Disembarking boats in Lesvos, Greece (courtesy of Pixabay)

Disembarking boats in Lesvos, Greece (Pixabay)


by Michelle Patiño-Flores (Anthropology, UIUC)

While tourism in the 20th and 21st centuries constitutes the “largest peaceful movement of people in history” (Lett 1989:  277), within the past five years, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that “worldwide forced displacement… reached… a level not previously seen in the post-World War II era.” Europe in particular is receiving an unprecedented number of people from non-European countries who are seeking safety, protection, and a future that is not possible to them in their countries of origin. But who are these people, and what are the costs of pursuing the opportunities that they seek? 

One of the difficulties that arises when thinking about mass movement by people from their homeland to a new country of residence is the definition of the labels they are ascribed and the loaded connotations those words carry. “Migrant” is often deployed against people who are fleeing armed conflict or persecution in their countries of origin.

“Migrant” tends to be used interchangeably and problematically with “refugee” (UNHCR). However, a refugee is a very particular kind of label, one that the Refugee Convention of 1951 legally defined as someone who 

owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country. (UNHCR)

Refugees therefore are legally recognized as such by international law and are politically different from migrants, who exercise a privilege of mobility and relocation for economic or social reasons. Distinct from both refugees and migrants, asylum seekers are people who are fleeing discriminatory persecution and requesting protection, and therefore are commonly understood as potential refugees. 

Previously, the term “refugee” evoked sympathy. Indeed, after World War II there were multiple refugee committees to assist those who had been brutalized and deterritorialized due to that violence. Today, “migrant” and “refugee” are popularly conflated, where “migrant” is weaponized to argue that refugees exercise a choice to move for economic reasons, instead of the reality that they are making a dramatic decision to save their lives and that of their families. 

Regardless, the determination of some people to flee their homelands for a better life elsewhere is extraordinary. The trajectory from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, for instance, is fraught with difficult and often lethal obstacles even before arriving on the coast of the Mediterranean so as to embark on the dangerous journey by sea. Libya is especially dangerous for sub-Saharan and Syrian migrants due to the extreme violence in the country that manifests in various ways for people transiting through on their journeys to Europe. In addition to the threat of being held in detention camps if caught by patrols, Black asylum seekers, for instance, also have to endure the higher price of racism and colorism. For example, in 2017, The New York Times noted that Black Muslims often pay higher rates to smugglers, as much as an equivalent $5,000 USD, and typically are not welcome to pray with non-Black Muslims.

Seeking asylum

The strict criteria to qualify for asylum are sometimes criticized because they eliminate others from this protected status who might otherwise be considered (El-Enany 2007). For instance, whereas Syria’s civil war is of international concern and widely featured in the media, many other places do not have such self-evident crises, complicating their citizens’ requests for asylum. The case of Syrians fleeing the extraordinary violence of their country has produced millions of people who are asking for and who commonly receive asylum.

People from different countries therefore have unequal probabilities for actually receiving asylum, which is to say political recognition and the corresponding social and legal protections. For example, people fleeing sub-Saharan Africa are less likely to receive asylum in Europe because the reasons for evacuating the area are not acceptable under the Refugee Convention of 1951. This disproportionately disenfranchises people fleeing from extreme conditions of poverty and circumstances of generalized violence and ethnic discrimination. 

Danger by sea

Refugees from Africa seeking asylum in Europe have taken maritime routes either across the open Mediterranean Sea or hugging the coasts of Italy and Greece. Previously, boats of asylum seekers transiting through the Mediterranean faced coast guard patrols off the shore of the nearest European country and were taken on land where they could be processed and formally begin the asylum request procedure. However, due to the dramatic influx of people starting in 2015, Italy and Spain have begun outsourcing their maritime refugee rescue work to Libya and Morocco, respectively, through a collaboration officially known as the EU-Africa Strategic Partnership. Scholars critically note that this union is relieving EU members from the task of having to take the migrants to the shores of their own European borders (Anderson 2012, Cusumano 2019, Strange and Martins 2019). Instead, Libyan and Moroccan ships, now each holding jurisdiction of Search and Rescue (SAR) areas, attempt to either redirect the boats carrying asylum seekers, which are notoriously unsuitable for seas, back to their countries of departure, or instead board the people in them in order to take them to Libyan and Moroccan camps to await deportation. Accounts from asylum seekers tell of treatment in Libya that is fraught with violence and injustice.

Tasking countries like Libya with the job and largely relieving themselves of the duty to conduct search and rescue (SAR) operations for unseaworthy vessels that asylum seekers typically travel on, European states have further endangered these already vulnerable populations, especially women and children who, seeking reprieve from their double victimization, actually may be trafficked and raped during their journey and while in detention camps.

Interdiction and international collaborations

Interdiction is the legal practice of intercepting and forbidding “migrant” boats from arriving on European coasts. Interdiction now partially falls on north African countries who benefit from funding— like Libya, which is receiving coast guard training resources and whose militias were paid by Italy, under a 2017 memorandum of understanding, to interdict and detain migrants before deporting them back to their countries of origin (Idrissa 2019). Likewise, Italy also has made arrangements with Tunisia “to prevent departures and accept ‘direct repatriation’ with ‘simplified procedures’” (Moreno-Lax 2018: 125), wherein, owing to time and “efficiency” restrictions, it has sometimes amounted to cases where people were denied the proper resources to formally request asylum. 

Collaboration on curbing migration to the European Union is not limited to coastal African states. In fact, starting in 2015, Niger, as a foremost route leading to the Mediterranean and then Europe, has received aid in exchange for criminalizing the transport of migrants and asylum seekers (Idrissa 2019). Often recognized as Europe’s “new border” and “immigration officer,” Niger is one of many examples of Europe externalizing its borders outside its territory to curb migration.

One of the many challenges that occurs during these international collaborations is the lack of consensus on what “distress, disembarkation, and place of safety” mean as regards maritime interdiction. Koka (2019: 43) notes how on October 11, 2013, over 200 people died as Italy and Malta traded off responsibility for answering a distress call from a boat in overlapping maritime jurisdictions, as “coastal [European] states fear the heavy burden upon their immigration and security systems and private vessels fear investigation and possible detention.” On another occasion, asylum seekers were rescued by an oil tanker carrying the Libyan flag. Malta then refused access through its territorial waters, insisting that the people be taken to the nearest safest port in Lampedusa, which Italy initially refused. Ultimately, after two days of debate and being stranded at sea with limited supplies, the Italian government conceded that the tanker could disembark the rescued persons on their shores (Koka 2019: 45). It therefore falls on all countries to come to a consensus on who is responsible for SAR operations, when they are responsible for them, and how and where they will be carried out to their conclusion as they disembark their rescued passengers.

One of the primary issues for critics of SAR procedures is that the migrants are taken back to Libya, which is not at present a safe place to disembark, as is required by EU law. Non-governmental organizations (NGOS) like SOS Mediterranée have made public accusations against the handling of asylum seekers detained by Libyan ships. They, among other NGOs such as Sea Watch, have observed how unreliable and unpredictable Libyan SAR operations are, when they are even available to assist in distress calls sent out by ships of asylum seekers transiting on their unseaworthy boats.

A new home?

Nor do the troubles of a refugee cease upon physically touching a European shore. While the physical journey may have ended for an asylum seeker, the process of receiving refugee status —which the EU grants to less than 15% of its applicants (De Genova 2018; 1766)— and incorporating into a new society presents its own challenges. EU states have different systems in place for processing, situating, and sheltering the refugees it accepts. Glorius et al (2019) note the differences between Luxembourg, Netherlands and Germany in their approaches to transitioning refugees into European life (itself a controversial issue touching upon cultural rights and cultural integration into a nation state). They note that the process in Luxembourg and Netherlands is more centralized, while in Germany, many decisions about housing and education are left to the discretion of state governments. The two approaches carry different implications for both the refugees and the local population, who are often dissatisfied with the  demands placed on them to allocate to new arrivals what they view as already scant resources. Despite the different governmental methods of processing and transitioning refugees into their new communities, sometimes the accommodations are not enough to provide a sense of opportunity, safety, and community. Some refugees report a failure of their hosts to create welcoming spaces, free of racism and xenophobia. This contributes to their sense of alienation and frustration, experienced on a daily basis. 

A dark matter

Indeed, the mass movement of people may be a dark matter, particularly as it pertains to the journeys of refugees and asylum seekers. In being forced to relocate and find a new space for themselves and their families to thrive, they regularly endure physical and structural violence.


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Cusumano, Eugenio. “Migrant rescue as organized hypocrisy: EU maritime missions offshore Libya between humanitarianism and border control.” Cooperation and Conflict 54.1 (2019): 3-24.

De Genova, Nicholas. “The “migrant crisis” as racial crisis: Do Black Lives Matter in Europe?.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 41.10 (2018): 1765-1782.

El-Enany, Nadine, Who is the New European Refugee? (December 2007). LSE Legal Studies Working Paper No. 19/2007.

Glorius, Birgit, et al. “Refugee reception within a common European asylum system: looking at convergences and divergences through a local-to-local comparison.” Erdkunde 73.1 (2019): 19-29. 

Koka, Enkelejda, and Denard Veshi. “Irregular Migration by Sea: Interception and Rescue Interventions in Light of International Law and the EU Sea Borders Regulation”. European Journal of Migration and Law 21.1: 26-52.

Lett J. 1989. Epilogue. In Hosts and Guests: An Anthropology of Tourist, ed. V. Smith, oo. 275-79. Pittsburg, PA. 

Moreno‐Lax, Violeta. “The EU humanitarian border and the securitization of human rights: The ‘rescue‐through‐interdiction/rescue‐without‐protection’ paradigm.” JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies 56.1 (2018): 119-140.

Searcy, Dionne, and Jaime Yaya Barry. “Sub-Saharan African Migrants Face Old Enemy in Libya: Bigotry.” The New York Times, 12 Sept. 2017.

Strange, Michael, and Bruno Oliveira Martins. “Claiming parity between unequal partners: how African counterparts are framed in the externalisation of EU migration governance.” Global Affairs 5.3 (2019): 235-246.

“Three Years Following the Malta Declaration – SOS MEDITERRANEE Denounces How the EU Support for the Libyan Coast Guard Further Worsened the Situation in the Central Mediterranean.” SOS Mediterranee, 31 Jan. 2020,

Other recommended readings
Holtorf, Cornelius et al. (eds). Cultural Heritage, Ethics and Contemporary Migrations. (Routledge, 2019)
Innocenti, Perla (ed.). Migrating Heritage. Experiences of Cultural Networks and Cultural Dialogue in Europe. (Ashgate, 2014)
Innocenti, Perla. Cultural Networks in Migrating Heritage. (Ashgate, 2015)
Labadi, Sophia. Museums, Immigrants and Social Justice. (Routledge, 2017)