Every day for years on end the story repeats itself. People fleeing their homelands in search of opportunity or survival lose their lives en route. The developed world—from Australia to the United States—bemoans the lost lives. We observe moments of silence, take pity on the dead, and skewer the smugglers who profit from clandestine migration. Rarely do we look inward to ask how our own policies lead to death.
In Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migrations at the World’s Deadliest Border (2015), anthropologist Maurizio Albahari refuses to let us sit comfortably in our condemnation of others while we ignore our own complicity in immeasurable death and despair. Focused on his native Italy, the United States-based academic focuses on deadly sea routes leading to Europe. Whether this is actually the world’s deadliest border is irrelevant. Deadly it surely is. Just last month 500 migrants were suspected of having met death in a single day—almost a year to the day when 800 are thought to have perished.
These days, death and migration, we know only too well, are wrapped up. This state of affairs is neither inevitable nor unalterable. Migrants die because so often their journey is by necessity perilous. No one chooses to board a rickety vessel except when the alternative is worse. No one elects to flout migration controls except when compliance is not realistic. Italy and its European partners have done much to make this catch-22 a reality. Albahari is far from the first to add this critical perspective to current migration policing strategies in Europe or elsewhere. His is, however, among the most insightful analyses of European policing masked as humanitarianism.
There is nothing altruistic about European responses. When individual European countries or EU-wide agencies respond with search and rescue missions, they frequently do so with delay (p. 177). When they bother to feed, clothe, and house migrants, often they do so only inside the perimeter of facilities that are hard not to describe as prisons either because they are so isolated as to segregate their inhabitants from the rest of the world or because they are constantly surveilled and departure is curtailed (pp. 55-56).
And, of course, migrants head to Europe (like others head to Australia or the United States) not solely because of our functioning democratic institutions and economic opportunity. They do so because of centuries-long relationships between the developed and developing worlds that have cemented our futures in the blood of our pasts. “[M]igrations do not simply happen,” observes Saskia Sassen. “They are produced. And migrations do not involve just any possible combination of countries. They are patterned.” Saskia Sassen, Guests and Aliens 155 (1999). Think for a moment of United States military and economic exploitation of México or, as Albahari reminds us, of Italy’s brutal colonial adventures in North Africa (pp. 190-193).
Detailing these international, cross-generational relationships is itself hugely valuable. It provides the historical and social context in which today’s migratory patterns in and toward Europe emerge. Albahari is at his strongest, however, when he unflinchingly unpacks Italy and Europe’s predominant narrative of humanitarianism. At national and international levels, policymakers frame policing as humanitarianism. Italy’s Mare Nostrum initiative and the EU’s Eurosur project are both touted as saving the lives of hapless individuals left to the mercy of the winds by unscrupulous smugglers (a tale that should sound familiar to observers of United States policies toward Mexican and Central American migrants). Albahari doesn’t discount those efforts. On the contrary, he spends many pages and enormous intellectual energy revealing the motivations and thoughts of on-the-ground sailors, local elected officials, and ordinary residents who engage in nothing short of heroism on a regular basis to help complete strangers out of a sense of solidarity—sometimes deriving from politics, other times from seafaring ethos of mutual aid, and still other times in the deeply Catholic Italy based in religious beliefs.
The humanitarian components of European migration responses are only one bit of the story, and Albahari is masterful when he aims his unwavering moral compass at governmental responses billed as altruistic humanitarianism. Mare Nostrum, he writes, “successfully addressed the humanitarian facet of the border apparatus, but in turn it exploded its military facet…through the use of warships” (p. 193). Elsewhere, describing the plight of a group of Bulgarians suspected (without much evidence it seems) of clandestine migration instead of tourism as they claimed, Albahari writes, “Sovereign detention is equated with a form of governmental humanitarian assistance” (p. 125). It’s not just governmental responses that are double-faced. Perhaps unwittingly (though at times Albahari seems skeptical of such a charitable characterization), non-governmental organizations are implicated in governmental policing-cum-humanitarianism. “Without the logistical and moral contribution of nongovernmental actors,” he writes, “‘the state’ would be unable to manage both its southeastern border region and the many arrivals related to the Mare Nostrum [enforcement] operation. These organizations, then, have been in effect working for and as the state,” serving its humanitarian goals but also its “policing ends” (p. 54).
These are harsh indictments of governmental and nongovernmental efforts so frequently lauded by policymakers and advocates alike. Albahari’s assessment asks us to stop and reconsider their role, but not just in Europe. United States and Australian policing initiatives are frequently pitched in similar styles: migrants must first be saved, then prosecuted. Albahari recasts our gaze away from migrants and toward the structural and material forces that lead to migration. When compared to the easy platitudes politicians offer in the wake of tragedy or the tired pushes by middle-of-the-road advocates to make life easier for a small number of migrants, this is a much more difficult perspective to adopt. But Albahari’s robust, thoroughly researched, and captivatingly written account presents a morally compelling claim that we must.
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