The geography of irregular migration by sea
The phenomenon of irregular sea crossings began to affect Italy at the beginning of the 1990s in the months immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia when restrictive policies on immigration first started to be implemented. Since then, scientific analysis of the phenomenon has mostly explored the evolution of the migratory routes, methods of transportation and the organization of smuggling networks (Monzini 2007 & 2008; Pastore et al. 2006; Coslovi 2007; Coluccello and Massey 2007) as well as analysing the impact of some policies aimed at deterring irregular migratory flows to Italy and combating smuggling in migrants (Andrijasevic 2006; Cutitta 2008; Delicato 2009a & 2009b).
During the past two decades, Italy has faced a growing diversification of routes. In this regard, the country might be considered both a destination and transit country along a wider migration route directed toward other Western European countries including Germany, the Netherlands, United Kingdom and France, as well as, increasingly, Northern Europe. The growing restrictions imposed on international migration have actually increased and diversified the ways, strategies and modalities in which individuals migrate illegally or without legal safeguards. As a result, journeys have become more difficult, because of very stringent migration controls and visa issuance policies, more dangerous, due to the risks which migrants run, and more expensive given the role played by actors and networks who provide their ‘grey’ and/or illegal services. However, it should be noted that sea crossings are one of the cheapest ways to reach the West, although one of the longest (Monzini 2007: 165-166).
Since the late 1990s, the eastern and southern parts of Sicily, including Lampedusa, have seen increasingly significant landings, reaching their highest peaks in 2008 (36,951 migrants), 2011 (62,692), 2013 (35,085) and 2014 with more than 170,000 migrants reaching Italy by sea, as a result of movements prompted by events in North Africa, in particular in Libya, and Syria (UNHCR 2013: 2; De Bruycker et al. 2013: 15; IDOS 2014).2 However, if we except the peak reached in 2014, an average of almost 40,000 persons per year reached the sea shores of the European Union from 1998 to 2013 (De Bruycker et al. 2013: 3). In 1999, the Ionic part of Calabria also started to become a destination for migrants coming from Middle Eastern countries: Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq. This route has been mostly managed by increasingly specialised Turkish organisations which transport migrants through motherships often filled with hundreds of people, who are then transferred onto smaller, dilapidated or very old boats out at sea. Migrants are usually abandoned once they have landed and left to undergo controls by the Italian authorities, while crew members are usually allowed to return (Monzini 2007). The journey along this route is usually longer since it takes several days or even weeks to cover such a long distance with stop-offs in order to take on supplies and involves very hard travel conditions because of the lack of space due to the high number of migrants being transported. In particular, the coastal areas of Crotone, Catanzaro and Reggio Calabria, as well as the southern part of Apulia, have been recently affected by the return of irregular landings mostly originating in Turkish or Greek ports, as confirmed by the increase in migrants landing in these areas since 2010 (De Bruycker et al. 2013: 15). Most of the Syrian migrants landing in Apulia and Calabria depart from the ports in South-East Turkey, such as Mersin, sail across the Aegean Sea, often via Cyprus and Crete where migrants are often transferred to smaller fishing vessels, towards Italy (Frontex 2013: 21). The cost of a place on a freighter from Turkey to Italy is at least three times the cost of a place on the route from Libya. According to Frontex, a migrant can pay US $6,000, plus the ‘fees’ paid by Syrian refugees to the militias controlling the border with Turkey (2014). However, this route avoids having to travel through Libya which is currently considered very dangerous, even for criminal networks.
During the past decade, Italy has become both a destination and transit country for large flows of migrants originating from different regions: the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Indian sub-continent, China, the Middle East as well as North and sub-Saharan Africa. Since 2002, coinciding with the overall re-articulation of the sea routes to Italy due to the growing importance acquired by Libya as the main hub for Mediterranean sea-crossings, an increase has been recorded in migrants from the Horn of Africa, Tunisia (with a peak of 28,047 migrants arriving in 2011), Morocco, Libya, Egypt and Algeria, some West African countries, such as Nigeria, Ghana and the Ivory Coast, and, most recently, Syria (De Bruycker et al. 2013: 16-18; Triandafyllidou 2014: 12). The latest data available show that in 2014, Syrians were the largest group to arrive in Italy by sea (almost 40,000 people), followed by Eritreans (nearly 34,000 people: a threefold increase compared with the same period in 2013), and migrants from Mali, Nigeria and The Gambia (UNHCR 14 November 2014; ISMU 2014; Frontex 2015).
Beside the significant increase in the numbers, data concerning the main nationalities involved confirm that countries affected by conflict, war and political instability are the main places of origin of migrants and asylum seekers, while the political turmoil that has affected Northern Africa since the civil war in Libya, the explosion of the Arab Spring and the on-going conflict in Syria has significantly contributed to the modification of traditional mobility patterns and to the emergence of composite migratory fluxes. Conventional distinctions among economic migrants, forced and irregular migrants, and refugees have become increasingly blurred, since most migrants who already were in the area, especially in
Libya, became refugees, while transit migrants saw a drastic downscaling of their opportunities of moving somewhere else (CESPI 2011: 15).
The heterogeneity of migratory routes that have emerged since 2011 has drastically challenged traditional schemes and taxonomies used at institutional as well as scientific level in order to label and define migrants. The definition of ‘refugee’ contained in the main international conventions, for example, is at risk of becoming inadequate as the intricate web of links composing individual lives and personal trajectories, depending on opportunities and constraints arising during the migratory process, makes it more difficult to fix clear borders between forced or conflict-induced and voluntary migration. Even in apparently forced migration patterns, new subjectivities and unedited expressions of agency often emerge as a result of personal choices and conducts, as well as wider social and cultural transformations which challenge traditional definitions used by scholars and policy-makers. Hence the need to prob- lematise the fundamentally governmental language used to categorise migrants which seems to have little utility other than to comply with the State’s need to control migration according to institutional narratives.