The arbitrariness of control and the border regime.


Snapshots from Lampedusa

October 2023

[In October 2023 most of arrivals in Lampedusa were on wooden boats departed from Libya with  most of people declaring Eritrean, Sudanese and Egyptian nationalities. Already in September, along with arrivals from Tunisia in iron boats (non-Tunisian people) and wooden boats (mainly Tunisian people), arrivals from Libya had increased despite pullback operations by the Libian Coast Guard.

After the events of 12 September and the political developments following the collapse of the Lampedusa hotspot, the number of iron boats from Tunisia has drastically decreased. From the last week of September until today, in fact, the number of iron boats arriving can be counted on the fingers of one hand. While the autumn weather conditions have contributed to a negative impact on departures, the cause of the closure of the 'Tunisian route' (by which we mean the departures from Sfax in ironclad boats) can be attributed to the Tunisian authorities' control of the area from Sfax to Monastir. Without any real cooperation being implemented, a Tunisian delegation visited Frontex headquarters in Warsaw in September, with the participation of the Ministries of the Interior, Foreign Affairs and Defence. The visit from Tunis was received personally by Frontex Director Hans Leijtens.

Situation in Tunisia: interceptions at sea, anti-terrorist operations in Sfax.

According to JihedBrirmi's X-contact (formerly Twitter):

Direct testimonies and information gathered by activists3 in Sfax tell of police operations systematically outside any guarantee of rights. As happened and denounced already in July, forced deportations of undocumented people from the southern Sahara countries to the borders with Libya and Algeria have resumed. As Albadry, who arrived in Italy in the last few days, tells us:

I was arrested in the apartment that I was renting with my friends. We were four people, 3 Sudanese and 1 from the Republic of Mali. We all came to Tunisia in search of security, peace and good living. The police took me to their headquarters and we were all interrogated at the headquarters of the National Border Guard. In the beginning, the treatment was good from The police accepted the investigation, but we were surprised by beatings after the investigation. We were taken to a temporary prison in which there were no free basic services such as food and drink. Then we were deported to a prison called Al-Tineh Prison in Sfax. After 15 days, we were brought to court and sentenced to two months due to illegal immigration, even though it was... We have a card from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Tunisia. Treatment in the prison is very bad. There is no drinking water. We were drinking from the bathroom water, which is very salty water. The rooms are narrow and there are persistent people in them. There is no air conditioning. There is a deadly heater. The food is little. There are no clothes or shoes. There is no health or medical care, there is clear negligence

As announced at the beginning of September on the official page of the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior, on 19 September a massive police operation cleared the Bab Jebli area, an encampment point since this summer for thousands of people who are now unable to rent a house because they are black and undocumented. The forces and vehicles of the anti-terrorist brigades participated in the operations with quads, drones and helicopters. One of the objectives was to identify and dismantle the networks of smugglers scattered across the territory. According to the direct testimony of people who arrived from Tunisia, the coasts are highly guarded and the actions of depredation, deportation and police repression in the Sfax area are constant.

In such a context of extreme police discretion, the actions of international agencies such as IOM and UNHCR remain opaque; quoting again Albadry: 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is not working well. We were on the streets. The UNHCR did not provide us with housing. We have cards, but there are no sums of money in them. Even the government does not recognize this card. The proof of this is that we were arrested and sentenced to illegal immigration. The immigration organization is fine with it. It provided us with a meal. And water one day

The operations to control the Sfax coast came amid a political rupture between President Kais Saied and the European Commission. Although on Sept. 22 the latter had announced the rapid dispatch of part of the funding envisaged in the memorandum signed last July, the Tunisian president, on Oct. 3, rejected the financement envisaged by the European Commission to the extent that, according to his statements:

"Tunisia, which accepts cooperation, does not accept anything resembling charity."

In an Eurocentric view, journalists, analysts, and activists have interpreted the political decision as a way, of the Tunisian president, to play the classic game of opening and closing the border. Instead, the basis of the Memorandum's rupture is, on the one hand, Kais Saied's political steadfastness (repeatedly stressed) not to play the role of border controller for Europe and, on the other hand, the real intention to control Tunisian territory and any form of organization that escapes state control, whether political (political opponents, activists3, NGOs) or economic (smuggling and passeurs networks). Sovereignism - the monopoly of the state in controlling the territory-rather than political opportunism, is the filter through which to read Kais Saied's political intention at the same time the point of convergence with Giorgia Meloni's political vision and justification for the repressive and dictatorial nature of the political system orchestrated in recent years.

Arrivals from Libya and southern Tunisia and pull-back operations.

Although arrivals in iron boats have been almost absent in the past month, there have been numerous arrivals from Tunisia of Tunisian men, women, and entire families. Most of the October arrivals, at any rate, were via big boats that departed from the Libyan coast and with people claiming Pakistani, Syrian, Egyptian, and Eritrean nationalities (non-exhaustive figure).

Arrival in Lampedusa of a fishing boat that left from the Libyan coast with about 240 people on board.

Pull-back operations and dangerous interceptions by the Libyan coast guard remain constant. According to IOM Libya's X (Twitter) profile, from Oct. 1 to Oct. 21, 2023, roughly 899 people departing Libya were intercepted and arrested; 430 people intercepted between Oct. 22 and Oct. 28.

Some of these operations were reported and documented directly by NGOs and civilian actors present in the central Mediterranean.

On Oct. 1, the SeaWatch page reported on dangerous maneuvers on a boat by the Libyan Coast Guard, which also threatened the crew of OpenArms (later fined and under administrative detention for 20 days following the same operation).

On Oct. 18, it was the Luoise Michel page that denounced an excessive approach by the GCL vessel during an operation to recover 50 people in a boat.

It dates back to Friday, Oct. 27 when, as a result of Libyan GC operations witnessed by SeaEye4, four people lost their lives and others remain missing.

The latest pullback episode is the one witnessed by the crew of Aurora, SeaWatch's vessel.

Following the communications of Refugees in Libya, there are daily reports of the violence suffered in Libya by people travelling without visas. In this context, the instructions given by the EN MRCC to the Mare Jonio ship to coordinate with the Libyan Coast Guard in order to disembark the 69 people who boarded the Mediterranea ship are particularly serious.

Hotspot as antechamber to prison in Agrigento.

Although investigations inside the hotspot and police checks have never stopped, with the arrival of from Libya, searches and document checks at the very moment of disembarkation are increasingly common. The intention - not applied to the iron boats this summer - to criminalize the smugglers ( i.e., the drivers of the boats) has also resurfaced. With the aim of wanting to weaken the network that allows people to leave from Libya, questions and interrogations (with checking of images on personal phones) by Frontex and squadra mobile agents are aimed at identifying who drove the boat and open investigations. Several young men, mainly Egyptians and aged between 20 and 30, have been incarcerated in the prison of Agrigento's on charges of scapegoating. Accused people are often unaware of what is going on and have no cultural mediation/translation except at the first meeting with the Judge. Given, moreover, the actual functioning of the Agrigento prison, there is no possibility of contacting the families in a timely manner. Some incarcerated people without economic resources with whom Maldusa has been in contact say they still have not been able to call their families after a month after they have been arrested.

The Lampedusa Hotspot, as repeatedly reported, is a multifunctional place where various operations take place; among them those of investigation and policing. Although most people are transferred in the shortest possible time, others are stuck in the Hotspot for investigation, usually exceeding the 48h granted by right and without effective disposition of the judiciary in the following hours. Adding gravity to this practice is that regularly no explanation is given to the people concerned. Contacted directly by a group of Syrian and Palestinian people in the hotspot for more than six days, they told Maldusa that they were unaware of the reasons for their "staying" (detention). The arbitrariness with which police controls act and take shape is a reflection of the neo-colonial relationships on which the institutions aimed at controlling migration flows rely on. Exactly on the illegitimate conditions of detention, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has expressed itself by publishing, on October 19, 2023, three judgments recognizing the violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment) and Article 5 (right to liberty and security) of the European Convention on Human Rights and condemning Italy in relation to the conditions of detention suffered by some foreign nationals in the Lampedusa Hotspot in a period of time between 2017 and 2019.

On the discretion of controls at sea.

Tunisian fishing boats brought to Lampedusa in October 2023 by the Italian authorities. In both cases, the crews and boats returned to Tunisia after checks. and long waits without the presence of mediators.
Ph. Maldusa

If the practice in the Hotspot disentangles itself from any form of legal guarantees, in the wake of the same discretionary nature are the control and policing operations on the high seas on Tunisian fishing boats. In the past month, three Tunisian fishing boats have been brought to Lampedusa for checks. Unknown remains the number of control and search operations carried out on the high seas and, even less clear, the forms such operations take. One wonders, in fact, what are the limits of the interventions of police actions in the open sea on fishing vessels flying the Tunisian flag? What are the safeguards in a context where the means for criminalization are becoming increasingly varied? Are on-board searches permitted or only remote control; armed or unarmed; and which security bodies can undertake such operations?

In the fog of opaque information, one can see the high risk of projecting suspicions on Tunisian fishermen at sea on whose maneuvers criminalizing theories are easily sewn.

These latest control operations hark back to what happened this summer, in which control operations on fishing vessels by Gdf and GCI took shape. Particularly emblematic of arbitrariness, was the role of IOM mediators played in these operations despite the fact that their contract, so-called PASSIM3, stipulates that they are to mediate only in rescue operations (and not, therefore, in control operations).

Hotspots, prisons, detention centers and the sea are the overlapping layers on which the roles of organizations and individuals tend to blur and converge on the function of control and filtering without formal safeguards to the detention drifts inherent in the Hotspot system itself.

Law enforcement, naufragi e corpi ritrovati sulle spiagge del Mediterraneo.

In recent weeks, there has also been an increase in the number of interventions by Guardia di Finanza assets in cases where there had been reports of the arrivals of boats with undocumented persons. In practice, the GdF Assets wait for the reported boats at the edge of territorial waters, sometimes missing them and searching in vain for several hours. What we read between the lines, is that the operational priority is to stay in national waters and the essentially political will is not to easily intervene beyond 12 miles and certainly not beyond the Italian SAR zone. It is a practice, this, that takes us back to past years scenario and to reasons of office that tend to prefer the categorization of events as law enforcement rather than rescue operations. It was precisely by criticizing this dynamic that Omid Firouzi Tabar wrote about the operations around the Cutro case:

Action is taken by prioritizing a repressive operation against possible "stowaways" on board instead of attributing it to a search and rescue (SAR) action, and it is proceeded, with consequent assumption of responsibility, to send two Finance Guard units instead of sending the boats, specialized in rescue even in critical conditions, of the Coast Guard.

Several shipwrecks have been recorded in the past month and several people are still missing. In addition to the 4 deaths previously mentioned following tense operations involving 40 people on a boat, the Libyan Coast Guard and SeaEye4, on the night of Oct. 29 a fishing boat that left Tunisia capsized a few meters off the coast of Marinella di Selinunte, in the Trapani area. To date 6 bodies have been found lifeless and between 15 and 20 are missing.

In early October another boat wrecked with 24 people on board, 7 of whom were rescued by a Tunisian fishing boat and initially assisted by the Tunisian Red Crescent; 17 have not been heard from since. Between the night of Oct. 28 and 29, another boat with 17 people on board, most of them Syrian families, disappeared at sea after leaving the Libyan coast. Along with the cases listed above of which Maldusa has also been contacted by acquaintances or families, the Alarmphone network adds that they have received a report for the disappearance of 2 people in a boat whose 45 people on board are still missing.

Along the coasts in Tunisia, Libya, and Lampedusa, several bodies have been found stranded lifeless and on which identification procedures are applied with wide arbitrariness. The same arbitrariness that acts as a common thread in necropolitics spread across the Mediterranean, a sign of that power and ability to decide who can live and who can, more easily, die or disappear.