By Sophie-Anne Bisiaux, Giuseppe Caccia, Chiara Denaro and Hagen Kopp

The manufactured crisis and the solidarity response in Lampedusa

In the week of the 11th to the 17th of September 2023, more than 11,560 people made it bravely to Lampedusa. Not all who tried succeeded. Some were intercepted by the Libyan and Tunisian authorities and pushed back to the places they were trying to escape from. Some died, either during rescue or shortly after disembarkation. A six-month-old baby was amongst the latter.

With a capacity of 350 places only, the Lampedusa Hotspot could not host what would average at around 7000 people simultaneously on the island. As a result, the main gate gave way, allowing people to walk free in the city. This was a great rupture with years of incarceration and invisibilization of people on the move transiting through the island. At the same time, it showed yet another failure of the so-called “hotspot approach”. The main requests of people coming to the island were for food and water. Hunger prevented some of them from being able to properly walk and speak. A 15-year-old had a towel tight around his stomach, in order to not feel hunger. His friend, just a year older, had a medical certificate in his hands stating: “Found unconscious in the street. Severe dehydration and undernourishment. Drip administered.”

Meeting people in the streets of Lampedusa not only showed (as usual) serious obstacles in accessing legal information and international protection, but also the violation of basic human rights such as access to water and food. Hundreds of people tried to rest along the road leading to the hotspot, on cots or on the ground, with a severe shortage of toilets and any kind of shelter. People were exposed to the inhumane and degrading treatment not far from what they had chosen to flee.

Against this background, Lampedusa citizens and local associations tried to fill the gap left by the state by organizing food distribution at the church and – after it was no longer accessible due to police orders – along the streets and at the commercial pier, where people waited for transfers by ferry. In a statement signed by more than 80 organizations, civil society expressed its deep concern at the security response of European states, the crisis of reception, and reaffirmed its solidarity with people on the move arriving in Europe (Cf. Joint Statement “Arrivals in Lampedusa: Solidarity and resistance in the face of Europe’s reception crisis!”).

On September 16th, citizens arranged a huge demonstration during which around 600 people stopped the arrival of a Red Cross truck in fear that they were transporting infrastructure to build a new camp with a 5000-place capacity. Their main claim was the de-militarization of the island along with calls from some to “stop the invasion”, where“the invaders” were not people on the move, but police officers and militaries.

For the first time in years, the media narrative on Lampedusa showed collective cooking and eating, migrants playing football and dancing in the streets together with tourists and citizens. Racist discourse was marginal and mutual aid and solidarity were at the core. For a while, their presence in Lampedusa stopped being invisible and was accepted by the population who “had the reception in its blood” and “had been teaching others how to welcome people”.

„…Over the past two days, however, without police teams in manhunt mode, Lampedusa streets, public spaces, benches and bars have been filled with encounters, conversations, pizzas and coffees offered by local inhabitants. Without hotspots and segregation mechanisms, Lampedusa becomes a space for enriching encounters and spontaneous acts of solidarity between locals and newly arrived people. Trays of fish ravioli, arancini, pasta, rice and couscous enter the small room next to the church, where volunteers try to guarantee as many meals as possible to people who, taken to the hotspot after disembarkation, had been unable to access food and water for three days. These scenes were unthinkable only a few days before…“


People on the move arrived in Lampedusa, September 2023. Photo: Maldusa

The visit of Meloni and Von Der Leyen in Lampedusa on the 17th of September represented an abrupt return to an unacceptable normality. The door of the hotspot closed again, and 1,700 people remained confined inside overcrowded and dirty conditions. During the visit, a police cordon prevented migrants from approaching the main door, which had been pulled open for the authorities’ parade. The long road to the hotspot was empty again, and its crossing was barred by the army. A similar transformation had taken place at the Favaloro pier, made presentable again after days of indecency and dehumanization, with hundreds of people forced to stay there for hours, with no access to food, sanitation, and proper medical care.

The 10 points action plan, which was presented by the EU commissioner in Lampedusa at this occasion includes nothing new and shows, on the contrary, the will of the EU and Italy to manufacture a mobility crisis (cf. legal fragment). In 2018, 150.000 people had managed to reach Italy by sea, but only 9.000 people had to pass through Lampedusa. While at that time SAR policies foresaw disembarkation of rescued people across southern Italy, the current lack of a proactive search and rescue for most of the migrants’ boats in distress just produces the concentration of sea arrival to Lampedusa in an almost autonomous way.    

While people continue to reach Lampedusa, another crack has weakened Europe’s violent border regime, this time caused by the contradictions within right-wing governments in the EU. Meloni’s refusal to accept deportations back to Italy has thus effectively collapsed Dublin-Italy. According to the Interior Ministry spokesperson from Germany, up until July no more than nine Dublin transfers to Italy had taken place. Furthermore, those transfers concerned persons who traveled to Italy voluntarily and independently, a good piece of news for all those arriving in Italy and willing to travel on to other countries within the EU. 

Nevertheless, on various levels the situation is moving in the direction of a worsening and more brutal European border regime.

Harassment of the Civil Fleet

Since mid-August, the Italian State’s permanent war against civil sea rescue activities seems to have entered a new escalation phase (cf. Statement “Urgent warning”). After the period between July and the first days of August during which even the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre – faced both with the overwhelming number of arrivals and cases of distress along the Tunisian route southwest of Lampedusa as well as objective difficulties of intervention by the coast guard and Guardia di Finanza who were short of means, men, and even fuel – had directly involved the largest and smallest vessels of the civilian fleet in rescue operations around the island, the Meloni government “pulled its ears” to the Coast Guard.

What is left for Meloni? Having verified the impracticality of the “naval blockade,” closed ports, and discriminatory landings, what remains is the obstinate and senseless reaffirmation of the “State monopoly on sea rescue,” which is transformed into the punitive use of last January’s Piantedosi Decree: assignment of increasingly distant ports, administrative detentions of ships in the case of real or presumed disobedience of the authorities’ orders, up to the warning made to Mediterranea’s ship Mare Jonio to “disembark the rescue equipment or we will arrest you“ (cf. Statement “Remove the rescue equipment or we will arrest you” : The Italian Government’s threat against the Mare Jonio). 

ImageThese attempts to harass and criminalize the Civil Fleet will not reduce arrivals. Meloni and her interior minister know very well that only five to seven percent of arrivals are completed by civil rescue ships: the vast majority are either picked up by the Italian Coast Guard a few nautical miles off Lampedusa or land on the coast entirely autonomously.  On the one hand, it is obviously a matter of pretending to their own voters that they are capable of acting, at least when it comes to confrontation with the NGOs. On the other hand, it is also a matter of weakening the important function of monitoring and publicly documenting permanent human rights violations at sea.

Particularly serious are the grounds on which Sea-Watch’s fast boat Aurora was detained for 20 days – along with Sea-Eye-4 and Open Arms – for its refusal to disembark people rescued in the Tunisian port of Zarzis. As has happened since 2017, Italian governments seek to construct a “fait accompli” and then turn it into a formal involution of international law: in this case, also thanks to the ambiguities of UN organizations, they hope to arrive at the recognition of Tunisia as a safe landing place, despite racist violence and proven violations of fundamental rights.

More effective Push Back Collaboration

In the 7th issue of Echoes, we reported in the context of an article on SAR 3 on the appearance of a new push back actor in Benghazi, a militia called Tareq Bin Zayed Brigade. During their operations in the last weeks they not only towed a vessel with 500 people from the middle of the Maltese SAR back to Libya, but even carried out the abduction of 110 people from a boat that had started in Lebanon and never touched the Libyan SAR. These interceptions obviously took place in strong collaboration with authorities in Italy, Malta and the EU (Frontex), who do not by any means omit the chance to stop refugees and migrants from reaching European shores. The brigade is under the control of Haftar, a strongman in eastern Libya, who was welcomed by Meloni in Rome in May 2023.

Interception of ~250 people in distress by a Haftar’s Tariq Ben Zayed militia vessel in July 2023. Photo: Seabird 2, Sea Watch

Deportations to Tunisia

We learned from several reports that immediately after transfers to Sicily, Tunisian nationals in particular were singled out from time to time and detained for deportation. For many years, the largest number of deportations in Italy were back to Tunisia: in 2022, this was about 2300 people.

According to an older agreement from the end of 2011, every week two charter deportation flights go from Palermo to the airport in Tabarka, about 180 km west of Tunis. In each plane of the airline Volotea about 60 people are forced to be “repatriated,” often after they are being imprisoned in detention centers (CPRs) for a certain time. For a few months now a third deportation flight has been taking place each week. It will be important to monitor these inhumane practices in more detail and understand if authorities are trying to set an example which they can re-use for other nationalities.

The „funnel“ of Lampedusa and the brutal Government’s response: new detention camps in Italy

The situation that arose in Lampedusa in mid-September has several causes: first is the fact that in the face of constant police raids and widespread racist incidents against people from sub-Saharan Africa, every opportunity is used to try to leave Tunisia and cross the sea to Europe.

Second is the way in which Italian authorities organize rescues: according to statistics (Matteo Villa – ISPI), in 2015, 150,000 people landed in Italy, but only 9,000 arrived in Lampedusa, while today against the 160,000 expected annual landings in Italy, 100,000 arrive directly in Lampedusa. The reason for this is that for some time now, the Italian Coast Guard and Navy have stopped carrying out rescues on the high seas off the coasts of Libya and Tunisia, with large vessels capable of transporting people immediately to Sicily and the Italian mainland. Thus, Lampedusa has become a real “funnel,” ever narrowing. 

This situation is aggravated by the crisis of the reception system at the national level: since 2018 with Salvini’s “Security Decrees,” the resources for reception facilities have been heavily cut and the conditions of access to the system further restricted by the recent ”Cutro Decree”. The result is that the number of arrivals cannot be absorbed in a timely manner, a result partly suffered and partly constructed by the Italian Government which, in this way, can continue to show the “theater of invasion.”

An example of this is the situation in Porto Empedocle (south of Sicily) where, faced with the dramatic inadequacy of the reception facility for people transferred from Lampedusa as a first stop, hundreds of people on the move rebelled and abandoned the facility, heading autonomously North. Similar cases are occurring all over Sicily (Caltanissetta, Pozzallo, etc.) and all over Italy.

Local solidarity in Lampedusa with people on the move, September 2023 Photo: Lopes

After the extraordinary days of Lampedusa and Von Der Leyen – Meloni’s propaganda walk on the island, the Italian government’s response continues to be one-sided: the most significant point of the measures approved by the Council of Ministers on September 18th is the extension of the administrative detention of “irregular” people from six to eighteen months and the creation of a detention center in anticipation of deportation in each Italian region, in “remote areas” and with management directly entrusted to the army. Real camps, places of permanent violation of fundamental rights, in Italy as in Libya.

Mass deportations and continuous border violence in Tunisia

From July 2023 onwards, a practice by the Tunisian authorities which already existed on a smaller scale, became systematized. In Sfax and other Tunisian towns, hundreds of migrants were arrested in the street or in their homes before being deported to the Libyan and Algerian borders. For more than a month, entire families were left in the middle of the desert, without access to food or water. There have been several reports of people dying as a result of these inhumane measures.

Still today, the fate of thousands of people remains uncertain. While some have managed to return to their places of residence, many say they have been forced to accept a so-called “voluntary” return to their countries of origin in exchange for humanitarian aid delivered by the Red Crescent. Some have been kidnapped by Libyan militias and still others have had to flee to Algeria, where they risk a chain-refoulement to Niger.

Today, many migrants remain blocked at borders or in southern towns such as Zarzis or Medenine. In Sfax, the situation has become dramatic, with hundreds of people becoming homeless following their expulsion, while many others continue to arrive at the Algerian border and reach the city in the hope of crossing to Italy. For their part, the Tunisian coast guard continues to attack boats, regularly causing shipwrecks that cost the lives of those trying to flee the country at all costs. According to diverse reports, they also deport survivors to the desert directly after interception at sea. 

“Since July 2023, the Place Beb Jebli in the center of the city of Sfax has been the scene of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Around 500 people, including women and children, have gathered there after being evicted from their homes. They come from Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Chad, Eritrea and Niger, fleeing armed conflicts, civil wars and humanitarian crises. These refugees, asylum seekers and migrants have been expelled from their homes, made homeless and some deported to the Algerian and Libyan borders by the authorities. Many of these people then managed to return to Sfax, where, deprived of everything, they live on the street, on the ground, in very precarious conditions”.

Source: Extracts from the press release “Humanitarian emergency in the Sfax governorate: civil society sounds the alarm in the face of an unsustainable situation” (translated from French), September 14, 2023

Migrants deported in Amra (Tunisia). Photo: Tweet from Jihed Brirmi, September, 24 2023

Strengthening border externalisation in Tunisia 

Despite the border violence perpetrated by the Tunisian authorities against people on the move, on July 16, the EU and Tunisia signed a memorandum of understanding for a “strategic and comprehensive partnership aimed at combating irregular migration and boosting economic ties between the bloc and the North African country.” €150 million was announced to achieve this goal. The deal also provides for more Tunisians settled “illegally” in Europe to be repatriated and for sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia to be sent back to their countries of origin.

This new agreement has provoked a reaction from civil society, which has strongly criticized the reinforcement of securitarian, racist, and inhumane policies.

Despite this brutalization of the border regime, thousands of people continue their struggle to move freely and the MRCC will continue to stand by their side.

Source: Extracts from the open letter “Against the anti-migrant and anti-Black policies of the EU and Tunisia” from 379 researchers and members of civil society from the Global South and the Global North

Demonstration in Tunis following the racist discourse of the President, February 2023. Photo: Haïfa Mzalouat

Article published in Echoes#8 – Struggles for Freedom of Movement