By Giuliana Visco
2019-20 Research Fellow, The Center for Arts, Design + Social Research
Instead of being a place of meeting differences, the Mediterranean Sea has become a deadly border between Europe and Africa, blocking and dividing people; the rich from the poor and the “white” from the “colored”. In 2019, already 929 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from the Libyan coast to southern Europe. These daily tragedies do not just show a lack of European governments’ engagement in the Mediterranean; they are a direct consequence of governmental migration policies. In efforts to keep people outside of Europe, governments have implemented policies that have increased the suffering of those imprisoned and tortured in Libya’s detention camp.
Meanwhile, a structured campaign against Search-and-Rescue actions has hindered independent organizations from rescuing people in international waters. Governments have denied access to local ports. They have condemned boats of refugees to heart-rending stand-offs and shipwrecks in front of coasts. In this context, saving lives has become, in its simplicity, a revolutionary act.
One year ago, a civil society vessel flying the Italian flag began sailing the Mediterranean as part of the Mediterranea Saving Humans platform. Our aim has been to monitor the Mediterranean Sea and rescue those at risk of shipwreck; this is according to the most ancient laws of the sea and international laws. We have saved 237 lives this past year with our ship. This would not have been possible without the great support of the “Land Crew”, which includes people and groups all around Italy engaged in organizing events, fundraising, institutional and cooperative work.
In Italy, the previous government deepened an ugly consent by disseminating hatred for the “black invasion”, mystifying the migration phenomenon and inciting xenophobia. One of its most problematic acts was the approval of two so-called “Security Decrees” which were devised by the Interior Minister. The second Decree gives extensive power to the Ministry “to restrict or prohibit the entry, transit or stop of any vessel in the territorial sea for reasons of public order and security”, to fine rescuers thousands of euros, and to confiscate their ships. Mediterranea’s vessel “Mare Jonio” has been seized twice, but to misquote Samuel Beckett, “We can’t go on. We will go on.”
Italy’s two security decrees represent the endpoint of a “criminalization of solidarity” process. An expression that conveys the idea of a dual conflict: the (concrete) criminalization of citizens and activists who are supporting or saving migrants in transit, and the reinforcement of solidarity practices and networks. The independent organizations undertaking Search-and-Rescue activities have strongly been attacked and falsely accused of collaborating with smugglers and representing a pull factor for migrants to come to Europe.
In the past year, the European public debate about Search-and-Rescue actions has become polarized. On one side, there are those who believe in the obligation to rescue; on the other, there are those who want to block rescuing operations and prevent migrants’ arrivals. What is left outside of this debate is the new figure of the “rescued shipwrecked migrant” that are really the new “refugee” and “asylum seeker”. The new migrant is characterized by different gradations of vulnerability, which sadly are their best passepartout for quick access to Europe.
Recently, we observed a shift from a Solidarity Crime to a more specific Rescue Crime. At the same time, rescuing migrants from the sea represents active disobedience against restrictions imposed at the national (Italian) and European levels. This act, then, becomes a revolutionary intervention in which new and critical solidarities between the rescued migrants and rescuers are occurring. We will continue.
Giuliana Visco resides in Rome, Italy. She holds a PhD in sociology, a DEA in Hypermedia and an undergraduate degree in art history. Visco’s heterogeneous academic career reflects her belief that multidisciplinary tools are pivotal for the understanding of today’s society. Her professional life has assumed both an academic and activist trajectory specifically projects focused on youth, migrants and women’s rights. Since July 2018, Visco has been part of Mediterranea Saving Humans, a platform focused on Search and Rescue independent action in Mediterranean Sea. She is a 2019-20 Research Fellow at the Center for Arts, Design + Social Research.