In recent years, migrants seeking refuge in Europe have faced capture and containment in the Mediterranean – the result of experimentation by EU institutions and member states.
About two years ago, in June 2019, a group of 75 people found themselves stranded in the central Mediterranean Sea. The migrant group had tried to escape from Libya in order to reach Europe but was adrift at sea after running out of fuel. Monitored by European aerial assets, they saw a vessel on the horizon slowly moving toward them. When they were eventually rescued by the Maridive 601, an offshore supply vessel, they did not know that it would become their floating prison for nearly three weeks. Malta and Italy refused to allocate a port of safety in Europe, and, at first, the Tunisian authorities were equally unwilling to allow them to land.
Over 19 days, the supply vessel turned from a floating refuge into an offshore carceral space in which the situation for the rescued deteriorated over time. Food and water were scarce, untreated injuries worsened, scabies spread, as did the desperation on board. The 75 people, among them 64 Bangladeshi migrants and dozens of minors, staged a protest on board, chanting: “We don’t need food, we don’t want to stay here, we want to go to Europe.”
Reaching Europe, however, seemed increasingly unlikely, with Italy and Malta rejecting any responsibility for their disembarkation. Instead, the Tunisian authorities, the Bangladeshi embassy, and the #International_Organisation_for_Migration (#IOM) arranged not only their landing in Tunisia, but also the removal of most of them to their countries of origin. Shortly after disembarkation in the harbour of Zarzis, dozens of the migrants were taken to the runways of Tunis airport and flown out.
In a recently published article in the journal Political Geography, I have traced the story of this particular migrant group and their zig-zagging trajectories that led many from remote Bangladeshi villages, via Dubai, Istanbul or Alexandria, to Libya, and eventually onto a supply vessel off the Tunisian coast. Although their situation was certainly unique, it also exemplified the ways in which the Mediterranean has turned into a ‘carceral seascape’, a space where people precariously on the move are to be captured and contained in order to prevent them from reaching European shores.
While forms of migrant capture and containment have, of course, a much longer history in the European context, the past ten years have seen particularly dramatic transformations in the central Mediterranean Sea. When the Arab Uprisings ‘re-opened’ this maritime corridor in and after 2011, crossings started to increase significantly – about 156,000 people crossed to Europe on average every year between 2014 and 2017. Since then, crossings have dropped sharply. The annual average between 2018 and 2020 was around 25,000 people – a figure resembling annual arrivals in the period before the Arab Uprisings.
One significant reason for this steep decrease in arrivals is the refoulement industry that EU institutions and member states have created, together with third-country allies. The capture of people seeking to escape to Europe has become a cruel trade, of which a range of actors profit. Although ‘refouling’ people on the move – thus returning them to places where they are at risk of facing torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment – violates international human rights laws and refugee conventions, these practices have become systemic and largely normalised, not least as the COVID pandemic has come to serve as a suitable justification to deter potential ‘Corona-spreaders’ and keep them contained elsewhere.
That migrants face capture and containment in the Mediterranean is the result of years of experimentation on part of EU institutions and member states. Especially since 2018, Europe has largely withdrawn maritime assets from the deadliest areas but reinforced its aerial presence instead, including through the recent deployment of drones. In this way, European assets do not face the ‘risk’ of being forced into rescue operations any longer but can still monitor the sea from above and guide North African, in particular Libyan, speed boats to chase after escaping migrant boats. In consequence, tens of thousands have faced violent returns to places they sought to flee from.
Just in 2021 alone, about 16,000 people have been caught at sea and forcibly returned to Libya in this way, already more than in the whole of 2020. In mid-June, a ‘push-back by proxy’ occurred, when the merchant vessel Vos Triton handed over 170 migrants to a Libyan coastguard vessel that then returned them to Tripoli, where they were imprisoned in a camp known for its horrendous conditions.
The refoulment industry, and Mediterranean carcerality more generally, are underpinned by a constant flow of finances, technologies, equipment, discourses, and know-how, which entangles European and Libyan actors to a degree that it might make more sense to think of them as a collective Euro-Libyan border force.
To legitimise war-torn and politically divided Libya as a ‘competent’ sovereign actor, able to govern the maritime expanse outside its territorial waters, the European Commission funded, and the Italian coastguard implemented, a feasibility study in 2017 to assess “the Libyan capacity in the area of Search and Rescue” (SAR). Shortly after, the Libyan ‘unity government’ declared its extensive Libyan SAR zone, a zone over which it would hold ‘geographical competence’. When the Libyan authorities briefly suspended the establishment of its SAR zone, given its inability to operate a Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), an Italian navy vessel was stationed within Tripoli harbour, carrying out the functions of the Libyan MRCC.
Since 2017, €57.2m from the EU Trust Fund for Africa has funded Libya’s ‘integrated border management’, on top of which hundreds of millions of euros were transferred by EU member states to Libyan authorities through bilateral agreements. Besides such financial support, EU member states have donated speed boats and surveillance technologies to control the Libyan SAR zone while officers from EU military project Operation Sophia and from European Border Agency Frontex have repeatedly provided training to the Libyan coastguards. When out to search for escaping migrants, the Libyan speed boats have relied on Europe’s ‘eyes in the sky’, the aerial assets of Frontex and EU member states. Migrant sightings from the sky would then be relayed to the Libyan assets at sea, also via WhatsApp chats in which Frontex personnel and Libyan officers exchange.
Thinking of the Mediterranean as a carceral space highlights these myriad Euro-Libyan entanglements that often take place with impunity and little public scrutiny. It also shows how maritime carcerality is “often underscored by mobilities”. Indeed, systematic forms of migrant capture depend on the collaboration of a range of mobile actors at sea, on land, and in the sky. Despite their incessant movements and the fact that surveillance and interception operations are predominantly characterised as rescue operations, thousands of people have lost their lives at sea over recent years. Many have been left abandoned even in situations where their whereabouts were long known to European and North African authorities, often in cases when migrant boats were already adrift and thus unable to reach Europe on their own accord.
At the same time, even in the violent and carceral Mediterranean Sea, a range of interventions have occurred that have prevented both deaths at sea and the smooth operation of the refoulment industry. NGO rescuers, activists, fishermen and, at times, merchant vessel crews have conducted mass rescues over recent years, despite being harassed, threatened and criminalised by Euro-Libyan authorities at every turn. Through their presence, they have documented and repeatedly ruptured the operations of the Euro-Libyan border force, shedding light on what is meant to remain hidden.
Maybe most importantly, the Mediterranean’s carceral condition has not erased the possibility of migratory acts of escape. Indeed, tactics of border subversion adapt to changing carceral techniques, with many migrant boats seeking to cross the sea without being detected and to reach European coasts autonomously. As the UNHCR notes in reference to the maritime arrival of 34,000 people in Italy and Malta in 2020: “Only approximately 4,500 of those arriving by sea in 2020 had been rescued by authorities or NGOs on the high seas: the others were intercepted by the authorities close to shore or arrived undetected.”
While most of those stuck on the Maridive supply vessel off Tunisia’s coast in 2019 were returned to countries of origin, some tried to cross again and eventually escaped Mediterranean carcerality. Despite Euro-North African attempts to capture and contain them, they moved on stubbornly, and landed their boats in Lampedusa.