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

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).

Call for Proposals: Special Issue of Migration Studies

Migration Studies coverMigration Studies, published by Oxford University Press, invites proposals for a Special Issue on themes of enduring significance in the study of human migration. In 2015, the journal aims to publish a guest-edited, thematically coherent collection of approximately six articles of 7-9000 words in length, based on original, unpublished research on a topic of importance to the interdisciplinary field of migration studies. Priority will be given to comparative work as well as methodological and theoretical advances, and we explicitly welcome work that is grounded in a specific discipline but engages across disciplinary boundaries. Themes concerning the full range of migration drivers, dimensions and impacts will be considered.

Migration Studies aim to publish a special issue in 2015. This is contingent on review and revision time, and therefore we strongly prefer proposals for collections of articles that have already been drafted and reviewed in light of substantive feedback from a range of colleagues.

Deadlines: The deadline for proposals is 1 May 2014. Full articles should be ready for submission at that time or very shortly afterwards.

Review Process: All articles submitted undergo the standard Migration Studies peer review process and those accepted will be published in the journal.

How to submit: proposals should be submitted online at http://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/migration, under the manuscript category ‘Special Issue Proposal’.

Proposals for a Special Issue should contain:

–          A 500-word explanation of the rationale for the Special Issue

–          A list of authors, titles, abstracts and proposed word counts of the articles in the collection. Important: please indicate what stage of writing each article is in, and note that fully prepared manuscripts are strongly preferred

–          100-word biographies for each contributor, detailing discipline, area of expertise, institution, and position.

About the Journal

Migration Studies is an international refereed journal dedicated to advancing scholarly understanding of the determinants, processes and outcomes of human migration in all its manifestations. It furthers this aim by publishing original scholarship from around the world. Migration shapes human society and inspires ground-breaking research efforts across many different academic disciplines and policy areas. Migration Studies contributes to the consolidation of this field of scholarship, developing the core concepts that link different disciplinary perspectives on migration. To this end, the journal welcomes full-length articles, research notes, and reviews of books, films and other media from those working across the social sciences in all parts of the world. Priority is given to methodological, comparative and theoretical advances.

Leave us alone!

Ian Duncan Smith calculating a new income threshold for EU migrants

Ian Duncan Smith calculating a new income threshold for EU migrants

Here we go again, but this time it is not Theresa May’s creative policy making team to come up with yet another ‘solution’ to the hordes of EU barbarians invading the verdant pastures of England*, it is Ian Duncan Smith and his team that cornered by the ongoing failure of the flagship Universal Credit system, engage in a rather desperate attempt to divert attention from what it is almost universally seen as a poor ministerial performance, even according to Conservative party colleagues.  So the new idea is: IDS decided that from March all EU migrants (including myself) will have to reach an arbitrary income threshold in order to qualify for “worker” status.

Boosting anxiety in the electorate with the election just one year away has become the Conservative Party main preoccupation, and a sign the electoral machine is already in full swing and overriding other policy priorities.

*And no, it doesn’t matter that the invasion didn’t actually happen as the government had forecast and yes, verdant pastures of England only, no one in Westminster seems to care much for the ungrateful Scots daring to consider to leave such a lovely Kingdom.