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Liquid violence: investigations of boundaries at sea by Forensic Oceanography

Map of the Meditteranean Sea drawn by Richard William Seale in 1745, with every port on its coast meticulously labelled

The tangle of jurisdictional boundaries in the Mediterranean Sea is designed to turn its waters into a lethal entity

Far from being a homogeneous and lawless expanse, the sea is crisscrossed by a multiplicity of jurisdictions and legal regimes, as revealed by migrants crossing the Mediterranean. At sea, the moment of border crossing is expanded into a process that can last several days and extends across an uneven and heterogeneous territory that sits outside the exclusive reach of any single polity. The spatial imaginary of the border as a line without thickness dividing isomorphic territorial states is here stretched into a deep zone characterised by ambiguous and contested gaps between legal borders. As soon as a migrant boat starts navigating, it passes through the various jurisdictional regimes that carve up the Mediterranean: from the various areas defined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to Search and Rescue zones, from ecological and archaeological protection zones to areas of maritime surveillance. At the same time, the boat and people aboard are caught between legal regimes that depend on the juridical status applied to those onboard (whether they are considered economic or illegal migrants, or refugees), and on the rationale of the operations in which they are implicated, such as their rescue and interception.

‘Conflicts of delimitation have allowed states to simultaneously extend their sovereign privileges and elude the responsibilities that come with it’

These overlaps, conflicts of delimitation, and differing interpretations, however, are not a malfunction but rather a structural characteristic of the maritime borders that have allowed states to simultaneously extend their sovereign privileges through forms of mobile government and elude the responsibilities that come with it. For instance, the strategic mobilisation of the notion of ‘rescue’ has on several occasions allowed coastal states to justify police operations on the high seas for which they would otherwise have little legal ground. Conversely, overlapping and conflicting Search and Rescue zones – such as those of Italy and Malta – have led to recurrent cases of non-assistance to migrants in distress, often with tragic consequences. Here it is not the absence of law, but rather the proliferation and spatial entanglement of different legal regimes across the maritime border – what we might call with Keller Easterling its ‘disposition’ that has created an ‘unfolding potential’, an ‘inherent agency’ that makes certain things possible and other things impossible, ultimately producing violence on a large scale.

From this perspective, maritime zones should not be understood as exceptional spaces that are radically opposed to state-like territoriality, but rather as paradigmatic of various legal and political spatial formations that we commonly associate with firm land. It is in the early modern period, when control of the world’s oceans became a fundamental part of European empire building, and the bases for the contemporary juridical-political architecture of the sea started to be laid, that the sea became what Lauren Benton describes as ‘a privileged arena within the global order’.

‘The vision of the sea as a laboratory of modern political spaces continues to have enduring relevance’

Historians of empire have effectively shown how transoceanic trade and colonisation fostered the proliferation of differential zones of variegated sovereignty and disenfranchisement. These were not, however, temporary aberrations from an ideal standard of territoriality, soon to be eliminated under the overarching jurisdiction of accepted international norms (as, for instance, conventional narratives of the maritime origins of international law claim). Rather, they were integral to empire and part of their standard formation on a grammar of what Ann Stoler describes as ‘gradated variations and degree of sovereignty and disenfranchisement’, in primarily, but not only, the maritime context. This is what made of the sea not a deviation from the sovereign norm, but rather one of its crucial models. As Benton has put it, ‘international norms take shape not at Westphalia but at the edges of the Indian Ocean’.

The vision of the sea as a laboratory of modern political spaces continues to have enduring relevance for understanding and assessing the production of political space in today’s world, which is characterised by the proliferation of ‘a broad range of partial, often highly specialised, global assemblages of bits of territory, authority, and rights that begin to escape the grip of national institutional frames’ as Saskia Sassen describes. As such, the deeply uneven legal and political geography of the sea continues to offer a privileged vantage point for the study of the political spaces in which we live.

The attempt to rethink the sea as a central space of politics and as a crucial laboratory for the reorganisation of territory on a global scale has been central to the Forensic Oceanography project that I co-founded with Charles Heller. Since 2011, we have sought to critically investigate the militarised border regime imposed by European states across the Mediterranean Sea, analysing the political, spatial and aesthetic conditions that have led to largescale deaths of migrants over the last 30 years. Forensic Oceanography has redirected the light shed by border surveillance apparatus back towards the lethal effects of bordering, thus contributing to the many forms of migrants’ rights activism that has taken the Mediterranean Sea as a central terrain of struggle.

‘The rescue activities of non-governmental organisations, that had stepped in to make up for the lack of state rescue operations, have been criminalised and limited’

While the death of migrants at sea has a long and tragic history, the death toll rose dramatically in the wake of the Arab uprisings, as the attempts to stop migrants’ crossings by EU and its member states reached new and unprecedented levels of violence. This became acutely visible at the end of 2014, when the EU and its member states, aiming to deter migrants from crossing the Mediterranean, pulled back from rescue activities at sea, leading to record numbers of deaths. In early 2017, the Italian government (in collaboration with other European governments and agencies) deployed a two-pronged strategy to close off the central Mediterranean. On the one hand, the rescue activities of those non-governmental organisations (NGOs), that had stepped in to make up for the lack of state rescue operations, have been criminalised and limited. On the other, collaboration with Libyan authorities and militias to prevent and intercept departures has been reinforced, thus physically containing migrants on the Mediterranean’s southern shore without requiring the direct involvement of Italian or EU authorities. This undeclared operation, which dramatically escalated over 2018, is what Forensic Oceanography has called Mare Clausum (‘closed sea’ in Latin).

Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture have investigated two cases central to this ongoing Mare Clausum research, The Iuventa and Sea Watch vs Libyan Coast Guard. These investigations have been made possible by an exponential increase in video documentation by the different actors involved, allowing for a unique form of 3D modelling of incidents. Each concerns one of the dimensions of this policy which entails migrants being brought back to a country where their lives are endangered, and their human rights are systematically violated.

The Iuventa

Since the end of 2016, a growing campaign of delegitimisation and criminalisation has systematically targeted NGOs engaged in search and rescue. On 2 August, the ship Iuventa, of the German NGO Jugend Rettet (‘Youth Rescue’), was seized by the Italian judiciary under suspicion of ‘assistance to illegal migration’ and collusion with smugglers during three different rescue operations: the first on 10 September 2016, the second and third on 18 June 2017. The seizure came only days after the NGO, along with several others, had refused to sign a ‘code of conduct’ that would have dangerously limited their activities.

While the Italian authorities operate by decontextualising factual elements and recombining them into a spurious chain of events, Forensic Oceanography’s analysis attempts instead to crossreference all elements of evidence into a coherent spatio-temporal model. From our reconstruction, it appears that the Iuventa crew did not return empty boats for re-use, nor communicate with anyone potentially connected with smuggling networks. The materials we have reviewed further show the Iuventa crew’s professionalism and commitment to saving lives at sea.

While no charges have been so far brought against the crew of the Iuventa nor against Jugend Rettet as an organisation, thus making it extremely difficult for them to respond to these accusations, the boat has remained in the custody of the Italian police in the port of Trapani, Sicily.

Iuventa 1

Iuventa 1

Source: Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture

Reconstruction of a 360° view of a rescue scene involving the Iuventa in the central Mediterranean

Dbr 2

Dbr 2

Source: Forensic Oceanography. GIS Analysis: Vanessa Guglielmi. Design: Samaneh Moafi

Map showing the retreat of state search and rescue assets by comparing the operational zone of the Italian Navy Mare Nostrum operation and the EU border agency’s Triton operation

Forensic oceanography screengrab

Forensic oceanography screengrab

Source: Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture

By mapping the sky to the inside of a sphere, Forensic Oceanography tracked the motion of a mounted camera and matched the Iuventa’s drifting movements


Sea Watch vs Libyan Coast Guard

On 6 November 2017, the rescue NGO Sea Watch (SW) and a patrol vessel of the Libyan Coast Guard (LYCG) simultaneously directed themselves towards a migrants’ boat in distress in international waters. The boat, which had departed from Tripoli a few hours earlier, carried between 30 and 50 passengers. A confrontational rescue operation ensued, and while SW was eventually able to rescue and bring to safety in Italy 59 passengers, at least 20 people died before or during these events, while 47 passengers were ultimately pulled back to Libya, where several faced grave human rights violations – including being detained, beaten, and sold to another captor who tortured them to extract ransom from their families.

Two factors have converged to allow us to document this case and its aftermath in unprecedented detail. First, thanks to the SW vessel having on board multiple audio and visual recording devices, this case could be documented in far greater detail than many others of interception and pull-back by the LYCG. Second, while it is usually extremely difficult to document the fate of migrants who have been returned to Libya, in this case, thanks to the bond that connected some of the passengers who finally managed to reach Italy with those captured by the LYCG, the latter could be traced and contacted, and they could reveal the violence they were subjected to on being returned to Libyan soil.

Forensic Oceanography’s report on this case shows that through policy agreements and multiform support to the LYCG, Italy and the EU have come to exercise both strategic and operational control over the LYCG. In this way, the LYCG has been made to operate refoulement by proxy on behalf of Italy and the EU, in contravention of one of the cornerstones of international refugee law, the principle of non-refoulement.



Source: Forensic Oceanography. GIS Analysis: Vanessa Guglielmi. Design: Samaneh Moafi

Map of 6 November 2017 based on geo-referenced positions and AIS data

Lead image: Map of the Meditteranean Sea drawn by Richard William Seale in 1745, with every port on its coast meticulously labelled. Image © CPC Collection / ALAMY

This piece is featured in the AR April 2019 issue on Oceans – click here to purchase your copy today