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Simon Massey and Rino Coluccello

Abstract: The spike in the number of irregular migrants attempting the sea crossing from Libya to Italy at the start of 2015, and the concomitant rise in the number of people drowning, led to a reversal of the European Union’s policy to scale down search and rescue operations in the southern Mediterranean. However, as of June 2015, the strategies proposed by the EU and by individual member states to address irregular migration flows continue to emphasise securitisation over humanitarian responses.

The contributions to this edited volume, based on evidence gathered through first-hand research, emphasise the failure of the EUs simplistic and reactive policies to stem the flow of migrants, which has in fact markedly increased, whilst leaving the EU open to accusations of adopting an unethical, and potentially illegal, immigration regime.

Massey, Simon and Rino Coluccello, eds. Eurafrican Migration: Legal, Economic and Social Responses to Irregular Migration. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. doi: 10.1057/9781137391353.0004.

The scenes we have witnessed in the Mediterranean in recent months, with people risking their lives to reach Europe, are hugely distressing ... When people are risking life and limb - not just their own, but those of their loved ones too - it is clear that they are caught in a desperate situation ... Since Italy launched its Mare Nostrum operation in October 2013, there has been an unprecedented increase in illegal immigration across the Mediterranean and a fourfold increase in the deaths of those making that perilous journey ... we believe that the operation is having the unintended consequence of placing more lives at risk. (Hansard 2014)

Speaking at the dispatch box of the House of Commons on 30 October 2014, the United Kingdom’s Minister for Security and Immigration, James Brokenshire, was responding to an urgent question concerning the rescue of irregular migrants in the southern Mediterranean Sea. In particular, he was called upon to defend the British government’s support for the replacement of the Italian navy’s Operation Mare Nostrum with a new EU-led mission, Operation Triton. Mare Nostrum had, for a year, been sweeping the entire migration route between the North African coast and Italy searching for vessels in distress, and in so doing rescuing on average 400 people a day. Operation Triton, under the control of the European Union’s border management agency Frontex, is designed to operate under a revised mandate ‘protecting’ a 30-mile zone around the Italian coast. Thus, a humanitarian operation which had been established in response to two particularly deadly capsizes off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa has transmuted into an operation to close a maritime gateway into, what has become known in some quarters as, ‘Fortress Europe’ (Fortress Europe 2015). In effect, in arguing that smugglers were transporting more people, more regularly, in the expectation that the Italian navy would ensure their safe arrival in Italy, the British minister was arguing that Mare Nostrum had saved too many lives.

Globally, people are increasingly driven by, amongst other factors, poverty and violence, and are enticed by the prospect of a safe and prosperous existence, to abandon their homes, travelling to countries where prospects appear brighter, often countries in the developed world. The emigration of sizeable numbers of young, skilled and talented individuals exercises the minds of politicians, whilst testing the ingenuity and tenacity of would-be migrants who are increasingly forced to embark on highly dangerous and circuitous journeys to circumvent the measures put in place to block irregular migration. Many irregular migrants are so-called ‘over-stayers’ who arrive by air, or by other means, with valid travel documentation, for example a student visa, and fail to return home when it expires. However, increasing numbers are willing to risk arduous land and sea journeys to fulfil their ambitions. Yet, irregular migration has heavy costs. Exploitation is common, the journey is often traumatic, and can be lethal, and the irregular migrant is far from guaranteed secure residence and employment in the destination country. The scale of the harm caused to its victims makes the trade in people one of the leading causes of human insecurity. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that in 2014, at least 348,000 people travelled to destination or transit countries by sea intending to migrate or claim asylum, making it a record year for seaborne irregular migration. Sea routes span the globe with large numbers migrating across the Gulf of Aden, the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean. Europe exerts the strongest pull. The largest number of seaborne migrants, 207,000 in 2014, sought to enter Europe by crossing the Mediterranean, at least a further 15,000 attempted to enter Europe by landing on Mayotte, a French overseas department in the Indian Ocean, whilst at least 4,775 migrants sought to navigate to overseas territories of EU member states in the Caribbean (UNHCR 2014).

In International Law, a distinction is drawn between trafficking in persons, involving the ‘exploitation of the migrant often for forced labour or prostitution’ and smuggling of persons which implies ‘procurement, for financial or material gain, of the illegal entry into a country of which that individual is neither a citizen nor permanent resident’. There is a distinction between these types of illegal migration made in the UN Protocols on the Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling in Migrants - in the former the victim is the trafficked individual, whilst in the latter the victim is, ostensibly, the state whose immigration regulations and procedures have been infringed. The consequences in terms of physical danger and exploitation are conspicuous in cases of trafficking, and the sexual and labour abuse that underpins this crime is often characterised as ‘modern slavery’. However, in criminalising the irregular migrant, the UN Protocols arguably underestimate the level of risk to which smuggling exposes the migrant and the ease with which smuggling can become trafficking. The smuggled migrant implanted into a destination country may not be under the absolute control of a trafficker, but often has few options beyond working for gangmasters in low paid, and frequently dangerous, employment or selling illicit goods on the street, risking arrest. Such undocumented migrants are, typically, excluded from a state’s health, education and welfare provision and their wages are sequestered for, often squalid, housing provided by the employer, forcing the migrant into debt-bondage.

In the European context, rulings as to whether an irregular migrant has been trafficked or smuggled are governed by the Council of Europe Convention against Trafficking in Human Beings. There are clear benefits to the migrant in being designated as trafficked rather than smuggled, and clear costs to the arrival country. If an individual is declared by the ‘competent authority’ tasked with deciding migratory status to have been trafficked, he or she is entitled to a minimum of 45 days where all removal action is held in abeyance whilst victims consider their options, as well as a temporary, and potentially renewable, residence permit. To avoid these financial and policy implications, states parties to the Convention have adopted a narrow definition of trafficking requiring that a victim has been explicitly coerced into being transported and then unambiguously exploited. Coercion is deemed to mean ‘the threat or the use of force or other forms of coercion, or abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person’. Exploitation should include at a minimum ‘the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practises similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs’.

Thus, the dichotomy of coercion and consent lies at the heart of distinguishing between smuggling and trafficking, a distinction that also delineates the nexus between irregular migration and human security. An early, and contentious, definition of human security made in the 1994 Human Development Report characterises the concept as ‘safety from chronic threats such as hunger, disease and repression’, and ‘protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily life, whether in jobs, in homes or in communities’. The shocking paradox is that whilst irregular migrants are willing to risk their lives in order to escape from conditions that are the apotheosis of human insecurity, the migration process often exposes them to similar, or worse, levels of insecurity. Whilst the self-interest of destination countries has restricted the application of the trafficking protocol to instances of explicit compulsion, those advocating on behalf of forced migrants, and concerned jurists, are lobbying for extreme poverty to be re-categorised as a form of coercion. If accepted, many cases currently dealt with as smuggling should be reclassified as trafficking and the migrant treated as victim rather than perpetrator.

Should desperation and vulnerability be reappraised as coercive factors? If ‘push factors’ such as endemic poverty, internal demographic pressures, political instability and conflict, natural disasters and climate change place individuals in positions where they fear for their lives or well-being, or that of their family, are they constrained, or in the terminology of the Protocol ‘coerced’ into accepting transportation to safety offered by smugglers, no matter how exploitative? Jacqueline Bhabha and Monette Zard have long argued that, in the absence of ‘acceptable options’,

formal consent in these situations (because the migrant sees no other way out) does not alter the coercive nature of the agreement. In assessing “coercion” and “consent”, policy makers and advocates are forced to engage in moral decisions about which types of conduct are acceptable or permissible in a society and which are not. Slavery and slavery-like work are clearly not acceptable, but neither is lack of access to essential food, medicine and shelter. (2006: 8)

Fundamentally clandestine, it is difficult to accurately chart the number of irregular migrants from Africa entering Europe by land and sea. The UN Population Division estimates that in 2013, the migrant stock in Europe from Africa was 8.9m. Whilst around two-thirds of Africans in Europe are from the Maghreb countries, increasing numbers are arriving from West African states such as Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and The Gambia, as well as from the Horn of Africa, notably Eritrea and Somalia.

Whilst the contributors to this book thoroughly, and critically, engage with the scholarly literature in their respective specific and geographical areas, a particular strength is the incorporation of first-hand evidence and data, mainly gathered through semi-structured interviews with migrants, as well as practitioners whose jobs include preventing irregular migration, but also, in many cases, involves alleviating the humanitarian fallout from this desperate trade. By prioritising the voices of those with intimate experience of irregular migration, the dichotomies that permeate the scholarly discourse that surrounds irregular migration are challenged. The evidence advanced in each chapter, substantiates Julia O’Connell Davidson’s contention that ‘the effort to accommodate these migrants’ experience into the orthodox conceptual binaries of trafficking/ smuggling, forced/voluntary migration, and slavery/freedom generates an oxymoron - we find ourselves looking at ‘voluntary slaves’ and ‘free choice trafficking’ (Davidson 2013).

The first chapter by Monica Massari explores the perilous nature of the land and sea journeys taken by irregular migrants travelling from Africa to Europe, focussing, in particular, on the routes to Italy from western, northern and eastern Africa. Challenging the orthodox narratives and the proscriptive lexicon employed by states, Massari stresses the lived experience of the migrants, expressed in their own words, drawing on detailed witness accounts of migrants who made, and survived, the journey. Their accounts are cross-checked to produce physical maps of the routes across the desert, but also mental and emotional maps of the migrants’ experiences and their relationships with those that facilitate the journeys.

The second chapter by Derek Lutterbeck and Cetta Mainwaring emphasises the response to seaborne irregular migration of an individual state, in this instance Malta, a small island state with limited capacity to handle the many components of large-scale irregular migration. Most migrants land in Malta, or are rescued in its waters, having unintentionally been forced off-course or foundered on the way to Italy. Handling the cyclical waves of irregular migration over the past several years has put stress on Malta’s relations with the EU to which it acceded only in 2004 and for which now it is one the most southerly gatekeepers. In keeping with the other chapters in this book, Lutterbeck and Mainwaring also explore the impact of national policies, themselves framed in response to the island’s limited resources and capacity, on migrants, stressing their marginalisation in a claustrophobic, and often xenophobic, environment and the limited potential for employment and constrained life chances for people caught in limbo.

Concentrating on the migrant’s insertion into a destination country, Paola Monzini draws on the testimony of practitioners from nongovernmental organisations, but also, in particular, law enforcement agencies, to explore the relationship between irregular migrants and the black economy in Italy. Monzini takes two case studies from different regions of Italy and divergent sectors of the labour market, in which migrants have been exploited, drawing on documented criminal proceedings to analyse the disparate specificities of the exploitation and the responses of the migrants, the wider communities in which they lived and worked, and the Italian authorities, uncovering similarities, but also marked distinctions in the outcomes of the two cases.

Another, distinct, incidence of labour exploitation is examined by Olufunke Aluko-Daniels in her evaluation of the consent versus coercion debate in the movement of women for prostitution between Nigeria and Italy. Again the evidence on which the chapter’s argument is constructed has been largely assembled from semi-structured interviews with law enforcement and criminal justice practitioners; governmental and nongovernmental organisations; scholars and journalists from Nigeria and Italy. Highly visible on the streets of Italian towns and cities, as well as in other parts of Europe, the migratory status of Nigerian women moved to work as prostitutes is controversial. With reference to the scholarly literature, and notably the debate between liberal and radical feminists concerning the place of consent and agency in the process of migrating for prostitution, Aluko-Daniels assesses the arguments advanced by her sources to determine whether these women should be seen as trafficked or smuggled, victims or criminals.

Media accounts of irregular migration into Europe, notably high profile, large-scale arrivals by sea and across land borders, have driven the issue of immigration to the top of the political agenda in many EU member states and across Europe in general. The tensions within societies that large-scale immigration has the potential to provoke have been exacerbated by the economic pressures caused by the steep economic downturn in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. Salvatore Coluccello and Lefteris Kretsos explore the connections between irregular migration, the economic crisis and xenophobia in Greece, the EU member state most affected by the crisis, but also one of the core destination countries and points of entry for irregular migrants from Asia and Africa. The chapter assesses the additional risks and vulnerabilities that apply to irregular migrants seeking work in a constricted labour market, and how the combination of migrant inflows and austerity policies has driven xenophobia and political polarisation, especially the rise of an extreme right party, Golden Dawn, as a new force in the Greek political landscape.

The final chapter by Simon Massey investigates an example of significant irregular migration by sea from an African nation into a member state of the EU that, since it is happening in the Indian Ocean rather than on the edge of Europe, attracts only marginal attention in the media and the scholarly literature. In this case, the flow of migrants travelling in small and dangerous vessels is between one island of the Comoros archipelago to another island in the same group which is claimed and treated as sovereign territory by France. The chapter firstly disentangles the complex and ambiguous relationship that exists between France and its former colony, whereby France has sought to export the Fortress Europe strategy to the maritime boundary between a developing world nation in the Union of the Comoros and a quasi-developed territorial entity in Mayotte, an island which it designates a full department of the Republic.

Faced with persistent conflict and deprivation in Europe’s neighbouring regions, in particular the implosion of Syria, the response of governments and the EU to growing migratory pressure on Europe’s southern borders has been reactive and simplistic. The ruthlessness of those involved in transporting the migrants should not be under-estimated, and, as Massari highlights, during Mare Nostrum the smugglers, apparently deliberately, used extremely unseaworthy boats to invite rescue by the Italian navy. Yet, early indications suggest that the conversion of Europe’s response to seaborne irregular migration from search and rescue to a securitisation exercise was driven by prevailing neo-liberal interpretations of security within the EU and its member states rather than human security. The argument that Mare Nostrum acted as a push factor is belied by the spike in the numbers of irregular migrants arriving in European waters since the end of Mare Nostrum and the start of Triton. The exponential increase in the numbers attempting the crossing between Libya and Italy was highlighted by two extremely lethal capsizes in mid-April 2015 in which an estimated 400 and 700 people drowned.

The arguments made by the British government, amongst others, that Mare Nostrum was a cause of increased migration proved baseless. Faced with criticism from the UN, allies such as the US, as well as humanitarian NGOs, the initial response of the EU was to triple the funding for Triton and increase the number of ships engaged in sea patrols, essentially restoring the mandate of Mare Nostrum, but on an EU-wide basis rather than dependent on Italian assets. The EU’s High Representative and Vice-President Federica Mogherini and Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, issued a joint statement:

We need to show that same collective European sense of urgency we have consistently shown in reacting in times of crisis. The dire situation in the Mediterranean is not a new, nor a passing, reality ... The ten actions we have agreed upon today are the direct, substantial measures we will take to make an immediate difference. All of these actions require our common effort, the

European institutions and the 28 Member States ... This is what Europe taking responsibility is - all of us working together. (European Commission 2015)

Migrant flows have remained high in the months following the two lethal capsizes. However, the increased capacity of Triton has seen a return to large-scale sea rescues by ships from across the EU. Yet, some of the actions outlined by the EU have caused consternation both within the organisation and internationally. Initial proposals for a voluntary scheme to more equitably share the resettlement of refugees from Italy and Greece amongst the EU’s 28 member states were replaced by a mandatory relocation policy, accepted by some member states including Germany and France, but opposed by, amongst others, many eastern member states and the UK. At the time of writing, the division within the EU has stalled the proposal which is unlikely to be discussed again until October 2015.

A further EU proposal which has proved even more controversial calls for military action against the smugglers. A document put before the EU’s Political and Security Council on 18 May 2015 discusses a possible military operation ‘to disrupt the business model of the smugglers, achieved by undertaking systematic efforts to identify, seize/capture and destroy vessels and assets before they are used by smugglers’ (EU Political and Security Council 2015). The proposal envisages not only the destruction of smugglers’ boats at sea, but also ashore with a high probability of casualties amongst smugglers, migrants and EU member states’ armed forces. That the document recognises the potential for casualties acknowledges the growing militarisation of the smuggling trade in Libya with the involvement of well-armed Libyan militias and, potentially, foreign elements connected with the Islamic State terrorist group. Debate continues as to whether this action would require the authorisation of the UN Security Council and, at the time of writing, a draft proposal to the Council remains paused until it is clear that such a mission would have the support of the five permanent members of the Council. However, the proposal has been rejected by the internationally recognised Libyan government in Tobruk, whose agreement would be legally required for a resolution to come into force, although in reality the government is only one ‘authority’ amongst many, and does not control the coastal areas from where the boats leave.

The response of the EU to the capsizes in April whilst superficially a victory for those calling for a humanitarian response to the crisis in that an effective search and rescue operation has been restored, in reality underscores the continuation of the EU’s securitisation of its southern borders. Triton is rescuing more migrants in peril than during its previous incarnation, but the vessels involved stand ready to be redeployed as the spearhead of the proposed military action. Moreover, the EU’s initial ten-point plan is largely devoted to protecting its borders through increased intelligence gathering, new return policies and agreements with countries of origin and transit, as well as proposed military action against the smugglers. The humanitarian proposal to share responsibility for resettling refugees has, currently, foundered. Military action, if successful, would leave many would-be migrants, at least temporarily, stranded in the hostile environment of Libya. It would likely relocate the crisis to the eastern Mediterranean, already struggling to cope with high numbers of irregular migrants. It would also, most likely, further destabilise the precarious political equilibrium in disjointed and dangerous Libya. Yet, would this stem the flow of migrants from war-torn counties such as Syria and Libya, countries with dire human rights regimes such as Eritrea or countries in sub-Saharan Africa that offer few opportunities to their young people? For such people the push/pull factors outweigh the dangers.


Bhabha, J., and Zard, M. (2006), ‘Smuggled or Trafficked?’ Forced Migration Review, no.25, pp.6-8.

Davidson, J. (2013), ‘Troubling freedom: Migration, debt, and modern slavery, Migration Studies, vol.i, no.2, pp.176-195.

European Commission (2015), ‘Joint Foreign and Home Affairs Council: Ten point action plan on migration’. Available at rapid/press-release_IP-i5-48i3_en.htm.

EU Political and Security Council (2015), ‘Council Decision (CFSP) 2015/778 of 18 May 2015 on a European Union military operation in the Southern Central Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED)’. Available at OJ.L_.2015.122.01.0031.01.ENG.

Fortress Europe (2015). Available at http://fortresseurope.blogspot.

Hansard (2014), HC Deb 30 October, vol.587, c.397. Available at: http:// debindx/141030-x.htm

Integrated Regional Information Network (2015), ‘Two charts showing that ‘deterring’ migrant boats is failing, 19 February. Available at: deterring-migrant-boats-is-failing.

United Nations High Commission on Refugees (2014), ‘Focus on saving lives, says UNHCR, as numbers of people taking to the seas in search of asylum or migration passes 348,000 globally’ 10 December. Available at:

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