In the Mediterranean, the Banality of Shipwrecks

After the death of several dozens of refugees, most of them fleeing Afghanistan, in a shipwreck off the coasts of Calabria, in the South of Italy, on the 26th of February 2023, Lorenzo Alunni, current Member in the School of Social Science, and Didier Fassin, James D. Wolfensohn Professor, wrote a column for Le Monde, analyzing how Europe had shifted from a politics of rescue to a criminalization of humanitarianism.

In Die Schutzbefohlenen, the song of exiles—which she imagined echoing Aeschylus's The Suppliants—the Austrian playwright and novelist Elfriede Jelinek, laureate of the 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature, evokes these women and men who, in search of protection on the European continent, are drowning off its coasts. "Water is going over their heads, crashing down on them before they reappear, hoisted to the surface, wrung out, stretchered off." But on dry land, authorities only have one question for the drowned: "How did you dare leave the homeland?"

It is the same lack of understanding that Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi seemed to articulate after a boat loaded with exiles, most of who were fleeing Afghanistan, sank near the Calabrian coast on February 26. To the dead—at least 87 according to the latest figures—he threw this accusation: "Desperation can never justify travel conditions that endanger the lives of one's children." For if the shipwrecked had asked for it, they would have been brought to Italian soil, he added. "What I am saying is: stop, we will come and get you."

As for Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, she also expressed her compassion. "The government is committed to preventing departures and, with them, the occurrence of such tragedies, therefore requiring the utmost cooperation of the countries of departure and of origin," she said, thus contradicting her minister. She perhaps thought that she would be able to negotiate with the Taliban, so that they would discourage the Afghan exiles, most of them Hazaras, whom they persecute, torture and murder, from leaving their country, as well as with the Turkish government, so that it would retain aspiring exiles and add them to the 3 million refugees already confined in camps.

Among the Italian authorities, President Sergio Mattarella was the only politician to pay his respects in front of the coffins, acknowledging that the victims were "fleeing from very difficult conditions." If they had dared to leave their homeland, as the members of the government seemed to take offense at, they had serious reasons to do so.

As always in these cases—such as in the aftermath of the death of 27 people drowned in the Channel on November 24, 2021, when French President Emmanuel Macron announced a strengthening of the European border control agency Frontex—Italian politicians required more controls and more severity. Yet, this is precisely what had led to the tragedy. On the one hand, a Frontex plane had flown over the boat and identified the presence of many passengers on board, but it had not reported its distress situation. On the other hand, the Guardia di Finanza speedboats, which had been sent to the scene and had turned back because of the bad weather, serves a customs purpose, which means that far from being a rescue operation, as the well-trained Guardia Costiera could have undertaken, the late and aborted exit of the Italian boats was akin to a police operation.

This has not always been so. After a shipwreck on the coast of Lampedusa on October 3, 2013, which killed at least 368, the Italian government, in shock, had launched a major sea rescue operation called "Mare Nostrum," which is estimated to have assisted 150,000 people. But the following year, for lack of European funding, the program was halted and replaced by Frontex's "Triton" operation, whose main function was to intercept vessels.

It was later discovered that the agency carried out illegal and dangerous pushbacks in the Mediterranean and collaborated with the Libyan purported coast guards who arrest the shipwrecked before taking them back to prisons where they are often abused. To compensate for the quasi-disappearance of official rescue operations, various humanitarian organizations have chartered vessels. But the Italian government soon accused them of complicity with the smugglers, barred them from docking with their survivors, and even sued them.

In a tragic coincidence, two days before the Calabrian shipwreck, the Italian Parliament, controlled by the right and the far-right, had passed a law prohibiting the ships of non-governmental organizations from carrying out more than one rescue operation at a time, in addition to an obligation, subject to heavy penalties, to reach assigned ports often far from the rescue sites in a bid to reduce the number of such operations and increase their cost. Thus, in a few years, under the auspices of the European Union, there has been a shift from rescue actions at sea to the intimidation and criminalization of humanitarian activities.

The Mediterranean has become the world's largest graveyard for exiles, as almost half of the 55,000 migrant deaths recorded on the planet since 2014 have occurred there, according to a conservative estimate by the United Nations' International Organization for Migration. Surveys show that as maritime border controls tightened, the proportion of deaths among those attempting the crossing increased, while smugglers, safely operating on African coasts, not only went unchallenged but drove up the price of crossings. The criminal policy of the European Union is thus playing out in the Mediterranean amidst general indifference. The discrediting of exiles contributes to a trivialization of shipwrecks.

The day after the tragedy, the Forum Lampedusa Solidale, a local association, sent a letter of condolences and fraternity to the villagers of Cutro, Calabria, with whom they shared the painful experience of being helpless spectators of these tragedies occurring on their coasts. It ended with these lines of a poem by Emily Dickinson, which can be read at the entrance to the Lampedusa cemetery where so many shipwrecked people, anonymous or not, are buried:

       Bereavement in their death to feel
       Whom We have never seen —
       A Vital Kinsmanship import
       Our Soul and theirs — between —
       For Stranger — Strangers do not mourn — 

This interview has been reprinted by the Institute for Advanced Study. Read the original, published March 10, 2023, at Le Monde.