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Fatal Distractions: Mediterranean Migrations and the War on Human Smuggling

1 Comment 🕔02.Dec 2015

This article is part of our feature Framing Migration.

Syrian refugees embrace after arriving in Lesbos, Greece. Photo credit: Jordi Bernabeu Farrús.


by Maurizio Albahari

Mediterranean currents, unforgiving elements, rickety boats; desperate people, merchants of human flesh, traffickers of death: this recurring imagery serves as political commentary on each new Mediterranean shipwreck. Over two decades, these images have proved integral to a moralizing public discourse that seeks to explain migrant deaths. Based on my long-term scrutiny of discourses centered on human smuggling at sea,[i] I argue here that the above-mentioned phrases are more consequential than empty rhetoric: they help to crystallize the politically palatable, and ultimately contribute to preserving a volatile and lethal status quo.

The Mediterranean Sea, both in its Eastern and Central corridors, continues to constitute a lethal environment for unauthorized migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees. During the first 11 months of 2015, 3,485 persons died or went missing in the Mediterranean.[ii] On April 19, 2015, an estimated 850 people from Eritrea, Syria, Ethiopia and West African countries drowned north of Tripoli on their way to Italy, crammed into a single boat that left from the area around Zuwara, Libya. In response to this migrant shipwreck, considered the deadliest ever recorded in the Mediterranean, the European Union (EU) Commission unveiled a “10-point plan” of “immediate actions to be taken in response to the crisis situation in the Mediterranean.”[iii] The plan is paradigmatic of the overarching approach that, in its proposed strategies and outcomes, originates in the Italian and Spanish approach of the 1990s and continues to be used despite its limited successes. It seeks to curb unauthorized arrivals in Europe through a combination of EU intelligence, anti-smuggling activities, border enforcement, and policing in collaboration with Libya’s African neighbors (given the current fragmentation of the Libyan counterparts themselves). An EU-wide “voluntary pilot project on resettlement” that might eventually resettle some 10,000 refugees in Europe is the only proposed measure explicitly and preemptively tackling the demand for smugglers.[iv]

Every newsworthy shipwreck is met with an institutional response, both at the Italian and the EU level, emphasizing the need to redouble the war on smuggling. In an official statement following the October 3, 2013 shipwreck—when at least 366 people died off the Italian island of Lampedusa—then European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström (2010–14) emphasized “the need to intensify our efforts to fight criminal networks exploiting human despair so that they cannot continue to put people’s lives at risk in small, overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels.”[v] The authoritative pervasiveness of the anti-smuggling discourse, of which Malmström’s words serve merely as an example, purports that migrants are interchangeable entities deprived of agency. More generally, this institutional and media discourse conflates more or less improvised boat drivers and seasoned smugglers, smugglers and traffickers, and small smuggling groups with large, multinational smuggling cartels.

Politically, there is little doubt that smuggler networks should be targeted, along with their money laundering abilities and possible connections to militia violence, terrorism, corruption, and drug trafficking. Analytically, my objective is certainly not to diminish smugglers’ criminal responsibilities, which I detail in my work, nor to deny that the vulnerability of smuggled persons and the discretion smugglers enjoy can sometimes result in coercion and trafficking. I am interested, rather, in sketching the implications of anti-smuggling discourse, especially when it is presented in an imprecise and confusing way to European publics.


Tents on Kos island

Migrant tents on the Greek island of Kos. Photo credit: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.


The ‘war on smuggling’ discourse purports that the arrival of people in Europe can be prevented by stopping smugglers’ maritime vectors and by disrupting their networks. The presumption is that migrants and refugees will somehow accept to stay in unsafe and conflict-ridden Libya; go back to their countries of origin throughout Africa without repaying their debts; or simply stay put and accept their fate, whether in West African cities, in Sudanese refugee camps, or in Eritrean labor camps and military barracks. In reality, the situation in coastal Libya shows a country that continues to rely on the work of international migrants, some of whom intend to continue their journey. Young people consider the risk of death in the Mediterranean as a necessary evil in their pursuit of dignity and justice. Their motives are varied: serving their families as migrant pioneers; reuniting with relatives in Europe and North America; pursuing civil rights and life prospects otherwise crushed by cronyism, corruption, and drought in their home countries and by excruciating exploitation and violence in Libya. These young people comprise a substantial portion of those crossing the Mediterranean from Libya. Many, with notable exceptions such as Eritrean and Somali citizens, are labeled as irregular economic migrants. As the EU intends to further support authorities in countries such as Sudan, Mali, Niger, Tunisia, and Egypt in their quest to fight human smuggling and to deter, detain, readmit, and remove these migrants, at the very least it also needs to be proactive in making sure that non-nationals (as wells as nationals) in these countries have access to asylum procedures and legal protections.

Millions of refugees are hosted in the immediate vicinity of the EU. The unprecedented arrival of Syrian refugees has recently contributed to the EU’s appreciation of the fundamental role of countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iran in hosting refugees. Turkey, in particular, is now the largest host of refugees in the world. While most refugees intend to return to their homes at some point, many reach out to smugglers to take them to Europe. Their motives vary, and include family reunification, the inability to work legally in Turkey, and the need for medical assistance. More generally, virtually all the refugees I interviewed in Italy over the last decade made clear that when ethno-religious persecution, indefinite conscription (in Eritrea), terrorist recruitment (in Afghanistan), and armed conflict are your only certainties, the probability of dying in the desert or in the Mediterranean on your way to a safe haven is a rational risk to face. Arguably, access to asylum application in Europe should not be left to the exploitative discretion of a smuggler, or to luck with the elements. Both at the discursive-political level and empirically, one must ask how persons and groups recognized as being in need of international protection ought to enter Europe and apply for asylum in the absence of smugglers who serve as exploitative facilitators for their trip.

But this might be a rhetorical question. For at the core of its motives and objectives, the ‘war on smuggling’ discourse focuses on the containment of migrants and refugees far from European shores.[vi] As is widely known, in October 2015 the EU pledged three billion euros to help defray Turkey’s costs in assisting refugees on its territory, with the expectation that it would then contain refugees’ mobility across the Aegean. Regardless of one’s opinions on this matter, and on the qualification of Turkey as a “safe” country of origin and transit, the ‘war on smuggling’ discourse preempts analytical and political queries: in particular, why does the global responsibility for refugees need to remain so unequally distributed?

While politicians such as Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, and Viktor Orbán offer answers centered on welfare, unemployment, security, and the ostensibly Christian essence of their respective countries and of Europe as a whole, their liberal counterparts are conspicuously silent. Their silence, along with their sustained deployment of the ‘war on smuggling’ discourse, perpetuates the cultural incontestability of what, in reality, remains a highly contested assumption: that migration is largely unwanted. Shipwreck after shipwreck, the silence on immigration policy and the eloquence on the ‘war on smuggling’ distract from the urgency of inescapable questions on European ageing, labor demands, and the lack of safe access to claiming asylum.

Additionally, the routine conflation of smuggling and trafficking enables the plausibility of a European “sovereign humanitarianism”[vii] that justifies a restrictionist approach to immigration through the routine rescue of lives at sea. In reality, while Italian and European navies continue to save lives, anti-smuggling discourses as well as intelligence practices and prosecution have failed to liberate people in North Africa as in Turkey from the need for smugglers’ exploitative services and from the prospect of death at sea.


Greek Council for Refugees

The Greek Council for Refugees in Athens. Photo credit: Frerieke


Finally, the discursive emphasis on smuggling and on the fight against its vectors and perpetrators also risks displacing a more substantial discussion of the role of European citizens. One may legitimately ask what the role of citizens is when it comes to bilateral and intergovernmental agreements on smuggling, migration management, and readmissions. It is not a coincidence that international, humanitarian, and non-governmental organizations routinely ask European governments, rather than citizens, “to do more” to prevent further loss of life at sea. In European cities, however, individual citizens and cultural, athletic, and religious groups are demonstrating that they have an important role in the dignified reception of newcomers. For example, by hosting refugees in their own homes in coordination with local municipalities and police forces, these social actors are showing that there are alternatives to cramming people into centralized hostels. By volunteering and spending their nights on docks in Greece and Italy, they are saying they do not resent being at the forefront of migrant reception. These dynamics of mobilization also deserve further analysis because they confound one of the main rationales for the war on smuggling: Europeans’ presumed nativism. While European societies are undeniably split on migration and refugee issues, one still needs to ask why the pervasive reality of nativism summons more attention than the equally pervasive reality of the civic society of actors who work hard to extend a dignified reception and to foster integration.

In summary, the prevalence of the ‘war on smuggling’ discourse is related to its political palatability. It unites European governments, otherwise divided on fundamental issues such as refugee relocations and the sustainability of the Schengen Treaty and the Dublin regulations.[viii] It affords national authorities some credibility when they claim they are “doing something” about unregulated migration, both from a humanitarian and a policing point of view.[ix] At the same time, it defers any serious reconsideration, in the larger public sphere, of dominant discourses centered on refugee and migrant containment.

At this juncture, critics might argue that the main mandate of democratically-elected governments is to safeguard the personal safety and rights of their own citizens, rather than of those who knock on their doors. The ‘war on smuggling’ discourse aligns quite effortlessly with such a perspective. While it might constitute a sign of the sovereign fight against international organized crime, it fails to curb unregulated arrivals and organized crime. While it might quell the short-lived outrage cyclically generated by powerful images of Mediterranean carnage, it fails to mitigate Mediterranean carnage. Massive unregulated mobility is already happening at an excruciating cost. Can European and other liberal-democratic governments act in more rational, humane, and proactive ways?

International and humanitarian organizations have long proposed a variety of provisions that would mitigate loss of life at sea and aid refugees’ orderly arrival in the EU (whether temporarily or permanently), possibly complemented by legal access to the Turkish job market and eventually with stability and a revamped economy in Libya. Some of these provisions, including family reunifications, study visas, temporary protection, and boosting asylum staff and adjudication committees are already part of national and EU legislation but need to be more effectively implemented. More ambitiously, planning for realistic labor immigration quotas that actually reflect the needs of the job market and of Europe’s aging societies (while protecting existing worker rights) would also be instrumental in easing asylum committees’ enormous workload. In the aftermath of the October 2013 shipwrecks, the EU Commission’s own “Task Force Mediterranean” solicited “more legal mobility opportunities for study and work” and “alternative avenues of entry to potential asylum-seekers.”[x] Elsewhere, I have also proposed a moratorium on air carrier sanctions.[xi] Cumulatively, these provisions would make a substantial dent in smugglers’ costly monopoly and contribute to the more orderly arrival of those seeking safe haven, more dignified treatment, and a more capillary effort at “debriefing” and fingerprinting people, as required by EU policies. The logic behind such provisions also holds true at times such as these, plagued by transnational terrorism: it seeks to curb the number of unregulated arrivals and of Mediterranean deaths.

The ‘war on smuggling’ distracts from these empirically-based considerations and proposals. It reproduces a morality tale in which critical questions are redundant as the responsibility for migrant deaths rests largely with despicable human beings. It is legitimate to ask, then (as our students, audiences, and readerships routinely do), whether academics involved in basic research should have a role not only in analyzing immigration discourses, but also in offering empirically grounded and pragmatic alternatives (for example by actively contributing to public discourse[xii] or by engaging policymakers).[xiii] I am convinced that by disassembling and challenging immigration discourses, including the war on smuggling, academics help create room for a more democratized discussion of immigration. Thus, we may ask: how much should liberal democracies spend on border enforcement and anti-smuggling endeavors, and how much on refugee resettlement and integration? How should polities relate to the persons who, immediately outside EU jurisdiction—in Macedonia, in Turkey, in Libya—demand recognition of their right of asylum, and ask permission to seek a better life?


Maurizio Albahari is the author of Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migrations at the World’s Deadliest Border (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015). He has recently published articles in Anthropology Today, Anthropology Now, Fox News, Orlando Sentinel, CNN, History News Network, and the German-Turkish magazine Perspektif. Albahari is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.

This article is part of our feature Framing Migration.

[i] For a fuller ethnographic, theoretical, and bibliographic account of maritime migration, border enforcement, international relations, and transnational smuggling, see Maurizio Albahari, Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migrations at the World’s Deadliest Border. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

[ii] See

[iii] European Commission, Joint Foreign and Home Affairs Council, Press release, “Ten point action plan on migration,” April 20, 15,

[iv] See Eurostat’s 2008-14 data on resettled persons,

[v] In Albahari 2015: 172.

[vi] These are not necessarily the motives and objectives behind the daily work of individual armed forces, rescue sailors, prosecutors, and police agents.

[vii] See Albahari 2015: 114.

[viii] Former EU Commission President Romano Prodi, for example, has bitterly commented on the traditional political resistance to a shared responsibility for the Mediterranean. See a recent interview of his:

Spiegel Online has chronicled the entrenched intra-European tensions emerging in the aftermath of the October 3, 2013 shipwreck off Lampedusa, and reemerging after the April 19, 2015 shipwreck. See

[ix] This humanitarian-policing nexus was epitomized by the short-lived Mare Nostrum mission of the Italian Navy. See Albahari 2015: 193-5.

[x] European Commission, ‘‘Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament

and the Council on the Work of the Task Force Mediterranean,’’ December 4, 2013,

[xi] See

[xii] See forthcoming, Maurizio Albahari, “Mediterranean Carnage: Heretical Scholarship and Public Citizenship in an Age of Eloquence,” Anthropological Quarterly 89 (2016).

[xiii] See Gregory Feldman, The Migration Apparatus: Security, Labor, and Policymaking in the European Union. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 199.




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