About 78 nautical miles separate the Tunisian town of al-Huwariyya at the head of the Cap Bon peninsula from Capo Feto at the southwestern tip of Sicily. An Italy-bound voyage between the two points, on the straight line headed roughly northeast-east, takes about 13 hours at an average speed of six knots under sail. A speedboat moving at 30-45 knots would traverse the same distance in about two hours.

In 2011, as Tunisia erupted in revolution, both speedboats and a fleet of slower boats set off for Italian soil, a flow that led the Italian government to declare a state of emergency. From January to mid-February, when Rome raised the alarm, some 44,000 migrants were reported to have landed on Sicily, the Italian mainland or the island of Lampedusa, off the Tunisian coast southeast of Cap Bon. [1] (Subsequent UN and EU estimates were lower, but the perception of crisis was set.) Around the same time, family members of Leila Trabelsi, wife of the ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, were said to have arrived in southwestern Sicily aboard one of the “super-speedboats” known to transport prominent persons and Cosa Nostra members between the two coasts. The political moment, however, was not the only connection between these two sets of illicit crossings. Both the plebeian and the patrician forms of travel evolved out of the history of contraband and clandestine navigation between Sicily and Tunisia.

Sailors and Smugglers

Until the late 1990s, Tunisians were not among the passengers along these secret routes. Tunisians did travel to Italy, and some of them remained there without residence permits (permesso di soggiorno). The trip, however, did not require much secrecy, if any. The Tunis-Palermo and Tunis-Trapani ferry lines were the main means of transportation, at least for those Tunisians who held a valid passport. Other Tunisians found both work and a ride to Italy on Sicilian trawlers that anchored in Tunisian port. Sicilian captains in search of cheap fuel or undisturbed fishing in Tunisian waters often hired Tunisian crewmen to mediate the exchanges. The Sicilian fishing fleet played a dual role for would-be migrants: Its easily approached sailors got the Tunisians aboard the trawlers, and then its vessels carried them across the channel. In the business of clandestine migration, transporters and passengers were somewhat interchangeable. Many of the Sicilian fleet’s Tunisian crewmen were originally passengers, who later arranged for the passage of friends and relatives, who still later became co-workers on the trawlers.

In 1999, Italy acceded to the Schengen Agreement, which created the “Schengen area,” the borderless zone of the European Union, but imposed new visa restrictions upon non-EU citizens coming from outside. Landing in Sicily became both more difficult — it required a visa — and more desirable, since the island was now the main stepping stone to gainful employment in Europe.

Thereafter, clandestine travel became the rule rather than the exception. Such transit of the Mediterranean often depended on the illicit networks that had previously been engaged in smuggling, whether of cigarettes, drugs and drug-related raw materials, or arms and ammunition. At first, these professional smugglers, who often collaborated with and were shielded by various segments of the Cosa Nostra around the central Mediterranean, dominated the market for the Tunisia-Italy voyage. After September 11, 2001, the connections between these smugglers (and other transgressive seafarers) and their political patrons in Italy led the authorities to oppose some, but not all, kinds of infiltration of Italian territory: Terrorism was cast as a more menacing threat than illicit migration. In an attempt to prevent the former, state officials were willing to overlook the latter. From the late 1990s, then, more and more Tunisians and other North Africans made the surreptitious voyage to Italy, taking advantage of the existing infrastructure and its protection from the interference of the authorities.

Perilous Voyages

Nowadays, the big-time smugglers have lost their monopoly on the migrant traffic. The trip itself is not difficult, so even amateur sailors can make it, and the means of transport have proliferated. In the words of one smuggler, “Every kid who can steal a boat can make it to Sicily. People take out their boat’s motor shaft when they go home, so that they will find the boat the next morning.” How did this change come about?

In the early 2000s, as they had before, clandestine migrants aimed for the coast of Sicily, the nearest point of access to the “Schengen area” and its job opportunities. What good would it do a North African to alight upon the smaller Channel islands, if that meant another, no less illegal voyage to Sicily or the mainland? But enforcement pressure in the Channel of Sicily was increasing, as the EU built the capacity of Frontex, its border control agency, to curb the flow of illicit migrants into Italy and across other EU borders. [2] The Italian (and other EU) navies started to patrol the Channel, interdicting the clandestine migrants’ boats, arresting the migrants and sending them to Lampedusa, which has become the hub for detention of North Africans and others seeking undocumented entry into Europe. In 2002, according to Italian Interior Ministry documents, arrivals on Lampedusa counted for 53 percent of all landings in Sicily and the Channel islands; by 2006 the small island’s share had risen to over 84 percent. [3] In the same period, the proportion of illegal migrants apprehended in seaports in Sicily and the Channel islands climbed from about 10 percent of the national arrest total to 92 percent. [4]

Also to curb the rising maritime flow, Italy established Temporary Stay and Assistance Centers, which, as characterized by a 2005 Amnesty International report, were “the instrument selected to enable the provisions for the repatriation of aliens who have entered Italy illegally to be carried out more effectively.” In Italian, the facilities were named Centri de Permanenza Temporanea, literally, Centers of Temporary Permanence, an oxymoronic appellation that captures the effect of the “repatriation instrument” in practice. Would-be immigrants caught by police before or upon landfall were held in such centers in Lampedusa, Sicily and the Italian mainland. Since the available space in Lampedusa was too small for authorities to keep captured migrants for long durations, they were often transported to other centers in Sicily or the Italian mainland — closer to their original points of destination. Yet under the Italian immigration laws of 1998 and 2002, detainees whose identity was not established could not be held for more than 15 days (a period extended to 60 days after 2002, to six months in 2009 and to a year and a half in June 2011). After the detention period expired, these people had to be released with an often toothless injunction to leave the territory. Northbound migrants quickly reasoned that this procedure made it sufficient to disembark in Lampedusa, since there they had a fair chance of being sent to the mainland after a relatively short stay. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees had also set up shop on Lampedusa, and many migrants began applying for refugee status, which allows the possibility of permanent settlement in a host country.

Those migrants with the means and connections to secure safe passage all the way across the Channel were still heading for Sicily. But they were gradually becoming the minority, as the rag-tag armadas of smaller boats adjusted their compasses toward Lampedusa and other Temporary Stay Center locations. In the words of an Italian observer, “The main outcome of increased controls seems thus to be the differentiation and diversification of migration routes, rather than the reduction of irregular migration and the defeat of criminal organizations.” [5]

The increased volume of traffic in the Channel of Sicily had another unintended consequence. Growing numbers of passengers were “trans-migrants,” hailing from countries other than the boat pilot, and more of the migrants were making their way to Europe with the intention of demanding asylum. Unlike previous generations, who had just wanted a decent job, the first step these people took once on European soil was to seek a meeting with representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In order to encounter the UNHCR, it was frequently enough to be interdicted by an EU naval vessel and taken to Lampedusa. The goal of past migrants to make actual undetected landfall became redundant.

On the other hand, the explosion of the clandestine migration business along the North African coast corresponded to a decline in the seaworthiness of the transporting ships. Many of the boats were unfit for the voyage, especially if overcrowded with passengers. The stock scenes in the Channel changed from hot pursuit of elusive smuggling vessels to search-and-rescue operations, at least so the officials of Frontex liked to portray them. Anticipating “rescue,” the smugglers needed neither a vessel that could endure multiple voyages nor for a quantity of fuel adequate for one. [6] The boats also began to carry satellite phones. To reach a Temporary Stay Center on Italian soil, all that the pilot needed to do was venture far enough onto the high seas and emit an SOS signal. EU naval vessels have not always responded immediately to such calls, despite their obligation to do so under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982). But European authorities, anxious to show the public that they are tough on immigration, have often dispatched intercepting vessels at sea on “rescue missions,” even without receiving a distress call. [7] And some Sicilian skippers, even some who formerly carried North Africans to Italy, have reacted to the new migration pattern by alerting the Italian coast guard whenever they see a boat of migrants at sea. The passengers’ new political horizons and communication equipment mean that, for many, Lampedusa has ceased to be the northbound voyage’s end.

It was the precariousness of the sea crossing, along with the increased traffic, that transformed the central Mediterranean into a zone of arrest and transfer to Italian soil. The sheer numbers of migrants risking their lives to reach Europe led EU and international officials, as well as human rights organizations, to blame the boat operators for abuse and fatal neglect. At the same time, human rights activists presented the dangers of passage as proof of the futility of making such migration illegal. People willing to risk these perilous voyages would do anything to reach Europe.

The effective end result was to break the route between the two continents into two legs, each navigated by a different captain. Smugglers no longer transported everyone from departure to destination. Rather, they transported the majority of the Mediterranean boat people to midpoints, either at sea or in the smaller Channel islands, where their lives were endangered enough to merit rescue and/or arrest by the European navies, which completed the journey. In the process, the undocumented migrants were reduced in the eyes of the EU to refugees or victims of human trafficking. When the migrants were seen in these ways, the European responsibility to complete the journey was legally clarified, but the political risks to European governments were minimized. A person who did not fit one of these categories would find it harder to find safe haven on the Channel’s northern shores, much less acquire the permesso di soggiorno.

To further limit responsibility for irregular migrants, European states forged agreements with North African countries by which any boat people captured at sea could be taken south rather than north. Already, both Tunisia (in 1998) and Libya (in 2007) had signed agreements with Italy, the main receiving country in the central Mediterranean, compelling them to readmit their own nationals. These agreements included sections under which North African (and Balkan) countries were required to increase the patrolling of their borders in return for European funding. These agreements were also often followed by renewed migration agreements, which included migration quotas and European funding (channeled through Italian regions) for pre-migration training in specified occupations. [8] Both countries, moreover, had been making a practice of accepting boatloads of “third-country nationals” intercepted on boats bound for Italy. [9] But Italy accelerated this practice upon conclusion of the Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation signed in August 2008 with the regime of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. By the terms of this accord, Italy secured the ability to escort boats captured in the Mediterranean to Libyan rather than Italian ports. As part of the agreement, Libya received $5 billion in effective compensation for the Italian colonial occupation of 1911-1943, in the form of construction projects, student grants and pensions for Libyan nationals who had served in the Italian forces during World War II, as well as six patrol boats from the Italian navy, in return for increased cooperation in stemming the flows of “illegal migration.” By the summer of 2009, the right-wing government in Italy could report that clandestine migration had dropped by 92 percent.

Short-Lived Rupture

The revolts and regime changes in Tunisia and Libya in 2011 have reopened the routes of northbound migration in the Channel of Sicily, to both the former subjects of the fallen repressive states and members of the ousted dictatorial elites. For the escaping Tunisian regime figures, landfall in Italy signified both the end of their power and salvation from prosecution for the crimes they committed to maintain it. In an irony of history, these seaborne flights to Italy recapitulated the path taken by Italian counterparts like ex-Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, who took refuge in Tunisia in the 1990s. [10] Due to the crackdown on protesters by Ben Ali’s police, in early January many Tunisians requested asylum themselves — exodus in place of infiltration — something they had previously been unable to demand. As of September, about 52,000 immigrants from Tunisia and Libya have made it across the Channel of Sicily into Italian territory in 2011. For several weeks, Tunisians were accommodated in Lampedusa and Sicily, at least officially, because the chaos in their home country made it impossible to deprive them of temporary refuge, or because the Italian authorities were not sure that Ben Ali’s successors would honor his agreement to take the boat people back.

Needless to say, the hospitality was short-lived. In April 2011, the Italian government secured the renewal of readmission agreements with Tunisia and Libya. As of October, Italy has extended the extraordinary residence permit for Tunisians who arrived prior to the signing of the April 5 agreement between the two countries, but it is constantly repatriating North African nationals. Tunisia agreed to take back its own nationals who do not “qualify” for asylum in Europe; the rebels in Libya, then not even in control of the western half of their country, assented to the direct expulsion from Italy of any “third-country national” who had departed from Libyan coasts, in accordance with the draconian 2008 pact. [11]


[1] La Repubblica, February 13, 2011.
[2] See Greg Feldman, The Migration Apparatus: Security, Labor and Policymaking in the European Union (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), especially ch. 4.
[3] “Documento programmatico relativo alla politica di immigrazione, 2004-2006: Rapporto del Ministro dell’Interno al Parlamento sull’attività delle Forze di polizia, sullo stato dell’ordine e della sicurezza pubblica e sulla criminalità organizzata, 2004.” Quoted in Lorenzo Coslovi, Brevi note sull’immigrazione via mare in Italia e in Spagna (Rome: Centro Studi di Politica Internazionale, 2007), p. 8.
[4] Paolo Cuttitta, “The Case of the Italian Southern Sea Borders: Cooperation Across the Mediterranean,” Documentos CIDOB Migraciones 17 (2008), p. 46.
[5] Ibid., p. 47.
[6] Paola Monzini, “Sea-Border Crossings: The Organization of Irregular Migration to Italy,” Mediterranean Politics 12/2 (July 2007), p. 178.
[7] Human Rights Watch, Pushed Back, Pushed Around: Italy’s Forced Return of Boat Migrants and Asylum Seekers, Libya’s Mistreatment of Migrants and Asylum Seekers (New York, September 2009), p. 41.
[8] Joint Seminar on Bilateral Labor Agreements and Other Forms of Recruitment of Foreign Workers, Migration for Employment: Bilateral Agreements at a Crossroads (Paris, 2004), p.p. 58-60.
[9] Cuttitta, pp. 50-51.
[10] Corriere della Sera, March 19, 1994.
[11] La Repubblica, April 6, 2011.

How to cite this article:

Naor Ben-Yehoyada "The Clandestine Central Mediterranean Passage," Middle East Report 261 (Winter 2011).

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