Liquid Border

An excerpt from The Law of the Sea by Annalisa Camilli

From The Law of the Sea, by Annalisa Camilli
Translated by Eleanor Paynter

Translator’s note: Over the course of Europe’s recent refugee crisis, rescue at sea has shifted from an Italian-led mandate, supported by the European Union, to a potential crime, punishable in Italy with hefty fines and the seizure of rescue ships. In The Law of the Sea (La legge del mare), published in Italian in April 2019, journalist Annalisa Camilli draws on her coverage of the crisis, including interviews with migrants rescued at sea, to reflect on the political shifts that made these policy changes possible. The Law of the Sea comes at a critical time: Though arrival numbers have decreased since the height of the “crisis” in 2017, the rate of death at sea remains high. Since the book’s publication, Italy has repeatedly blocked NGO-operated rescue vessels from docking in Italian harbors, a move that leaves asylum seekers stranded at sea. In early August 2019, the Italian parliament passed a “Security Decree” that formalizes the criminalization of rescue, defying international laws that require the rescue of anyone in distress at sea. Additional rescue ships have now returned to the Mediterranean, and the coming period will put the Security Decree to the test, along with agreements with Libya that shift E.U. border control to the southern Mediterranean and North Africa. Camilli’s book is an important journalistic study of shifting views of migration and European governments’ increasingly hostile treatment of humanitarian and human-rights-focused efforts at the border. This excerpt is from the book’s introduction.


Liquid Border

The sea is unpredictable, deceitful. For this reason, those who sail it have always sought clear, universal laws. To protect life as the highest good, you learn to battle the forces of nature.

The laws of the sea are different than those enforced on solid ground; they’re more essential. They apply in the confined space of a boat skimming the waves. The sea doesn’t have foreigners or citizens, illegal immigrants or refugees, just sailors and castaways.The former are obliged by natural law to rescue the latter because, in a mirror-like relation, all those shipwrecked were once sailors, and all sailors could become shipwrecked. This binary logic compels vessels at sea to rescue anyone in peril. All other concerns come second to this obligation. The sea doesn’t have its own laws; that’s why we have the law of the sea, which is both an extreme human attempt to control the dangerous situations in which we may find ourselves and, at the same time, a recognition of our inferiority to this powerful natural element.

Over the last three years, I crossed the liquid border that separates Italy from the African continent and the Middle East several times for my work as a journalist. Like other reporters, I went on the road, following the routes traversed by the thousands of people who leave their countries of origin to pursue the hope of a better future, fleeing war, persecution, and poverty. I regularly saw the marks that national borders leave on bodies, and I heard the stories of those who had entrusted themselves to the sea because they thought crossing it would be easy, like crossing a lake, or because they had no other means to return home after the months or years spent far from their countries, locked in a Libyan prison. I listened to accounts of violence, torture, rape, of people bought and sold like merchandise. I heard dozens of stories in which people described themselves as slaves, explaining the total subjugation they had suffered in what we find ourselves forced to call a “Libyan hell.” Media images shouldn’t have been necessary to spark outrage; it should have sufficed to listen to the people arriving at our coasts to understand what was happening across the sea. Libya, a former Italian colony, is divided between at least two governments and dozens of armed militias, crushed by the civil war that erupted after Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown.

Yet the political objective was never to stop those horrors but to decrease the total number of migrant arrivals, to obtain new counts to feed the public in advance of the March 2018 electoral campaigns. The plan was clear: to stop televising the faces of those women, children, and young men who, after having crossed the Mediterranean, were shocked and bewildered to find themselves at last moving down the gangway, disembarking from a ship finally docked in a safe port.

From 2015 to 2017, I watched public opinion change radically with regard to these journeys and the people who make them. In the course of a relatively short period I witnessed the explosion of a climate of suspicion toward rescuers, volunteers, and others who show solidarity. This climate has spread throughout Europe, especially in countries led by right-wing parties. Rescuers, with their reports and testimonies, have become unwelcome witnesses and the object of a discrediting campaign that continues to expand, assuming increasingly ample space in the statements and initiatives of multiple politicians. The voices of those trying to help, to save lives, to intervene where Europe appears incapable, have been marginalized, and the sphere of humanitarian intervention has shrunk rapidly, not only at sea but also on the migrant-reception front within Europe.

While I recounted what I saw in articles, trying to be as accurate, precise, and grounded in the facts as possible, I felt my words begin to detach from the dominant narrative, which was increasingly polarized, ideological, and, most recently, unrealistic. When I centered migrants, when I told their stories and described their journeys, I was incidentally providing a verification service for the discourses and statements of politicians, which were, most of the time, completely unhooked from reality. The more I observed, bore witness, reported, and interviewed key actors and experts, the more I realized I was refuting this increasingly loud narrative, a story built on prejudice, pieced together in an office, often distributed through instruments of propaganda.

After years in the field, it felt important to retrace the personal and professional journey I had made first and foremost as a witness: In July 2018, while on board Open Arms, one of the last rescue vessels in service in the Mediterranean, I learned what it means to prevent a humanitarian aid ship filled with people from docking. The online campaign to close the ports—#portichiusi—is in a sense only a Twitter hashtag, but in truth it hides the decision not to rescue those who depart, or a willingness, in some cases, to abandon the living and the dead at sea, against the fundamental law that requires rescue for those in peril in the water.

I saw with my own eyes what the violence of abandonment really is, and it was then that I decided to write this book. I witnessed the recovery of a deflated rubber dinghy 80 miles off the Libyan coast: Only one survivor and two corpses, including a baby. They had been abandoned at sea by the Libyan coast guard, a military body largely financed by European governments. I recounted the commotion of the volunteers, their stories, their doubts, the suffering and disbelief of Josefa, the survivor, upon being saved. But I also reported the mountain of lies that some militant right-wing groups spread across social media to attack the work of rescuers. And while Open Arms, which had carried out the rescue, was forced to head to Spain to dock, for some commentators in Europe’s new right the real news was another story: Josefa’s fingernails, painted red, visible in a photo taken the day she disembarked in Palma.

To understand how we’ve gotten to this point, to those dramatic images, I had to take a step back. The year 2017 was a critical one for managing the migration phenomenon. Italy’s agreement to fund Libyan coast-guard training and border-control efforts, and the Code of Conduct for NGOs sought by the Gentiloni administration and Interior Minister Marco Minniti, represented a turning point in the relationship between politics, humanitarian organizations, and public opinion. Based on the disproven myth that rescue incentivizes sea crossing, the Code of Conduct aimed to restrict the movements of NGO-sponsored rescue ships. During the approval process for the Code of Conduct, I was aboard another ship, the Aquarius. Departures from Libya had suddenly and unexpectedly decreased, and it was in that period that humanitarian workers began to have to defend themselves against accusations that they were collaborating with smugglers and traffickers, that they were taxi del mare—“sea taxis.” I had just disembarked when, at the beginning of August 2017, the Iuventa, the ship of German NGO Jugend Rettet, was sequestered. This event was one of the watershed moments I attempt to reconstruct in The Law of the Sea. I read the court documents and interviewed the accused and their lawyers to lay out the truth behind the accusations that led to the ship’s sequester and what unfolded in Italian political discourse during those months.

Then I decided to return to the summer of 2018, when I saw the Italian coast-guard ship the Ubaldo Diciotti on the horizon, blocked for days just off the coast of Lampedusa before obtaining authorization to dock in the port of Catania. I followed the long negotiations between Italian and other European governments to redistribute the 177 people on board, some of whom I met and whose stories I collected. And I read the pages of the suit that the court of Catania lodged against Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, accused of holding people hostage. This is the case that disrupted Italian politics at the beginning of 2019, the one that will go down in history.

Every time I returned from a trip, every time I finished writing an article, every time I tried to report the point of view of the people who had suffered the consequences of certain politics, I had to confront a series of lies, fake news, conspiracy theories, and propaganda disguised as counter-information. The migration phenomenon is complex and necessitates multiple levels of interpretation. Reporting on it now, even in the most objective, precise ways, comes with the task of demystification. It requires laying out what’s taken place, telling stories from the beginning to trace them in full, so that no one will be able to say they didn’t understand what was going on.

It’s necessary to understand how in Italy we’ve come to call rescuers “vice smugglers,” humanitarian ships “sea taxis,” and migrants “cruise passengers.” Over the years, I’ve often asked myself how this process of migrant dehumanization was realized within such a short period of time. And the main question now is whether this process is reversible.

This dehumanization was enabled by the criminalization of the “other,” an other increasingly associated with terrorism and all sorts of crime. But dehumanization has also been enabled by the victimization of migrants—the idea that they are a shapeless mass, numbers, bodies that need to be fed, aided, helped. That’s how we like to represent them, instead of as people with their own desires and will. Countering this dehumanization means reflecting, then, on the role that we journalists have, and combatting not only the racism of others but the racism within ourselves, that is, the idea that in our political, legislative, and social systems there are first- and second-class people.

It’s interesting to note how, in Italian media, we hardly ever talk about migrants’ countries of origin: Our ignorance is shameful, much worse in the case of our own former colonies, including Libya and Eritrea. Something sparked inside me when I discovered, thanks to journalist and author Alessandro Leogrande, that some of the concentration camps opened in recent years by Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki to imprison dissidents are built on the same sites as the concentration camps of Italian colonialism. A similar point can be made about Libya.

Confronting both the dehumanization of foreigners and the criminalization of those who help and rescue them means above all recounting the complexity and depth of their personal stories. It means not stopping at numbers and statistics but studying context and striving to represent it, not simply confirming one’s own biases but making ourselves question the seeming simplicity of the facts.

The charges brought against humanitarian NGOs are based, in the majority of cases, on the decontextualization and omission of important details. Extrapolating factual elements and combining them with superficial details can lead to errant conclusions, sometimes with grave consequences.

Combatting racism means above all giving voice to the protagonists: It’s no longer acceptable to talk about migrants without ceding them the floor. Journalist Domenico Quirico, in an essay written from inside a Libyan detention center, said our task as journalists is not to adjudicate government policies but to describe the effects that certain, often drastic government decisions have on people. And that’s what I hope to have succeeded in doing with The Law of the Sea.