How to re-frame? European state reactions to the situation of ‘seaborne migrants’ in the Mediterranean by Sophie Hinger

sophie SOPHIE HINGER is currently working as a research assistant and teacher at the Institute of Migration and Intercultural Studies (IMIS) at the University of Osnabrück, Germany. She is pursuing a PhD with a focus on local migration regimes and the inclusion/exclusion of asylum seekers. Sophie is a member of the Berlin group of Borderline Europe and of the Watch the Med Alarm Phone initiative. She completed a master in migration studies in Amsterdam, Bilbao and Osnabrück.



European State Reactions to the Situation of “Seaborne Migrants” in the Mediterranean

Images of seaborne migrants in leaky boats attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe are ubiquitous in the European media and within public discourse. They dominate the European imagination and conceptualization of migration, especially from North Africa. These images are often accompanied by an emergency rhetoric and warnings of waves of irregular immigrants “invading” Europe. Such a perspective is not only reductive and de-humanizing, but it also neglects the fact that unauthorized sea-crossings of migrants represent only a small fraction of the many migrations and mobilities of the transnational space that stretches across and beyond the Mediterranean Basin.[1]

It is not only the “high tide” of seaborne migration but also the deaths at sea that are increasingly a matter of concern.[2] The shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013, in which more than 600 persons died, and the boat tragedies in spring 2015 with more than 1,000 deaths within a few days, have especially put the human tragedy in the central Mediterranean into the spotlight. However, what are the reactions of European states to the deaths in the central Mediterranean, and upon what conceptualizations of seaborne migration and migrants are they based?

The War Against Unwanted Migration

In 2013, following the Lampedusa boat tragedies, the Italian government launched the sea rescue mission Mare Nostrum (Latin for ‘Our Sea’), which is said to have saved the lives of more than 150,000 migrants within one year.[3] However, Mare Nostrum ended in November 2014, because the mission was not supported by other EU member states. This was supposedly due to a lack of resources, as the costs amounted to €9 million a month. In addition, Mare Nostrum was also believed to have created a “pull-factor” for migrants. The EU member states thus agreed to discontinue Mare Nostrum and to launch a new joint operation of the EU border agency Frontex, Triton, with a main focus on “border control and surveillance,” a smaller budget, and a very limited area of intervention.[4] In spring 2015, after increased sea crossings and renewed tragedies with high death tolls, the EU did not renounce the Frontex Triton mission, but instead decided to expand it. Moreover, with the goal to preserve life at sea, the EU now plans to fight migrant smuggling networks from Libya, including the destruction of smugglers’ vessels in Libyan territorial waters and possibly on Libyan territory.[5]

This short chronology of recent EU state reactions to seaborne migration in the central Mediterranean underlines the absurdity and hypocrisy of what has been discussed as a securitization approach to seaborne migrants. Unauthorized sea-crossings of migrants are handled as a security concern and as unlawful invasions of sovereign territory, which must be countered with military means. At the same time, control and border defence operations like Triton are adorned with a humanitarian discourse, which paints the refugees as victims, the smugglers as perpetrators, and allegedly serves to protect the lives of the former by fighting the latter. This is absurd, not only because the destruction of smugglers’ vessels means the destruction of refugee boats, but also because rather than presenting a solution, they are part of the problem. In the absence of safe, legal ways of accessing protection in the EU, and in the face of militarized and extra-territorialized European borders, migrants choose ever more dangerous ways to travel, and they may resort to the assistance of professional and often exploitive ‘passage makers’.

Ferries Not Frontex! How to Re-Frame State Reactions on Seaborne Migration

A critical analysis of the effects of militarized border and securitization approaches, and a different conceptualization of the subjects of seaborne migration is necessary. This is to ensure that seaborne migrants are not seen as criminals or victims of criminal smugglers, nor as products of push-and pull-mechanisms, but as individuals who “actively try to transform their social space”[6] along the tracks of the transnational underground railroad.[7]This could present points of departure in the search for more humane reactions and long-sighted solutions to the dire situation of migrants in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. In other words, thinking of migration in all its complexity can help to re-frame and deconstruct de-humanising narratives that portray subjects of seaborne migration as a threat rather than as fellow humans seeking different futures. Concerning the crisis in the central Mediterranean, several networks and initiatives like Watch the Med/ Alarm Phone Initiative have proposed the establishment of a humanitarian ferry line to evacuate persons from Libya.[8] In an otherwise suffocating debate with little room for political imagination, such demands are an attempt to open up alternative ways to think and react to seaborne migration. In the long term only the opening of legal paths for migrants will end their deaths at sea.


[1] Moreover it reduces the experience and identity of the subjects of seaborne migration to that of “seaborne migrants”.

[2] The real number of deaths in the Mediterranean is unknown. In 2014, the UNHCR spoke of 3,400 deaths, and in the first quarter of 2015, at least 1,700 migrants have lost their lives. One register on “the fatal policies of Fortress Europe”, compiled by the Dutch NGO United since 1993, lists 20,587 migrant deaths. According to official statistics, for the first time brought together and published by researchers of the Vrije University Amsterdam, 3,188 “border deaths” have actually been registered by the authorities between 1990 and 2013 (information retrieved in April 2015).

[3] Numbers are taken from the website of the Italian Navy:


Even though Mare Nostrum was more of a sea rescue mission than its follow-up Triton, it was also a military operation with a focus on “combating human trafficking” and thus can also be read as part of the securitization approach. For a critical account of the Mare Nostrum operation see Judith Gleitze’s contribution to the Hinterland Magazine: (in German)

[4] Frontex website:

[5] Two EU strategy papers for military intervention against “refugee boats” were published on wikileaks in May 2015

[6] Papadopoulos, D., Stephenson, N., Tsianos, V. (2008). Escape routes. Control and subversion in the 21st century. P. 211

[7] The ‘underground railroad’ is a metaphor used in activist circles in the EU to refer to the multiple individuals and overlapping networks/initiatives that are engaged in the border-crossing of refugees/migrants into the EU. Its original reference was the network of routes and safe houses used by slaves in the southern United States to flee to the northern U.S. and to Canada.

[8] More information on the demands of Watch the Med Alarm Phone “to really end the deaths of migrant at sea” under: