How the “political level” has stifled human rights and the laws of the sea.

An internal Italian Coast Guard email leaked few weeks ago to the press thanks to Marco Damilano’s public TV broadcast “Il Cavallo e la Torre” (The Horse and the Tower), leaves no doubt as to how much in recent years “the political level,” as it is written, has in fact prevented our sea from becoming safer for a certain type of human being. Yet the e-mail with which Capt. Gianluca D’Agostino, at time Head of IT MRCC Rome, in a missive directed to all departments on 27 June 2022, introduced the arguments, is very clear: “following the inter-ministerial tables, some tactical dispositions for the GdF [Guardia di Finanza – Italian financial police] have been given by the political level, which in fact in part impose some reflections on our modus operandi.”

Captain D’Agostino’s email drew the attention of his colleagues to make precise procedural modalities to be scrupulously adhered to, from decisions at the political level, stated in the following sentence: “In view of this, as of the present date, the intervention activities of the Coast Guard’s naval units, in the case of events connected with the migration phenomenon, must be developed in compliance with the following parameters.” And there follows three points of precise, dry operational indications. They confirm what was already known: between rescue and police control, i.e. so-called “law enforcement”, the latter comes first.Within 12 miles, it is the Aeronaval Operations Department (ROAN) of the Guardia di Finanza that takes over the coordination of operations.

If a boat full of migrants moves on its own, it has to be escorted until inside the 12 miles, and then everything passes to the GdF. To be clear: only if it is full of migrant women, men and children. If they were tourists on a sailing boat, the Coast Guard would coordinate as always. That explicitly refers to “events related to the migration phenomenon, which specifies when those procedures are to be applied. With the exception of migrants, for everything else in the world, the obligations and standard SAR procedures laid down in an inescapable and direct way by the Hamburg Convention apply: save, save and save again before anything else.No subordination by the Coast Guard to any political level or other force in the field. 

But migrants, or rather (to stay with the dehumanizing language) the “migratory phenomenon”, are treated differently. They have it on land, and also at sea. The 1979 Hamburg SAR Convention, with its imperative obligations, and the mission of the Italian Coast Guard, its history, its nature, in the face of the political demands of “migration management” must take a step backwards. In favor of what? The activity of policing, of control, of repulsion, of deportation, summarized since the early 2000s in official documents as “law enforcement activity.” So, beyond any attempt at denial later made by the official Coast Guard spokesman, that email speaks only the truth, but in a less disguised manner than usual. The indecipherability inherent in bureaucratic language, which has always also been an effective “shield” to cover up vicious political choices, is rendered transparent, for once, by the very email of an operative.

One would think that Captain D’Agostino wanted to leave a trace, writing in plain language, of something, a sort of tumor, that threatens the root of non-negotiable principles and values, such as the protection of lives at sea. This long-serving officer, whether he was aware of it or not, should be thanked for that email. It is the real world, far more difficult and uncomfortable for a military man to show everyone: D’Agostino wrote what we all know by our own experience at sea, there was no need to tell us that “we misunderstood.”

These directives from the “political level” are not new in 2022 but have a longer history behind them. If one reads, for example, materials such as the “Quaderno della Scuola di perfezionamento per le Forze di Polizia” (II/2020), an internal educational tool for the training of officers of the various Italian police forces, valuable in its own way, and in particular an interesting paper by Colonel Stefano Bastoni of the GdF, one can fully understand how the obligation to respect human rights and the necessity of police actions to counter migrants’ arrivals have for at least twenty years been the testing ground not so much of a balance, but of the possible dissimulation of the objective predominance of the second aspect over the first.

The GdF Colonel describes well the process that in the course of these last two decades – during which the Central Mediterranean has become the largest mass grave on the planet – has built, step by step, government after government, the possibility, theoretically forbidden by both international and national law and by the Constitution, of doing “border surveillance” on the maritime boundaries. This is something different, as we read, from the activity of “border sniffers” exercised at the crossings by the land border police offices and prevails over search and rescue activities at sea, inside and outside the Italian SAR zone. Laws, directives, circulars, built at least since 30th July 2002, the predominance of police functions over everything else. It was on that date that Italian Law 189 was promulgated, which centralized every activity, including rescue operations, in the Ministry of the Interior. It is the Viminale, through the establishment of a centralized “control room” called the NCC (National Coordination Centre) and an integrated telecommunications system with all the corps, including the Coast Guard, which acts as tactical and strategic direction for “contrast of illegal immigration at sea.”

The NCC, a super operations center, “acquires and analyzes all the information on the scenario at sea received from all the commands involved, i.e. the Carabinieri, the Guardia di Finanza, the Navy, the Corpo delle Capitanerie di Porto – Coastguards.” But even more significant is the passage where it is explained that this structure “ensures the strategic tactical link in the contrast activity at sea.” Just imagine if there would be a similar structure, with air and naval means, that would bring everyone together “in the strategic tactical activity of preventing migrants from dying at sea for lack of rescue.”

The police super central was formally established as NCC/ Eurosur – previously it was just “Central Directorate” – by decree, signed by the then Chief of Police General Director of Public Security, on 20th January 2012, and acquired its current name in 2015, in compliance with European Regulation No.1052 of 2013. To testify that everything, but really everything, follows the European institutional line in the regulatory framework of Schengen/Dublin/Frontex and that all governments, one after the other, have conformed to it. All this dense web of decrees, later transformed into laws, circulars, regulations, procedural directions and so on and so forth, has only one purpose in reality: to justify what one could not.

Safeguarding life at sea cannot depend on the status of the persons in danger. And instead, precisely by virtue of a change of status, from “shipwrecked people” to “illegal migrants” the Hamburg Convention on Sea Rescue and the Geneva Convention on the Prohibition of Refoulement for Refugees and Asylum Seekers have been stifled in recent years by the police logic. Returning to D’Agostino’s “scandalous” email, if one continues to read, the operational rules “imparted by the political level” are nothing more than a reminder, which becomes more or less pressing depending on the moment, of a veritable “handbook” built up over time and designed to obviate the impediments posed by the democratic Constitutions. The moments in which we access this bureaucratic paraphernalia, which allows us to do legally what in theory would not be legal, change depending on the case: an increase in the flow of people attempting to arrive on our shores, or an impending election, or a government in office with an identity flag of opposing migrants.

Using the term “clandestine immigrants” is ridiculous, not only in itself, but also if we remember that those people did not even have another way to enter Italian or EU borders, because they were killed first, at sea, or deported, through the use of militias paid for this purpose. Looking back over these two decades, therefore, one has a clear picture of a real “bureaucratic-administrative infrastructure” that has made it possible for the violation of human rights and the laws of the sea to reach this point, which then has the coordinates of Cutro and of all the avoidable massacres that instead continue.

An infrastructure that has been seeded by the “political level” as D’Agostino says in the incriminated email, and which the political level has then made grow, and which it uses to varying degrees, against innocent people.

Luca Casarini – Mediterranea Saving Humans