Whose sea? Mare Nostrum and the politics of migration in the Med

By Nando Sigona, University of Birmingham

Cemetery of migrant boats in Capo Passero, Sicily. Photo by Nando Sigona

Cemetery of migrant boats in Capo Passero, Sicily. Photo by Nando Sigona

Thirty lifeless bodies found in the bow of a fishing boat carrying 600 migrants off the coast of Sicily have reignited the debate on illegal crossings in the Mediterranean and how the EU should respond. The Italian navy is facing an unprecedented flow of migrants across the sea, with the number intercepted in first half of 2014 already outnumbering those of the past year and at levels seen in 2011 during the Arab Spring.

To offset the moral panic that pervades this debate, it would be useful for everyone involved to remember that the high number of interceptions is not per se an indicator of an increasing number of illegal crossings and even less and indication of the number of irregular migrants in the EU. While a correlation can’t be categorically denied, the relationship may be less direct that many assume.

It is evident that the militarisation of the Mediterranean and the increasing patrolling of the sea by European navies, drones and satellites following the political turmoil and regime change in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia have had an impact on the likelihood of a migrant boat being detected. (This is not to deny the impact of weakened control on exit in countries such as Libya since the fall of the Gaddafi regime.)

The rise of FRONTEX

The reinvigorated action of FRONTEX, the European Agency for the Management of External Borders, has also contributed to the phenomenon. By feeding politicians and media with detailed statistics, first-hand accounts, close-up images, and scrupulously documented annual reports, FRONTEX has given an EU-wide profile to what used to be seen as a local, sporadic phenomenon.

Making illegal crossings a European, rather than a national, “problem” can serve multiple agendas. It can promote a sense of EU solidarity currently under threat by the re-emergence of nationalist discourses from Eurosceptic parties.

At a more basic level, it helps FRONTEX demonstrate value for money to the governments that have been generously funding the agency in the past few years. The organisation’s budget has rocketed from €6.3m in 2005, to nearly €42m in 2007, topping €94m by 2013. The newly appointed president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker has named a further budget increase as one of his top priorities.

Mare Nostrum

The current upsurge of interceptions also has a more specific cause: operation Mare Nostrum (Our Sea, in Latin). This is a rescue and military operation led by the Italian navy, launched in October 2013 in response to the tragic deaths of more than 360 people after a migrant boat sank off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. International outcry and the direct intervention of Pope Francis I, who declared the event a “disgrace”, provided the impetus for the Italian government to intervene.

Thousands of migrants brought to safe shores in the past months certainly make Mare Nostrum a “great humanitarian success”, as recently pointed out by the UN High Commission for Refugees. But there are signs that the political consensus around the operation is vacillating, with many saying the operation provides an incentive for migrants to take the sea route to Europe.

After hundreds of interceptions at sea, a change of government and the start of summer, which always brings more arrivals, political support for the operation is deteriorating. The Northern League, lately joined by Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, routinely attacks Mare Nostrum, most notably accusing the government of letting in migrants who spread diseases and, lately, attacking the prime minister for having migrants’ blood on his hands.

The government continues to defend Mare Nostrum publicly, but ministers are increasingly questioning the long-term sustainability of this kind of humanitarian operation, and repeatedly call for the EU to take responsibility. They argue the Mediterranean is “a European border”, not simply an Italian one.

The Mediterranean is an EU border

A running cost of more than €9m a month is not the only concern for the Italian government. Overcrowded reception facilities pose security and health hazards, but the real question is: what next? What to do with the thousands migrants brought to the shore?

An initial screening of the arrivals shows that more than 80% had the prerequisites for applying for asylum. But even if they are recognised as refugees, the Italian state has not much to offer to them. Many will survive in destitution in Italian cities or move to other EU countries to join family members or go off in search of better economic opportunities and more generous welfare systems.

So it’s hardly surprising that Italy has indicated an EU-wide immmigration policy as a priority for its presidency of the Council of the European Union.

The Mediterranean is indeed an EU border, not least because it is the EU (Italy included) that those crossing the sea on rickety boats dream of reaching. It is in the EU and what they think it stands for that they are seeking refuge and the chance to create a better, safer life for themselves and their families. Sadly, at a time of nationalist resurgence, the call for a fully European response may fall once again on deaf ears.

The Conversation

Nando Sigona does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

La versione in italiano di questo articolo e’ disponibile su pagina99

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Mapping refugee studies for the 21st century

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June 2, 2014 · 10:14 pm

An earthquake but not a catastrophic one

ImageI want to start the day on a positive note. First reason: at the end of the day the 37% turnout to the EU election in the UK is just over one third of the electorate, one third of one third is  roughly an 11% of electorate voting for an anti-EU and anti-immigrants agenda. Of course, I’m not claiming that the remaining 89% are all pro-EU and pro-immigrants but at least they are not so bothered by them (EU and immigrants) to go to a pooling station and, at least with some of them, it may be possible to start a conversation about the EU.  And yes, it is still too much and in this country you get always low turnout, but I think it is fair to say that as an ‘earthquake’ it was not as catastrophic as many commentators have portrayed it. I guess everything needs superlative these days to be in the media.

The second reason for being moderately optimistic about it is that, if one considers the electoral strategies of the Conservative and Labour parties – they would have happily gone to a sunny beach instead of bothering with the vote, the election was basically turned into a sort of anti-EU referendum in which no one really articulated a positive message about the EU, Nick Clegg tried to do it but his position in the government clearly weakened his appeal.

Third, to be honest, the EU handling of the economic and financial crisis and imposition of German-centric austerity measures and un-elected and quasi-elected prime ministers to a number of EU member states made very difficult even for someone from the ERASMUS generation like me to find positive messages for advocating for the European Union. The point is that we need the voice of the major parties in each EU member states to challenge these shortcomings, what we saw instead, was these parties withdrawing from the debate. For once, I was positively impressed by the position of the Italian Democratic Party that campaigned successfully (40.8%) with a message that was roughly this: we are pro-EU and still believe in the project as a political and social project (not just an economic one as it is portrayed in the UK) and because we believe in it we want to have a strong political representation in the EU parliament to change what went wrong in the last few years.

In terms of ways forward, what I would like to see is:  a much more engaged and articulated discussion on the EU and its role in the UK; the main parties putting more efforts into getting people to vote (I have received far more leaflet from my ward-level election) and express their views on a political agenda that goes beyond a yes and no referendum; and finally I would like to know far more of what my elected MEP does and stands for – instead I can hardly remember his/her name.

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Is UKIP the only game in town?

Not sure if it is just me but I have the impression that UKIP is the only one really campaigning for the forthcoming EU election. I can explain this to myself using three lines of reasoning: a) the economic one, i.e. they are the only party that can afford large billboards like this one;

UKIP billboard, Oxford 2014

UKIP billboard, Oxford 2014

b) the political/tactical one, i.e. they are the only one that can win the election in the UK so better saving money for the ‘real’ election in 2015, plus if it looks like one is not even campaigning, then he/she can’t be blamed for losing the election (especially if one happens to be a particularly weak political leader); c) the Political/strategic one, i.e. a part from UKIP, the other parties have nothing to say about the EU (except that it’s good for the economy) and that ultimately even if they had their mouth fully free – i.e. even without gags on their mouths – they would be silent anyway. As a EU citizen, this is rather frustrating as it leaves over 2.3m UK residents with a EU passport without real political representation (unless one fancies voting for Clegg & co., or for a small niche party like the Greens) and it is fair to expect that it will only get worst with the 2015 election where EU residents will have no (electoral) say at all on what gets said on them (as I discussed in this OpenDemocracy piece).


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