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ne year into their implementation, Italian hotspots have become complex and multi-faceted structures for managing migrant populations. Conceived as frontline infrastructures for the full identification of incoming migrants through enhanced mechanisms of intra-governmental control and as border-posts of first deportation, Italian hotspots have recently also been used as ad-hoc sites for redistributing migrants already present on the national territory, and particularly for removing their unruly and contested presence from highly visible sites. So far this has happened in the aftermath of migrants’ protests and clashes with the local police in sites such as Ventimiglia, at the Italian-France border. These new evolutions complicate the territoriality and sovereignty of hotspots and call for investigating their actually existing geographies, beyond the governmental vision of EU institutions and the accounts of the governmental actors involved in their implementation and management.
In this piece we engage with the spatiality of hotspots in Italy, focusing on their implementation, moving the conversation past the letter of their governmental vision. To do this, we map three phenomena: first, the multiplication of their functions to include the redistribution of people on the mainland; second, the evolution of the illegalization of migrants performed through hotspots; third, the multiplication of informal hotspots on the Italian territory.
Let us begin from the dialectic between islands and land, that is at the heart of the EU hotspot approach to the migration crisis and that characterizes operations of migration management conducted on islands at the outer maritime frontier of nation states. Alison Mountz described an “enforcement archipelago” in her research on the detention of asylum seekers on islands across the world (2011), importantly pointing to the need of studying islands not as isolated exceptional spaces but as part of one of the territorial strategies of migration management. Particularly, this strategy consists of detaching control over migrant flows from the mainland, concentrating border functions on islands, and concurrently reducing access to the asylum system for refugees or, as Mountz eloquently puts it, “shrink[ing] spaces of asylum” (126). Certainly, the location of hotspots on Italian and Greek islands speaks to this function and creates a “frontline archipelago” (Garelli and Tazzioli, 2016) at the Mediterranean frontier of the EU, covering both the central Mediterranean and Aegean routes, and setting up border enforcement outposts.
Hotspots’ detachment from the mainland (their island-ic location) is in fact part and parcel of the logistics of managing arrivals and sorting profiles, the so called “management of mixed flows” at “entry-points” as the governmental language would put it. The name “hotspot”—with the double reference to major sites of border crossing and heightened infrastructures of border control— embodies the EU vision behind “the hotspot approach” as the “immediate response,” a containment response, in fact, to increased arrivals into Europe of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea. In other words, hotspots are conceived as mechanisms to govern entry, positioned along the maritime routes of migrant journeys and away from the mainland. From these detached locations, hotspots function to filter most migrants for exclusion, while allowing entry only to the very few who are considered eligible for asylum claims or for the even fewer who are allowed into the EU relocation program.1
The forced removal of migrants from their contested spaces of transit is no news: dispersing migrant organizing power and breaking up their territorial gravity has long characterized the government of the most visible transit points in the European landscape—Lampedusa and Calais are cases in point. But in their Italian implementation hotspots further articulate this function and have become also sites for managing migrant on-land presence “in excess,” alongside their EU assigned role of mechanisms for sorting entries on islands. So Italian hotspots are also “receiving” unruly migrant presences from the land, the “excess” of on-land migrant presence—where “excess” has to be understood not only in quantitative terms but also in terms of the “excess” of their struggles and organizing power.2 Hence, while continuing to serve as the EU frontline archipelago in the central Mediterranean, Italian hotspots are also imbricated with the government of migrants’ long-term presence on the mainland.
Hotspots are part of a quotidian strategy of migration management on the mainland. This strategy does not proceed from the letter of EU policies but represents their Italian ad hoc orchestration. This also aligns with the fact that, to this day, Italian hotspots still have an undefined juridical profile. For an infrastructure that was envisioned as the EU mechanism to ensure that frontline states would “fulfill their obligations under EU law and swiftly identify, register and fingerprint incoming migrants,” hotspots—at least in their Italian instantiation—become sites where migration control functions are redistributed.
While all Italian hotspots are located on islands, Lampedusa was presented as the model and is hence the site where the role of islands as part of the “hotspot approach” is better understood. Unlike Sicily—where the other Italian hotspots are located—Lampedusa is a small island with a distinct offshore position (a southernmost tip of Europe, halfway between Italy and Tunisia) and is more similar to the Greek hotspots on the islands facing Turkey. Such isolation is also what motivates the rather loose control on migrants’ presence within the confines of the hotspot located in a hollow in the central part of the island. As migrants are in fact captive of the island and its remoteness from the land anyway, their going in and out of the premises of the hotspot is not strictly controlled.
Up to March 2016 and for six months since its opening, the hotspot of Lampedusa functioned as a site for the production of migrants and refugees’ illegality. With a mandate for full identification and screening of all entries, the Lampedusa hotspot was set up as the model for the Italian implementation of the hotspot approach. In this process, the legal obligations of landing states were suspended, at least for the first six months of the hotspot’s operation.
The identification procedures performed by the Italian police—and monitored by Frontex officials—for all incoming migrants consisted in filling in an Italian Home Office form (foglio-notizie) bearing the question “What is the reason for your being in Italy?” with four options to choose from: “poverty,” “family reunification,” “work,” or “other reasons.” War and persecution were not explicitly listed options and had to fall under the rubric “other.” This was an odd bureaucratic choice for a form that was meant to discern refugees from economic migrants, since the function assigned to hotspots by the EU Agenda on Migration was to sort so called “mixed migration flows”, i.e., parting eligible asylum seekers from so called economic migrants.
Migrants we interviewed in Lampedusa in December 2015 and February 2016 and activists report that the Italian police ordinarily filled in the document in migrants’ place, while also proceeding to fingerprint all of them, often with the use of force, a contested procedure whose legal basis has been widely disputed despite internal documents and EU directives authorizing Italy to resort to “forcing” migrants to be fingerprinted.
The foglio-notizie was filled in by police officials on the basis of migrants’ nationality. Nationals of Eritrea, Syria, Yemen, and the Central African Republic were allowed to claim asylum; people from all other nationalities, including Sub-Saharan African and North African nationals were illegalized on the spot. Those who were denied the possibility to claim asylum received an expulsion order (decreto di esplusione) that required them to leave the Italian territory within seven days. The outcome was the increase of irregularized migrants on the Italian territory and across Europe (where may be Dublin-ed, if they were fingerprinted at entry in Italy). Italy received pressures from the EU to comply with the obligation to fingerprint migrants. Italy had in fact adopted a tacit pull-out strategy and data from the Italian Scientific Police shows that between 2014 and the first half of 2015 only 68% of incoming migrants were fingerprinted in Italy (Interview with the Scientific Police, department of Public Security, Italian Home Office, Rome, January 21, 2016). Activists report that during that timeframe most Syrians were not identified and were allowed to flee outside Italy by local authorities (Interview with Borderline Sicily, April 29, 2016). The preventive exclusion from the channels of asylum can be seen as Italy’s strategy for not paying the cost of humanitarian assistance by temporally anticipating the threshold of deportability. That is to say, Italian authorities illegalized many migrants on the spot transforming them into irregular and thus potentially deportable subjects.
Migrants who were allowed to claim asylum were also blocked, blocked in a sort of spatial trap: while identification procedures are very quick, the processing of those recognized in “real” need of protection is a lengthy process. Asylum seekers end up stranded for about one year before their claim is processed. The swift temporality of control at landing coexists with asylum seekers’ indefinite wait in hosting and processing centers. Furthermore, being recognized eligible to claim asylum does not necessarily mean being granted protection. Rejections in fact peaked in Italy in the last year, when asylum claims reached a rate of 60% denials.3
Hotspots are certainly sites of temporary capture where migrants are registered, their biometric data are taken, and where a preventative illegalization is performed. Yet, it would be reductive to narrow the EU approach to migration (“The Hotspot Approach”) to the detention infrastructures that have been officially designated as as “hotspots”. The analytical move that we undertake here consists in getting around the prison space, recalling Michel Foucault’s methodological “triple displacement” (Foucault, 2009), in order to investigate the economy of illegality that is produced far beyond detention institutions. In order to grasp the logistics of the hotspot approach as a whole we look at the spatial economy of forced movements and institutionally enforced transfers that is connected to and in part stems from the functioning of the hotspots.
The hotspot system was envisioned as the first step of the EU relocation mechanism, where migrants eligible for relocation are selected and parted from others. Launched in the European Migration Agenda in May 2015, the Relocation Scheme allows 160,000 asylum seekers to be transferred from Italy and Greece to other member states, hence alleviating the “humanitarian burden” at the Southern frontiers of Europe. The hotspot system is intertwined with the institutional channels of relocation and with the spatial strategy of redistributing asylum seekers across Europe. What is at stake is a biopolitical engineering of migration, where member states are invested in channelling and taking control over autonomous movements. Moreover, “relocation” literally and practically confirms that asylum seekers are to be moved: that their freedom of circulation and the option to choose a place of refuge is not contemplated in this European attempt to discipline migration within the template of channels. The centrality of “channels” within migration management vocabulary and policies (from “humanitarian channels” to relocation ones) responds to the logic of allocating people, assigning them to an institutionally decided space. In order to unpack the logistics of hotspots we suggest to also look at the invisible channels of internal transfer, displacement and deportation that have been enacted by states across Europe. In other words, we propose to look at the hotspot approach beyond the fences of detention centers.
Ventimiglia, Italian-French border, August 10, 2016. Four hundred migrants are forcefully removed from the hosting centre run by the Red Cross in Ventimiglia to the hotspot of Taranto, in southern Italy. Other forced transfers to the Taranto hotspot took place from Como, the Italian city located at the border with Switzerland where, between summer and autumn 2016, migrants ended up blocked due to the closure of the Swiss border and to the push-backs to Italy carried out by Swiss authorities. Italy’s plan to “lighten” contested border-sites reveals that the hotspot approach also engages with the physical presence of migrants on the territory. What counts at entry, instead, is migrants’ digital trace, which hotspots are to record (somehow independently from migrants’ enduring presence—migrants in fact often manage or are allowed to manage to leave Italy and arrive in other European countries). In critical border zones like Ventimiglia or Como, on the contrary, national authorities’ focus is preventing migrants from assembling and scattering them across space. This is where hotspots come into the picture as sites for migrants’ re-distribution across the Italian territory. This strategy consists in moving migrants across and moving migrants back, hence forcing them to restart their journey northward from the South (e.g. from the hotspot of Taranto). These forced movements are performed silently by Italian officials and go in parallel with the quick preventive illegalization that occurs inside the hotspots.
This focus on channels of forced return sheds light on two concurrent phenomena. First, hotspots function both as infrastructures of detention and flexible chokepoints for the identitification of migrants who enter Europe, and as places of “temporary return”, where migrants are eventually brought back in the attempt to channel their autonomous movements across Europe. Second, hotspot-like spaces are multiplying in the transit points that characterize migrant journeys. The city of Ventimiglia is a case in point. Migrants who transit there (attempting to cross into France) are subjected to screening and identification procedures in order to establish who may be eligible for relocation and who will receive an expulsion order and be transferred to Southern Italy, where they will be eventually deported to their country of origin.
We are not suggesting a straightforward isomorphism between official hotspots and border-zones or transit points with hotspot-like functions. Rather, the point for us is to highlight that mechanisms of preventive illegalization are enacted in different places, and that the EU pressure on Italy to identify all migrants had direct implications on the asylum machine, resulting in the restriction to access to asylum procedures and in a decrease in the recognition of forms of protection to asylum seekers.
The relocation system proceeds at a remarkably slow pace: only 1,156 migrants have been relocated at the time of writing (September 15, 2016).The strategy of moving migrants around for preventing their “secondary movements” has the paradoxical effect of keeping migrants on the move, more than stopping mobility.
Ventimiglia, August 23 2016. 48 Sudanese migrants are arrested by the police at the temporary hosting center run by the Red Cross and are taken to the airport of Turin wherefrom they are deported to Sudan with a charter flight. According to testimonies by local activists, some of these migrants had expressed the intention of claiming asylum in Italy while they were in the hosting center. The deportation took place twenty days after the new Memorandum of Understanding signed by Italy and Sudan concerning the mutual cooperation in the field of migration control and border enforcement practices. The new bilateral agreement establishes, among other things, the conditions for the repatriation of nationals who are irregularly present in the respective countries.
This vignette illustrates another hotspot-like space that is expanding. Deportation channels, in fact, are part and parcel of the EU attempt to negotiate migrant flows with sending countries and particularly to contain flows to Europe by returning people to their countries of origin. Looking at channels of deportation allows to decenter the gaze on the hotspot approach, moving the focus away from the European territory in order to follow the EU’s expansive geography of migration containment. On August 19, 2016, only a few days before the deportation, the newspaper Sudan Tribune revealed that a Sudanese delegation is about to come to Italy in order to identify Sudanese migrants blocked at the French-Italian border. The hotspot-logistics is made of convoluted forced geographies for slowing down and channeling migration movements. Within such a context, the island of Lampedusa is a crucial chokepoint in the hotspot system: not an exceptional site but rather a place crisscrossed by multiple and heterogeneous channels of migration logistics.
1 As of September 15, 2016 the EU’s only collective effort to find a solution for a small fraction of the 1.2 million refugees and migrants who landed on its southern shores last year has relocated only 1,156 people.
2 Here we refer to migrants’ contested politics, which represents a “political excess” in relation to the national order of things.
4 The Tranto hotspot is the only one which is not located on an island, unlike all the other ones both in Italy and in Greeece.
5 According to ASGI, an Italian organisation of lawyers supporting migrants, about 7,000 migrants were pushed back from Switzerland to Italy between April and July 2016.
6 For instance, while European actors (from Frontex and Easo) are visibly present inside the official hotspots, this is certainly not the case in border-zones like Ventimiglia. Migrants who arrive in Ventimiglia are not identified for Eurodac purposes—the procedure occurs inside the hotspots.
7 This decrease includes both the so called “humanitarian protection” (or subsidiary protection) and refugee status. Actually, by now only the 20% of those who are granted of a form pop protection get the refugee status.
Mountz A (2011). The enforcement archipelago: Detention, haunting, and asylum on islands. Political Geography, 30(3): 118-128.
Garelli G and Tazzioli M (2016) The EU hotspot approach at Lampedusa, Opendemocracy, http://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/glenda-garelli-martina-tazzioli/eu-hotspot-approach-at-lampedusa (last access, October 13, 2016).