The Italian Border Management And Control Regime Between 2011 And 2017
Narratives and discourses: the securitarian-humanitarian nexus
The Italian approach to border management and migration control in the last few years can be defined as ‘schizophrenic’. There have been times of restriction in access to the territory and times of opening, above all for what search and sea rescue operations are concerned. The same definition might apply to the narratives and discourses developed in the public debate. Indeed, between 2011 and 2017 there has been an alternation of narratives over humanitarianism and securitization, with a constant emphasis on the need of solidarity among EU Member States and externalization.
Narratives of humanitarianism have been focusing on the commitment by the Italian government and EU institutions to save migrants’ lives and protect their human rights. However, the humanitarian discourse is strictly intertwined with that of securitization, which has focused on the need to combat illegal immigration, smuggling of migrants, and terrorism. Crucial to the analysis of the “securitarian-humanitarian nexus” is the discourse developed around the Mare Nostrum operation, officially a humanitarian mission launched by the Italian government in October 2013 as a response to the Lampedusa shipwreck of 3 October 2013, when 368 migrants died after their boat sank before reaching Italian shores. In fact, though Mare Nostrum had the humanitarian aim of saving lives at sea, it was also presented as a security mission aiming at capturing smugglers.
The securitarian-humanitarian mix has also characterized the discourse over the need to establish cooperation with – and provide assistance to – North African countries. Decision-makers – from both the centre-left and the centre-right – have always considered the externalization of border management and migration control as the winning strategy to curb migratory flows. In 2013, the Parliamentary Committee Responsible for Monitoring the Implementation of the Schengen Agreement stated in a report that “with a view to solidarity in the management of external borders, it is necessary and urgent for the European Union to act as a counterpart to bilateral agreements with […] African countries, in order to govern migration flows and to facilitate return policy”. In 2016, in a letter to the Presidents of the European Commission and the European Council – Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk respectively –, the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (Democratic Party) stated that “the external dimension of migration policies is fundamental for the survival of Schengen and the principle of free movement. The management of migratory flows is no longer sustainable without a targeted and enhanced cooperation with third countries, both of origin and transit”. The letter introduced the ‘non-paper’ named ‘Migration Compact’, which stressed that “[a]ll existing initiatives and instruments in the field of external action should be directed (in a coherent way with the internal ones) to developing an active strategy, focussing first and foremost on African countries of origin and transit”.
In 2017, in a letter to the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, the Minister of the Interior Marco Minniti (Democratic Party), remarked that in order to encourage a reduction in migratory flows, “the […] Italian strategy […] focuses [also] on supporting Libyan authorities responsible for border control and flow management. [This strategy] contributes to reducing the risk of accidents and shipwrecks, a risk that can only be eliminated by stopping departures” . In the same letter, the Minister specifies that the activity of the Italian authorities is ‘limited’ to training, equipment and logistical support of the Libyan Coast Guard, with the aim of preventing life-threatening crossings.
Already in 2011, in a parliamentary speech, the Minister of the Interior Roberto Maroni (Northern League) emphasized the necessity of intensifying the “diplomatic activity towards the countries of origin, first of all Tunisia, [and] strengthening the relations with other countries, first of all Egypt, Morocco and Algeria”. One year later, during a parliamentary committee hearing, the Ministry of the Interior Anna Maria Cancellieri (Independent) stated that the “Government efforts to find effective means for combating illegal immigration continue. In this direction, […] bilateral cooperation policy has been given new impetus and collaboration with North African countries, in particular Tunisia and Libya, has therefore been resumed. The need is to ensure greater efficiency in border control, combining it with respect for human rights”. Beyond the mixed narratives and discourses on humanitarianism and securitization, within the strategy of externalization of border controls, security objectives certainly outweigh humanitarian aims. For example, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between Italy and Libya in 2011 emphasized the need to strengthen cooperation in combating smuggling of migrants and terrorism. The same holds true for the MoUs signed between Italy and Sudan in 2016 and Italy and Lybia in 2017. This is all in line with a general orientation towards a more stringent regulation of the migration phenomenon to reduce the incidence of irregular immigration.
In the debate, the narrative – again shared from both centre-left and the centre-right parties– related to the need of solidarity and fair share of responsibilities (burden-sharing) between EU Member States has also played a crucial role. As stated in 2011 by the Ministry of the Interior Roberto Maroni, “a system that leaves the individual coastal states of the southern Mediterranean alone to manage unilaterally or bilaterally such important issues as illegal immigration cannot work”. In 2016, in its inaugural speech to Parliament, the Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni (Democratic Party) declared that “we cannot accept a Europe that is too strict on some aspects of its austerity policies and too tolerant towards countries that do not accept to share common responsibilities on immigration issues”. This discourse is certainly also linked to the pitfalls of the Dublin Regulation, which have been highlighted by national decision-makers in several occasions.
Key issues: access to the territory, the ‘hotspot approach’, and the externalization strategy
The key issues related to the implementation of border management and migration control measures are primarily related to: a) access to the national territory for asylum seekers; b) the ‘hotspot approach’; and c) the externalization strategy. As for access from land, Italy lacks any official border monitoring activities, which are fundamental to assess whether border management operations comply with human rights law and prove to be effective in border control. These activities are instead carried out by non-governmental organizations. As for access from sea, search and rescue operations provided by NGOs have been discouraged. NGOs have often been accused to encourage departures from North African shores and favour irregular immigration. Criticism of search and rescue operations by NGOs mainly builds upon the argument that the mere presence of rescue boats constitutes a ‘pull factor’ that leads to more crossings through sea. However, there is no empirical evidence supporting such claims.
As far as the implementation of the ‘hotspot approach’ is concerned, the activities taking place in hotspots lack a clear and solid legal basis. In fact, hotspots are not regulated by any EU directive or regulation nor by primary Italian legislation, as they are provided for and disciplined by secondary legislation. Moreover, several criticalities have been reported by non-governmental actors. Concerns have been related to the identification procedure, with migrants who have been often classified as asylum seekers or economic migrants depending on a summary assessment. Poor living conditions and severe violations of fundamental rights in hotspots and pre-removal facilities have also been detected. Moreover, though the identification rate in hotspots remains high, no positive results were achieved in terms of relocation policy.
With regard to the border externalization strategy, as we have discussed above, in order to curb migratory flows, Italy has signed several agreements with North African countries. However, since cooperation is established with countries where systematic violations of human rights are reported, such a strategy certainly poses serious concerns in terms of respect of migrants’, refugees’, and asylum seekers’ fundamental rights. In this respect, the humanitarian consequences of the restrictive control policies implemented in agreement with North African countries are not seriously considered by Italian authorities. Moreover, by preventing migrants from ever coming under the Italian jurisdiction, externalization might directly violate the right to seek and enjoy asylum.
In light of these issues, two main policy recommendations can be provided. First, Italy should reinforce the ‘legal channels’ for asylum seekers to access the Italian asylum system. Currently, such channels are in effect guaranteed by the ‘humanitarian corridors’ (corridoi umanitari) only, which however do not constitute a governmental programme and do not receive public financing. Strengthening the legal access would facilitate safe arrival in Italy of beneficiaries of international protection. Second, blocking the migratory flows – preventing migrants from seeking asylum – should not be seen as the primary aim of border management policies. The Italian externalization strategy has indeed been mainly focused on limiting cross-border flows of migrants. In striking a balance between the aim of maintaining secure borders and of allowing the legitimate movement of individuals seeking asylum, Italy should better evaluate the humanitarian consequences of its securitarian border externalization policy.
This blog post is based on the Research Report “Border Management and Migration Control in Italy” prepared for the RESPOND’s Work Package 2.
To learn more:
Andrijasevic, Rutvica. 2010. “DEPORTED: The Right to Asylum at EU’s External Border of Italy and Libya.” International Migration 48 (1): 148–74. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2435.2009.00554.x.
ARCI. 2016. Steps in the Process of Externalisation of Border Controls to Africa, from the Valletta Summit to Today. Rome: ARCI.
Biondi, Paolo. 2012. “The Externalization of the EU’s Southern Border in Light of the EU/Libya Framework Agreement: A Lawful Alternative or a Neo-Refoulement Strategy?” Vienna Journal on International Constitutional Law 6 (1): 144–207. doi:10.1111/j.1477-7053.2007.00251.x/abstract.
Cuttitta, Paolo. 2014. “From the Cap Anamur to Mare Nostrum: Humaniarianism and Migration Controls at the EU’s Maritime Borders.” In The Common European Asylum System and Human Rights: Enhancing Protection in Times of Emergencies, edited by Claudio Matera and Amanda Taylor. The Hague: Centre for the Law of EU External Relations, CLEER Working Papers 2014/7.
Extraordinary Commission for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights. 2017. Rapporto Sui Centri Di Identificazione Ed Espulsione in Italia. Rome: Senate of the Republic.
Heller, Charles, and Lorenzo Pezzani. 2017. Blaming the Rescuers. London: University of London, Goldsmiths College. https://blamingtherescuers.org/.
Klepp, Silja. 2010. “A Contested Asylum System : The European Union between Refugee Protection and Border Control in the Mediterranean Sea.” European Journal of Migration and Law 12: 1–21. doi:10.1163/157181610X491169.
Oxfam. 2016. Hotspots, Rights Denied. Oxford: Oxfam.
Pannia, Paola, Veronica Federico, and Silvia D’Amato. 2018. “Italy – Country Report: Legal and Policy Framework of Migration Governance.” Global Migration: Consequences and Responses – Working Paper Series, Paper 2018/07, 1–103. doi:10.5281/zenodo.1418579.
 Mare Nostrum was a military operation launched on 14th October 2013 and enhanced by a resolution of the Council of Ministers approved on the same day. It started on the 18th October 2013 and ended on 31st October 2014.
 Chamber of Deputies and Senate of the Republic. 2013. Indagine Conoscitiva Sulle Nuove Politiche Europee in Materia Di Immigrazione. Rome: Chamber of Deputies and Senate of the Republic, p. 20.
 Center-left, 2014 – 2016.
 Letter to the Presidents of the European Commission and the European Council, 15 April 2016.
 Migration Compact: Contribution to an EU strategy for external action on migration, April 2016, p. 1.
 Government led by Paolo Gentiloni (center-left, 2016 – 2018).
 Letter to the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, 11 October 2017.
 Government led by Silvio Berlusconi (center-right, 2008-2011).
 Parliamentary intervention, 7 April 2011.
 Government led by Mario Monti (technocratic government, 2011 – 2013).
 Hearing of the Minister of the Interior on Immigration Issues within the context of the Extraordinary Commission for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights, 16 May 2012.
 Parliamentary intervention, 7 April 2011.
 Center-left, 2016 – 2018.
. Inaugural speech to Parliament, 13 December 2016.
 The ‘humanitarian corridors’ constitute an innovative project launched in 2015 with a Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Foreigner Affairs, the Ministry of the Interior, the Community of Sant’Egidio (Comunità di Sant’Egidio), the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy (Federazione delle Chiese Evangeliche in Italia) and the Waldensian Evangelical Church (Chiesa Evangelica Valdese). To date, around 2000 people (mostly Syrians) have arrived in Italy through the ‘humanitarian corridors’. Currently, two ‘corridors’ are active (with Lebanon and Ethiopia) (see https://www.santegidio.org/pageID/30112/langID/it/CORRIDOI-UMANITARI.html)