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Criminalizing Solidarity

An Italian court has overruled the arrest of migrant-solidarity activist Carola Rackete. But as the far right in government criminalizes efforts to save lives at sea, the Left must offer unconditional solidarity to all those crossing the Mediterranean.

Protesters demanding the release of Sea-Watch ship captain Carola Rackete gather with a banner reading "Solidarity with Carola from SeaWatch3" in front of the Italian consulate on June 30, 2019 in Munich, Germany. Andreas Gebert / Getty Images

June 29 saw the latest episode in the criminalization of migration and migrant solidarity in the Mediterranean. German activist Carola Rackete, captain of the rescue ship Sea-Watch 3, was arrested by Italian authorities because of her efforts to save migrants from drowning. Though the courts have vindicated her actions, the government’s criminalization of the NGO missions continues.

A standoff had begun earlier in June, when Italian authorities ordered the ship — which had rescued some fifty-three people — to stay out of the country’s waters. This was followed by two weeks of brinkmanship in which passengers and crew were made to suffer the maritime summer heat and the psychological pressure of an endless wait. As with other recent rescue ships, the Italian government insisted that it should reroute for Tripoli, despite the mounting civil war in the Libyan capital.

When the crew’s appeal to the European Court of Human Rights was rejected on June 25, Captain Rackete decided to disobey orders and enter Italian waters, drawing her into a head-on public conflict with the Italian state.

Now, the Italian Interior Ministry — headed by far-right Lega leader Matteo Salvini — is reportedly preparing Rackete’s expulsion from Italy. This seems to be a sly way of giving in to German demands for extradition without Italy’s sovereignist government losing face. Yet Rackete may well be hauled before the courts to reply to accusations of aiding and abetting illegal immigration. She is part of a small radical German NGO, Sea-Watch, that has worked for years to monitor Fortress Europe’s actions at sea and save the lives of people in distress whenever necessary.

Between the Arab Spring and the great ‘summer of migration’ in 2015, such actions were hailed by commentators and politicians as part of our collective conscience — humanity’s necessary response in the face of a deplorable crisis. But Sea-Watch 3, like several other rescue boats, has now been seized and shored up in port.

If the ship has been drawn to a stop, Italian media’s assault on the vessel continues apace. But it was a former Lega senator, Angela Maraventano, who best combined the array of accusations being leveled at both migrants and solidarity activists. “Greeting” the arrivals at the port of Lampedusa, an island to the south of Italy, she raged, “Don’t let them off the ship, they’re trading in human flesh. Assassins! You should all go back to where you came from! If they come down from there someone’s going to get hurt.” The tides are turning, and blood is boiling.

Carola’s “Crimes”

It’s worth asking what “criminalization” actually means. Normally the term refers to two different but connected processes. On the one hand, there is the process of creating new laws that bring specific juridical punishments for actions that were previously either ignored, or even protected, by the law. On the other hand, criminalization can also mean a consistent process of forming a public discourse in which acts are only perceived as criminal even when no identifiable juridical boundary has been breached. The criminalization of migrant rescue missions in this second sense was put in motion years ago, a concentrated smear campaign that has moved in parallel with the repression of an international working class attempting to cross Europe’s borders.

Yet Italy’s juridical criminalization of migration has taken steps forward in recent weeks. Seeking to publicly vaunt its ability to punish those who assist illegal immigration and challenge Europe’s border regime, Italy’s Lega–Five Star government chose the moment immediately before last month’s European elections to announce a new security bill. It threatens debilitating fines for those found guilty of aiding illegal immigration and also provides Interior Minister Salvini with souped-up powers over ships’ entrance into territorial waters.

Before we ask how we reached this point, in which captains are dragged before the courts simply for saving lives, we might ask what the Italian state and its supporters mean when they claim that the captain’s actions are “criminal.” Who exactly are supposed to be the victims of Captain Rackete’s crimes? And if the NGOs are “assassins,” who has been murdered?

One much-vaunted “incident” was the alleged ramming of an Italian customs police patrol boat as Rackete guided the Sea-Watch 3 into port at Lampedusa. The neoliberal-centrist Democratic Party, today flailing in the electoral waters, even decided to mitigate its feeble attempts at solidarity with Sea-Watch 3 by expressing its affinity with the “victims” among the customs police. Another MP kindly pointed out that the specific crime alleged — an attack on a “vessel of war” — hardly applies in the case of a small customs patrol boat. Others have noted how slowly Sea-Watch 3 moved into port, even if one of the officers spoke in surreal tones of “five minutes of pure terror.” Demolishing the government case against Rackete, a court hearing on Tuesday defended her actions. But the details seemingly matter little amidst the wider shifting of juridical boundaries in order to criminalize Sea-Watch 3 and its captain. What is clear, nevertheless, is that the police and interior minister diligently created a situation in which such a physical confrontation, as well as a juridical one, had become inevitable.

Yet in the discourse of the government and its supporters, the more significant victims of Rackete’s supposed crimes are “all Italians.” The maritime entrance of hundreds of thousands of African and Asian proletarians over the last seven years is now seen by a vast layer of Italian society as a direct threat to their economic and physical security. Yet at the same time, the victims of the captain’s crimes supposedly include migrants themselves, as the blame for the deaths of thousands of people in the Mediterranean is lumped on the human traffickers who organize their crossing — and not on European and Italian immigration policies. This despite the fact that these policies have all but erased the possibility of obtaining a work or family visa to enter Europe via a normal, safe route for everyone except for the very rich. And through a careful discursive shift, the NGO missions aimed at saving lives have been identified with the human traffickers themselves.

From Traffickers to Captains

It is strange and unnerving how an outcry against the cruelty of profiteering human traffickers has been transformed into the juridical penalization of migrant solidarity activists and international NGOs. As the former Lega senator put it in Lampedusa, “They’re doing business in human flesh.” The shock and disgust provoked by the horrors of the Libyan concentration camps and the mass shipwrecks in the Mediterranean have been channeled not into a solidaristic call for emancipation, but a demand for greater repression.

The steps in this transformation, this harnessing of emotions, can be traced with some precision. Consciously or otherwise, an important beginning was the practice of systematically identifying and arresting those driving the wooden and rubber boats arriving full of migrants from North Africa. In the vast majority of cases, the arrestees have been young migrants no different from the other passengers, and who are themselves victims twice over: first as victims of the Libyan concentration camps, and second in being forced to steer the boat, often under the threat of death.

For years now, two or three people have been arrested for each small vessel that is intercepted. They are then subjected to investigations that, in far too many cases, have resulted in convictions ranging from six months to ten years. In Greece, many Turkish and Syrian boat drivers have been imprisoned for up to twenty-five years. This continues today: in June, for example, two Senegalese men rescued by a platform supply vessel — including a sixteen-year-old teenager — were arrested for this so-called crime. Thousands of migrants in Italy have been penalized in this manner, hundreds of whom remain in prison to this day. Though on a much smaller scale than the mass incarceration of young black men in the United States, the similarity has to be noted.

These boat drivers quickly became the bogeyman of Italian immigration, despite their innocence — and, indeed, their courage and heroism — often being vindicated by the courts on appeal. Yet after these young black men were successfully placed in the media crosshairs, it was all too easy to shift from blaming the drivers of rubber boats to blaming the NGO rescue ships. The international far-right networks pushing this shift of tone were doubtless also aided by elements of the Italian security services.

In this vein, crackpot blogs and extremist politicians began to introduce the idea that the NGOs were somehow profiting from rescue missions, that they were working in cahoots with Libyan traffickers, and even that “Soros money” and a Jewish conspiracy for the substitution of the white race was involved. Soon enough, these new versions of very old lies moved from the margins into the center of the political arena. When the previous Democratic-led government signed a murderous deal to close down the Mediterranean route by directly funding and training the so-called Libyan Coast Guard — often manned by the human traffickers themselves — the smears and lies had already taken root. The contagion of blame now bounced along from Libyan traffickers to migrant boat drivers and then from migrant boat drivers to NGO captains.

What is the use for such scapegoats? This latest episode of dramatic repression is doubtless being used to deflect attention from a dismal economic situation and the unraveling of the government’s contradictory policies. As across recent years, this distraction technique helps cover up a wider political failure — and the new scapegoat of the “foreign NGO” dovetails well with Salvini’s virulent nationalism. The interior minister’s tweeted attacks on EU leaders — underlining his unwavering support for tax cuts for the rich and one-off golden handshakes for his base, even while the EU threatens to force VAT increases and spending cuts — are accompanied by his attacks on the foreignness of the Sea-Watch 3: a German NGO operating a ship under a Dutch flag.

When the former Lega senator cried out, “You should all go back to where you came from!”, her xenophobia was aimed at the German crew as well as the rescued migrants. This performative xenophobia tacitly forgets that the Italian NGO Mediterranea, operating a ship under an Italian flag, faced similar criminalization earlier this year. Or, even more significantly, that the Italian government’s own coast guard vessel, the Diciotti, was blocked and threatened last summer for landing rescued migrants at an Italian port.

There is no chance that the government has forgotten this latter incident, as Salvini only narrowly escaped criminal charges being brought against him for his weeks-long refusal to allow the migrants to disembark. He was saved when the self-proclaimed party of “honesty,” his coalition partners in the Five Star Movement, voted to uphold his parliamentary immunity. Sea rescue captains are being criminalized, whatever flag they wave, while the interior minister was let off the hook.

Migrant Solidarity is Internationalism

To rise to power, the far right needed to do little more than ride the waves of xenophobia and demonization. The arrest of Carola Rackete represents a new trick in the media spectacle of repression on which Italy’s government is thriving. It may matter little for the NGOs whether the first phase of criminalization — the ferocious public criticism of migrants and solidarity — leads into a second phase of actual incarceration and judicial fines. The aim is slowly being achieved: arrests, public spectacle, the hemorrhaging of funding for solidarity groups, a generalized shadow of suspicion falling across basic acts of generosity and humanity. The Italian state’s aim is not to put an end to the crisis but to exacerbate it, not to eliminate the opposition but to constantly exaggerate the threat it poses and to celebrate each supposed defeat.

In the meantime, migrant landings continue, often in near silence. While the media circus focused on the Sea-Watch 3, hundreds of people have landed directly on Italy’s shores in small, agile boats. Italy’s stoppage on visa entries, its deals with Libyan dictators and traffickers, its repression of solidarity activists, and its passing of new penal laws have still not managed to completely halt an international proletarian movement from finding ways through the blockade. The so-called policy of closed ports has turned the floodlights onto the rescue missions and turned them away from the beaches. Pulling the NGO missions out of the sea does not mean that there are no boats — it means we hear less about them, including the shipwrecks.

The fifty-three people rescued by Sea-Watch 3 had only just fled the concentration camps and civil war of Tripoli. Bombardments in Tripoli continue, the airport closed while tanks and militia surround the city. Tens of thousands have fled. Those trapped there — Libyans and migrants alike — have been making desperate appeals for help. On Tuesday, even Fayez al-Sarraj, the UN-backed Libyan premier, flew to Milan to request greater military support. The context in which the European right, with Salvini at the helm, have decided to flex their muscles is thus not only Italian, but international.

The Left should consistently defend the freedom of people to move and to oppose Europe’s racist, classist border regime. The fact that these are not the best of times ought to make our defense of this freedom all the more resounding. Meek appeals from apologists who claim that the Italian or European left is fighting a losing battle against the popular masses and should therefore renege on its principles only reveal a catastrophic shortsightedness and tragic lack of internationalism.

An international coalition of small radical NGOs — Mediterranea, Sea-Eye, and Open Arms – continue to operate search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea, even while other boats remain seized by the Italian state. If our governments are creating laws to further impede their activities, then those laws must be broken.