Afraid to be returned to Libya and end up in terrible conditions in detention centers, 108 migrants took matters in their own hands. At the end of March, they hijacked the merchant ship that rescued them in the Mediterranean Sea.
Maltese authorities eventually gained control over the vessel and allowed the migrants to disembark on the island. Italy’s far-right and anti-immigrant Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini swiftly condemned the migrants’ actions, as “pirates.”
Imprisoned, tortured, and blackmailed in Libya or taken hostage by E.U. member states at sea: migrants’ lives are currently kidnapped in the Mediterranean Sea and at the frontiers of Europe.
Notably, rescue has become a mode of capture: the migrants who are not left to die and are rescued in the Mediterranean are kidnapped – either by being taken back to prisons in Libya or by being detained and exhausted for days on the vessels until some E.U. member state authorizes the disembarkation.
Twofold Policy of Containment
The repeated kidnapping of migrants on the northern and southern shore of the Mediterranean is the result of a twofold policy of containment.
On the one hand, since the signature of an two years ago, the Libyan Coast Guard is in charge of rescuing migrants at sea and bringing them back to Libya. Upon landing, migrants are usually taken to detention centers where they are sexual violence, police blackmailing, and torture.
On the other, over the last six months, European states have constantly hampered people seeking asylum from disembarking on their territories. They have repeatedly done that by detaining the migrants for days or even weeks on board of the vessels that rescued them, either outside the harbor or in the open sea.
Importantly, even if Italy and Malta had been the states most involved in detaining migrants on the boat, such kidnapping strategies should not be seen as a sole Italian and Maltese affair but as a European matter.
Migrants and Counter-Kidnapping
Seen through the lens of these ongoing kidnapping strategies by the E.U., one can argue that the “pirate migrants” engaged in a collective act of counter-kidnapping. To some extent, they mutinied themselves in their role of shipwrecked subjects and became agents of their own liberation.
For their collective refusal to be effective, the migrants had to pro-actively obstruct the merchant vessel’s crew, who were subjected to the orders of Maltese and Italian coast guards. Politicians immediately criminalized the migrants’ counter-kidnapping act, and soon after disembarking, three of the migrants were arrested on charges of terrorism.
This episode shows that when migrants act, they are often turned into seditious subjects. This is particularly the case when they are deemed to be vulnerable subjects or bodies to be rescued as well as when migrants protest not “just” by claiming rights but by directly preventing abuse and exploitation.
By hijacking the vessel that rescued them, the migrants refused both to be taken back to Libyan prisons and to be detained at sea for days, preventing any standoff.
Kidnapping of Solidarity
It is not just migrants that are kidnapped and criminalized. The non-state actors monitoring activities at the Mediterranean and preventing migrants from dying face the same fate.
Sea-Eye, Sea-Watch, and Mediterranea are the only three independent actors left conducting search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. They have been repeatedly seized by Maltese, Spanish, and Italian authorities.
For example, Italian authorities Mediterranea’s migrant rescue ship Mare Jonio in March, accusing the crew of facilitating “clandestine immigration.”
In this moment, the very presence of non-state actors at sea should be regarded not only as a way of preventing deaths but also as a way to pro-actively disrupt migrants’ kidnapping – both at sea and in the Libyan prisons.
Rescue as Capture
Rescue should not become a form of capture. Kidnapping, in its multiple articulations, appears today as one of the main tactics used by states to contain and obstruct migration movements, transforming refugees into hostages of E.U. politics and shipwrecked subjects into seditious individuals.
To disrupt the widespread migrant kidnapping, we need to move beyond an exclusive focus on the sea and rescue operations and interrogate how to connect these with the spaces before crossing and after landing where migrants remain entrapped.
Both critical analyses and political actions should prevent that rescue becomes a form of kidnapping and capturing migrants.
Ultimately, the group of migrants that hijacked the merchant vessel has forcibly shown that the claim “open the harbor” cannot be detached from practices of liberation from the kidnapping of migrant lives.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.