene where states were failing to do so, all the while (like Seawatch) reiterating that saving migrants in distress at sea could not put an end to deaths as long as the exclusionary EU migration policy remained in place.62 By the end of October 2015, non-governmental vessels had rescued over 18,000 people, accounting for 7.6% of all rescued people (see annex).63 In the process, their operations denied states the monopoly over intervention in, and the monitoring of, the seas, thereby enabling civil society to claim its right to monitor the EU’s maritime frontier. To the list of non-governmental initiatives, one would need to add the land-based initiative WatchTheMed and its Alarm Phone project (to which we have contributed), that might be seen as the maritime control rooms of this civil society flotilla. Together, these nongovernmental endeavours have transformed the ostensibly neutral space of the sea into a political arena in its own right.

In the aftermath of April 2015, we can see that the “high tide” of assistance and bordering has risen again to a level similar to that of MN, but this time, the Janus face of MN, humanitarianism and security, have been split into two: the humanitarian mission is operated by the civilian flotillas and the policing mission by EUNAVFOR MED and Frontex. However, both these faces continue to be bound together, in a “secret solidarity,” to borrow Michel Agier’s terms (2010), as the action of non-governmental humanitarian vessels has become integrated, despite their own agenda, with the militarised activities of states. This is exemplified by the view that has become common after civilian rescue vessels leave the scene of rescue. As those onboard gaze into the distance, they see a cloud of smoke rise from the sea: it’s what’s left of the boat on which rescued migrants had embarked after it has been blown to dust by a military ship nearby. This points to a broader ambivalence of humanitarian practice today, which in the words of Michel Agier, is always at risk of becoming the “left hand of Empire,” healing the wounds wrought by the violence of the right hand, and operating in tandem with a politics of containment aimed at the populations of the global south (Agier 2010).64

After a rescue operation is complete, the migrants’ boat is blown up by a nearby military vessel. (MSF)
After a rescue operation is complete, the migrants’ boat is blown up by a nearby military vessel. (MSF)

The redeployment of the humanitarian border in its de-coupled form following the April shipwrecks has not proven more effective than MN in stopping illegalised migrants from either crossing or dying at sea. While the rescue capacity guaranteed by the civilian flotillas and the re-deployment of state actors did somewhat diminish the danger of crossing in the second half of the year, 2,892 deaths have been recorded by the IOM in the central Mediterranean in 2015. This figure is almost identical to that of 2014, and the mortality rate for both years is also comparable (see annex). Just as the effects of the Britain-led anti-slavery campaigns of the 19th century, the last 25 years of policies of closure and militarization demonstrate that repression of smuggling leads to changes in smuggling systems – the shifting of strategies and routes – rather than in their demise. In the meantime, such policies often increase the dangers for migrants in the process.

In fact, the one and only factor that has so far managed to significantly curb the danger of crossing in 2015 has not been a state or non-state operation at sea, whether aimed at policing the border or at rescuing people. The single event that has managed to make the crossing significantly safer for the first time in the recent history of trans-Mediterranean migration65 has been the migrants’ collective choice to change their route as of May 2015 from the central to the eastern Mediterranean, that is from a longer and much more dangerous route to a much shorter and relatively safer stretch of sea. While 806 deaths have been recorded this year in the eastern Mediterranean as well, this number is proportionally much lower in relation to the 856,723 arrivals in Greece than it would have been in the central Mediterranean, leading to a dramatic decrease in the overall mortality rate for the Mediterranean crossing as a whole from 15% in 2014 to 3.7% in 2015 (see annexe). This is, in relation to the figures that have been calculated to date, the lowest mortality rate in the last 15 years (see Fargues et al. 2015). Certainly, having a better chance of crossing the sea alive does not diminish either the human tragedies for those who do not succeed or the hardships migrants are facing once on land; yet acknowledging the crucial role played by migrants’ collective refusal to risk their lives in the central Mediterranean, and the consequent opening of the Balkan route, challenges a recurrent framing of the current events according to which, as Sandro Mezzadra and Manuela Bojadžijev have argued, “migrants and refugees play a passive role while states, governments, and European institutions are the active agents, called upon to intervene.”66

Beyond considering the changing scenario at sea and its impact on the danger of crossing in the aftermath of the April 2015 shipwrecks, in the scheme we have set for the articulation of land and sea, we must further consider the developments that have occurred on land during the same period. In order to do so, we ask: how has the EU sought to prevent the repetition of the unravelling of the Schengen and Dublin regimes on land which had been caused by the extension of state-led intervention at sea through MN? The ongoing crisis of Dublin and Schengen – both in relation to migrants arriving in Italy, and to the record number of people arriving in Greece since the summer 2015 – suggests, in fact, that the attempt to re-implement what we have called a process of internal externalisation has failed. With this failure, the accusations levelled against southern states of being unable – if not unwilling – to provide the degree of control demanded by the EU and its northern member-states has grown. Faced with this situation, within mostly the same succession of institutional meetings that have allowed for the redeployment of control at sea,67 the EU has sought to re-inscribe control on firm land in a newly negotiated way. In short (see Kasparek’s contribution to this issue for further details), the EU has offered limited relocations of migrants from their first EU country of arrival – now labelled “frontline states” – thereby somewhat lifting the “burden” that Dublin regulations have imposed on them, in exchange for southern and eastern European states’ acceptance to re-instate control. This time, however, supervision of the actual implementation of these measures has been entrusted to EU agencies such as Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). The personnel of these agencies have been deployed in higher numbers at the external borders of the EU with the aim of operating inside reception centres – now labelled “hotspots” – so as to ensure that fingerprinting and identification are effectively carried out, and “deserving” asylum seekers – a few of whom will be re-located – are efficiently sorted from “bogus” economic migrants who will be promptly expelled through repatriation agreements.68 In this process, Frontex has gone from allegedly being a police force at the service of any European member state, to the executor of northern states’ will against the incompetence of their southern neighbours. We might refer to this move as the troikaisation of migration control since the increasing interference of the northern European states – in particular Germany, the European Commission and EU agencies – into Greece and Italy’s migration management echoes the highly uneven power relations exercised by the tripartite committee led by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, to govern the Greek “debt crisis” and crush the Syriza government in Greece.69 The redrawing of economic and political boundaries at the EU level in the aftermath of the “debt crisis” has here been replicated at the level of migration management (see “Crisis” in Keyword in this issue). After being threatened with being kicked out the Eurozone in the Summer of 2015, at the turn of the year Greece finds itself threatened with forcibly exiting Schengen should it fail to reinstate control on migrants arriving on its shores.70

October 30, 2015: The German President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, accompanied by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, visits the Greek island of Lesvos and the newly created hotspot at Morian. During the visit Schulz stated that he hopes “the Greek authorities here speed up as we need the hotspot as soon as possible [and] in an enlarged way.” (European Parliament Audiovisual Services for Media)
October 30, 2015: The German President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, accompanied by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, visits the Greek island of Lesvos and the newly created hotspot at Morian. During the visit Schulz stated that he hopes “the Greek authorities here speed up as we need the hotspot as soon as possible (and) in an enlarged way.” (European Parliament Audiovisual Services for Media)

In addition to reinforcing the EU’s strategy of internal externalisation, the aim of re-erecting the EU’s outer rim of control has not been abandoned either. While the continuing chaos in the country makes enlisting Libyan cooperation impossible, this is not the case for Turkey, which has emerged as the main country of transit since summer 2015. To persuade the Turkish authorities to crack down on the crossing of illegalised migrants, the EU has offered Turkey 3 billion euros as well as additional assistance for the Syrians refugees who reside there. Moreover, the EU has offered to facilitate access of Turkish nationals to the EU through visa programs, and to resume negotiations over Turkey’s integration to the EU. All the while, the EU has suspended all criticism with respect to the Turkish regime’s treatment of its Kurdish population.71 While it has proven recalcitrant,72 at the end of 2015 Turkey demonstrated efforts to enforce tougher controls in the Aegean Sea. Unsurprisingly, and despite the increasing number of NGOs, activists, and humanitarian actors operating rescue missions in the same area of the Aegean Sea, these efforts have coincided with an increase in the cases of death at sea.73 In addition, the EU Commission has presented a proposal to include Turkey in an EU-wide list of “safe countries” where migrants could be easily deported – a measure that the Greek government has already agreed upon.74 Finally, as we write, Germany has taken command of a NATO operation in the Aegean Sea to “stem illegal trafficking and illegal migration,” thus ushering in a phase of de-coupled military and humanitarian operations that had so-far only characterized the central Mediterranean.75 The re-expansion of control at sea that we have witnessed since April 2015 has thus, this time, been coupled with an attempt – unsuccessful to date – to re-inscribe control on firm land within and around the perimeter of the EU. Under the unabashed command of the EU agenise and northern EU member-states, the present regime constitutes successive rims of humanitarian sorting and militarised bordering practices.


October 3 and 11, 2013. April 12 and 18, 2015. These dates, like those of all the other major shipwrecks that have occurred at the maritime borders of the EU before them, do not simply punctuate the cruel and repetitive history of the EU migration regime. Each of these dates also announces a fundamental shift in the policies, practices and discourses that have continuously redefined this deadly border-zone; they mark the making of the Mediterranean into a laboratory from which new assemblages of territory, authority and rights have emerged at a remarkably fast pace. The October 3 and 11, 2013 shipwrecks triggered a rupture in the politics of non-assistance at sea through the launching of the military-humanitarian Mare Nostrum operation and the simultaneous suspension of assistance provided by the Italian state on firm land. The April 12 and 18, 2015 shipwrecks, instead, tragically revealed the deadly consequences of the EU member-states and institutions’ attempt to reverse the MN regime by shrinking state-led assistance at sea and partially privatizing rescue. In turn, the twin shipwrecks of April ushered in the de-coupling of humanitarian and security logics at sea: the latter were performed through Frontex’s Triton operation and the EUNAVFOR MED operation, and the former through the deployment of an unprecedented non-governmental flotilla for rescue missions.

The ruptures caused by each of these tragic events have thus certainly not remained confined to the space of the sea, but have run deep into the already fragile architecture of the EU and its border regime on land; they have expanded the fissures of a system that seems to have entered a perpetual crisis. While the arrivals of migrants on EU shores grew exponentially during the summer of 2015, northern EU states and EU institutions sought to force southern and eastern EU states to re-erect an inner rim of control through what we have called the troikaisation of migration management, all the while continuing to seek to enlist the cooperation in border control of the “transit” states that migrants en route to the EU cross on their way. Indeed, we can see the volatility of the changes over the last two years as the expression of a regime desperately trying to cope with its own contradictions but never quite managing to resolve them. For one, the humanitarian and securitised migration regime on land and sea is stuck between irreconcilable imperatives: it cannot stop people but it does not want to let them move; it cannot let them die but it doesn’t want to save lives either. Within the current hierarchized and exclusionary migration regime, there will not be any resolution to these contradictions. If we come back to the paradoxical evolution to which we pointed at the onset of this article – namely, that of the shift from deaths by non-assistance to deaths through assistance – we can now say that there is only one way out of these equally deadly options: no assistance, but legal access. It is only when migrants are granted legal access to EU territory, and thus to safe means of transport, that the cycle of death may be brought to an end. Until this happens, the migration regime will continually be forced to adapt to the changes brought about by the unauthorized mobility of migrants and the shocks caused by tragic shipwrecks.

The volatile shifts and the desperate search to re-establish an equilibrium that we have observed in the last few months may also be seen as the throes of an emergent regime. The unstoppable momentum gathered through the collective transgression of borders over the last year combined with the deepening of the rifts opened by the “debt crisis” in the architecture of the EU have in fact produced uncontrollable currents that seem to have brought the EU’s border regime, if not the whole of the Union, to a breaking point. Let’s remember that it took the migrant worker struggles and the oil crisis of the 1970s to bring the post-war guest worker regime to an end. What gradually replaced it was the regime of illegalized migration that has been the durable and structural feature of neoliberal economies of the global north. Similarly, we can reasonably formulate the hypothesis that the current crisis of the EU border regime, in the context of the global economic crisis, may lead to a new migration regime, which will be an inextricable dimension of the new phase of capitalism still in formation. Reasonable as it may be, this hypothesis is tainted with pessimism: historically, every new migration regime, while operating differently than its predecessor, has never ceased to deny the full recognition of migrants’ freedom and equality “before, at and after the border,” to paraphrase the advocates of border control. However, in this time of transition, the power of the current migrant struggles may still leave some room for optimism. For after the so-called “Athens’ spring” was crushed by the brutal reaction of the troika, in July 2015, the collective enactment of freedom of movement distinctive of the “long summer of migration”76(despite the efforts deployed by governmental agencies to quell it) has become the only spark of hope for a different Europe to emerge – a Europe in which the full recognition of freedom and equality is no longer bounded by race, class and state boundaries. Through their movements and struggles, migrants are fighting to realise this idea of Europe, which led them to risk their lives crossing the sea in the first place.

  1. We use the generic term of “migrant” to describe all people who cross state borders to reside in another country, independently of their exact motives or their possible future recognition as refugees. We use the term “illegalised migrants” following amongst others, Nicholas De Genova (2002; 2013), to highlight that illegality is a product of state law rather than an intrinsic feature of migrants. For the politics of the language of migration and mobility, see several entries of the “Keywords” in this issue, as well as Düvell 2008 and Bauder 2013.
  3. See also the web page dedicated to our reconstruction of this case:
  4. We will mention in more detail some of these cases further on, and they are the object of a forthcoming report that we will publish in April 2016. Summarily, we are referring to the following cases:
    – On the 8th of February 2015, MRCC Rome directed several vessels towards a boat in distress located 120 nautical miles (NM) from Lampedusa and 40 NM from Tripoli. When the first coastguard Coast Guard vessel reached the boats in distress after 7 hours of navigating in very difficult meteorological conditions, 7 people were already dead, but 22 people died of hypothermia after they had been rescued during the 18 hours that it took for the patrol boats to sail back to Lampedusa.
    – On the 12 of April, over 400 people died in a shipwreck that occurred while the OC Jaguar and Asso tug boats were directing themselves to rescue the passengers in distress. According to the survivors, the boat capsized when people on board panicked while the tug boats were approaching them.
    – On the 18th of April, over 800 people died in a shipwreck that occurred while the King Jacob was directing itself to rescue the passengers in distress. According to the testimonies we have collected, the boat driver rammed into the cargo ship when the later turned on its spot lights.
    – On the 5th of August, close to 300 people died when the Irish ship LE Niamh approached them to operate rescue. According to the survivors we have recently met, there was no particular panic on board, however the boat was taking in water and there were big waves which caused the boat to capsize.
    – On the 26th of August, 52 people were found dead in the engine section of a boat carrying 442 passengers. Here there was no shipwreck, however the fatalities were caused by asphyxiation due to the boats engine fumes in the poorly ventilated lower section of the vessel. While it is difficult to incriminate the actors who operated the rescue the Swedish Poseidon Coast Guard ship, operating under Frontex, followed by MOAS’ Phoenix, it is a fact that part of these people died during the several hours that the boat’s approach and the transboarding of the passengers lasted. The boat was initially detected at 7 AM, but because another boat in distress near bye was given priority, the rescue operation and transboarding of passengers only began at 10.50. During these four hours people continued to die in the hold.
    All these incidents occurred close to the Libyan coast, in an area that would have been covered by the assets of Mare Nostrum prior to the termination of the operation. Adding the casualties together, we arrive at 1574 casualties related in one form or another to the process of rescue.
  5. The description of migratory movements as “flows” and the recourse to hydraulic metaphors has a long and controversial history that spans from the birth of migration studies (Ravenstein 1885) to current media tropes of migration “waves” (Papastergiadis 2000; Mezzadra 2011; Mezzadra and Neilson 2013: 209).
  6. This was the case, for instance, of Spain see Anderson 2012: 8. This was also the argument mobilized by the Italian government in the trial against Hirsi et al. at the European Court of Human Rights, as discussed in Tondini 2010.
  7. The containment of mobility has been implemented both through “humanitarian” programs such as the installation of refugee camps in North Africa and the Middle East, and the entrusting of border control on land, sea and at all points of entry to formal forms of international transport (such as ports and airports) to the EU’s neighbouring countries. See Migreurop 2013 and Casas-Cortes et al. 2013.
  8. This number is based on Fortress Europe data ( as analysed by Fargues and his colleagues (2015) for the period 1988-April 2015 for which 18,403 deaths at sea were recorded, and IOM data ( for May-December 2015, during which an additional 2,053 deaths were recorded.
  9. See
  10. See
  11. This was also Senator Tineke Strick’s impression. Senator Strick had conducted an important investigation on the “left-to-die boat” case on behalf of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe; however, after these two shipwrecks she denounced the fact that not only had justice not been delivered to the survivors of the left-to-die boat case, but that no lessons had been learned from it. See PACE 2014.important investigation on the “left-to-die boat” case on behalf of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, however after these two shipwrecks she denounced the fact that not only had justice has not been delivered to the survivors of the left-to-die boat case, but that no lessons had been learned from it. See PACE 2014.
  12. See UNHCR 2013. For useful overviews of the Syrian exodus see Crisp 2015.
  13. Syrians accounted for the highest share of arrivals in Italy by the end of 2013 — 11.000 of 42.000 (Fargues 2015) and continued to be the top nationality in 2014 — 42.000 of 170.000 (UNHRC data)
  14. See: For our understanding of the Mare Nostrumoperation we have drawn on are in dialogue with AI 2014; AEI 2014; Cuttitta 2014; Tazzioli 2014, 2015 and Carrera and den Hertog 2015.
  15. For the list of units the Italian Navy deployed in the frame of MN, see
  16. According to Italian Coast Guard data, 83,000 out of the over 170,000 migrants who reached Italy by sea in 2014 were rescued by MN means.
  17. This has been the case in particular until September 2011, when the island of Lampedusa was declared “non-safe port” (see: After that decision, rescue operations in the high seas south of Lampedusa became increasingly common but became the rule only with Mare Nostrum. This has been confirmed to us by the Italian Coast Guard and border police during several interviews conducted between 2011 and 2015.
  18. The mortality rate went from around 15/1,000 in 2013 (Fargues et al. 2014 and 2015) to 17.55/1,000 in 2014 (our calculation, see statistical annex).
  20. Fargues and his colleagues for example argue that “smugglers seem to have adopted a new strategy of deliberately meeting, instead of bypassing controls, but also using even more unseaworthy boats, loading them ever more, and providing less food and fuel” (Fargues 2015: 5, see also Porsia 2015: 77). In this MN probably heightened the low-cost and low-security versions of the commerce of passage that had begun to emerge before it as a result of the fragmentation of the Libyan political landscape. The interviews journalist Nancy Porsia has conducted further indicate that “smugglers also began to retrieve the boats abandoned by the Italian Navy after the rescue operations and re-use them for as many as six further trips” which evidently affected the seaworthiness of the vessels (Porsia 2015, p. 77).
  21. We thank the participants of our 20th of October 2015 presentation at the Maison Suger (FMSH) in Paris for spurring our reflection on the politics of the terminology of “rescue.”
  23. See:
  24. See Tazzioli 2014, 2015 and Cuttitta 2014. See also:
  25. See for instance:, and
  26. This was not something entirely new but has rather been an established strategy for managing migrants’ arrivals in the aftermath of the Arab Spring: already in February 2013 the Italian Ministry of Interior had interrupted the programs of humanitarian assistance for migrants arrived from Northern Africa since 2011 and had given them 500€ knowing well that many of them, left unassisted and with the money to buy a travel ticket, would have left to other European countries. See:
  27. See:
  28. See:
  29. See:
  30. See:
  31. See:
  32. See:
  34. The circular was followed by documented cases of police violence during fingerprinting procedures. See
  35. See Statewatch, “The ‘Khartoum Process’: beefing up borders in east Africa” 7 October 15 and ARCI, “Diplomatie italienne avec l’Erythrée : sur le dos des migrants?” Mediapart, 12 August 2015,
  36. Frontex has been conducting “joint operations” (in which EU member states patrol the external borders of the EU jointly) to police the Central Mediterranean since 2006, immediately following the agency’s creation. Through its mobile patrols, Frontex effectively extended the EU bordering practices in the high seas. The first joint mission Nautilus was replaced by Hermes after the fall of the Ben Ali regime in January 2011 and in response to the several thousands of Tunisians who crossed the sea. Hermes was in turn replaced by Triton, which officially started on the 1st of November 2014.
  37. See for instance: and
  39. See:
  40. See:
  41. We should note that the complete eclipse of the Italian Navy was short lived. After it discontinued Mare Nostrum, it launched a smaller scale operation as of March 12, 2015, labelled Mare Sicuro. While its operational zone appears to have included the area close to the Libyan coast, Mare Sicuro’s aim was not explicitly that of rescue (see The Italian Navy remained a prominent actor in the operation of rescue throughout the year, rescuing close to 10,000 up to the 20th of May and 27,000 by the 26th of October 2015 (see Italian Coast Guard data in the annex).
  42. We analyze in more detail the role of the shipping industry in rescue at sea in Pezzani and Heller 2015.
  43. According to the data compiled by the Italian Coast Guard, commercial vessels rescued 42.061 people in 2014, representing 25% of the total number, second to the Italian Navy.
  44. We thank Eyal Weizman for suggesting this formulation.
  45. We should note that while the capacity of commercial vessels to operate such difficult rescues is clearly in cause in the becoming deadly of assistance, death at the moment of rescue has also occurred with the involvement of state operated ships. See the 5th of August incident involving the Irish ship LÉ Niamh already mentioned in note 5.
  46. See AI 2015b for a summary of this institutional process. For the extension of Frontex see:
  47. Such an admission is also implicit in Frontex’s 26th of May 2015 press release, in which Fabrice Leggeri stated: “We have dramatically increased the deployment levels in the Central Mediterranean to support the Italian authorities in controlling its sea borders and in saving lives, too many of which have already been tragically lost this year.”
  48. For the conceptual and legal distinction between smuggling and trafficking, see Monzini et al 2015. Monzini also underlines how the actual practices of the “actors practicing the commerce of illegalized passage” as we would rather call them, often blur between practices of smuggling and trafficking. See also Guilfoyle 2009.
  50. In fact, the rhetoric against smugglers has been a recurrent presence in the debate around migration at sea at least since the beginning of 2000 (see Cuttitta, 2014) and was also, as we argued above, at the heart of Mare Nostrum’s mission, but after April 2015 it gained a renewed prominence.
  51. The 23rd of April statement by the EU Council mentions in particular the commitment to “undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers,” to “disrupt trafficking networks, bring the perpetrators to justice and seize their assets,” through swift action by Member State and EU agencies. To this effect, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s Chief foreign and security policy coordinator, was “invited to immediately begin preparations for a possible CSDP (Common Security and Defence Policy) operation.”
  52. Ian Traynor, “EU draws up plans for military attacks on Libya targets to stop migrant boats,” The Guardian, 10 May 2015, available at (accessed May 2015). See Mogherini’s statement at the UN Security Council on the 11th of May here : For the description of the operation as it was put into effect, see here:
  53. In its July 2015 statement “A Safer Sea,” Amnesty International summarizes this deployment: “A number of governments decided to deploy naval and aerial assets outside Operation Triton, in national humanitarian operations to assist refugees and migrants in peril at sea. On 5 May, the British flagship HMS Bulwark reached the central Mediterranean to assist refugees and migrants at sea under the UK operation “Weald,” together with three Merlin helicopters. It was followed on 7 May by the German Navy ships Berlin and Hessen and later in May by the Irish ship Lé Eithne. Within a few days of reaching the central Mediterranean, they all started assisting refugees and migrants” (AI 2015b). While most of these assets (or their replacement) came under EUNAVFOR MED command, a notable exception has been the Irish assets that remained independent within Ireland’s “Pontus” operation. This operation retained a clear humanitarian priority, rescuing about 7000 migrants in the Mediterranean between May and September 2015 (see ).
  54. and operations/eunavfor-med/pdf/factsheet_eunavfor_med_en.pdf
  55. Quoted in his interview in Le Nouvel Observateur, 2 November 2015. URL:
  60. See
  61. See and For a more detailed analysis of these missions and the distinctions between them, see Stierl 2015.
  62. A particularly sticking example of MSF’s communication is provided by its 20 April 2015 statement:
  63. Between October and December 2015, with the onset of winter and the consequent lowering of the number of crossings, all of the civilian rescue vessels have suspended their operations in the Central Mediterranean. Several of them, however, have been redeployed to the Aegean, where crossings remain intense. See:
  64. As Paolo Cuttitta has reported during a recent conference in Palermo (Peace and Rights in the Mediterranean, 12–3 November 2015), this dilemma has been raised within MSF itself, where some of its members, following the group’s usual tradition of painstaking self-criticism, have raised the question whether the substitution of states in their SAR duties was not allowing them to redirect the resources and assets normally allocated to rescue operations towards the military objectives pursued by EUNAVFOR MED.
  65. At least since the beginning of the 2000s, see the data collected by Fargues and his colleagues (2013 and 2014).
  66. Bojadžijev, Manuela, and Sandro Mezzadra. 2015. “‘Refugee crisis’ or crisis of European migration policies?” FocaalBlog. 12 November.
  67. See in particular the “European Agenda on Migration” adopted by the EU Commission on the 13th of May 2015
  68. This new development mirrors those that have been occurring at the maritime border, where humanitarianism and policing, including and excluding have become ever more intertwined and inextricable from each other. For useful summaries on these shifts and hotspots in particular see: Migreurop, Avec les “hotspots,” l’UE renforce sa politique de refoulement des boat people, 21 July 2015 : and Statewatch, Explanatory note on the “Hotspot” approach,
  69. To see this institutional assemblage at work, a cursory review of the European Commission’s 15th of December 2015 “Progress Report on the Implementation of the hotspots in Greece” suffices: The plans to give to Frontex the status of a new European Border Police with powers to intervene in a member state “not effectively fulfilling its duty of defending the external border” have further highlighted this tendency. See:
  73. On the increasing number of deaths in relation to changing practices of the Turkish authorities, see:, and The operation of MOAS, MSF (in collaboration with Green Peace this time), and Seawatch, which have been redeployed from the central Mediterranean to the Aegean at the end of 2015, have been bolstered by the activities of organisations such as Proactiva Open Arms which have specifically emerged to respond to the situation in the Aegean.
  76. We borrow this expression from Kasparek and Speer (2015).                                                    [This article was originally posted in Near Futures Online at].