Guest post by Valeria Ferraris, Adjunct Professor, Department of Culture, Politics and Society, Università degli Studi di Torino, Italy

At the end of March 2013, the President of the Italian Council of Ministries officially declared an end to "the state of emergency in the national territory regarding the exceptional inflows of North African citizens." This ‘emergency,’ that lasted almost 2 years, ended 9 months ago, meaning that matters in Lampedusa should have been managed smoothly from then on. As we know, however, wintertime brought tragic shipwrecks. Several weeks ago we learnt that to prevent the spread of disease some social workers felt entitled to ask people to undress and be sprayed with disinfectant in plain view. Finally, on December 24, 2013, the Italian Deputy Interior Minister announced that the reception centre on Lampedusa would be cleared with migrants being transferred to other centres.

Notwithstanding this welcome announcement, questions remain. Is Italy (and Europe) facing an ‘emergency?’ If so, what ‘emergency measures’ should be used and which ones should not? How should Europe respond to the context of global migration? Above all, can one Member State, Italy, take the lead (and redeem itself) and create change?

Let’s rewind the tape.

2011: Chaos and Infringements of Rights

Map of the Mediterranean showing Lampedusa (Source: BBC News)
Known elsewhere as “the Arab Spring,” in Italy the political turmoil in the Mediterranean was framed as “the North Africa emergency” because between February and September 2011 in Lampedusa―a tiny island in the extreme south of Italy (70 miles from Tunisia and more than 100 from Sicily)―61,000 migrants from Tunisia (mainly Tunisians) and from Libya (mainly sub-Saharan migrants) landed by boat.

Casting the volume of arrivals as an “emergency,” the Italian government achieved a number of goals. First, it pushed the Tunisian government to sign a bilateral agreement on forced returns. Second, it persuaded the European Union (EU) to offer support and implement the principle of solidarity in the field of Border Checks, Asylum and Immigration under article 80 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). Above all, the notion of emergency effectively excised the centres for migrants from Italian law.

Migrant reception centre on Lampedusa (Source: BBC News)
The centres for primary assistance to migrants intercepted and rescued at sea became detention centres that hosted migrants for one to two weeks without any judicial or even administrative review. In order to cope with the volume of people arriving, the state opened three new temporary administrative detention centres―several tents erected in the suburban areas. In addition, they utilised three ships as temporary detention centres, ironically named “floating CIE,” and created two entirely new facilities that were not formally defined from a legal point of view.

Over this same period, the legal status of migrants shifted dramatically as well. When the emergency started in February 2011, Tunisians were specifically targeted as “illegal migrants” and moved to the administrative detention centres in mainland Italy. Since the capacity of these detention centres was clearly inadequate―even though previous detainees had been released to make room for the newly arrived―soon the centres were full. Some of the Tunisians were taken to detention centres for asylum seekers and consequently channelled into the asylum seekers system. In those locations where both administrative detention centres and asylum seekers detention centres existed as neighbouring centres in the same facility, migrants could be either channelled into one or the other depending on the bus they got on during the transfers.

North African migrants on Lampedusa (Source: BBC News)
Soon after, the newly arrived Tunisians were redefined: no longer termed “illegal migrants” to be hosted in detention centres, but called “foreign citizens” and given Temporary Protection Permits, free to move not only on Italian soil, but also to cross the borders. This change was due to a decision of the Italian government on April 5, 2011 when bilateral agreements with the Tunisian government were signed. In contrast, all Tunisian migrants (and also migrants from other North African countries such as Egypt) arriving after April 6, 2011 faced administrative detention and were forced to return to Tunisia as soon as means of transportation were available. There was no access to asylum procedures for them. All were profiled as illegal migrants.

Migrants from Libya were managed altogether differently. They were relocated around the country according to the “Plan for the Reception of Migrants” run by the National Emergency Management Agency. (A total of 22, 300 migrants were hosted at the end of September 2011, when the migratory flows substantially ended.) After arrival in the reception centres, Libyan migrants were automatically channelled into the asylum system and were allowed to submit applications to the police headquarters of the areas where they first settled.

2012: Do Migrants have the Right to Asylum?

Most of the people arriving in Lampedusa were not Libyan nationals at all, but migrants from other countries who had been living in Libya for years. These Third Country Nationals living in Libya did not comply with legal requirements of international protection. Most of their applications were therefore groundless under Italian law.

In 2012, most of the migrants who fled Libya were still in Italy. Months passed and a growing number of rejected asylum seekers waiting for appeal found themselves stuck in facilities all over Italy without any chance of future integration. Eventually, in the last months of 2012, the Italian government defined the “Guidelines to overcome the North African Emergency” with the aim to end the “emergency” status declared during 2011 and to identify procedures and assistance measures for rejected asylum claimants.

2013: The Drowned and the Saved

The first months of 2013 saw the implementation of the Guidelines defined at the end of 2012. The Italian government chose to grant one-year residence permits for humanitarian reasons to all rejected asylum seekers who had arrived in Italy during the “North African Emergency” and who were still being held in reception centres. To obtain a residence permit, a migrant from Libya had to withdraw all former applications and start a new procedure to obtain the residence permit for humanitarian reasons. Once a residence permit had been granted to all migrants, in March 2013, the Government closed all reception centres, releasing everyone (and rendering them homeless) with 500 euros in their pockets.

On March 28 and 29, 2013, 10 boats sent a mayday and 800 migrants landed in Lampedusa and Sicily. Spring went on and summer arrived. So did people. This time the migrants were mainly from Syria and the “usual asylum countries” (e.g., Afghanistan, Somalia). Unlike  2011, however, no special procedure were put in place for these arrivals; some were quietly moved around Italy while others were returned. There was little national and international media coverage of the events. To give one example, in Mineo―a facility established in 2001 and defined as an asylum seeker reception centre in 2012―3,000 people per day were hosted. Many were from Syria and highly educated. Many refused to be identified in order not to be stuck in Italy by the Dublin II regulations.

Deaths from the shipwreck off Lampedusa (Source: DW)
In September 2013, the weather turned. On October 3, a boat carrying hundreds of migrants sank off the coast of Lampedusa. The bodies of 359 of them were found in the sea. One week later, on October 11, another shipwreck, 120 km away from Lampedusa, claimed the lives of a further 238 people. In this second case, the on-going dispute with Malta on the search and rescue obligations caused a delay in the rescue of stranded migrants.

Italian and EU authorities banded together in mourning the deaths of the migrants.

Before these episodes, it was rare for the strong rescue-oriented attitude on the part of Italian authorities and fishermen to be questioned (see the case of Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy for an exception). While there isn’t enough evidence to say that the Italian search and rescue system is falling apart, these two tragic episodes raise new doubts about how such situations are handled.

In response, Italy answered with a new operation, termed “Mare Nostrum,” and labelled a humanitarian operation to save lives and secure the borders.  The EU followed with the Task Force Mediterranean (TFM), a set of actions that do not appear to introduce any relevant change of policies. Border surveillance has been intensified (to help save lives!). The fight against cross border crimes (again, trafficking and smuggling!) has been reinforced. There is an increased interest in resettlement programmes (e.g., in 2012, 4,930 persons were resettled to the EU by 12 Member States: Yes, we can do better!). And, predictably, the cooperation with third countries needs to be enhanced. The EU Commission “will explore further possibilities for protected entry” and “the possibility of assisting in capacity building for search and rescue in the North African coastal states should be considered.” A lack of courage dominates at the EU level.

Detained migrants protest at the conditions of the Lampedusa reception centre (Source: Gazzetta del Sud Online)
The year 2013 drew to a close when the ‘disinfection video’ emerged and the EU’s Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström condemned the appalling and unacceptable conditions in Lampedusa. Some of the ‘disinfected’ men are survivors of the October 3 shipwreck. Even though Italian legal procedures prohibit the detention of people for more than 96 hours in Lampedusa, approximately 10 men are still there.

In previous years, the Italian asylum seeker reception system was already identified as poor and chaotic, unable to guarantee adequate living and housing conditions, with some countries’ courts, such as Germany, refusing to send ‘Dubliners’ back to Italy because of the lack of assistance available.

The years 2011, 2012, and 2013 were not the same. The events were different. People changed. Policies were (apparently) redesigned. But nothing looks like it’s changed in practice. People keep dying while the EU, Italy, and all the Member States deplore what happens and affirm that there’s a need for action. Only time will tell if 2014 brings change to the handling of maritime migrations across European borders.

An earlier version of this post was published in the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control Spring Newsletter III (June 2013).

For more Border Criminologies blog posts about Lampedusa, please see:

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Ferraris V (2013) Lessons from Lampedusa. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/lessons-from-lampedusa/ (Accessed [date]).