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t is a great honour to have such esteemed colleagues and friends introduce and comment on my book, At Europe’s Edge. I want to thank them for engaging so generously with the work. Their own work has been and continues to be integral to my own – an inspiration of what good scholarship looks like. I respond here to their discussions by picking up some of the important points they raise, while looking forward to continued discussions with them and others.
Around the world, people on the move face longer, more dangerous, and more circuitous journeys in their search for safety, livelihoods, love, and adventure – especially if they are racialised people from the Global South. State violence continues to be a consistent feature of borderlands in Europe and elsewhere, with governments contributing to what Alison Mountz (2020) has described as the death of asylum. At the national level, there is little political vision or leadership on migration beyond crisis rhetoric and policies that contribute to death and suffering.
As Colin Calleja notes in his review, an important thread in the book is the way that constructed migration crises work to ‘other’ particular people in racialised and classed ways. While Calleja raises the ways that othering occurs as a form of identity formation, to distinguish one’s position within a group as separate to other groups, I would point to the ways that particular othering occurs within migration politics around national, racialised, and class divisions. This politics reifies the nation-state as the primary structure in our lives and in doing so homogenises diverse national communities, obscuring internal divisions as well as transnational relationships and solidarities.
Indeed, the false promise of the nation-state and its myth of stable, equal membership underpins migration policies and politics (Sharma, 2020; Anderson, 2021). As we see in Malta, across Europe, and elsewhere, migration and the spectacles built around it become a scapegoat for societies’ ills and inequalities, distracting from national policies and politics that continue to disenfranchise citizens and noncitizens in different and similar ways.
In Malta’s postcolonial reality, which Maurice Stierl points to in his review, nationalism presents interesting tensions. Nationalism is at once bound up with liberation and self-determination, achieved in the 1960s and 1970s, from oppressive British colonial rule - a radical legacy of many people’s struggle for equality and the right of the Maltese people to live in peace and prosperity. Yet, today in Malta’s migration policies we see the sharp limits of nationalism and the inherent violent exclusion it entails, how nationalism borders our imagination in the fight for a more equal world.
Contemporary racial capitalism continues to disenfranchise citizens and noncitizens in Malta, as elsewhere. Although Malta has avoided the economic depressions seen in other parts of Southern Europe since 2008, it has done so on the backs of exploited migrant labourers, along with burgeoning online gambling and cryptocurrency exchange sectors that raise serious questions about weak financial regulation, corruption, and tax evasion. Despite the ‘success’ pointed to by politicians with GDP figures and other economic indicators, one in five household earned less than €9,212 and were thus at risk of poverty and social exclusion in 2019 with migrants continuing to face particularly acute levels of poverty and marginalisation (NSO 2020).
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare such inequalities in our societies, and the ways that racism continues to expose racialised people to premature death (Gilmore, 2007). Many in low-paid industries, from farm workers to bus drivers, were deemed ‘essential workers’, exposed to the highest levels of risk often without recognition and monetary reward. They were ‘essential’ yet expendable (e.g. Borges and Huest, 2020).
States also exploited the Covid-19 pandemic to further embrace a politics of neglect and abandonment in the Mediterranean through ‘hygienic-sanitary border enforcements’ (Tazzioli and Stierl, 2021). In 2020, Malta again shut its ports to merchant vessels and members of the civil fleet who required a safe place to disembark people they had rescued in the Mediterranean. For six weeks, they detained over 400 people offshore, on the high seas, on tourist ferry boats, designed for day trips. Since 2019, when At Europe’s Edge was published, Malta, along with Italy and other EU member states, has continued to abandon people at sea, criminalising migrants and their allies and thus exacerbating the death and suffering at sea. In perhaps its most flagrant disregard for international law, the Maltese authorities contracted a private vessel to illegally return 63 people from its search and rescue area to Libya in 2020 (Alarmphone 2020). Containing people in and returning people to Libya, despite well documented and widespread human rights abuses, is now official policy in Malta and the EU more widely. As a result of the EU’s support for the so-called Libyan coastguard, more than 32,000 people were intercepted at sea and returned to certain torture and violence in Libya in 2021 (ECRE 2022).
With deadly regularity, such policies produce new flashpoints of border violence on the EU’s external border. Illegal pushbacks have taken place from Poland to Belarus, Croatia to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece to Turkey, and from the Central Mediterranean to Libya (Amnesty International, 2021; Lighthouse Reports, 2021; Tondo 2021). In late 2021, the geopolitical tensions between Belarus and Poland, and more widely the EU and Russia framed discussions about people stuck at the Polish border. The focus on President Lukashenko, who is certainly overseeing a brutal regime in Belarus, made for an easy scapegoat that distracted from the EU’s own violent border regime which has undermined people’s ability to move and seek asylum. In all these places, migrants are reduced to ‘weapons’ and instrumentalized, which disregards their own agency. They are not just pawns and not just victims, but people, individuals and families, with their own histories, desires, and reasons for moving.
Importantly, in all these places, contestations continue to occur. As Martina Tazzioli reminds us in her review: “The ‘margins’ of Europe are also the vantage point for grounding a politics of justice grounded on the materiality of migrants’ struggles.” And indeed, today we see the continued contestation of violent bordering in the Mediterranean. People continue to arrive in Europe despite the measures meant to deter them. Their testimonies, when heard, involve political contestations and political demands (Squire et al, 2021). With allies, they raise legal challenges in response to the violence they endure. They are met not only with violence but also with kindness, empathy, and support, with small and large acts of solidarity.
As Alison Mountz notes in her review, a focus on the sea allows us to challenge methodological nationalism, to examine these interstitial spaces where resistance occurs. It is at sea that we have seen a civil fleet emerge in the Mediterranean in response to state practices of abandonment. It is here that the WatchTheMed Alarm Phone operates, providing a vital hotline for those travelling across the sea and monitoring state activity. In this way, they provide practical support and political leadership on the issue of migration. These contestations fill seascapes so often scripted by states as ‘empty’ or ‘ours’ (Mainwaring and Debono, 2021). In the Mediterranean and elsewhere, people continue to come together again in old and new ways, at sea and on land, to demand that people be free to move, be free to find safety and life.
Amnesty International (2021) ‘Greece: Pushbacks and violence against refugees and migrants are de facto border policy’, 23 June.
Alarm Phone (2020) ‘How Malta and EU authorities left people to die at sea and returned survivors to war’, Press Release, 16 April.
Anderson B (2021) ‘More Equal than Others: Managing the Boundaries of Citizenship’ In Ramírez CS, Falcón SM, Poblete J, McKay SC, Schaeffer FA (eds) Precarity and Belonging: Labour, Migration, and Noncitizenship. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Borges A and Huest N (2020) ‘Invisible workers: Underpaid, exploited and put at risk on Europe’s farms’, Euronews, 22 July.
ECRE (2021) ‘Central Med: EU Boosts Support to Libya Amid Detainee Hunger Strike, Activists Protest Deaths at Sea, Cyprus Pushes for Returns, El Hiblu 3 Trial Continues’, Press Release, 11 February.
Gilmore RW (2007) Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California. Oakland: University of California Press
Lighthouse Reports (2021) ‘Unmasking Europe’s Shadow Armies’ Lighthouse Reports, 6 October.
Mountz A (2020) The Death of Asylum: Hidden Geographies of the Enforcement of Archipelago. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
National Statistics Office (NSO) (2020) ‘EU-SILC 2019: Material Deprivation and Monetary Poverty’, News Release, Malta, 16 December.
Sharma N (2020) Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants. Durham: Duke University Press
Squire V, Perkowski N, Stevens D, and Vaughan-Williams N (2021) Reclaiming Migration: Voices from Europe’s ‘Migrant Crisis’. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Tazzioli M and Stierl M (2021) ‘“We Closed the Ports to Protect Refugees.” Hygienic Borders and Deterrence Humanitarianism during Covid-19,’ International Political Sociology 15(4): 539–558.
Tondo L (2021) ‘Revealed: 2,000 refugee deaths linked to illegal EU pushbacks’, The Guardian, 5 May.
Ċetta Mainwaring is a Lecturer in Sociology at Glasgow University, where is also part of the Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet). She holds a DPhil in International Relations from the University of Oxford. Her research explores migration, borders, solidarity activism, and the Mediterranean. Her first book, At Europe’s Edge: Migration and Crisis in the Mediterranean, was published by Oxford University Press in 2019.