This essay is part of the forum “Governing mobility through European Hotspot Centres.”


Hotspots are punctiform manifestations of the EU border that can be better understood as components of the broader Mediterranean migration and border regime. Most of the people landing in an EU hotspot have long journeys behind them, during which they have met other, delocalized manifestations of the EU border, embodied by a variety of state and non-state actors. Here I will focus on the last leg of these journeys, the sea crossing, and, more specifically, on the sea crossing to Italy. Indeed, the sea and the hotspots have something in common which marks a difference between them and the other spaces of the delocalized EU border regime.

Previous stages of the migratory process take place in spaces of containment, in which the aim of delocalized EU migration and border policies—supported by non-state actors as well as by the state authorities of the relevant countries of transit or origin—is to prevent people from setting off for Europe. The sea, instead, is a space in which such logic of containment goes along with that of reception. In countries of origin and transit, the logic of reception is either absent from delocalized EU migration and border policies, or it is clearly subordinated to the logic of containment. At sea, instead, the logic of reception has a place of its own. It mainly takes shape in rescue operations carried out by both state and non-state actors. Relevant activities include the first assistance and aid granted to the migrants found at sea, as well as the transfer of the rescued to the hotspots. Thus, these people are funneled from the space of the sea into the European polity. The logic of containment, instead, manifests itself in at least three ways. First, in the intelligence and policing activities carried out by state (Italian) and supra-state (EU) authorities in international waters. Such activities aim at collecting information, arresting smugglers and destroying vessels, in order to disrupt criminal networks and thus prevent people from embarking on sea crossings. Second, in the activities carried out by the state authorities of countries of departure, returning to the place of embarkation those migrants who are intercepted or rescued before they are found by European authorities or non-state search and rescue (SAR) actors. Third, in the death of many migrants resulting from restrictive migration and border policies and practices, as well as from insufficient SAR efforts.

The two logics coexisting in the space of the sea can also be found in the space of the hotspots. The logic of reception operates there to select those who deserve protection and thus resident status, whereas the logic of containment is translated into the logic of forced removal, whose aim is to return the others, the illegalized.


There is an important difference between the space of the hotspots and the space of the sea, however. While the double logic of the hotspots unfolds in a uniform space, corresponding to just one territory, one state and one supra-state (EU) sovereignty, the double logic of the sea unfolds in a multiform, irregular and uneven space, in which not only are there different sovereignties and different territorial partitions, but these sovereignties and territorialities are also subject to crises and negotiations, as well as to twists of fate, resulting in a high degree of uncertainty about the outcomes of actions occurring in a given maritime territory. Furthermore, like in the space of the hotspots, a plurality of state and non-state actors is involved. The fact that such actors have different motivations, tasks, and modi operandi increases the complexity of the interaction between uncertain spatialities and the seemingly opposed logics of reception and containment, thus making the outcomes of such interaction highly unpredictable.

The sea is divided into territorial waters and high seas, also known as international waters. Territorial waters are part of the national territories, and therefore fall under the sovereignty, of coastal states. International waters are divided into SAR regions, each one falling under the responsibility of a different coastal state. On their way to the Italian hotspots, migrants may cross the territorial waters and the SAR regions of Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Libya, Malta, Tunisia, Algeria, and Italy.

The actors operating on and across these territorial partitions are manifold: besides smugglers and migrants, there are the coast guards and the navies of all coastal countries, the operation Triton of the EU border agency Frontex, the EU CSDP mission Eunavfor Med (to be supported by the forthcoming NATO operation Sea Guardian), a humanitarian mission of the Irish Navy, commercial vessels accidentally involved in SAR operations, as well as humanitarian NGOs voluntarily participating in SAR operations: Migrant Offshore Aid Station and Médecins Sans Frontières, with two vessels each; Sea-Watch, Jugend Rettet, SOS Méditerranée, Sea Eye, Proactiva Open Arms, Boat Refugee Foundation, Save the Children, and a joint-venture of two NGOs, CADUS and Lifeboat, all with one vessel each.


The Italian Coast Guard is responsible for the Italian national Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), which has the task of coordinating SAR activities in the Italian SAR region. Since the end of 2013, however, given the inability of Libyan authorities to meet SAR needs effectively, the MRCC Rome has de facto taken over responsibilities for the Libyan SAR region.

As a result, and because of the prohibition of refoulement and collective removal, people rescued in the Libyan SAR region are transferred to Italy—and they are the overwhelming majority of those arriving to Italy by sea. However, if a boat in distress is spotted while still in Libyan territorial waters, the sovereignty principle requires that Libyan authorities are informed in the first place. Libyan authorities are then supposed to intervene in their national waters and return the migrants to a Libyan port. Interestingly, two recent cases reveal that the above principles and customs may occasionally be subverted.

On April 29, 2016, for example, the MRCC Rome received a distress call from a dinghy that was still in Libyan territorial waters, seven miles off Sabratha. The Italian Coast Guard contacted their Libyan counterpart first, then the nearest commercial vessel. The latter soon reached the drifting vessel, which was now only four miles off Libyan coast. An estimated 80-90 people were missing, while 26 were rescued by the cargo, brought to international waters and handed over to the Italian authorities awaiting them there. Eventually, they were transferred to the Lampedusa hotspot. In the absence of official humanitarian corridors, an unofficial one was created. In this case, the logic of reception prevailed over that of containment, despite territorial sovereignty principles.


The contrary was the case on 7 June, when Libyan authorities were alerted by the Italian Coast Guard about a vessel which was heading northwards but was still in Libyan waters. The Italian Coast Guard also alerted a nearby NGO rescue ship, which was patrolling in international waters. Different vessels converged from north and south towards the migrant boat, which continued its journey and left Libyan territorial waters. Eventually, the first to intercept it in international waters, in the Libyan SAR region normally managed by the Italian MRCC, were the Libyan authorities, that took the migrants on board and returned them to Libya. If the alarm had been sent out only few minutes later, the migrants would have been rescued by the NGO vessel and brought to Sicily instead. Thus, the logic of containment prevailed over that of reception.

Importantly, Libyan authorities have been also actively and illegally hampering the work of SAR NGOs in international waters, violating the principle of freedom of navigation. Earlier this year they boarded and searched the Sea Watch vessel “Sea-Watch 2,” after firing warning shots; on September 9 they went as far as to kidnap two volunteers of the German NGO Sea Eye and seize their speedboat. Possibly, the armed men that shot at and attacked the MSF’s “Bourbon Argos” from an unidentified speedboat in August were also Libyan officials.

During patrols in international waters, Libyan authorities may also intercept migrants and return them to Libya, where they face abuses and violence, sometimes even while they are still at sea. Sometimes, people are left to their fate instead. Early this year, during fieldwork in Tunisia, I met two migrants who told me Libyan authorities intercepted them while they were going adrift in international waters, but instead of rescuing them, they boarded their vessel, stole their on-board equipment and abandoned them there. They were then rescued and brought to Tunisia by the Tunisian Navy.


Furthermore, migrants are often intercepted in Libyan territorial waters and forcibly turned back. Thus far this year, as of 6 October, the Libyan authorities have intercepted at sea and returned 14,017 people. Many others have been intercepted by the authorities of Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt and returned to these countries.

Not unlike national authorities, such as the Italian Navy and the Guardia di Finanza, EU border control missions are mandated to protect EU borders (Triton) and disrupt smuggling networks (Eunavfor Med). However, their assets must also carry out SAR if necessary. Furthermore, their reconnaissance aircraft also contribute to spotting boats in distress. As long as the Eunavfor Med mission remains in phase 2 A, it will operate only in international waters and will mainly serve the logic of reception. The mission could expand, however, to allow EU assets to operate in Libyan waters (phase 2 B) and Libyan land territory (phase 3) but these authorizations require an invitation from the Libyan government, as well as a resolution of the UN Security Council. A further necessary step is to agree on which country would be responsible for prosecuting the suspected smugglers apprehended in Libyan land or sea territory. While it is clear that migrants would not be transferred to Italy and would thus remain in Libyan territory, the question of the smugglers is still open. Negotiations about territoriality and sovereignty with regard to Eunavfor Med may profoundly change the balance between the logic of reception and the logic of containment in the space of the sea.

Commercial ships were increasingly involved in SAR operations during the Italian military and humanitarian operation Mare Nostrum, and even more after the end of Mare Nostrum left the area close to Libyan waters unattended. However, because they are not equipped, and their crews are not trained, for SAR, commercial vessels sometimes turn, inadvertently, from actors of reception through rescue to actors of containment through death by rescue. Furthermore, rescue interventions result in heavy economic losses for ship-owners. Some of them therefore prefer to switch off the AIS (the automatic identification system allowing the Coast Guard to find the vessel closest to a boat in distress) of their vessels, or simply to take longer routes, rather than risking to be involved in SAR operations. Indeed, the share of people rescued by the shipping industry sank from 32.98% in the first five months of 2015 to only 1.29% in the period from June to December, which can’t be explained only by the higher number of assets deployed by state and supra-state authorities, as well as by NGOs, in the summer of that year. While data available for the first five months of 2016 show a renewed increase in the contribution of the shipping industry to SAR, the share of 13.83% still seems to be quite low in a period in which naval assets were reduced and NGO missions suspended (because of the expected drop of crossings during the winter), and even more if compared to the same period of 2015. In sum, the immanent violence of the border regime ends up reproducing itself, transforming potential actors of reception through rescue into conscious actors of containment through death.


The border regime has a similar impact on the smugglers as well. Indeed, enhanced policing activities have pushed irregular travel service providers to use vessels that are increasingly unseaworthy and overcrowded. Like merchant ships, smugglers have thus turned into actors of containment through death.

Finally, all SAR NGOs are basically expressions of the logic of reception. However, some of them have not only a humanitarian but also a political aim, namely to denounce the current restrictive border regime, to campaign for safe passage to Europe, to monitor the situation and to play the watchdogs of state and supra-state authorities (for example by setting up a reconnaissance airplane), while others don’t mind following also the logic of containment by supporting state authorities in their intelligence activities against smugglers.

Different factors and dynamics are at play in determining the destiny of migrants on their way to the Italian hotspots. Arriving to Italy undetected and circumventing the hotspot system has become almost impossible, because of the increased number of vessels and aircraft patrolling the Strait of Sicily, and possibly also because of increasing mortality rates. Depending on whether, where, and by whom they are “rescued” (which, in turn, depends on many variables), some people will be returned to North Africa, while the others will either die or end up in an Italian hotspot. The space of the Italian hotspots, thus, is strictly connected with the space of the sea, with its logics of reception and containment.

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Paolo Cuttitta is a researcher at VU University Amsterdam. Within the project “The Human Costs of Border Control” he is currently looking at the processes of externalisation/delocalisation of the EU/North African border, as well as at the changing roles of state and non-state actors in the transformations of the Mediterranean border regime.