In the past few months, tragic deaths of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean sea have propelled the European “migration crisis” to the centre of international attention. The drowning of over 800 migrants off the coast of Malta on April 23, 2015[1] is merely the most dramatic of a long string of incidents that have transformed the Mediterranean sea into a mass grave. According to the International Organization for Migration, over 3,000 migrants died while crossing the Mediterranean in 2014 alone, and the death toll reaches 40,000 since the year 2000[2]. The situation of the Mediterranean is not unique. According to the US border patrol, in fact, since 1998 over 6,000 people have died while attempting to cross the US-Mexico border[3]. However, the sheer number of migrants (over 102,000 arrivals by to sea since the beginning of 2015[4]) and the the number of deaths currently make the Mediterranean the site where the human cost of border militarization is most painfully clear[5].

The fortification of borders, however, does not only make migrant journeys perilous, but it also exacerbates the politics of exclusion within national borders. As Professor Wendy Brown points out in her 2010 ‘Walled States, waning sovereignty’[6], the spectacular fortification of borders is a stark visual representation of a distinction between “us” (the community) and “them” (those who allegedly threaten this community) on which borders are based. These fortified borders also produce similar divisions within the territory of the nation, as they lead to reactionary and restrictive understandings of who belongs to the national community. This process is clear in multiple European countries. Here, the migration crises of the past decade and the increased fortification of the Mediterranean border have occurred alongside the rise of xenophobic movements and parties (for instance Ukip in the United Kingdom, or the right-wing marches against the “islamification of Europe” that took place in Germany in late 2014[7]). These sentiments have not only been manifested by the far-right, but have also appeared in more mainstream claims of some European politicians around the “failure of multiculturalism” and the need for assimilation[8]. The restrictive understanding of community in this political climate does not only target recently arrived migrants and refugees, but also citizens of non-European background. The strength of this rhetoric is particularly obvious in Southern European countries such as Italy, in which the economic crisis is actually leading to a decrease in immigration and an increase in emigration[9], but immigration continues to dominate the political debate.

As an Italian critical geographer who researches the history of cross-Mediterranean migration, I am convinced that we should be in solidarity with migrants and refugees who have died crossing the Mediterranean sea, and we should express this in two main ways. Firstly, we should actively support policies that could alleviate the dangers of cross-Mediterranean migration, and reduce its death toll, such as the ones recommended by Amnesty International[10]. Secondly, and more importantly, we need to question the premises that justify the current fortification and militarization of the Mediterranean border, and the exclusionary understandings of community that accompany this. This second point can be achieved in three main ways.

Firstly, concerning the current arrivals of migrants, it is important to recognize the historical responsibility of the European Union and different European countries with respect to the countries of origin and transit of migrants. Without the need to return to colonial histories, over the past decade, different European countries and the European Union have collaborated with repressive regimes such as the former governments of Tunisia[11] and Libya[12] (before they were ousted by popular movements in 2011), in exchange for their collaboration in guarding the European Union’s borders. In some cases, migrants were returned to countries of documented abuses of their human rights, such as Libya[13]

Secondly, we should underline that the fortification of the Mediterranean is a recent process that has interrupted centuries of cross-Mediterranean migration. This is similar to the walling of the US-Mexico border, described by Professor Michael Dear as a disruption of a long-existing transborder community that pre-dates existing national borders[14]. With regards to the Mediterranean, throughout the 19th century tens of thousands of Southern Europeans migrated southward to colonial North Africa[15]. More recently, right until the early 1990s, migrants from many countries of the African continent could enter southern European countries without a visa and without the need to risk their lives crossing the sea. In essence, the current fortification of the Mediterranean has interrupted centuries of migration between its two shores.

Finally, in order to challenge restrictive and xenophobic definitions of who belongs to Europe, it is essential to show that who and what “counts” as Europe has constantly changed. In the late 19th century, at the height of the European colonial expansion that posed the basis for the distinction between “us” and “them” that characterizes contemporary migration debates, rural populations of Europe’s peripheries (such as the Celtic fringe in the United Kingdom[16], Italy’s Mezzogiorno[17], or southern Spain[18]) were hardly considered part of the nation. In other words, questions of who could fully belong to the national community were posed well before debates on race and migration of the 1970s, and, in various European countries, understandings of the nation have changed to accommodate these differences.

In the context of my summer fellowship at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, I will be researching these questions further, looking for ways to create an inclusive and just understanding of Europe that does not considers migrants of non-European origin not as an attack on the well-being of Europeans, but part of an inclusive “us”. Making this type of conceptual leap is essential in order to promote an inclusive, just, and sustainable society. As the imminent deportation of Dominicans of Haitian descent shows[19], as well as on-going US debates on the regularization of undocumented migrants, these questions are key well beyond the European context.

Works Cited:

[2] IOM (2014) “Fatal journeys. Tracking lives lost during migration.”. Retrieved from

[3] IOM ibid.

[5] See Brown, W. (2010). Walled states, waning sovereignty. New York; Zone Books.

[6] Brown ibid.

[11] Cassarino, J. (2014). “Channeled policy transfers: EU-Tunisia interactions on migration matters.”, European Journal on Migration and Law, 16(1):97-123.

[15] Clancy-Smith, J. (2012). Mediterraneans. North Africa and Europe in an Age of Migration. Berkeley; University of California Press.

[16] Hechter, M. (1975). Internal Colonialism: the Celtic fringe in British national development. London; Routledge.

[17] Schneider, J. (1998). Italy’s Southern Question: Orientalism in one country. Oxford, New York; Berg.

[18] Suárez-Navas, L. (2004). Rebordering the Mediterranean. Boundaries and citizenship in Southern Europe. Berghahn Books; New York.


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