Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Criminalising Solidarity: Silencing Critical Voices and Erasing the Critical Gaze on Border Violence



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7 Minutes

Guest post by Dr. Deanna Dadusc and Dr. Chiara Denaro. Deanna is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton. Member of Feminists Against Borders and of the Watch-The-Med Alarm Phone network. Chiara is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Sociology - Trento University. Member of ASGI (Associazione Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione) and of the Watch-The-Med Alarm Phone network.

Mediterranea Saving Humans

During the past month in Italy, a new wave of criminalisation attacked critical voices and practices that contest the EU border regime on land and sea, with the raids of the association Linea D’Ombra at Slovenian border, the eviction of the mountain migrant solidarity squat of Oulx, as well as further criminalisation of Search and Rescue in the Mediterranean. On 1st March 2021, activists of Mediterranea Saving Humans, the Search and Rescue (SAR) NGO operating in the Mediterranean Sea, had their houses raided and their computers and phones confiscated. They were accused of ‘facilitating the illegal immigration’ of 27 people who, after being rescued by the merchant vessel Marsk Etienne in August 2020, were kept on a 37 days standoff outside Maltese territorial waters due to the denial of a place of disembarkation. On 11 September 2020, Mediterranea activists decided to put an end to the violent standoff, transhipped the survivors to their Mare Jonio vessel and were authorized to disembark them in Pozzallo, Italy.

Whilst these illegitimate delays - and the inherent denial to offer a place of safety to rescued people -  can be interpreted as both a punitive measure and a deterrence strategy to prevent rescues at sea, in this case repression techniques went a step further. According to Ragusa’s Public Prosecutor’s Office, who opened a case for aiding and abetting ‘illegal immigration’, this operation had been coordinated following a financial agreement between the two ships, the Maersk Etienne and Mare Jonio, thereby adding the aggravating factor of aiding immigration for financial gains (Article 12, Consolidated Act on Immigration). Although the accusations have been refuted by the actors involved and are in  contrast  with the legal orientation outlined in previous court decisions, they opened the door to further in-depth investigations into the activities and networks of civil society organisations operating in the Central Mediterranean sea. These attacks, not only seek to undermine the credibility of SAR NGOs, but also create new tools to extend and accelerate current forms of criminalisation of migration, and harass and punish any form of critical intervention at sea.

A month after the raids againt Mediterranea activists, on 2 April 2021, lawyers and journalists reporting on the situation in Libya and on migration in the Central Mediterranean sea were informed that, since 2017, they had been extensively wiretapped as part of the broader surveillance investigation against the Iuventa SAR NGO, the latter being accused of ‘facilitating illegal immigration’ for having rescued 14,000 people at sea. In what has been defined as one of the most serious attacks to the freedom of information in Italian history, at least 14 journalists and lawyers’ phone conversations, list of contacts and their sources were monitored and recorded. Some of the journalists, including Nancy Porsia and Nello Scavo, had a key role in uncovering the intimate relationships between Italian officials and Libyan militias -  including the role of the commander Abd al-Rahman Milad, aka Bija, financed by the Italian Government to establish the so-called Libyan coastguard. While in the case of journalists, the wiretapping violated the principle of secrecy of new sources, in the case of lawyers the interceptions interfered with their professional confidentiality, allowing the illegitimate  monitoring of their defensive strategies for key trials, such as the so-called Mered case. The scandal was uncovered at the same time as Italian Prime Minister Draghi visited Libya to agree on (neocolonial) post-war ‘re-development plans’, which portray the violent pushbacks to detention and torture operated by the so-called Libyan coastguard as ‘rescue operations’. Clearly, the political priority is not to undo human rights violations but to keep outsourcing them, and to criminalise and silence anyone who unmasks these violations, be they migrants, activists, journalists or lawyers.

Continuum of criminalisation and border externalisation

These attacks are not new and are part of a continuum of border externalisation and criminalisation of migration that dates back to 2014. After the withdrawal of the Mare Nostrum operation and its replacement with Triton first,  and EunavforMed later, a lethal rescue gap was produced. Rather than rescuing people in distress, the political and operational priority favoured surveillance activities, in parallel with the stipulation of EU bilateral agreements with non-European states, in an effort to externalise border controls and outsource the criminal liability for human right violations.

The criminalisation and repression of civil society initiatives that intervened to fill the lethal rescue gap left by the EU, was intended to reduce their operational autonomy, and hinder their presence in the Central Mediterranean. It is to erase their critical gaze and to silence their voices on EU violent externalization policies. Whilst in 2018 the racist and nationalist slogans of the Lega Prime Minister Matteo Salvini captured the public attention, attacks on NGOs were initiated well before Salvini’s populist government. It was the Democratic Party’s leader Minniti who designed the first obstructions to SAR NGOs interventions at sea in 2017. ‘Codes of conducts’ to discipline and hinder NGOs operations were imposed in parallel with the stipulation of bilateral agreements with Libya, establishing the contested Libyan Search and Rescue zone, as well as training, equipping and financing the so-called Libyan Coast-guard to externalise Italian maritime borders to Libya.

Since 2017, most NGO rescue ships have regularly been either under seizure or prevented from carrying out rescue operations through a multiplicity of measures, with more than 50 criminal and administrative proceedings - including investigations against captains and heads of missions accused of  “criminal association”, “facilitation of irregular migration” and of disobedience to Interior Ministry orders. Regardless of the legal outcomes, these measures ensured the temporary confiscation of rescue vessels. Their operations were also hindered through systematic Port State Control inspections, or made unbearable by prolonged denials of place of safety for disembarkation of rescued people, which caused long - and dangerous - standoffs outside territorial waters. It was under these circumstances that Captain Rackete was obliged to force the Sea-Watch 3 entrance into Lampedusa port, and Mare Jonio Captain Morrone to engage in a similar “disobedient” act, to ensure a quick disembarkation to the people they rescued. Court rulings concerning both cases - respectively issued by Italian Cassation Court and Agrigento Court - have legitimized these forms of civil disobedience due to their compliance with the law of the sea, human rights law and asylum law.

Besides journalists, lawyers, activists and humanitarian organisations, migrants who engage in counter-practices and counter-narratives that transgress and oppose the violent European border regime are subject to punitive measures and criminalisation. At the core of migrants’ struggles against pushbacks is the denial of the categorisation of Libya as a safe third country or a place of safety for disembarkation. In the 2018 so-called Vos-Thalassa case, two rescued migrants were accused of ‘aiding illegal immigration’ and ‘leading a revolt’ against the tugboat crew, for their struggle to prevent their pushback to Libya. Yet, they were later acquitted, as acting in self-defence and protecting their right to life. Although the decision was later overturned, the legal struggle that followed this revolt challenged the legality and legitimacy of the bilateral agreements  between Italy and Libya.

Silencing critical voices, erasing the critical gaze

Many interpret these forms of criminalisation as an attack to humanitarianism. Whilst the objective of solidarity initiatives is indeed humanitarian in their attempt to prevent mass-deaths at sea and the violation of human rights, their scope goes well beyond saving lives. They practice sous-veillance, they monitor and document EU border violence in the Mediterranean Sea, thereby constituting a critical, disobedient gaze in the otherwise black hole that the Mediterranean has become. They bring evidence that it is not the sea that is killing people, but the EU border regime and its necropolitics. Criminalisation, in this context, does not simply attack humanitarian interventions, but those practices, counter-narratives and social relations that contest the border regime and unmask its violence. It operates as a tool to reinforce selective visibility on border violence, to hold the monopoly of what is visible, by whom and under what conditions. When people on the move, activists, journalists and lawyers make critical voices audible and document state violence, criminalisation seeks to silence them in order to invisibilise border harms and deny state responsibility.

Solidarity, moreover, is not only contestation, but the creation of alternatives to border violence, be they alternative forms of knowledge, social relations or possibilities for inhabiting spaces outside and against racialised forms of segregation, exploitation and expulsion. Criminalising the creation of alternative relations becomes a tool to confine and destabilise contentious forms of organising outside the logic of the border regime. It traps and confine these forces within a dense field of struggle, where resistive actors are obliged to react, rather than to resist, to defend themselves, rather than condemning border violence and building alternatives to it. In this way, criminalisation often resulted in a depoliticisation of these critical interventions, shifting the focus to defending white activists rather than critiquing the criminalisation of people on the move more broadly, as well as forcing political actors to legitimise their actions by stressing their humanitarian, rather than their political, role.

Criminalistion, however, is revealing, rather than concealing the politics of border violence and their ramifications. Moreover, criminalistion does not kill resistance. It does not deter the struggle for freedom of movement. If, initially, it might have destabilised and confined the conditions under which resistance could be expressed, there are new forms of organisation taking place. Rather than keeping the focus on defending solidarity activists, those criminalised keep addressing the broader issues of the criminalisation of migration - supporting people in distress, whilst fighting for the abolition of the racist border regime. In the words of a solidarity activist who is facing charges of facilitating illegal immigration: “They try to intimidate us and to force us to step back. But they will not succeed. As long as safe travel and escape routes are denied, we are continuing”.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Dadusc, D. and Denaro, C. (2021). Criminalising Solidarity: Silencing Critical Voices and Erasing the Critical Gaze on Border Violence. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/04/criminalising [date]

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