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An update on the situation at the southern European border: Perspectives from Sicily.

by Beatrice Mariottini - originally posted on the EMMIR Cohort 7 blog


Despite the efforts of the current Italian administration – who’s been following the footsteps of the previous one – to declare the central mediterranean route closed, the route is in fact still open and deadlier than ever.


Beatrice, Cohort 7 student, visited the Sea-Watch 3 rescue ship.


The number of people arrived to Italy by sea has curbed, due to the deals with the Libyan government of Tripoli signed by the former Minister of the Interior Marco Minniti in 2017. The deal included the enhancement and training of the Libyan coastguard, that systematically takes migrants back to the Libyan shores, where they face severe human rights violations like torture and rape.


Moreover, many NGOs have testified the inefficiency of the Libyan Coastguard in search and rescue operations. In many occasions, boats in distress have been signaled to the Libyan coastguard by the Italian coastguard – which still helps the Libyan one to coordinate its operations – by commercial vessels or NGOs that try to monitor the Libyan SAR zone like Pilotes Volontaires, but the search and rescue operations either did not happen, leading to the death of dozens of people, or ended up with deportation to the same concentration camps the migrants were trying to escape from. On the other hand, the likelihood of drowning in the Mediterranean sea has increased: according to UNHCR, the central mediterranean route is now the deadliest on Earth, and an average of 6 people die everyday trying to reach the European shores.

...the likelihood of drowning in the Mediterranean sea has increased: according to UNHCR, the central mediterranean route is now the deadliest on Earth, and an average of 6 people die everyday trying to reach the European shores.

Not only crossing the Mediterranean Sea has become more dangerous than ever, but since the new government came into power last June, there has also been a “blockade of the ports”. The ships that rescue boats in distress are prohibited from disembarking at any Italian port, no matter the nature of the ship: commercial vessels, such as the case of the Tunisian fishing vessel that saved 14 persons near Lampedusa last August, whose crew was accused of favoring illegal immigration to Italy; NGO ships, the most recent case being the one of SeaWatch 3, carrying 47 rescued persons on board and left off the Sicilian coasts for many days; and even Italian coastguard ships, such as the famous case of the Diciotti and its 177 “hostages” saved near Lampedusa last August.


It is important to note that the blockade of ports has not been institutionalized by any decree or law, but – this will sound like one of those tv series about dystopian futures or a George Orwell book – has only been announced through tweets and facebook posts. Needless to say, this new practice contravenes international law, such as the right to seek asylum and the principle of non refoulement, and disregards human rights.


Last week I had the opportunity to meet the crew of SeaWatch 3 and visit their ship, as they have been stuck in the port of Catania since the beginning of February. The presence of their ship in Catania is not a coincidence, since the Chief Prosecutor of the Sicilian city is well-known for his crusade against NGOs that rescue migrants in the sea; he is in fact one of the main protagonists of the process of criminalization of search and rescue operations in Italy. Even if the accusations against NGOs have all been proven wrong so far, the damage has been done: their name and mission have been dragged through the mud, and the public opinion has shifted heavily during the last few years while the anti-immigrant sentiment spreads like a disease. The SeaWatch 3 is currently stuck at the port of Catania, and the intent was firstly to confiscate the ship, but when this has proved impossible, an administrative inspection brought to light minor irregularities that are said to put the maritime safety at risk. The whole crew is currently trying to fix these irregularities. 

The view of Catania from the SeaWatch 3

While visiting the ship, I couldn’t help but try to imagine how it might feel to be rescued at sea, after having a close to death experience of drowning, after having spent months, sometimes years, in Libyan camps where torture and abuse are everyday praxis, and then end up trapped on the very ship that saved me, far from a safe port of disembarkation, because a few wealthy nation states cannot reach an agreement on who should receive a few dozens human beings. I tried to grasp the feeling of being unwanted, a number to kick back to Libya to prove that “illegal” immigration has been defeated, my humanity denied by the very states that proudly claim human rights as the foundation of their democratic values. I also thought about the strength that these people have in carrying out their life project, whether they are escaping from a civil war, their safety is endangered by a dictatorship or they’re just looking for better opportunities to fulfill their dreams. I commend their resilience in overcoming the many obstacles that have been put in their way, whether because of their nationality, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation or skin color. The first sign you see entering the ship reads “you are the brave ones! You are the new heroes of history!”, and I couldn’t agree more.

The signboard inside the SeaWatch 3

The situation on land is critical as well. At the end of last year, a new law that heavily modifies the present immigration act passed. The name of the new law, “Security and Immigration”, clearly points at the ever-present overlap between home security and the perceived threat brought by immigration, especially when the latter is presented as an invasion.


The so-called “Salvini decree”, which now has unfortunately become law, changes the reception system, abolishes the humanitarian protection and generally reduces the rights of asylum seekers, for example eliminating their right to register at the Register Office and considerably extending the detainment period in both hotspots and repatriation centers. These alterations will not only force many to a situation of irregularity, but they will also favor the proliferation of a highly problematic and contested reception model, which is the first reception system. This system is based on a constant emergency response and treats immigration as a problem to solve and reduce, rather than a structural phenomenon that has always been part of human history. It reduces individuals to numbers and prevents any form of integration, as the asylum seekers hosted in first reception centers can enjoy little to no services, except for a couple of weekly classes of Italian.


In the past few months, many migrants have left reception centers spontaneously or have been presented a withdrawal of reception, as the law is being over applied even to cases that are still entitled to stay in reception centers. Hundreds of people have been left without a place to sleep, forced into a situation of irregularity and therefore vulnerable to fall prey to criminal organizations. The first effect of the closure of big first reception centers like the CARA of Castelnuovo di Porto last month, and the forthcoming closure of the CARA in Mineo, has been an increase in the number of homeless people. Paradoxically, the same centers that have been on the radar of human rights association that advocated for their closure for years, are now actually being closed, but not to provide migrants with decent reception standards, rather to confirm to the electorate the new tough-on-migration approach of the government (while creating more illegality in the meanwhile).

Last week’s partial eviction of the Mineo center

The recent developments at the border are the umpteenth demonstration that European policies on immigration (or better the lack thereof) are failing. Fortress Europe is sealing its borders more than ever and is staining its hands with the blood of those who try to cross the border.


A sign that read “open ports” at the manifestation held in Catania last weekend

I personally think that the future developments of the management of migration will be crucial for the European Union and its viability. We have to ask ourselves what type of society we want to live in: one that withdraws itself in old patterns of nationalism and intolerance, or one that sees migration as an opportunity and a challenge to move towards a more equal, sustainable and just global community. The work that we carry out as researchers, professionals and activists can influence the outcome, so part of the responsibility also rests with us: we must seek effective ways of communication and probably ameliorate the narratives that we help to create around migrants, starting from their victimization.


Let’s start to highlight the dynamism, the resilience and the willpower of people on the move.

Let’s start to highlight the dynamism, the resilience and the willpower of people on the move. Let’s move past a narrow humanitarian approach that portrays migrants as broken and helpless people in need of assistance. They do need assistance, especially in the first months after their arrival, but what they need most is a state that is able to provide good quality services and assure that the inherent rights that every human being has are preserved, starting with the possibility to regularize their legal status and assert their rights as workers.




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EMMIR is a 2-year Erasmus Mundus master's degree in Migration and Intercultural Relations run by a consortium of 7 partner institutions in Europe and Africa. 

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Last website update: September 2020