A Neverending “Crisis”: Migration by Boat and Border Policing in the Mediterranean Sea

By Keegan Williams

April 19, 2015: a boat carrying up to 850 people sinks half-way between the Libyan coast and Lampedusa, Italy. Social media explodes and cries crisis, prompting an emergency meeting of European Union leaders. Their response is clear: dramatically increase funding for border policing and surveillance, and create Operation EUNAVFOR Med to systematically “identify, capture and dispose of vessels and enabling assets used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers” [1]. What social media missed is that this had all happened before, and will likely happen again.

There is a worrying pattern to the external border, immigration, and asylum policies of the European Union and its member states in the Mediterranean Sea. Seeking tighter external borders since the establishment of the Schengen Area in 1995, they created what sociologist Stephen Castles called “a policy of containment”, or a system designed to keep most migrants out [2]. As legal entry became all but impossible for most people from Africa and Asia, boats were used to bypass the physical border. Their illegalised position heightened their precarious position and led to losses as their journeys became circuitous and expensive. These losses were often labelled as a “crisis” and prompted even tougher security.

The movement and loss of people by boat from the Western Balkans to Italy in the late 1990s, for instance, was called a crisis. Boat crossings and sinkings near the Canary Islands and Lampedusa were also termed crises in the mid-2000s. The deaths of hundreds in large boats near Lampedusa in 2011, 2013, and 2014 were each called a crisis. At these intervals, the EU, along with its member states, made use of the narrative of crisis to justify extralegal responses in the form of stricter visa and entry rules, wider patrols and surveillance, and reduced legal protections. These intended to force people back before arrival at the physical border. Geographer Alison Mountz makes a compelling argument in “Seeking Asylum” that migration crisis can be manufactured to effect rapid policy change [3]. What we see in the Mediterranean is the use of this manufacture to enhance security, the consequence of which is more death – and therefore further crisis. Yet the cycle continues.

The usual story on journeys by boat in the Mediterranean misleads and reinforces the narrative of crisis. One article aptly summarises it as “the journalist usually tell[ing] a tale of desperate and destitute migrants paying a fortune to strong operationally sophisticated cartel of hardened criminals” – the smugglers and traffickers [4]. This summary remains accurate despite being written in 2006. European leaders and newspapers inform us that the root problem are these criminals, that they exploit people against their will to migrate, and that the solution is to stop them while increasing search and rescue at sea. Not only do these claims fall apart under stricter scrutiny, but they purposely obscure state activities.

People who migrate by boat are desperate and destitute because they lack a legal means to enter the EU. Previous research demonstrates that increased border security is ineffective at stopping illegal entry, and, instead, forces people to make use of smugglers who have the expertise and means to navigate the securitised border [5]. Authorities purposely conflate smugglers with the far less common human traffickers to demonise their activities, while those making the journey see smugglers as necessary. Contrary to media reports, smugglers are often former migrants themselves and usually work on their own or on an ad hoc basis in small networks [6]. Their activities are rarely international, and they are only criminal by virtue of the restrictions on legal movement to the EU, as externalised to North Africa. It is, in fact, the illegality of movement which raises its costs, since people must take riskier means to make their journey. By destroying boats, for example, EUNAVFOR Med will not stop the flow of people, but cause them to have to use poorer boats at higher cost.

Authorities and media alike herald search and rescue as the right response to losses at sea. The narrative of crisis, however, fails to scrutinise the nature or use of search and rescue, thereby obscuring its true costs. The reality is that the EU primarily uses search and rescue to intercept people moving at sea in international waters – or even in other countries. The money poured into operations such as EUNAVFOR Med, for example, serves to extend the territorial reach of the EU beyond the limits in its own waters. While immigration laws do not give legal authority to stop migrant boats before their arrival in EU waters, search and rescue instruments do [7]. What is particularly compelling about this power, as previously demonstrated by the United States and Australia, is that intercepting people in international waters restricts their legal right on seeking asylum. People moving at sea, in effect, do not enjoy most legal protections of the EU or its member states when intercepted during search and rescue. The media focus on the humanitarian aspects of rescue, therefore, actively obscures their contribution to border security – and more loss of life.

A fitting example came on May 20-21, when CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour travelled with an Italian naval vessel on search and rescue patrol [8]. In a series of videos, she documented the identification of a boat, by helicopter, at sea [9]. She reported the arrival of Italian authorities to intercept the people on-board and force them on deck, surrounded by officers in hazmat gear. This transfer was called a “rescue”. What Amanpour did not mention, however, was that the boat was not in distress, and that the helicopter was actively seeking boats to intercept. Also unmentioned was the location of the boat in international waters, which prevented Italian authorities from boarding or transferring people except by use of search and rescue. All this was documented in a record of the interception by the EU’s coordinating border agency, Frontex [10]. Finally, and most importantly, the fate of the people onboard was never explained by Amanpour. When directly questioned, the reporter hesitated for a few seconds, and then replied with ‘it’s complicated’. What she failed to say was that we currently do not know, since no reliable statistical record exists. What we do know is that over 3,000 people died last year attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea – a number which underestimates the human costs of the EU’s policies and the narrative of crisis [11].

Keegan Williams is a doctoral affiliate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. He is also a research assistant at the International Migration Research Centre and a PhD candidate in geography at Wilfrid Laurier University.


1 – European Union External Action Service. (2015). EUNAVFOR Med. Retrieved from http://www.eeas.europa.eu/csdp/missions-and-operations/eunavfor-med/index_en.htm.

2 – Castles, S. (2003). Towards a sociology of forced migration and social transformation. Sociology, vol. 37(1), p. 13-34.

3 – Mountz, A. (2010). Seeking Asylum: Human Smuggling and Bureaucracy at the Border. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

4 – Pastore, F., Monzini, P., & Sciortino, G. (2006). Schengen’s Soft Underbelly? Irregular Migration and Human Smuggling across Land and Sea Borders to Italy. International Migration, vol. 44(4), p. 1-25.

5 – For a good example in the Mediterranean context, see Hamood, S. (2006). African Transit Migration through Libya to Europe: the Human Cost. Report for The American University in Cairo: Forced Migration and Refugee Studies. Retrieved from http://www.aucegypt.edu/GAPP/cmrs/reports/Documents/African_Transit_Migration_through_Libya_-_Jan_2006_000.pdf.

6 – Pastore, Monzini, & Sciortino (2006); Hamood (2006).

7 – Barnes, R. (2004). Refugee Law at Sea. International and Comparative Law Quarterly, vol. 53(1), p. 47-77; Goodwin-Gill, G. (2011). The Right to Seek Asylum: Interception at Sea and the Principle of Non-Refoulment. International Journal of Refugee Law, vol. 23(3), p. 443-457.

8 – Cable News Network (CNN). (May 21, 2015). Amanpour joins migrant rescue operation in the Mediterranean. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/20/world/gallery/amanpour-mediterranean-migrants/.

9 – Cable News Network (CNN). (May 21, 2015). CNN witnesses dramatic migrant rescue in Mediterranean. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2015/05/21/pkg-amanpour-mediterranean-migrants.cnn/video/playlists/amanpour-mediterranean-migrants/.

10 – European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union (Frontex). (2015). Re: JORA Variables for Incidents During JO Hermes, Aeneas and Triton, March 2015-Present. Freedom of information request at asktheEU.org. Retrieved from http://www.asktheeu.org/en/request/re_jora_variables_for_incidents_2#incoming-7388.

11 – International Organization for Migration (IOM). (2014). Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost during Migration. Retrieved from http://www.iom.int/files/live/sites/iom/files/pbn/docs/Fatal-Journeys-Tracking-Lives-Lost-during-Migration-2014.pdf.

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