Special Report

Irregular Crossings

Illegal immigrants, asylum-seekers, the European Union -- and  "the new law of looking away." 

By 8.12.10

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The Italian island of Lampedusa, situated between Malta and the Maghreban shore, resembles a seagirt stone finger pointing west towards the Gulf of Hammamet. Lampedusa's harbor was long a welcome sight for Punic, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Habsburg, and Italian sailors, but in recent years it has attracted another kind of wayfarer: the so-called clandestini, those illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers from Africa who, upon their inevitable detention in the island's Center for Identification and Expulsion, become popularly known as poveri disgraziati, "poor wretches."

With only 75 nautical miles separating the island from the Tunisian port of Mahdia, and with only 300 nautical miles separating it from Tripoli, Lampedusa was destined to become a magnet for boat people. Estimates of the yearly influx of clandestini vary, but in 2003 some 3,000 were said to have made it to Lampedusa's shore, and the following year the number may have been three times as many. The island's immigrant reception center, a yellow warehouse designed to accommodate a hundred or so souls, quickly proved woefully inadequate.

Pressing logistical issues necessarily gave way to even weightier political ones. In 2003, Lampedusa's mayor, Bruno Siragusa, lashed out at Libya's Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, for having "deliberately opened his borders with African neighbors so that immigrants from other African countries where we do have some control, are rushing instead to Libya to travel to us." Politicians at the national level, including on-again, off-again Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, followed suit. Meanwhile, an immigrant making the irregular crossing from Libya to Lampedusa, and thereupon to the Italian mainland, would soon discover that his or her new host nation lacks a true law of asylum, prompting many to take advantage of the European Union's Schengen Agreement guarantee of freedom of movement to disappear elsewhere in the continent, the better to avoid future repatriation. Thus did the barren, calcareous island of Lampedusa, with its fledgling population of 6,000, earn its nickname: La Porta d'Europa, "the gateway of Europe."

The Italian government's solution to the escalating humanitarian crisis -- a series of expulsions to Libya taking place between October of 2004 and March of 2005 -- was destined to come in for considerable criticism. Human rights groups cited the potential for violations of the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which prohibits the expulsion or return (refoulement) of bona fide refugees, while the European Parliament issued an April 14, 2005 resolution expressing concern over the perceived illegality of "collective expulsion of aliens" under the European Convention on Human Rights' Fourth Protocol, while noting the "deplorable living conditions of people held in camps in Libya, as well as by the recent massive repatriations of foreigners from Libya to their countries of origin in conditions guaranteeing neither their dignity nor their survival." It was likewise observed that Tunisian law provides for up to six months imprisonment for "leaving the territory under irregular conditions." The stakes for those who had survived the perilous voyage to Lampedusa were therefore exceedingly high, a matter not lost on outside observers.

Ignoring the aspersions cast at home and abroad, the Berlusconi government nonetheless continued its efforts to combat irregular Mediterranean crossings. Opting for a diplomatic approach, the Italian government negotiated a 2008 Rome-Tripoli pact ensuring that, in return for a five billion euro Italian investment in Libya over 20 years (ostensibly constituting reparations for the period of Italian colonial rule), Gaddafi would agree to cooperate vis-à-vis stepped-up naval patrols and immigrant "pushback." Lampedusa would no longer feature a "reception center," but rather a Center for Identification and Expulsion. The clandestine gateway to Europe was being closed.

The outcry in the human rights community was predictably clamant, with Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch calling the pact "a dirty deal to enable Italy to dump migrants and asylum seekers on Libya and evade its obligations." Criticism mounted in the aftermath of a February 18, 2009 uprising in the Lampedusa detention facility, an event that prompted the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network to send a high-profile delegation to the island. Months later, accounts trickled in of Eritrean refugees spending days and weeks in rudderless boats, slowly starving and throwing corpses overboard, while Italian ships passed by without deigning to offer assistance, leading the Italian Bishops' Conference to lament the "new law of looking away." The narrative of perceived Italian callousness towards outsiders and minorities had already been established by the worldwide attention paid to the infamous Torregaveta incident in the summer of 2008, when beachgoers carried on with their activities notwithstanding the presence of the mortal remains of two drowned, towel-draped Roma teenagers. Recent events surrounding the treatment of Europe-bound refugees seemed to confirm that Italians, and the Italian state, had indeed learned to look away.

Activists and analysts within and outside of Italy pressed home that very point, with some citing the Roman poet Virgil:

What men, what monsters, what inhuman race,
What laws, what barbarous customs of the place,

Shut up a desert shore to drowning men,
And drive us to the cruel seas again.

Had not the Carthaginian Queen Dido allowed Trojan refugees -- the future founders of Rome -- asylum along Africa's shore? And should not the ancient law of hospitality (which, to Hugo Grotius, the father of international law, was "of the highest sanctity") take precedence over the "new law of looking away"? This line of reasoning might pull heartstrings or turn stomachs, but there are other considerations in a world of sovereign states. As Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen and Tanja Aalberts recently put it, the irregular migrant became "the embodiment of the inability to protect and control access to that most sacred property of statehood, the sovereign territory," and it was only a matter of time before the nations of Europe would be forced to choose between sovereignty and humanitarian hospitality.

The decision seems to have been made. Individual states, led by Italy and Spain, have stepped up border enforcement and pushback measures. Readmission and expulsion agreements between European and African countries have been finalized. The EU border agency FRONTEX (an appellation taken from the phrase frontières extérieures, though the organization's ungainly official name is the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union) is now coordinating monitoring efforts along the western and northern African coasts. The capital of Gran Canaria, Las Palmas, now features a high-tech coordination center where officials analyze immigration trends, track the movements of peoples, and cooperate with surveillance stations in Cape Verde, Senegal, and elsewhere, a complex venture aided greatly by the EU-funded Sea Horse advanced satellite system.

In late 2008, at the height of the wave of irregular crossing to Lampedusa, Marco Minniti, a member of the center-left Partito Democratico and shadow minister for the interior, portentously declared that the declining situation on the island was "the most powerful evidence that the government's 'fierce face' illegal immigration strategy has failed miserably [la testimonianza più chiara ed evidente di come la strategia della 'faccia feroce' del governo sull'immigrazione clandestina è miseramente fallita]." Yet it is increasingly clear that precisely the opposite is the case. An August 3, 2010 report by EURODAC (short for European Dactyloscopy, the EU's biometric common asylum registration system) indicated a 50 percent drop in irregular crossings last year. Italian authorities reported 7,300 irregular crossings in 2009, a drop from 32,052 the previous year. Spain, which launched its own faccia feroce pushback program, reported a drop from 7,068 irregular crossings to 1,994 over the same period.

Now it is the turn of Roberto Maroni, Italy's interior minister, to boast. "The Italian model of fighting illegal immigration has produced exceptional results and we think it should be copied by other European countries," Maroni announced upon the release of the EURODAC data, adding that the first three months of 2010 showed a further ninety-six percent decrease in arrivals when compared to 2009. No doubt those Tunisian miners desperate to flee mass unemployment and violent police crackdowns in the tumultuous Gafsa region, and who at present comprise the majority of those detained in Lampedusa, will not be sharing the Italian government's enthusiasm, but such is the lot of the clandestini, the poveri disgraziati driven back to the cruel seas.

An important lesson is to be drawn from the recent release of EURODAC data on irregular crossings: sovereignty, even in a purportedly post-modern Europe, still takes precedence over human rights norms. Appeals to international and regional human rights conventions, legal principles like non-refoulement, and generalized notions of humanitarianism have had little or no impact on Italian, or Spanish, exercises of national will in this regard. In these economically tenebrous times, when immigration policy inevitably becomes a salient domestic and international issue, some nations have already reached the breaking point. It does not go far enough to say that there is a "new law of looking away"; Italian and Spanish policies with respect to irregular crossings are more proactive than that. The pushback, with its "fierce face," has begun in earnest, and figures to be one of the defining issues in European affairs over the coming years. Tensions between the "soft power of humanity" and the necessities of raison d'état will be on permanent display in this arena, with decidedly global implications, and with the diminutive island of Lampedusa unexpectedly at the center of this legal, political, and moral maelstrom.

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About the Author

Matthew Omolesky specialized in European affairs at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy's graduate program, and received his juris doctor from The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. Formerly a researcher-in-residence at the Institut za Civilizacijo in Kulturo (Ljubljana), he is presently a researcher for the Laboratoire Europeen d'Anticipation Politique (Paris) and a specialist in international human rights law.