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Weaponizing Migration: The Case of Italy

The Italian island of Lampedusa, located 113 kilometres from the coast of Tunisia, recently witnessed a huge influx of undocumented migrants. Today, the island’s 6,500 inhabitants are neighbours with some 10,000 asylum seekers, thus generating political turmoil in Italy over the issue of migration. Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni pledged her commitment to adopt harsh measures in order to curb the phenomenon of irregular migration. Since Meloni urged fellow European leaders to defend the European Union’s external borders, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited the island together with the Italian Prime Minister and announced a 10-point plan that drew particular attention for it stated the possibility of expanding naval missions in the Mediterranean Sea. Meloni had been first to demand a naval force preventing migrant vessels from reaching Italy, just as the Italian Minister of Interior Matteo Piantedosi proposed a naval blockade.

Such ideas are more often popular with right-wing politicians, as in Italy’s case, who have a political duty to appease those that voted them into power. Yet a blockade is an act of war and can only apply between two warring political entities, such as the one imposed by Russia to obstruct Ukraine’s exit to the Black Sea – certainly not the case with migrants. Even at state level, current relations between Italy and Tunisia, the migrants’ point of departure, would definitely not warrant such an act. Blocking the entry into and exit from a particular area is only plausible during armed conflict, not during times of peace. Besides, a nation’s coast guard is usually not well equipped to undertake any such aggression-prone mission, whereas deploying its naval forces would certainly be considered as an extreme measure. In any case, for Italy to prevent migrant vessels from reaching land, its naval mission would probably have to take action in Tunisian waters, close to its coastline, and maintain it there for a prolonged period of time. One might expect that the Tunisian government would not tolerate the presence of a foreign power’s naval forces close to its shore, while the resources necessary for Italy to carry out such a mission would render it too costly.

And since convincing the United Nation’s Security Council that migrants pose a threat to peace, order, and stability is unlikely, the UN would never condone such a maritime operation. Only Sophia, an EU naval mission, could have helped break the deadlock. Established in May 2015, with an annual budget of €12 million, Sophia would have served the Italian government’s objectives perfectly well, however, Sophia was never fully activated, with its operations limited to boarding, searching, seizing and diverting migrant vessels. Although Sophia helped save some 45,000 people at sea, the mission’s proper activation required intervention by force and was, therefore, terminated in March 2020.

Christos Kassimeris, PhD

Christos Kassimeris, PhD

Professor Christos Kassimeris heads the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at European University Cyprus and is coordinator of the BA in European Politics and Communication. Before joining European University Cyprus, he was teaching European Integration Politics and International Relations of the Mediterranean for three years at the University of Reading. He is the author of European Football in Black and White: Tackling Racism in Football (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007), Greece and the American Embrace: Greek Foreign Policy Towards Turkey, the US and the Western Alliance (I.B. Tauris Academic Studies, 2009) and Football Comes Home: Symbolic Identities in European Football (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 2010), editor of Anti-racism in European Football: Fair Play for All (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009), The Marketing of War in the Age of Neo-Militarism (Routledge, 2011) and The Politics of Education: Challenging Multiculturalism (Routledge, 2011), and has several publications in political science journals. He is also Visiting Research Fellow at the University of De Montfort.