How to re-conceptualize the right to asylum in the lethal sea-crossing age? by Chiara Denaro

chiaraCHIARA DENARO is a social and legal assistant with several years of experience in working in the immigration field in Rome.  She is PhD fellow in “Sociology and Applied Social Sciences” at the University of Rome “La Sapienza” and in “Sociology” at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, holding a degree in “Conception and Management of Social Policies and Services”. Her work focuses mainly on forced migration in the Mediterranean Sea, and on evaluation of reception systems implemented in the Southern European countries and migratory policies. She is currently doing research on the reconfiguration of the migratory routes after the conflict in Syria and analysing the coping strategies implemented by Syrian asylum seekers to realize their migration projects.



One of the fundamental issues in the current debate on mobility and forced migration is the high “human cost” that the construction and fortification of borders has produced. The Mediterranean Sea, as a crossroads of multiple migration routes, has been identified as the most dangerous border in the world.[1] Since 2000, more than 32,000 people have lost their lives crossing this sea. Currently, the majority of migrants who risk their lives at sea are asylum seekers.[2]

The “virtual impossibility” of legally accessing Europe forces asylum seekers to cross borders illegally and entails their transformation into “irregular migrants”.[3] The politics of the externalization of asylum implemented by the EU shifts the weight of asylum seekers’ reception outside Europe, thus keeping them far from the places where they could find protection.[4]

What does the right to asylum mean today?

If we imagine asylum as a door, which should give access to a room of political, civil and social rights, we are witnessing the process of that room emptying today.[5] This happens firstly through the politics of the externalization of asylum to so-called “safe third countries,” which are often characterized by a structural lack of protection and hosting systems. This “emptying process” also occurs through regulations, such as the Dublin Regulation, aimed at preventing “asylum shopping” by stopping people in Southern European countries where the welfare state is weaker and stressed by prolonged economic crisis.

The configuration of refugee status as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the prescriptions included in Chapter IV (Welfare)—namely access to housing, education, relief, labour legislation, and social security—are not sufficient to give universal meaning to the concept of asylum, especially due to the possibility of each State adhering to the Convention “with reservations.” For Syrian refugees, a residence in Malmö (Sweden), the Zaatari Camp’s tents (Jordan), an apartment in Berlin, a container in Harmanli (Bulgaria), the “Umberto I” reception centre in Siracusa (Italy), and the “6 October” neighbourhood in Cairo (Egypt) are all places of asylum, but they may not have comparable realities.[6] The Syrian citizens who live in these places are indeed linked by the fact that they are called refugees, but this does not automatically imply the recognition of common rights. Moreover, the (frequently debated) homogenization of European standards for granting asylum, as witnessed in the Common European Asylum System, seems to be escalating. The realisation of these standards is very troubling, especially because of the evident disparities between the welfare systems and socio-economic conditions of Member States.

These structural differences contribute to the blurring of the contours of the asylum experience, because the ability to determine the content of asylum remains with each State. The refugee’s will to reach Europe at all costs is perhaps an attempt to fill the room of asylum options with different content than that which is currently available in countries of externalization, such as Jordan, Egypt or Turkey. This filling process further develops through migrants’ “second escape,” namely the abandonment of first reception countries such as Italy, Spain or Greece to reach Northern Europe.[7] There, the detachment between human rights and citizenship is less evident. [8]

In parallel to this, new opportunities seem to emerge in civil society, where we can observe different forms of activism aimed at supporting migrants in their dangerous travels and self-determined paths. The monitoring of seaborne migration and search and rescue operations is being realized by individuals (such as Nawal Soufi or Father Mussie Zerai) who receive an SOS by sea and transmit it to the coast guard. This monitoring is also performed by associations such as Watch the Med – Alarm Phone, which is ready to react in the case of a lack of rescue, and is something completely new. The Alarm Phone’s observations are not only focused on the respect of human rights, but also on border patrol operations. As such, their work represents the opposite side of the coin: the monitoring process of seaborne migration provides a good vantage point for grasping the paradoxical coexistence of securitized and humanitarian operations which Frontex missions, for example, are built upon.[9]

Nowadays the right to asylum seems to be uncomfortable, inconvenient and high-priced for many countries, and its potential re-configuration highlights contradictions in our societies. Consequently, asylum seekers’ and civil society’s challenges to the current scenario, through the multiple relationships that they build, are interesting and attention-worthy because they enable us to partially view possible paths toward the revitalization of the right to asylum.


[1] IOM (2014) Fatal Journeys. Tracking lives lost during migration, IOM: Geneva.

[2] Amnesty International (2014) The Human Cost of Fortress Europe, Amnesty International: London.

[3] Castles, S. (2014), ‘International migration at a crossroads’, Citizenship Studies, 18:2, pp.190- 207.

[4] Campesi, G. (2014) ‘Frontex, the Euro-Mediterranean Border and the Paradoxes. of Humanitarian Rhetoric’, South East European Journal of Political Science, II, 3, 2014, Pp. 126-134, available at (accessed 5 November 2014).

[5] Sciurba, A. (2014), ‘Dopo Lampedusa: la nuova sfida del diritto d’asilo allo spazio europeo e mediterraneo’, paper presented at “Le frontiere mobile del Mediterraneo” – Convegno Internazionale, Università di Palermo, November 3-4.

[6] UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Syrian Refugees in Europe: What Europe Can Do to Ensure Protection and Solidarity, 11 July 2014, available at:  (accessed 10 February 2015).

[7] Denaro, C. (2015) ‘The endless flight of Syrian refugees. Focus on Catania and Milan’, paper presented at the XII SeSaMO Conference, Beyond the Arab Uprisings: rediscovering the MENA region, Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, January 16-17.

[8] As underlined by Agamben (1996), the refugee is a limit-concept, able to challenge the universalism, which the declarations of human rights are based on, because “he breaks the connection between man and citizen becoming, from a marginal figure, a decisive factor in the modern nation-state crisis”. Agamben, G. (1996) Mezzi senza fine, Bollato Boringhieri: Torino.

[9] Tazzioli, M. (2014), ‘The desultory politics of mobility and the humanitarian-military border in the Mediterranean. Mare Nostrum beyond the sea’, paper presented at the conference Migration and Law, Birbeck College, London 28 March 2014.