Book Review: Sulle onde del Mediterraneo

Stefania Panebianco (ed.), Sulle onde del Mediterraneo. Cambiamenti globali e risposte alla crisi migratoria (Milan, Italy: Egea, 2016). 230 pp., €24.30 (paperback), ISBN: 9788823845275.

In 2016, over 180,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean in the attempt to reach Italy. After the March 2016 deal between the European Union and Turkey, the Central Mediterranean migratory route, heading from the Western Coast of Libya towards Sicily, has become the largest avenue of irregular migrations to Europe. The death toll – amounting to around 4,500 estimated casualties in 2016 only – has turned the Mediterranean into the theatre of a complex humanitarian emergency.

In spite of the policy-relevance of migrations across the Mediterranean and its salience in the public discourse, academic research on the subject has lagged behind. To be sure, existing scholarship has shed light on different aspects of the phenomenon, such as the securitization of migrations, EU and non-governmental organisations’ law enforcement and Search and Rescue (SAR) operations, and public opinions’ (mis-)perceptions of migrations to Europe. There is, however, hardly any research seeking to bring together all these different dimensions in order to provide a truly comprehensive overview of the so-called migration crisis. The absence of such an overarching analysis is regrettable, as all the issues mentioned above are tightly intertwined and can hardly be investigated in isolation. Decision-makers’ policies are informed by public opinions’ perceptions, but also shaped by social norms, and international law and institutions. Consequently, an in-depth explanation of the migration crisis requires a thorough examination of the material, institutional, and ideational factors affecting foreign and domestic policy decision-making processes.

Sulle onde del Mediterraneo. Cambiamenti globali e risposte alle crisi migratorie (On the Waves of the Mediterranean. Global Changes and responses to migratory crises) – edited by Stefania Panebianco – is the first attempt to provide such a comprehensive analysis. Based on an impressive amount of empirical research conducted at the University of Catania within the framework of the research project ‘FIR 14’, the volume systematically examines the nature, drivers, and implications of the Italian response to the latest surge in maritime migrations by analysing the phenomenon in each of its most relevant aspects.

Fulvio Attina’s introduction places the present crisis within the framework of the academic scholarship on migrations and EU migration policies, a subject examined more in-depth in Francesca Longo’s and Rosa Rossi’s chapters. Longo’s chapter examines the evolution of EU asylum and migration policies, arguing that EU policies are no longer capable of addressing large-scale migratory flows. Most notably, the Dublin regulations – which oblige refugees to embark in a dangerous journey and apply for asylum in the country of first entry – should be reconsidered to both guarantee a better protection of refugees and ensure fairer burden sharing across EU member states. Rossi’s chapter broadens the perspective to other international organisations, presenting elite survey data of Italian elite perceptions of international organisations’ response to the crisis. The contribution by Luigi Caranti goes beyond a legalistic understanding of the obligations enshrined by European and international law by examining the moral underpinning of the duty to rescue and provide for refugees and economic migrants alike.

The chapters by Stefania Panebianco and Daniela Irrera then turn to the operational aspects of the migratory crisis offshore Libya, examining SAR and law enforcement operations. Panebianco’s contribution focuses on state-led migrant rescuing, and most notably the Italian Navy operation Mare Nostrum, launched in October 2013. In spite of being capable of rescuing over 150,000 migrants, Mare Nostrum was discontinued after one year due to Italy’s frustration over the lack of burden sharing and other European states’ criticism that the operation was a pull factor on migration. As argued by Panebianco, while Mare Nostrum did not become a template for future EU operations, it at least succeeded in putting maritime migrations at the centre of the EU policy agenda. The EU maritime operations that followed Mare Nostrum, Triton and EUNAVFOR Med do not have SAR as their primary mandate. Consequently, a number of non-governmental organisations started to conduct their own migrant rescuing operations to try and fill the gap left by the end of Mare Nostrum. Daniela Irrera’s chapter focuses on the non-governmental provision of SAR, providing data that illustrate NGOs’ contribution to mitigating migrants’ loss of life.

The chapters by Simona Gozzo, Fulvio Attina’ and Rossana Sampugnaro rely on a large amount of survey data to look at how existing Italian and European policies are perceived by elite and public opinion alike, thereby providing an ideal conclusion to the volume.

As epitomized by this short summary, the volume edited by Panebianco examines Italy’s perceptions of and response to the migration crisis in a truly comprehensive and multidisciplinary fashion, combining the use of survey data, the in-depth examination of existing policies and the legal frameworks they are embedded in, as well as legal normative perspectives on the responsibility to rescue and welcome migrants. Sulle onde del Mediterraneo is not only an important reading for scholars of international relations, comparative politics, political theory, and international and European law alike. Thanks to its empirical richness, comprehensiveness and clarity, the collection also provides a useful compass for the wider community of informed readers seeking to navigate a public debate that often provides more heat than light on such a complex subject.

In spite of its merits, Panebianco’s volume cannot – nor does it seek to – provide a conclusive examination of the subject, suffering from the inevitable limitations associated with the timeliness and complexity of the issue it investigates. Given the ongoing nature of the migration crisis, examining the phenomenon is like shooting at a moving target. This leaves ample room for further research looking at very recent developments such as the growing role of and mounting criticism against NGO SAR operations. Likewise, the in-depth, empirically rich examination of the Italian case provided by the volume can only occur at the price of renouncing a larger comparative analysis. Contrasting the policy responses to migrations across the Central and Eastern Mediterranean routes would allow future research to better investigate the role played by public opinion and European and international law, norms and institutions in shaping policy responses to migration crises in Europe and worldwide.

Eugenio Cusumano, Leiden University

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