The Border Returns to Lampedusa – Martha Bernardini: “Terrorists among migrants on the boats? They choose safer ways to get to Europe.”
Lampedusa remains an important place to understand migratory movements in the Mediterranean Sea. Since November 2014, we have witnessed a political development in Italy and Europe concerning migration by sea: from Mare Nostrum through Mos Maiorum to the operation Triton, which is coordinated by Frontex. A development that, as already anticipated by observers, is negative. Marta Bernardini from the observatory Mediterranean Hope spoke with us about the changing situation on Lampedusa Island that is now again playing a role in the emergency situation of arrivals. What has changed in recent months?
“With the beginning of Triton, migrants restarted to return to Lampedusa, mostly rescued by the coast guards: the people who formerly were rescued at sea and directly brought to Sicily or the mainland, are now brought to Lampedusa again. Since early January, there were several arrivals on the island which thereupon have been transferred to the mainland. Lampedusa becomes again a place of arrival and the end of Mare Nostrum has loosened up the close meshed control. As the UN High Commissioner pointed out, 1.600 people have died since June 2014, a phenomenon that still affects us today. Silence is kept about the arrivals, maybe to find out Triton’s concrete effects, but around here we see these effects.”

What are the consequences that you can observe?

“Certainly, the operation Triton has fewer task forces at sea, they operate farther away from the Libyan coast, and they take charge of a smaller area of operations. Sea rescue has gotten slower, as the patrols have to check first whether the emergency call is credible, they check whether the boat is truly in distress, and then they return to give way to the rescue teams: valuable time is lost – hours – time that is vital for the people at sea. In the past, intervention was more immediate: today, often, the coast guards have to intervene; they are the first to receive the emergency calls and they have the duty to save lives at sea. This fact has not changed. Now, the coast guards fulfill their duties again, however, with the problems that come along with it. The ships, mostly small ones in order to be more flexible, return with the migrants to Lampedusa which is closer than the Sicilian mainland. Mare Nostrum had large ships available and was able to bring people directly to the mainland.”

Therefore, a first consequence of Triton represents the increased burden for the island.

“What we observe is that Lampedusa has, again, become a border location. A border location that expands or shrinks depending on what the public wants to see. If we remember that the island took in 9.000 Tunisians during the Arab Spring – with a total population of 4.000. That is not the case now; however, something is definitely changing, also in the migratory movements. For example, the number of Syrian people has decreased since summer, the origin of the people is changing as are their routes. Today, people come from Central Africa and from Sub-Saharan Africa, but they still depart from Libya. What is interesting to us is to think about the departure conditions of these people who are on the way for a long time, sometimes for years, who have often lived in Libya and have somehow survived to wait for the boat that will bring them to Europe.”

On the political level, border control is discussed again and again.
“It is not Triton or Mare Nostrum that function as an incentive for the journey, but the unstable situation in the countries of departure. Furthermore, the international convention on the law of the sea stipulates the rescue of human life at sea. If Triton did not exist, it would be the coast guards and so on. Securing borders only means convicting people who already live under tragic conditions and at the margins of humanity. That, what is often claimed with ease about the presence of terrorists on the boats, stands in harsh contrast to what we observe here. The people who come to Europe to commit acts of terror use different, much safer routes. They are unlikely to set off on this dangerous journey on a boat. This fear-mongering could be used to legitimize European states’ future decisions.”

Translation: Annika Schadewaldt