Information gathered from migrants about the journeys they have made across the desert and the sea in their effort to reach Europe’s borders provides a unique insight into the phenomenon of irregular migration which contrasts with official representations and state-oriented accounts which are often ideologically biased and more inclined to assess the successes or failures of legislative strategies and administrative and enforcement tactics (De Genova 2002: 421). Besides contributing to the elaboration of a critical perspective on the phenomenon, this approach allows social scientists to combine analyses of legal codes, government policies and bureaucratic procedures with the understanding of migrants’ perspectives and experiences. Hence, the narratives that the migrants interviewed for this study relate, reconstructing their journeys across the desert and the sea, naming places and events they went through during one of the most traumatic experiences of their life, cannot be disconnected from the shock that these memories still provokes and the feeling of disorientation that it induces in those who hear their tragic stories (Massari 2013). The violence, humiliation and suffering that women and men experience on their journeys to Europe, require a critical synthesis of the historical and social matrices and asymmetrical power structures which contribute to produce the idea of clandestinity and which have made the Mediterranean Sea a maritime cemetery.
On 3rd October 2013, near Lampedusa, one of the worst maritime disasters of recent years took place when at least 366 people, mainly Eritreans and Somalis, drowned in their attempt to reach Italy (Del Grande 2013). One year later, in February 2015, at least 344 migrants died on the same route. Given the current circumstances, these tragic incidents will not represent the last time that Europe stands witness to this horror. Many migrants’ corpses remain undiscovered, whilst others, rescued from the sea, lie unidentified in Sicilian cemeteries. The flow of people from Africa looking to come to Europe for a better future, or to escape war and human rights abuse, continues at increasing levels. In the long history of human migration, attempts to securitise sea and land borders, and to staunch irregular migration through repressive legislation have frequently proved to be ineffective. Besides criminalising migrants and encouraging an ‘economy of clandestinity’ (Agier 2013), limiting the free movement of people produces tragic human costs which are not reflected in official statistics (Lunaria 2013: 7; Fargues and Bonfanti 2014). In 2011, as a ‘humanitarian’ intervention led by Western powers unfolded in the Libyan skies, increasing numbers of migrants left for Italy. This resulted not only in the increase of migrants arriving on the Italian coasts, but also in the steady and worrying increase in the numbers of those who die at sea (De Bruycker et al. 2013: 4). The overcrowding of the boats used for this journey, and the poor condition of the vessels used by migrants departing from Libya and other northern African countries, such as Egypt and Tunisia, are at the origin of the ongoing catastrophe which has been occurring in the Mediterranean during the past decade. The risk of dying at sea has increased, according to recent estimates, from an average of 0.4 percent between 1998 and 2002 to an average of 2.1 percent since 2003 (Fargues and Bonfanti 2014: 6). If we consider the latest data available, in 2014 more than 3,000 migrants died in the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Italy. Thus, the Mediterranean Sea has become ‘the most dangerous border in the world between countries that are not at war with each other’ (Fargues and Bonfanti 2014: 2).
In this regard it should be mentioned that the implementation of the operation Mare Nostrum by the Italian government - which lasted from October 2013 to October 2014 - with the aim of reducing the risk of mortality at sea, due to the exceptional inflows of migrants, contributed to rescue an impressive number of people: 100,250 migrants in one year (Ministry of Interior 2014b). However, it did not reduce the risk taken by migrants both because of the massive number of people being smuggled in 2014, and because of the systematic surveillance dimension to Mare Nostrum which discovered wrecked boats and drowned persons that otherwise would not have been collected’ (Fargues and Bonfanti 2014: 13).
Moreover, the implementation of new measures of surveillance along migration routes, with consequent route diversion, has resulted in the adoption of longer and riskier routes. Although Libya continues to play a crucial role as main port of departure for the majority of migrants aiming to reach Italy, the small islands of Lampedusa and Linosa have lately seen many fewer migrants landing on their coasts (around 4,000 people); in most cases migrants arrive in other areas of southern Sicily (around 87,000 people), Apulia (around 15,220 people) and Calabria (around
8,500 people) (ISMU 2014). The launch of the so-called Joint Operation Triton by Frontex on November 2014, mostly focused on border control and surveillance, raises increasing concern among humanitarian associations in particular as far as rescue operations are concerned, since Triton has a mandate to intervene only within 30 miles from the Italian coast, and not beyond, as Mare Nostrum had. The tragic effect of this inadequate replacement for Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation are already visible at the time of writing, a few months after Tritons launch. The number of people fleeing conflicts and persecutions in Syria, the Horn of Africa and other sub-Saharan African countries, given the current overall situation, is destined to increase, as confirmed by the high number of migrants arriving at the beginning of 2015 when, within just the month of January, more than 3,500 people arrived on the Italian coasts, 60 percent more than the year before (Redattore Sociale 2015) and many others have died trying to reach Europe from Libya (UNHCR 2015).
Given the problematic political situation in most of migrants’ countries of departure, anarchy and war in Libya, the ongoing flow of migrants smuggled at sea is expected to continue. In Eritrea, compulsory military service for men and women, together with a further deterioration in the rights of its citizens, drives continued irregular migration, whilst the war in Syria has caused over 3 million refugees, now living in camps in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt (UNCHR 2014).
Despite the increased numbers, many migrants remain in Libya, accommodated near the main points of embarkation, waiting for the right weather conditions. Other migrants are stopped at Libya’s southern borders and forced to return to their country of origin regardless of the human rights record of that country posing juridical, ethical and humanitarian questions.
In 2013, in Italy there were 26,620 asylum applications, a number which increased to 56,485 as of November 2014 (Ministry of Interior 2014b). These numbers, however, do not provide an accurate picture of the actual amount of asylum seekers landing in Italy since, especially in 2014, Italian civil servants have facilitated, or at least not discouraged, migrants’ attempts to move from their places of arrival in southern Italy to countries in the north, ‘without leaving administrative traces, so they can lodge their applications in other European countries, where migrants think they will receive better treatment’ (Fargues and Bonfanti 2014: 13). In this way, Italy has sought an empirical solution to the problem of how to deal with the burden of both rescuing migrants at sea and providing them asylum, since northern and other western European countries have traditionally been the preferred destination of migrants landing on Italy’s shores.
Over the past several years, European governments have implemented a ‘politics of refusal, closing and militarising frontiers, forcibly deporting migrants to their countries of origin, building detention centres to facilitate expulsion, and negotiating and then implementing cooperation and readmission agreements with countries of origin and transit, as well as reinforcing the legal barriers to regular migration (Lunaria 2013: 7; Agier 2013). The hostility of European governments toward migrants, however, is just one dimension of the current migration environment. As mentioned before, most countries bordering Syria, Libya and Somalia have shown solidarity with their neighbours, hosting millions of refugees and displaced people. As anthropologist Michel Agier stresses, ‘what happens in the southern part of the Mediterranean, in Libya, in the Middle East, in Egypt may offer the opportunity to show international solidarity’ (2013: 21). Taking a cue from the response of the developing countries of the South, the developed world should investigate more flexible responses to irregular migration: widening regular entry channels; providing safe and legal alternatives to dangerous boat journeys; adopting measures to allow the regularisation of migrants already arrived in the countries of destination; facilitating refugee re-settlements programmes; and, most crucially, ensuring migrants’ access to the protection of the existing international asylum process. Whilst these measures would not eradicate the inequalities within the current migration regime, they would be concrete steps toward a new, and more just, approach to international migration.