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At the Edge of Europe: The Phenomenon of Irregular Migration from Libya to Italy

Monica Massari

Abstract: The chapter reconstructs in detail the alternative itineraries taken by migrants moving from Africa to Italy. Identifying their shared experiences, it explores the violence and danger faced by irregular migrants, concluding that the relationship between those making and those facilitating the journey is intrinsically asymmetrical. In arguing that the securitisation of Europe’s territory is a failing policy, the chapter recommends the adoption of the more flexible response to immigration taken by developing countries in Europe’s neighbouring regions.

Massey, Simon and Rino Coluccello, eds. Eurafrican Migration: Legal, Economic and Social Responses to Irregular Migration. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. doi: 10.1057/9781137391353.0005.

Introduction: humans not just migrants

After the explosion of the Arab Spring in 2010 and the revolutions that spread from Tunisia to other Northern African and Levant countries, the massive and dramatic rise of irregular migration between the African and European coasts of the Mediterranean Sea has acquired renewed visibility and public debate. Italy’s southern coastline and, more crucially, Sicily and the small island of Lampedusa - after the partial ‘dismantling’ of the sea-route from Libya due to the entry into force of the agreements between Italian and Libyan authorities in May 2009 - have once again become emblematic physical and symbolic places. In 2014, the number of undocumented migrants willing to risk the perilous sea journey to reach Europe reached a peak of around 207,000, while in the same year more than 3,000 migrants died following the so-called Libyan route in their attempt to cross the Mediterranean sea (UNHCR 2014b; Ministry of Interior 2014a).

So far, scientific analysis of the phenomenon of irregular migration by sea has mostly attempted to present the main changes to the routes, methods of transportation and organisation of smuggling networks, as well as the impact of policies aimed at deterring irregular migratory flows and combating smuggling in migrants. These studies, which also contain analysis of the modus operandi of smuggling networks operating in countries of departure, are mostly based on the analysis of the official data available, the outcomes of judicial and police records, media coverage and interviews with law enforcement officers, prosecutors and organisations involved in this field. Hence, research on undocumented and forced migration has been often effectively formulated and conducted from the standpoint of the state (De Genova 2002: 421), whilst, so far, very little scientific analysis from the perspective of migrants who have been smuggled by sea has been carried out.

This chapter will attempt to challenge more prescriptive, state-oriented and officially pre-established research on irregular migration by sea - in other words, the governmental definition of irregular human mobility by sea - by assuming a different perspective which mostly relies on the standpoint of the migrants themselves. Based on the findings of field research involving interviews with 30 irregular migrants who arrived in Italy by sea during the past few years, mostly following the Libyan route, the chapter aims to provide an overview of the phenomenon of irregular migration to Italy by sea, devoting particular attention to the migrants’ experience and expectations, as well as their relationships with both fellow migrants on the journey and those who provide them with ad hoc services along the way: mediators, go-betweens, dallala, passeurs and smugglers.1

The extremely dangerous conditions on the journey, dramatic experiences of the migrants and sheer number of people who have drowned, estimated at more than 21,000 from 1988 to October 2014 (Fortress Europe 2014), have led the media to frequently return to this phenomenon, eliciting both sympathy for the migrants’ plight and alarm at the numbers involved (IOM 2013). Those who survive are often deeply psychologically scarred by the abuse, violence and inhumane conditions they experience during the various phases of the long journey from home to the destination country. Traumatic accounts given by refugees, by those who escaped from conflicts and persecutions, and by so-called clandestine exiles often recall the memories of those who survived the most notorious massacres of the twentieth century. These narratives are often self-censored as they cannot be easily detached from the trauma that they reawaken (Massari 2013). Migrants’ stories not only relate dramatic individual experiences, but also ineluctably lead us to face the historical, social and political roots of their suffering, as well as the asymmetrical power structures which actually produce illegality, clandestinity and the condition of de-humanisation to which irregular migrants are often confined. These narratives confirm that complex social phenomena, such as irregular migration, lie within an intricate web of relationships and dynamics that cannot be properly investigated without an adequate understanding of the crucial human dimension which can be best explored by assuming the perspective of the migrants themselves.

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