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n April 2020, a banner displaying the flag of Europe and the words ‘European solidarity’ was hung off a tourist ferry a few nautical miles off Malta’s coast. On board was a large group of incarcerated migrants who had fled from Libya and been rescued only days earlier from precarious boats in the Mediterranean Sea. A total of 425 migrants were kept in this way on several ferries just outside of Malta’s territorial waters - a newly introduced measure by the Maltese government. At the time, a government spokesperson noted: “Malta’s position remains very clear. Our ports are closed. Now it’s up to the European Union to shoulder responsibility and show solidarity towards these illegal migrants” (Times of Malta, 2021). In a letter sent to Amnesty International (2020: 12), Malta’s prime minister Robert Abela justified the use of ferries retroactively as a Covid-19 “quarantine area” that had been installed as existing centres on land “were subject to considerable pressure due to the influx in arrivals”. For Amnesty (2020: 12), however, the offshore incarceration of hundreds of people was purely and simply “an unlawful deprivation of liberty”. Able to briefly reach out, some of the migrants informed activists about the difficult situation on board. Held against their will in what they described as a “water prison”, they experienced how over time, as they wrote, “anxiety, hopelessness and depression increased” (Alarm Phone, 2021). The drama off Malta’s coast lasted for about five weeks and ended only when the incarcerated migrants launched a protest on board, forcing their disembarkation in Malta (Stierl and Dadusc, 2021).
Ċetta Mainwaring’s monograph “At Europe’s Edge: Migration and Crisis in the Mediterranean” helps us unpack such staging of border spectacles in Europe, and understand Malta’s key role in producing ‘migration crises’. By all accounts, the installation of ‘water prisons’ was a failure. Costing around 1.7 million Euros, leading to legal challenges, and drawing condemnation by international organisations and NGOs, the offshore incarceration delayed but could not prevent disembarkation and the filing of asylum claims in Malta. Nonetheless, when reading Mainwaring’s compelling study, we understand the reasons why the ‘microstate’ of Malta does not let any opportunity to create a ‘migration crisis’ go to waste. Mainwaring draws from the work of Janet Roitman (2014: 16) who has incisively noted that “the term ‘crisis’ no longer clearly signifies a singular moment of decisive judgment; we now presume that crisis is a condition, a state of affairs, an experiential category. Today, crisis is posited as a protracted and potentially persistent state of ailment and demise.”
For Malta, portraying migrant arrivals as crisis—inducing invasions—has paid off. As Mainwaring convincingly demonstrates, Malta has been able to “put the island on the European political map” (150) by producing a constant discourse of crisis and emphasising Malta’s significant role in countering and managing such crisis. The author suggests that after joining the EU in 2004, Malta has been able to exert “an unexpected level of influence on EU migration governance, despite its small size and limited resources” (122). Through her engagement with EU and Maltese policymakers and politicians, she provides fascinating insights into Malta’s political strategies of (ab-)using the issue of migration to increase “its relative power within the Union” (154). Described as the “kings of lobbying”, Maltese policymakers have used Malta’s geopolitical location to their advantage, emphasising both “its gatekeeper role” (122) as well as its inability to cope with migrant arrivals. As an EU member state facing ‘particular pressures’, Malta has succeeded in receiving considerable EUropean financial and other support, though often struggling to achieve much progress in installing a functioning relocation mechanism that would see migrant arrivals relocated to other EU member states. As Mainwaring notes: “The thin veneer of solidarity in the EU cracks easily under specific pressure, especially in the politicized realm of migration” (143).
The politics of crisis requires the constant production of border spectacles. Malta has become not merely a master of lobbying but also a master of creating ostensible border emergencies of which the installation of ‘water prisons’ off the Maltese coast was but one example. As Mainwaring shows, the blocking of NGO vessels from disembarking rescued migrants, at times for weeks, the non-assistance of migrant boats in distress, joint deterrence and push-back efforts with Frontex and Libyan forces, the criminalisation of vulnerable migrant boat drivers as ‘smugglers’, and the accommodation of arrived migrants in inhumane detention centres all play into such production of border spectacles. Though cynical, and often in severe violation of human rights, Malta has learned that such behaviour is rewarded and that it can expect few political repercussions.
Through numerous interviews and ethnographic encounters, Mainwaring demonstrates what the consequences for those subjugated to these border spectacles and forms of “racial purging at the border” (Browne, 2009: 145) are: increased migrant drownings at sea, suffering in horrendous migrant camps, and racist abuse and exploitation after arrival in Malta. The author speaks of a politics of fear that fuels anti-migrant sentiments and racism in Malta, “the fear of losing economic security … and the fear of losing one’s national identity” (116). When highlighting how attempts to construct “a mythical, homogenous ‘pre-migrant’ society in Malta” (116) erase the long history of Malta as a place of transcontinental migration, cultural exchange, and encounter, it would have been interesting to learn more, possibly by engaging more with postcolonial literatures, about this ‘historical amnesia’ and whether these other histories of Malta persist somewhere in collective memory or consciousness.
Mainwaring’s monograph is an important read and deserves a wide readership. It is timely and will remain so precisely as EUrope has found no adequate way of dealing with the issue of migration. While I write this review, we see the construction of ‘migration crises’ and border spectacles in and around EUrope. Along the EUropean border to Belarus, migrants are deterred through military force and systematic push-backs. In the central Mediterranean Sea, EU-funded Libyan forces abduct escaping migrants en masse and drag them back into torture camps. In the Aegean Sea, mask-wearing Greek border guards force migrants across the border into Turkish waters and abandon them at sea on life rafts. In the many border regions of EUrope, these practices have produced migrant suffering and death on a mass scale – often only opposed by people ‘on the move’ themselves as well as activists and civil society actors.
When we think of EUrope, following Étienne Balibar (2004: 2, emphasis in original), “first of all as the name of an unresolved political problem”, then the countries located at EUrope’s geographical edges are “not marginal to the constitution of a public sphere but rather at the center”, given the ongoing contestations over identity and belonging there. Mainwaring offers a captivating account of one of these central EUropean border spaces at the geographical periphery where the engineering of permanent border spectacles has political use. While the situation appears daunting, with racialised others being systemically and violented excluded, deterred, and subjugated, “At Europe’s Edge” also highlights the agency and resistance of those ‘on the move’, their ability to subvert border controls stubbornly and often creatively in a struggle for dignified futures. There is hope in migrant and solidarity struggles that challenge the borderisation of society and space. After all, when we return to those forced into Malta’s ‘water prisons’, it was their resistance to incarceration that ended the drama off the Maltese coast. They claimed their rights and staged a rebellion on board. They were not welcome, but they arrived, nonetheless.
Alarm Phone (2020) Also in the Central Mediterranean Sea: Black Lives Matter! Available here (accessed November 12, 2021).
Amnesty International (2020) Waves of Impunity: Malta’s Human Rights Violations and Europe’s Responsibilities in the Central Mediterranean. Available here (accessed November 12, 2021).
Browne S (2009) Digital Epidermalization: Race, Identity and Biometrics. Critical Sociology 36(1): 131–150.
Balibar É (2004) We, the People of Europe? Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Times of Malta (2020). Malta charters Captain Morgan boat to house rescued migrants off shore. Available here (accessed November 12, 2021).
Roitman J (2014) Anti-Crisis. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Stierl M and Dadusc D (2021) The ‘Covid excuse’: EUropean border violence in the Mediterranean Sea. Ethnic and Racial Studies. Published first 06 October 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2021.1977367
Maurice Stierl leads the research group “The Production of Knowledge on Migration” at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies, Osnabrück University. Before, he was a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sheffield and has also taught at the University of Warwick and the University of California, Davis. His research focuses on migration struggles in contemporary Europe and (northern) Africa and is broadly situated in the fields of International Political Sociology, Political Geography, and Migration, Citizenship and Border Studies. His book ‘Migrant Resistance in Contemporary Europe’ was published by Routledge in 2019.