Per la libertà di movimento, per i diritti di cittadinanza
Fotografia tratta da Crocevia Mediterraneo

Mediterranean Necropolitics

The enactment of nature and the responsibilities of European governments in the Crotone shipwreck


by Jacopo Anderlini

The dominant discourse of the Italian government, of the main parties of the parliamentary spectrum – with some nuances – and of the European institutions focuses on the ‘tragic fatality’, on the particularly hostile and prohibitive weather conditions, and on the full responsibility of human traffickers in having put such a vessel at sea in those conditions.

This is a discourse that on the one hand obscures the multifarious structural causes that determine these migratory movements, and on the other, by waving the bogeyman of the traffickers, aims to absolve governments and European institutions of the effects of migration and border policies that in the first instance generate the conditions for these shipwrecks to occur. Creating politically, at a structural level, the conditions for a group of people to die is what the philosopher Achille Mbembe has called necropolitics.

Yet another tragic shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea. A precarious wooden boat that left the coast of Izmir, Turkey, on the night of 25-26 February sank near the Calabrian coast, in front of Cutro. Stuffed on board were an estimated 200 to 250 people from Iran, Afghanistan, Syria. Of these, only 80 were saved: 71 bodies were found, including 16 minors, while between 20 and 20 are believed to be missing. The first press reports highlight the particularly bad weather conditions, with sea force 4, the overcrowding of the boat, only 20-meter long, the request for help received by the Guardia di Finanza operations centre at 4 a.m. and the intervention of the Coast Guard hampered by the bad weather.

The discourse of the representatives of the Italian government, of the main parties of the parliamentary spectrum, and of the European institutional bodies, moves from this scarce information. This discourse focuses primarily on two points: the naturality of the shipwreck and the full responsibility of human traffickers. Let us try to see what these elements mean and what they imply.

The first point evokes ‘nature’. The bad weather, the stormy sea, created the conditions that led to the shipwreck. In this, as in similar discourses, natural and related events are framed as neutral and ahistorical. “A fragile and overloaded vessel can hardly survive the stormy sea“. What is more, the rescuers themselves seem to be powerless in the face of the force of nature. The representation that emerges is that of an unkind nature, inescapable and unpredictable, difficult to control, which poses a risk per se. 

Let us try to broaden our gaze. European territory, and in particular its borderlands, is an over-monitored space. The Mediterranean Sea is constantly being dissected by radars, sonars, planes and drones, and by the different police forces. The boats that cross it mostly have navigation instruments, GPS, radios. What appears to be an unknown and unknowable space is instead mapped and tracked. As an example, the military radars of Pantelleria and Lampedusa can cover a vast area, reaching Tunisian waters, while Frontex aircrafts monitor the Mediterranean on a daily basis. The same sunken boat, after four days at sea, had been spotted the night before the shipwreck by one of these aircrafts.

Rather than nature, then, we speak of the ‘enactment‘ of nature as an uncontrollable force that hence relieves oneself from responsibility. Philosophy, from Marx to Heidegger 1, as well as the social sciences, with the important contribution of the recently departed Bruno Latour 2, have contested the idea of nature as given and separate from society and culture, recomposing it as culturally and socially determined, thus internal to historical becoming and political action. The naturalisation of the death by shipwreck, then, with its evoked neutrality and ahistoricity, proves to be functional in absolving European states which, with their policies, materially expose people to an environment where survival depends on certain resources and means 3.

The second point of the governmental discourse focuses on human smugglers as the main perpetrators of the tragedies in the Mediterranean. For example, the European Union Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson identifies the fight against smuggling as the main responsibility of the EU 4 and the Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi states that “it is absolutely necessary to firmly counteract the irregular immigration flows, in which unscrupulous smugglers operate in order to get rich, organizing these improvised journeys, with inadequate boats and in prohibitive conditions“.

In fact, measures against human trafficking have been one of the main vehicles for governing migration to Europe for more than a decade. The 2015 ‘EU Action Plan against migrant smuggling‘, for instance, establishes a strong link between migrant smuggling and irregular migration. In the document, an effective policy to combat the phenomenon is identified by making the returns mechanism more efficient, implementing the 2008 Return Directive and strengthening the role of Frontex. A perspective also embraced by the 2015 and 2017 Return Action Plans up to the 2020 Pact on Migration and Asylum. No wonder, then, that in the same statement, both Ylva Johansson and Matteo Piantedosi evoke stopping departures and increasing returns as a strategy to contrast irregular immigration. The governments’ ‘humanitarian‘ narrative, which invokes the fight against human trafficking ‘to save lives‘, translates into policies and measures geared towards the control, exclusion and filtering of migrant mobility.

In addition, as social research has highlighted, these European border control policies have contributed to the professionalization of smuggling, particularly along the Mediterranean Sea stretch: organizing the crossing requires an infrastructure, means and resources that are mostly the prerogative of structured criminal networks 5. In this context, EU border control and migration management policies and practices have had an iatrogenic effect 6 by strengthening the social phenomenon they were supposed to counter.

Therefore, focusing on the dimension of human trafficking, with all its implications from the point of view of the implemented migration governance policies, means obscuring in the first instance the causes of departures, the reasons that lead people to migrate. It is a paternalistic view that makes migrants victims of traffickers and passive recipients of the charity of European states – a hospitality that is another form taken by the governing of mobility.

Both points of this discourse then seem to be oriented towards reinforcing policies of closing borders and restricting freedom of movement, in order to relieve European states of their responsibility for the deadly effects of these same policies. In this scenario, the humanitarian discourse is evoked to portray the increasing border violence as natural, hiding its structural causes, while legitimizing border procedures and practices focused on “securing the nation from external threats”. The humanitarian rationale is actually the means for implementing border policies that filter, detain, and deport migrants – in fact actively exposing subjects to death – while claiming to ‘preserve human life‘. The expression of a will to let a part of the population die, the creation, at a political and structural level, of the conditions for a group of people to die, is what the philosopher Achille Mbembe has called necropolitics. Are the contemporary European migration policies that in the first place enable the conditions for shipwrecks like the one along the Calabrian coast to occur.

  1. See for example Alfred Schmidt, Il concetto di natura in Marx, 2. ed, Biblioteca di cultura moderna (Bari: Laterza, 1973)
  2. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993)
  3. Estela Schindel, «Bare life at the European borders. Entanglements of technology, society and nature», Journal of Borderlands Studies 31, fasc. 2 (2 aprile 2016): 219–34
  4. See the tweet
  5. Julien Brachet, «Manufacturing smugglers: From irregular to clandestine mobility in the Sahara», The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 676, fasc. 1 (2018): 16–35
  6. Eva Magdalena Stambøl, «The Rise of Crimefare Europe: Fighting Migrant Smuggling in West Africa», European Foreign Affairs Review 24, fasc. Issue 3 (1 ottobre 2019): 287–3