It was March 2019 when over one hundred people on a sinking dinghy were rescued by the Palau-flagged tanker, the El Hiblu 1
. At the time, the European maritime border regime was still under the spell of the policy of ‘closed ports’ inaugurated by the Italian government the previous year. Interceptions by the so-called Libyan coastguard abounded, national authorities (particularly in Italy and Malta) refused to take responsibility in ‘search and rescue’ operations and the role of Frontex was one of militarisation and control. Meanwhile, few civil society ships were able to operate in the Central Mediterranean in light of criminalisation and administrative obstacles. Confronted with such a situation, migrants continued to challenge the border regime, through their movement and the self-organisation that sustained and enabled it. The people on board the El Hiblu, and in particular those referred to as the El Hiblu 3, openly defied the border regime with their refusal to be brought back to Libya. They deployed practices of translation, communication and solidarity that ultimately led the captain of the vessel to reverse course and head to Malta. This is what we owe the El Hiblu 3 and what connects them with a longer history of migrant struggles and resistance at sea and on land.
We will return in a moment to this point. Before doing that, we need to say something more about the conjuncture in which the case happened. The ‘long summer of migration’ in 2015 is an important point of reference in this regard. The movement of hundreds of thousands of people across the Aegean Sea and along the Balkan route disrupted the European border regime and provided an opportunity to rethink border and migration policies as well as Europe’s relationship with neighbouring and even distant regions of the world. We know that such a rethinking did not take place. On the contrary, walls and fences proliferated in many parts of Europe, while free movement within the Schengen zone continued to be restricted to contain so-called ‘secondary movements’ of migrants and refugees. In the Mediterranean, there was an intensification of practices of externalisation and outsourcing of border control, with national authorities competing with European agencies for border control. The end of the Italian Mare Nostrum operation in October 2014 signalled a crucial shift in this respect. While humanitarian language and concerns shaped Mare Nostrum, the subsequent Triton operation, coordinated by Frontex, was characterised by a focus on border controls. A process of ‘de-humanitarisation’ of Mediterranean migration intensified, turning enactments of freedom of movement even more into an issue of life or death.
This is not the place to provide a full-fledged analysis of the hardening of the border regime in the Mediterranean that followed, of it’s contradictions, of the intolerable toll in human lives and suffering that it caused, and of the multifarious forms of contestations and struggles that surrounded it. Suffice it to say that after the El Hiblu case, the outbreak of the COVID pandemic has prompted a further hardening of the border regime, with a hygienic-sanitary twist that facilitated the spread of detention even at sea, for example on ‘quarantine ships’. At the same time, over the last months, the civil fleet has multiplied its assets and interventions, struggling to turn the Mediterranean into a sea of activism and solidarity. It is in this contradictory conjuncture that we fight for the freedom of the El Hiblu 3 and continue to connect our solidarity practices to migratory movements and struggles.
When we talk about solidarity, we distance ourselves from national and European rhetoric that obsessively stresses the issue of ‘relocations’. In such rhetoric, solidarity is reduced to sharing the ‘burden’ of migrant travellers among states, while the preferences of these individuals regarding where and how to live are ignored, and their freedom of movement across Europe is denied. There is instead a need to take seriously the proposal of granting free circulation to those often referred to as ‘migrants’, ‘asylum seekers’, or ‘refugees’ within the EU. For us, solidarity consists of multifarious practises of support and assistance, towards as well as among migrants, that aim at facilitating passage and at circumventing borders. Examples abound here, and we know too well that both at sea and on land acts of solidarity with migrants have been increasingly criminalised in recent years. Just think of captains of civil rescue ships like Pia Klemp and Carola Rackete, or of the activists that have been charged with ‘solidarity crimes’ in Italy and France for supporting people along the European Union’s internal borders. While we need to stand up against such criminalisation and to further develop those solidarity practices, what is really important for us is to connect them with the movements and struggles of migrants. It is through this connection that solidarity holds the potential to become more effective and even more radical, nurturing practices that point to the abolition of specific border regimes and related systems of domination.
For us, this is the political meaning of the El Hiblu 3 campaign. It is of course necessary to fight in court. And as the recent legal decision on the Vos Thalassa case1
in Italy demonstrates, it is possible to win: the resistance against repatriation to Libya of two rescued migrants in 2018 has been recognized as an act of self-defence. Nonetheless, migrant networks of solidarity continue to be the target of criminalisation in countless investigations and court decisions. For example, in Italy, four Eritreans are still waiting for the court’s final decision, after spending two years in pre-trial detention.2
The prosecutor initially sought a fourteen-year prison sentence for international smuggling, based on mundane practices of solidarity like hosting fellow Eritreans in transit, or buying train tickets to Italian destinations on their behalf. Although most charges were dropped during the first trial, the court of appeal refused to acknowledge the humanitarian character of these acts of solidarity among migrants, sentencing them to up to four years in prison. It is important to stress that in such trials the real aim seems to be the disruption of the networks that enable migrants’ mobility.
The El Hiblu 3-campaign provides us with a great opportunity to raise public consciousness regarding such instances of migrants’ solidarity, which too often remain invisible. This is again something we owe to Abdalla, Amara and Kader.