18 September 2012

Chapter Eight: Beyond Italy – Solidarity Activism Across EU Boundaries.

A Sicilian Diary of Nina Perkowski

When I finally set foot on Sicilian lands again, I felt relieved. An eventful week lay behind me, thoughts kept racing through my head, and I had gotten more and more impatient as I was waiting to be allowed to leave the ferry from Tunis, which had reached Palermo with a four-hour delay.
With my arrival back in Sicily, my participation in the Boats4People action ended. For 10 days, I was one of about 50 activists partaking in a journey from Italy to Tunisia. I joined the project at its second stop, Palermo, and travelled on to Tunis and Monastir before returning to Sicily. Others had first gone to Cecina in Northern Italy, where Boats4People started, or were travelling on to Lampedusa, where it finally ended this past weekend.

Over the last week, I have tried to reflect on everything that happened during this journey, sort through my thoughts and impressions and find an adequate answer to my friends’ asking me ‘how did it go?’. How it went? I met wonderful people and had great conversations. I felt intense sadness, hopelessness, admiration, frustration, connectedness, and saw questions I have been grappling with for a long time resurfacing once again. After a week, I still struggle to draw a conclusion on my participation in Boats4People. Yet, I know I am glad to have taken part. Not only did it give me seemingly unending food for thought and enable me to meet inspiring, interesting people, but it also allowed me to appreciate some of the difficulties and frustrations of transnational, grassroots activism.

Boats4People can maybe best be described as an alliance of organisations and individuals who struggle against current EU immigration policies and for the right to free movement. It was created last year, when in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’ tens of thousands of people decided to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe, and the EU responded with a renewed Frontex operation to intercept and return migrants immediately. Despite intense monitoring of the Mediterranean and the presence of NATO, Frontex, and national border guards, 2011 was one of the deadliest years in the region, with 2000 people perishing on their way to reach Europe.

Boats4People is a result of the outrage of activists at EU policies, and their determination to work for political change. Initially, it was planned as a flotilla of boats travelling across the Mediterranean, monitoring Frontex operations, potentially saving people in distress at sea, raising awareness for the situation at Europe’s southern borders. In the end, financial concerns led to significant changes, and only a small ship was chartered to travel via sea from Italy to Tunisia and back to Lampedusa. In addition, numerous activists travelled with other means of transport between the various locations.

To just give a rough, brief outline of the activities that took place:
In Cecina on July 1-2, Boats4People participated in a large, antiracist meeting organised by the Italian ARCI. In Palermo, presentations, discussions and workshops took place and a commemoration for those disappeared and died at sea was held. A delegation of B4P visited the identification and deportation prison in Milo (Sicily), where more than 200 Tunisian migrants are currently held. In Tunis, workshops were organised at a university, discussion rounds took place with a group of student activists, and a theatre performance presented a Tunisian exile’s perspective on migration. Also, meetings with the mothers of Tunisians disappeared at sea took place, and demonstrations by them in front of local ministries were supported. A delegation travelled to the refugee camp in Choucha to speak to the inhabitants there and to make sure a group of 8 previously invited refugees would be able to join B4P events in Monastir. In Monastir, Boats4People converged with the preparatory meeting for the World Social Forum, and a day full of workshops and panel discussions were organised around the theme of migration. At night, another commemoration for those dead and disappeared was held. The next morning, two insightful discussions took place and then, many activists started their journey homewards. Others travelled on to Lampedusa, where they joined the LampedusaInFestival featuring films on migration, and where a final commemoration ceremony was held.

While these activities were taking place, a pilot of WatchTheMed went online for the duration of Boats4People. Developed and maintained by two PhD students from Goldsmith, the map aims to ‘increase accountability for the death of migrants and the violations of their rights at the maritime borders of the EU’ by spacializing information on border controls, Frontex operations, search and rescue areas, boats in distress at sea, etc. Using various sources of information including winds, currents, and data gathered through interviews with migrants, they hope to identify those responsible for incidences such as the ‘left-to-die boat’ last year or the 54 people drifting for two weeks and dying off the Tunisian coast while the Boats4People action took place. Eventually, the hope is also to allow quasi real-time processing of information provided through facebook, twitter, or SMS, and to put pressure on the authorities in charge to rescue boats in distress before their passengers die.

While I cherished encounters and discussions both within and outside of the ‘programme’, I am wondering about the impact of the initiative, and whether it could not have easily been much greater if some decisions had been taken differently. Maybe also if the goal of the project had been clearer in planners’ and participants’ minds: was this an action to create and stabilize a transnational network or was it a campaign aiming to create publicity? Was the goal to work inwards, strengthening common understandings within the movement, or outwards, creating pressure for political change? I am asking myself how transnational activism and cooperation on an equal footing can become reality, as Europeans were mostly dominant in numbers, and often seemed to drive discussions also thematically. Also, where is it necessary and important? And where would it potentially be more effective to focus energies on mobilizing the constituencies with most leverage on specific decisions, while still informing and supporting each other across national boundaries? And how can we ensure, at all times, that our actions and activism do not put those we aim to support at risk in any way, or cause them any psychological, physical, emotional harm?

I find it difficult to say if Boats4People was a success or not – and participants’ opinions varied a lot on this issue. Partly, this is because I was not involved in organising of the journey and know only little about deliberations and difficulties beforehand. Partly, this is because even if some were rather critical of the project’s unfolding, it was important that it took place. It was important that networks were built up and intensified between Europeans and Africans who are struggling for the same cause: freedom of movement. And there were impressive moments throughout this trip, as for instance on the public ferry from Palermo to Tunis, when we reached out to the 1000 passengers travelling with us and invited them to participate in an assembly on the ship. Many showed up and engaged with us and each other, listening and passionately sharing their experiences with migration control. Contrary to my expectations, the Italian crew of the ship permitted us to hand out flyers and have the assembly, expressing sympathy to the cause. Initially uninvolved travellers decided to come, attend, talk.

Has Boats4People made an impact on EU policies with this action? Probably not – I am not even sure many European politicians noticed that the journey took place. To most participating, it was clear though that this trip would only be the beginning of Boats4People. New ideas and plans were made in Tunisia, and linkages between existing projects and groups were strengthened. The hugely important WatchTheMed project will hopefully continue and expand, and other actions will follow. The journey might have not been the perfect first step. But it was a first step.

Nina Perkowski came to Sicily to research the living situation of immigrants from Africa in Sicily for her PhD. For borderline-europe, she reported the situation in Cassibile and Mineo, where there is a collective home for asylum seekers. Within ten chapters Nina wrote down her experiences and her monitorings.

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