Recovery Humans. Maersk Etienne, Mediterranea and Europe


By Sandro Mezzadra, on il manifesto 13/09/2020

The media and the political system tend to treat what happens in the Mediterranean, and more generally the migration issue, as a specific and distinct topic. It is usually classified as an emergency (whether it be a security issue or as a humanitarian one, it doesn’t really change with respect to the logic of the argument). Nobody thinks, for example, to connect this matter to the “recovery fund”- a topic that is discussed in a completely different language and tone. In my opinion, however, this attitude is profoundly misleading. If the “recovery fund” marks a breakthrough in the process of European integration (the ramifications of which are still being explored, of course), essential games are being played in the Mediterranean for the definition of the borders of a Europe that is intended to be upgraded – and therefore both for the quality of its citizenship and for its relations with the outside world, first of all with the countries on the southern shore, with the great Middle East and with Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole.

The shame of the Moria camp and of the detention camps in Libya are the most visible peaks of a maritime border control regime that is to all intents and purposes a European one (let it be clear, this does not absolve them of their responsibilities: individual, national governments, starting with the Italian one). What happened to the tanker Etienne, owned by the Danish giant Maersk, is another emblematic piece of the intertwining of national and European responsibilities in a sea that has long since been traveled as the world’s deadliest border. Indifference, cynicism, disregard for the basic duty to save lives at sea, bodies left decomposing for weeks, without any assistance: is this the Europe that intends to re-qualify itself by means of the “recovery fund” after the shock of the pandemic? It would seem so- all the more if we bear in mind that those who are acting in the Mediterranean today are not the “sovereignists”, but governments like the Italian one and Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission.

From this point of view, the operation carried out on Friday by Mare Jonio, the ship of the platform Mediterranea, acquires a particularly important meaning. The Mediterranea volunteers simply did what the Maltese and European authorities should have done: they got on board, provided initial medical assistance to the twenty-seven refugees and migrants rescued by the Danish ship and immediately noticed an unsustainable situation. Hence the decision to transfer the twenty-seven to the Mare Jonio. But, it cannot be ignored, more generally, that Mediterranea’s intervention has modeled a different way of managing the maritime border in the Mediterranean, opening a “humanitarian corridor” from below and powerfully alluding to the construction of another Europe through activism at sea and on the borders.

This kind of activism has been consolidating in the last months and at the same time it has been at least partially transformed. The construction of a real “civil fleet”, with Alarm Phone as its rescue coordination centre (towards the construction of a real “civil MRCC”), has led to a deepening of the immediately European dimension of operations at sea, while in Germany in particular – as Sebastiano Canetta wrote here on Friday – a movement that accompanies those operations on land has been growing, with the involvement of deeply heterogeneous actors (from Churches to Municipalities such as Berlin and some Länder). What is at stake today is more and more clearly, for activism at sea, the struggle for a Europe other than the shame of Moria, Libya and Etienne, beginning with a new way of narrating migrations and linking them to the social mobilizations that are taking place in the context of the pandemic. Also because of the great impression created by the Black Lives Matter’s initiatives in the USA, which are also changing the grammar of antiracism in Europe, the traditional languages of humanitarianism are being displaced or in any case largely changed. The recognition of the centrality of refugees and migrants and of their struggles, even in very harsh conditions such as the crossing of the maritime border in the Mediterranean Sea, is in particular increasingly a feature of activism at sea.

The high level of cooperation between different actors within the ” civil fleet ” is an extraordinary example of action on the immediate European scene that other movements could resume and develop. The resonance between activism in the Mediterranean and the mobilizations in the United States is another aspect that would certainly be worth exploring. More generally, activism at sea today offers us, in partially new terms, the relevance of a radical border and migration policy without which it is very difficult to resume reflection and initiative on the European issue. Mediterranea, with the operation on Friday, gave a good example of this radical policy, starting from the elementary need to help twenty-seven refugees and migrants abandoned by Europe.