From Exodus 1947 to Lampedusa: Refugees, illegality and the Mediterranean | Part One
How long have immigrants been labelled 'illegal'? The slogan 'no one is illegal' has been taken up by pro-migrant groups, especially those campaigning on behalf of asylum seekers. It is used to highlight the common humanity of those placed beyond the law with regard to their national status. The children's character, Paddington Bear, who came to England as a stowaway on board a ship from 'Darkest Peru', has become 'amongst immigration lawyers a walking, talking, ursine pin-up for humanising our work'. Yet had Paddington (who arrived in the London docks in the 1950s) come just half a century earlier, he would have had no need to enter as an 'illegal immigrant'. Indeed, until the late nineteenth century onwards (and especially since the First World War), the introduction of border controls linking the act of migration with legal legitimacy was unthinkable. If the idea of 'open borders' is now regarded as utopian, for the vast majority of human history it has been the natural order of the world.
In the case of 'illegal immigration', the terminology is relatively new - it came into bureaucratic use during the 1930s. Once coined, however, it developed its own life beyond the time and place of its origins. And if its linguistic coinage owed much to the unique situation of Britain's Palestinian Mandate and a specific local colonial crisis, it had predecessors in Western countries of immigration. These can be identified, for example, amongst those who aimed to stop the entry of 'undesirable aliens' to Britain or likewise Americans seeking protection against 'the scourings of foreign disease, pauperism and crime'. What such descriptions had in common was the de-humanising of migrants.
What was innovative during and immediately after the Nazi era was the type of location where the struggles over migrant restriction took place. It has been suggested by Matthew Gibney that in the twenty first century the implementation of immigration controls has shifted in location:
The traditional view of entrance as something operated at the state's borders, train stations and airports by domestic immigration officials increasingly appears quaint and outdated. It is now beyond the boundaries of the state, on the high seas, in foreign countries, or in vaguely defined territories that exclusion from admission occurs.
In 2015 TripAdvisor produced a list of the top ten beaches in Europe. The first three were in the Mediterranean with Rabbit Beach, Lampedusa, ranked the highest. As is happening in other parts of the 'blue route', the misery of migration at its most desperate is coinciding in time and place with the pursuit of tourist pleasure. Affluent Western visitors are thus witnessing the victims of dictatorship, failed states, civil war, ethnic cleansing, religious intolerance and basic deprival of life chances.
There are no definitive figures for those who have died migrating to Europe using the Mediterranean. Using media and NGOs, the monitoring group Fortress Europe argued that between 1993 and 2011, close to 20,000 died en route. Since then the numbers have gone up alarmingly - estimated at 3419 for 2014 and higher still in 2015 and in 2016. The problem of using such information, however, is that 'Some places receive more... attention than others because they have developed into "border theatres"'. Of all these, Lampedusa is the most prominent example. Without its connection to boat migrants, 'Lampedusa would be just one of the many minor Italian islands living on fishing and tourism'. Its recent connection to migration began slowly and then transformed the island. At times migrants have outnumbered residents (5,800) and an infrastructure involving large scale policing and humanitarian presence has also impacted on its everyday life.
It is often assumed that desperate migrants have chosen to come to Lampedusa as the closest piece of European land from Africa. Whilst in the early stages of this movement in the 1990s, there was an element of truth in such assumptions, it has not been the case subsequently. Since the early twenty-first century, it has been emphasised that migrants 'did not arrive of their own accord': they did not choose Lampedusa, but were directed and diverted there by the Italian authorities as a way of controlling the flows of migration which were both increasing in numbers and diversifying in places of origin.
Lampedusa has now become a 'border zone', a place which had 'essentially become detached from the rest of Italy'. It is, in the words of Alison Mountz, one of many 'stateless spaces'. The Sicilian Channel had, in effect, 'become an outer border of the European Union', and Lampedusa was the focal place/non-place where attempts were made at controlling the flow of unwanted 'illegal' migrants. Then on 3 October 2013, 'the world witnessed the most dramatic human disaster in the Mediterranean Sea since the Second World War'. A small fishing boat that have left Libya carrying over 500 largely Somalian and Eritrean refugees caught fire half a mile from Lampedusa. Only 155 survived. What happened on 3 October 2013 was far from the first instance of mass migrant death at sea, and it has been surpassed by even greater tragedies thereafter. The disaster led to an international outcry, led by the Pope who visited the island where both the survivors and the bodies of some of the dead had been brought. Pope Francis responded that 'The word disgrace comes to mind. It is a disgrace.' Whilst in 2014, through a variety of governmental and private initiatives, some 170,000 migrants were rescued in the Mediterranean, less than eighteen months after 3 October 2013, several similar boats capsized close to Lampedusa, with over 300 migrants feared drowned. These, however, were overshadowed by an even larger catastrophe in the spring of 2015. In May 2015, a boat carrying over 800 migrants sank leaving just 28 survivors.
There is a parallel in Lampedusa to Exodus 1947, the most famous ship carrying ‘illegal immigrant’ – over 4,000 of them - which the British and Palestinian authorities wanted to make into a salutary example as well as a specific case of refused entry to Palestine in summer 1947.In both cases security and economic fears have run alongside humanitarian concern. In the case of the Jewish 'illegal' immigration, the British tried (and failed) to impress the world that those embarking on such journeys, and especially the organisers, were doing so at the expense of genuine, legitimate refugees. Today, similar dynamics are at work with the focus of European bodies and politicians being on the 'criminal' smugglers and the need to curtail their activities, including the destruction of boats used to carry the migrants. If those used to transport Jewish migrants in and after the Nazi era were larger vessels well beyond their useful life, many of those today are tiny. They are like the ones 'children used to play with on the beach. They are really just toys.'