ADIR - L'altro diritto

The Mediterranean Grenzsaum
Migration controls and borders in the Strait of Sicily (*)

Paolo Cuttitta, 2009

I am going to talk about migration controls, and I think recalling Friedrich Ratzel can be useful to understand how borders work in the field of migration controls, and where they manifest themselves. Ratzel calls Grenzsaum the edge of a border, the border strip or the borderland: he says that the Grenzsaum is the reality, whereas the borderline is merely an abstraction of it. (1) Borders are always zones; borders are always borderlands. And even if there is a linear border between two closed territories, the border does never consist only of the line, and we can always see isolated manifestations of the border, scattered and sparse emergences of the border on both sides of the official demarcation line. (2) Traces of a territory, of a culture, of a political power can emerge beyond the borderline, in the neighbouring territory.

Though, Ratzel's Grenzsaum is not only the area straddling two neighbouring territories: it's also the marchland between pre-modern territories, the buffer zone that divided and connected different territories before nation states and linear boundaries established themselves all over the world. In these marchlands or buffer zones people from both neighbouring territories would go hunting, for instance, and so the hunters from the one or from the other territory would themselves represent the border of their territory; they would carry the territorial border of their territory, and every time they would enter the buffer zone (the Grenzsaum), every time there would be a trace of the border walking along with them. So the border would become a mobile border, a portable border.

My point is that in the field of migration controls the convention and the "abstraction" of the borderline are dissolving, while the "reality" of the Grenzsaum is becoming more and more clearly visible. All territorial borders (the borders of sovereign states as well as those of supranational entities like the EU or Schengenland) have turned to a Grenzsaum, both in the meaning of a marchland, of a buffer zone, and in the meaning of a border strip, lying either on both sides or on just one side of a territorial linear border.

Let's take the Mediterranean as an example of the external EU border. I will talk more in particular about the Strait of Sicily, that is to say the sea area lying between the largest Italian island and North Africa.

Let's talk about the Grenzsaum as a buffer zone, first. In the Mediterranean, the buffer zone consists of the international waters lying between the territorial waters of different coastal states. In international waters the territorial borders of Italy and other European states emerge anywhere a patrol boat searches for migrant boats, anywhere the authorities of a state carry out rejections on high seas as if they would take place at the borderline, by stopping migrant boats, by taking their passengers on board and carrying them back to the country of departure. Such activities are scattered, sparse and mobile manifestations of the border; they represent mobile border dots operating within the border area represented by international waters.

Besides, there are also traces of the European Union's borders, as Frontex (the "European Agency for the Management of the Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the European Union") has its own boats patrolling the Mediterranean.

Furthermore, there are also traces of the borders of North African countries. Patrol boats of North African countries do operate in international waters, too: in the Strait of Sicily - between Italian, Maltese, Algerian, Tunisian, Libyan and Egyptian national waters - vessels carrying different flags participate in the Euro-Mediterranean regime of border control. Sometimes migrants were handed over by Italian authorities to Tunisian or Libyan authorities on high seas. On other occasions North African countries just send out their own boats to patrol the high seas and bring migrant boats back, upon their own initiative. Their borderlines reproduce themselves; they clone the infinite number of points they consist of and project them outside their official demarcation lines.

Thus, international waters represent the Grenzsaum as a buffer zone.

If we consider the Grenzsaum also as an area straddling two or more territories, instead, we can see the whole Mediterranean basin as a large Grenzsaum, including not only international waters, not only the whole sea surface, but also the Mediterranean countries' land surfaces. The whole Mediterranean basin is scattered with border manifestations originating from different state sovereignties.

Let's take Italy as an example. First of all, I will mention international police cooperation. Liaison officers of the Italian ministry of interior are stationed in all North African Mediterranean countries. They coordinate joint investigations and joint operational activities of migration control with the authorities of the countries in which they are based. So there have been joint Italian-Egyptian teams controlling the Suez Canal and stopping migrant boats there; there are joint Italian-Tunisian as well as Italian-Libyan teams patrolling the Tunisian and Libyan land and sea territories.

To sum up, we can well say that Italian liaison officers and policemen operating in North Africa act as delocalised border guards, protecting the Italian border far away from its official demarcation line. So they are mobile traces of the Italian border, and they have the shape of dots. In other words, they are mobile border dots operating far away from the fixed borderline, outside the Italian territory and inside the territories of North African countries: the fixed borderline thus produces mobile border dots.

Detention centres for migrants are a further kind of isolated manifestations of the border. Their official purpose is to enforce expulsion orders, to help authorities pushing back foreigners beyond the borderline: since the borderline has proved too weak, detention centres have been established in order to support it. Detention centres are supposed to operate as border dots, like liaison officers and patrol boats. The difference is that they are not mobile and they don't operate outside the Italian territory: they are fixed border dots operating inside the Italian territory. Still, if we consider that there are detention centres in Tunisia and Libya that have been established upon request and with the financial contribution of the Italian government, we can say that detention centres are manifestations of the Italian territorial border having the shape of dots, emerging not only in Italy but also in the territories of other countries.

Thus, the national land and sea territories of the coastal states on both shores of the Mediterranean are dotted and rutted with different border traces, with scattered manifestations of the borders.

So far I have addressed only state borders, which are, by definition, territorial borders, but migration controls also interact with non-territorial borders, more specifically with the status borders of the persons who are the object of such controls.

Just like states, also individuals, groups of persons or categories of persons are divided from one another by borders. The difference is that they are divided according to their status - their economic status, their juridical status, or whatever ethnic or cultural or religious criterion divisions can be based upon. Such borders, dividing persons or categories of persons from one another, are in their nature superterritorial.

Georg Simmel very clearly explained that there are social formations which are tied to a specific closed territory, so that within that territory there can not be another social formation of the same kind. This means that these social entities have the spatial characteristic of exclusivity. The best example is the state. There cannot be two states on the same territory. On the other hand, there are also superspatial social formations, which instead do not possess the spatial characteristic of exclusivity. Their presence on a given territory does not automatically exclude the presence in the same territory of other social formations of the same type. The typical example is the church, that is to say the ensemble of people and institutions belonging to the same religion. (3)

Starting from this division of social formations into two categories, I suggest we should regard all existing borders as either territorial or superterritorial. Territorial borders are the borders of states, whereas superterritorial borders are the borders of any group of persons sharing the same condition (e.g. the same culture, religion, job, economic or juridical status).

So the difference is that state borders are territorial and linear in their nature, while status borders - that is to say borders dividing persons or categories of persons - are basically superterritorial borders: they are neither linear nor material. They can turn material, they can turn linear, under some circumstances, but they are not necessarily linear, nor material.

In order to show how territorial borders and superterritorial borders, state borders and status borders cross their paths in the field of migration controls, I will take a few examples of instruments of border control and their interaction with both kinds of borders. (4)

Let's start with rejections after border crossing. Rejection is a measure that is generally taken at the border. When a foreigner arrives at an official crossing point without the required documents, he is denied entry: he is rejected at the border. In Italy and most other countries, though, migrants can be rejected even if they are apprehended after they have crossed the border irregularly.

This is relevant insofar as foreigners who already are in the territory of a state can be expelled, but not rejected. I will soon explain the difference, but first of all it is important to stress the fact that those who are rejected after border crossing, that is after entering the territory, are considered as if they had not yet entered it - otherwise they would receive an expulsion order. The difference is that those who receive an expulsion order have some rights that rejected foreigners have not: they have the right to appeal, and the appeal has suspensive effect, so the migrants can't be forcibly expelled until the judge says whether the expulsion order is lawful or not. People who are rejected, instead, are treated as if they were still at the border. If they want, they can file an appeal from abroad, after they have been rejected, which of course is impossible for most of them!

To make it short, they have fewer rights than other people have, and this means that the circumference of the border of their juridical status is reduced, because it contains fewer rights. And this reduction of status borders - which are non-territorial borders - is supposed to increase the protection of territorial borders, to strengthen territorial borders. Here lies the interconnectedness between territorial and superterritorial borders in the field of migration controls.

The same applies to illegal rejections of asylum seekers from the high seas. Somali and Eritrean refugees that Italian authorities pushed back from international waters to Libya in the last few months were deprived of their right to apply for asylum, so the effectiveness of their rights was reduced, and the borders of their effective juridical status became smaller (although they remained unchanged on paper).

The main difference between rejections after border crossing and rejections from the high seas is that the former are a repressive measure, resulting in an inward flexibilisation of the border (the border stretches itself until the place where the migrant is apprehended), while the latter are a preventive measure, resulting in an outward flexibilisation of the border.

A further and simpler example is provided (once again) by detention centres. Migrants are deprived of their personal freedom there, because they are detained, so the borders of their juridical status are reduced, the circumference of their status borders is reduced, and this reduction of the status borders should have the function to make expulsions possible.

So, we can say that territorial borders have become more flexible through migration controls: they are no longer fixed nor stable. Linear borders turn to punctual borders, border lines turn to border dots; continuous and fixed borders turn to intermittent and mobile borders.

On the other hand, migration controls also interact with status borders: they change the borders of statuses, they reshape their contours, in order to make the exit from a given territory possible, or more probable, or faster.

The result is a multiplication of different statuses. There are not only citizens and migrants but there are regular and irregular migrants, and there are irregular migrants who have never been apprehended and irregular migrants who have already received an expulsion order, and there are asylum seekers, migrants with a worker visa, migrants with a humanitarian visa, migrants with refugee status, migrants with a temporary permit because their worker visa has just expired... all these different categories of persons enjoy different rights, all of them have a different status, so these categories, these migrants, are divided from one another by different status borders.

So, if we should draw a map of all border traces in the Mediterranean Grenzsaum, it would be complicated but it would make sense to try to include not only all the traces of territorial borders, but also those of non-territorial borders, dividing not only foreigners from citizens, but also irregular from regular migrants, and different categories of regular migrants from one another.

Still, we must remember that the system of border controls, this enlarged and thick border tissue, this thick web of border dots, border lines and border areas, does not really aim at completely stopping immigration, but rather at filtering and selecting it.

Immigration is needed in Italy and in Europe, but it is selected. Part of this selection is based - again - on status borders. First of all, it is based on citizenship. Visa obligation is the mother of all instruments of migration control. Visa obligation is based on citizenship, and the citizenship status turns to a border, because it can make the access to a given territory easier or impossible. If you want to work in Italy, depending on your citizenship status you may not need a visa, or it may be more or less complicated to get a worker visa, or it may be almost impossible to get a worker visa. If you apply for a tourist visa, your social and economic status also plays a role, because you must prove that you have a regular job and a certain amount of money for the travel. So, personal statuses are used as borders, they are used to make territorial borders more selective.

But there are also other personal conditions that are required in order to be integrated as a migrant in Italy and, more in general, in Europe. Most of the migrants currently living in Italy with a regular status have already spent periods of time as irregular migrants in the past, in a condition of juridical, economic and social subordination, deprived of their rights, subject to exploitation by their employers, and they have been subject to social isolation and discrimination. Many of them have been also detained in detention centres. Only those who are ready to accept such forms of discrimination are actually welcome and are likely to be integrated, sooner or later. (5) This is another form of selection.

This does not apply only to foreign workers (who are selected on the base of their skills, age etc.), but also to refugees; not only to the so-called economic migrants but also to the so-called forced migrants.

Refugees should be granted refugee status regardless of any other status or condition: they should be granted protection and given a permit of stay just because they flee persecution. But in fact they are subject to a selection, too. In the past they could arrive by any travel means, and they could apply for asylum even if they had no documents. Then the European countries imposed sanctions on carriers: they decided to fine travel companies for carrying foreigners without documents. As a result, travel companies stopped selling tickets to people without documents. For this reason refugees can no longer travel with regular means of transport if they have no documents. Then European countries introduced visa obligation for citizens of all the countries where refugees come from, and - as already mentioned above - visa are given only to people who have a regular work and a certain amount of money. Thus, a further form of selection was introduced. So most refugees are forced to travel irregularly, without documents and with irregular travel companies (the so-called criminal organisations). This means, again, that they must pay lots of money, because irregular travelling is much more expensive than regular travelling, so they must be rich, but they must also be brave, and strong, and young, and in good health, because they will face longer trips, more difficult and dangerous trips.

Ironically, those who are excluded by this selection are indeed those who are most in need of protection (the eldest, the poorest, the weakest, the ill), although they theoretically have the same right to be granted protection as refugees as the others. (6)

To sum up, we can say that:

  1. Migration control results in a flexibilisation of Italian and European territorial borders, that are now scattered all over the Mediterranean, both on land and at sea, both inside and outside the Italian territory, in international waters as well as in the territories of North African Mediterranean countries.
  2. Flexibilised territorial borders can turn from lines to zones and dots, from continuous and fixed to intermittent and mobile borders.
  3. Migration control instruments interact not only with territorial state borders but also with the superterritorial status borders of the migrants.
  4. The outward flexibilisation of territorial borders has a preventive function, while the inward flexibilisation has a repressive one. Similarly, also interaction with status borders can be either preventive or repressive.
  5. The interaction of border controls with both territorial and superterritorial borders results in a qualitative selection of migrants.


*. Paper presented at the conference BORDERSCAPES II, Trapani, Italy, 13-16 September 2009.

1. Ratzel F., Politische Geographie, R. Oldenbourg, München-Berlin 1923, p. 385.

2. Ivi, p. 384.

3. Simmel, G., Soziologie. Untersuchung über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung, in Id., Gesamtausgabe, vol. 11, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1992, p. 691.

4. For a more exhaustive inventory of border control instruments and a more in-depth analysis of their interaction with both territorial and superterritorial borders, cf. Cuttitta, P., Segnali di confine. Il controllo dell'immigrazione nel mondo-frontiera, Mimesis, Milan 2007 (an article version in French - Le monde-frontière. Le contrôle de l'immigration dans l'espace globalisé, in "Cultures & Conflits", 68, 2007 - is available online).

5. Cf. Santoro, E., La fine della biopolitica e il controllo delle migrazioni: il carcere strumento della dittatura democratica della classe soddisfatta, in P. Cuttitta e F. Vassallo Paleologo (a cura di), Migrazioni, frontiere, diritti, Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, Naples 2006.

6. Cf. El-Enany, N., Who is the New European Refugee?, in "Law, Society and Economy Working Papers", 19, 2007.