Stay Human' activists stage a protest outside the Ministry of Transport in Rome, on 11 July 2018. hristian Minelli/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/Press Association. All rights reserved.
After being by far the dominant topic of the last Italian electoral campaign, migration continues to be at the core of Italian politics. Under the coalition between the populist Five Star Movement and the racist party The League, migration has become a byword for economic and social problems and a justification for exceptional security measures. The political debate has shifted from the (misleading) claim of “rescuing refugees, fighting illegal migrants” towards an even more worrying position, one which openly pushes for keeping migrants in Libya in order to prevent them from dying. Thus, the humanitarian discourse has been fully hijacked by a politics of containment.
Migration is also at the forefront of the current scenario of struggles and protests. On 11 July dozens of citizens protested in front of the Ministry of Transports in Rome. They chained themselves to the building, wore life jackets, and held banners emblazoned with “state’s shipwrecks”. Their motto flips the standard social and political understanding of the situation – that the Mediterranean is a deadly frontier – on its head, pointing instead to the direct responsibility of state authorities for migrants deaths at sea.
Indeed, it is fundamental to de-naturalise the dangerousness of the Mediterranean sea and the related high rate of migrant deaths: it is not the Mediterranean per se, as a natural deadly frontier, that is the main cause of migrant death but the racialised bordering mechanisms that hamper some people in the world from exercising the right to mobility and the right to choose where they want to live. In this sense, even saying that migrants are let to die in the Mediterranean does not fully capture the politics of containment practiced by the Italian government, under pressure from the European Commission and abetted by the Libyan authorities and Libyan militias. What does ‘letting die’ consist of in the context of migration in the Mediterranean? And how it is proactively enforced? Far from being an exclusive Italian deal, the politics of closing the Mediterranean is the outcome of states on the northern shore continuing to tighten their grip with the help of the Libyan coast guard.
Containment through kidnapping
Let’s recall the most recent and salient steps that have characterised the politics of containment in the Mediterranean. Between 10 and 11 June, Matteo Salvini, the Italian minister of the interior, forbade the Aquarius, a vessel belonging to the NGO SOS Mediteranée, to disembark rescued migrants in Italy. One day later Spain let the vessel disembark the migrants on its shores.
The ongoing politics of containment in the Mediterranean has been further ramped up through the kidnapping of shipwrecked migrants.
On 12 July, a merchant vessel rescued 67 migrants and transferred them to the Italian Coast Guard. The coast guard entered the port of Trapani, in Sicily, one day later, but the government did not allow the shipwrecked migrants to disembark. The migrants were in effect kidnapped by the Italian Coast Guard and held against their will until an intervention by the Italian president Sergio Matterella secured their release at the end of the day.
Two days after this incident, the Maltese government forbade the NGO LifeLine from disembarking 450 migrants onto its territory and Italy declared the harbour of Lampedusa closed. After hours of diplomatic impasse, France, Malta and Germany agreed to take 50 migrants each, provided that Italy will let them enter Italy first. After being held capture on the Italian vessels for a day outside the port of Pozzallo, the 450 migrants disembarked and, at the moment of writing, were waiting to be sorted and distributed across the various member states.
Therefore, the ongoing politics of containment in the Mediterranean has been further ramped up through the kidnapping of shipwrecked migrants, who are kept hostage on vessels while politicians bargain over their fate on shore. The motto “state’s shipwreck” foregrounds the fact that what befalls migrants, in the Mediterranean Sea as well as at the internal borders of Europe, does not just happen, but are produced through a panoply of legal, political and logistical operations. Directed by EU member states, these operations are abetted by Libyan vessels made available under the Italian-Libyan Deal. These intercept migrants at sea and return them to Libya. Furthermore, these exceptional measures, inter alia, hamper vessels carrying rescued migrants from disembarking in violation of international law, and criminalise the NGOs involved in search and rescue operations.
Black bodies (not) to be saved
The debate on social media and in the Italian press is centred around questions such as ‘should we save migrants?’ and ‘should we let all migrants enter?’. Many from the Catholic world as well as NGOs and activist networks have responded that we must ‘stay human’ and put human beings before all. As part of this, they highlight the state’s duty to rescue migrants at sea. In fact, European citizens of all stripes and occupations must take a stand in this moment to delegitimate and defuse the politics of containment and migrant kidnapping that is underway in the Mediterranean. Such a capillary mobilisation has, until now, taken the form of an active refusal, denying to back the Italian and the European politics of containment, in an explicitly or silent way.
However, by responding to questions such as ‘should we rescue migrants? we dampen the political claims of migrants and the struggle for equal freedom of movement, and continue to depict migrants as black bodies (not) to be saved. This is because such a debate – even if only to re-affirm a principle of humanity – requires us to accept the terms of the current discourse on migration. The current political and ethical dilemma consists in the need to oppose the politics of containment in the Mediterranean on the one hand, and the need to refuse the very terms of the discussion on the other.
The focus should not be on the let die/let live opposition but, rather, on the racialised politics of mobility that underpins the functioning and the legitimacy of the visa system and of the European borders governance. The banal reality of unequal access as established through visa politics, and the hierarchies of lives that result from them, should be the starting point and core reason for disobedience against European government
Open the cities, open the harbours
While the debate in the political arena appears saturated by discourses around rescuing or not rescuing migrants, and by security-based logics that see migrants as threats, fractures are starting to emerge. Indeed, in response to the politics of closure put into place by Europe, with Italy at the forefront, some Italian municipalities such as Naples, Livorno and Palermo have opposed the closure of the ports. They have declared themselves keen on hosting migrants and opening their harbours.
“Fraternity and rescuing are not enough; we need to fight for social justice and for free mobility”.
The widespread slogan ‘open the harbours’ has pushed individual and collective refusal of the politics of containment beyond the let live/let die narrative, and opened up space to rethink solidarity with migrants beyond humanitarian support. Simultaneously, in Spain, the major of Barcelona, Ada Colau, has notably engaged in an ‘open the city’ politics and declared Barcelona a safe harbour for migrants.
Not all local authorities are, however, challenging their national governments. Many municipalities have enforced decrees and police measures to chase migrants away and to criminalise acts of solidarity. Ventimiglia, an Italian city located a few kilometres from the French-Italian border, has dismantled migrants’ informal camps and increasingly criminalised citizens’ solidarity practices. In response, a network of locals and activists from other cities have been supporting the migrants in transit since 2015. On 14 July, a huge demonstration of almost 10,000 people called “Ventimiglia, Open City” took place in the streets of the small Italian city.
“Fraternity and rescuing are not enough; we need to fight for social justice and for free mobility”. This, according to the demo’s organisers, is the main message of a mobilisation that has refused to stay within the parameters of the letting die/letting live narrative. Along the same lines, the political demand of the demonstration in Ventimiglia was a permit to stay and circulate across Europe for the migrants who arrive.
This is something that, ultimately, can appear as an utopian claim in the current political scenario. However, it is precisely by supporting such a political demand that issues like freedom of movement and the possibility to choose where to live are posited as non-deferrable goals. In a less public way, a similar opening-up politics is enacted by locals and activists that support migrants’ struggles for movement at the internal frontiers of Europe, as it is the case on the French and Italian Alps. There, in the cities of Briancon and Claviere, French and Italian citizens have been accused of “crimes of solidarity” for helping migrants, on a logistical and legal level, in crossing the border.
De-securitising the cities and producing fractures within the politics of containment means not narrowing political interventions to the topic of rescuing migrants or letting them die. In contrast, opening spaces of liveability, refuge, movement and safe arrival – as the “open the harbours” campaign highlights – shifts attention from the black bodies to be rescued towards the unequal access to mobility.