Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

At Europe’s Edge: Migration and Crisis in the Mediterranean



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Guest post by Cetta Mainwaring. Cetta is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow. She holds a DPhil in International Relations from the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on migration, borders, and the Mediterranean.

Another week, another shipwreck. Dozens of people, including children and pregnant women, are again feared dead in the Mediterranean, near the shores of Lampedusa. October was also a deadly month in 2013, when over 350 people drowned within a kilometre of the island of Lampedusa. In the wake of that shipwreck, politicians and others expressed their regret for what they labelled a ‘tragedy’. Six years later, little seems to have changed as migrant lives continue to be expendable to the European Union and its member states.

Although the number of people crossing the central Mediterranean has decreased in recent years, the risks—of death and being returned to Libya—are considerably higher for those who attempt the crossing. One person died for every 14 people arriving in Italy from Libya in 2018, up from one in 38 in 2017. Across the whole Mediterranean, an average of six people died every day trying to enter Europe in 2018. The increase in risks and death are a direct result of the criminalization of NGOs carrying out search and rescue activities and the EU’s partnership with Libya, especially their financial and technical support for the Libyan coastguard. The EU also withdrew its own naval assets from the sea in March 2019 and extended its aerial surveillance of the area in order to further strengthen the Libyan coastguard’s capacity to intercept boats.  

EU and national policymakers paint Libya, and in particular the Libyan coastguard, as a fit partner in external border management, despite wide-spread violence and human rights abuses. Migrants are particularly vulnerable: their first-hand accounts testify to the appalling conditions in Libyan detention centres where rape, torture, and extortion are commonplace. Moreover, new evidence confirms migrant accounts of the coastguards’ involvement in smuggling and trafficking. Nevertheless, all eight of the EU’s projects in Libya, financed by the EU Trust Fund for Africa to the tune of €304.9 million, focus on ‘improved migration management’, €87.2 million of that aimed specifically at reinforcing border and migration management capacities.

There has been significant resistance to this narrative of Libya as a ‘trusted partner’, not least from NGOs operating at sea. These groups rescued over 110,000 people in the central Mediterranean between 2015 and 2017. Yet, since 2017, they have become the target of a concerted campaign of criminalization and legal intimidation by EU member states, with Italy and Malta at the lead, as Paolo Cutttita described on this blog last year. Since 2018, Italy and Malta have closed their ports to NGO boats and refused to disembark rescued people. Standoffs have been a frequent occurrence, with those rescued abandoned on NGOs boats at sea, sometimes for weeks, while EU member states argue over responsibility.

Last week, Malta, Italy, Germany and France announced a new scheme to relocate asylum seekers rescued in the Mediterranean and avoid long standoffs. The scheme is, however, tentative – described as temporary and voluntary—and the draft text reveals deterrence and containment as priorities in the form of swift deportations and ‘enhancing the capacities of coast guards of southern Mediterranean third countries’, such as Libya. On Tuesday, EU Home Affairs Ministers met in Luxembourg, where the temporary mechanism failed to gain support of even one other EU member state.

My first book, At Europe’s Edge: Migration and Crisis in the Mediterranean, recently published by Oxford University Press, investigates these issues. It moves our focus to Europe’s edges in two ways. First, it takes Malta, the EU’s smallest member state, as a case study, examining its role within the EU as a migration gatekeeper, a champion of so-called ‘burden-sharing’, and ultimately an exponent of the ‘migration crisis’. Second, it moves the experiences of migrants to the centre of its analysis, examining how, despite enormous barriers to entry and refuge in Europe, they find narrow margins in which to contest borders and negotiate their mobility.

By tracing people’s journeys into the European Union in the 21st century, the book critically analyses the erasures and constructions necessary to maintain the ‘migration crisis’. It not only reveals the long history of constructed crises at the edge of Europe, but also how the purported ‘solution’—increased border controls—fuels the crisis rather than deterring migration. In state and media narratives, migrants are reduced to symbols, cast alternately as victims, villains, threats, and burdens. Reduced to shipwrecked lives at sea, their corporeal survival becomes the only marker of success. The violence they experience in Europe after rescue—from detention to socio-economic marginalization to deportation—becomes irrelevant. In Malta, for instance, ‘crisis’ gives cover to the continued use of long-term detention in violent conditions, despite a change in policy in 2015.

The emphasis on controlling migration in the Mediterranean, along with the associated enforcement and humanitarian spectacles, are theoretically and empirically important in the creation of a unified, civilized ‘Europe’. The crisis is neatly located at Europe’s edge, emanating from the distanced shores of the Global South. Tensions and contradictions within the European Union are erased from the narrative, despite simultaneously being exacerbated by locating the crisis in the Mediterranean. Indeed, the projected chaos at Europe’s edge works to construct ‘Europe’ as a coherent and singular actor. In order to complete this sleight of hand, the Mediterranean must be constructed as mare nullius, an empty space that separates Europe from Africa and Europeans from Africans, erasing the historical identity of the Sea as a space of connection and movement.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Mainwaring, C. (2019) At Europe’s Edge: Migration and Crisis in the Mediterranean. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/10/europes-edge (Accessed [date])

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