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The quarantine ship as ‘floating hotspot’: Racialised border practices in the Mediterranean Sea in the time of COVID-19


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Artwork by Elia Bedoni, courtesy of the authors.

‘We’re all in the same boat’ became a common refrain in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, referencing the global and indiscriminate nature of the virus. Except, we are not. Instead, the pandemic has exposed the deep-rooted and racialised global inequalities in health and access to mobility. Here, we take the image of the boat to expose these inequalities and reveal how people are quite literally and metaphorically on very different boats indeed. Our analytic focus is the cruise ship repurposed as a quarantine ship under Italian ‘emergency’ migration policy triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. We present how these former cruise ships, devoid of their usual tourist passengers as a result of the pandemic, have been transformed into sanitary surveillance spaces in which migrants’ bodies are subjected to racialised biopolitical practices of control.


The Central Mediterranean Sea is now one of the most dangerous maritime migration routes, with 355 deaths already recorded since January 2021. These deaths need to be understood in the context of the politics of abandonment and European governmentality, as a result of which the sea ‘has been made to kill’. Forensic Oceanography’s compelling ‘left-to-die boat’ shows the deadly natural forces of the sea which must be faced by this vessel. Yet, as Enrica Rigo has shown, still people embark on this journey more than once, knowing full well the risks that await. This situation has not changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.


The ‘Italian solution’ for the isolation of migrants 


Italian policies have sanctioned a state of emergency; legitimate public health concerns are used as an excuse to detain people in poor conditions on these cruise ships and to restrict access to asylum. Measures implemented by the Italian government following the pandemic were immediate. First, ports, declared to be ‘unsafe’, were closed and search-and-rescue (SAR) vessels were reduced; then the ‘quarantine ships’ were devised. On 7 April 2020, an inter-ministerial decree declared that as a result of the COVID-19 emergency, Italian ports were unable to meet requirements as a place of safety for asylum seekers whilst the pandemic continues. The decree was approved the day after the Alan Kurdi ship (flying the German flag) had requested to dock in Lampedusa, with 150 migrants intercepted in the Libyan SAR area on board.


The Italian Association for Legal Studies on Immigration (ASGI) evidenced the dubious legitimacy of the decree with respect both to international legislation – the principle of non-refoulement (a fundamental principle of refugee law that forbids the return of migrants to a country where they are at risk of persecution) – and to the Italian Constitution. On 12 April 2020, under the decree of the Head of the Civil Protection department, quarantine ships were prepared for containment with the aim of providing accommodation assistance and health surveillance of people rescued at sea. The ASGI points out the flawed nature of this rationale, in that those same cruise ship spaces now used to quarantine migrants unable to access a ‘place of safety’ were closed to tourists as a health risk due to the density of their living space that encourages the spread of disease. Unsurprisingly, this has led to concerns from human rights groups and others about discriminatory measures and poor health and safety conditions.


This was starkly apparent to Elena during her time as a caseworker for a humanitarian organisation on two missions on quarantine ships from December 2020 to March 2021. What was immediately obvious onboarding the ship was that these supposed health-centred spaces had become sites of surveillance and control of unwanted bodies. Migrants were subject to identity checks, assessment of their intention to seek asylum, and documentation of vulnerabilities, such as minor age or pregnancy. 


There is a clear parallel between these current practices and the administrative processes that the Italian authorities requested when they asked for ‘floating hotspots’ back in 2016, a proposal rejected by the EU. The proposal was rejected as unlawful both from an administrative and from a human rights point of view: the identification process usually takes weeks and the health care on board would have been inadequate. Now emerging again, this time under the guise of safety and health concerns during the pandemic, these floating hotspots have enhanced deportation practices and restricted access to protection, temporally, spatially and administratively. Amnesty International Italy described the ships as ‘useless and cruel’.


Totalitarian institutions 


‘In the end, this is securitised control disguised – barely – as health control. You can feel it in your body. It is a disproportionate and totally unreasonable health control, as migrants with a negative COVID-19 test are also contained. It is also extremely expensive. A time-space suspension, devoid of legal regulation or any human rights guarantee.’

Entry from Elena’s onboard diary

Analysing Elena’s onboard diary, the feeling that emerges is of a totalitarian institution that adopts biopolitical techniques that act on the body and mind of all on board, both migrants and workers. In the words of her colleague: ‘you understand that it is a sick system when, as you board the migrants, you no longer think about the people boarding, but about the number of rolls of toilet paper that you will have to buy’. The quarantine ship is a space that leaves no room for critical thinking, which disables the ability to put oneself in someone else's shoes.


Quarantine ships immediately became another piece of the wider externalisation of European borders, this time facilitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Political theorists Sandro Mezzandra and Brett Neilson argue that these borders are mostly organised along racialised, colonial and economic hierarchies. COVID-19 highlights these inherent racialised practices in the bodies of those contained onboard cruise ships, deemed unsafe for their original passengers. 


What’s next?

The COVID-19 emergency has legitimised the enhanced securitisation and racialisation of the management of migratory flows along the Mediterranean border space. The question is now: what will happen after the COVID-19 pandemic? Will these quarantine ships officially become ‘floating hotspots’?

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Elena Giacomelli is a Research Fellow at the Department of Sociology and Business Law, University of Bologna. She is now working on environmental change and migration dynamics within the EU funded project #ClimateOfChange, examining the nexus between climate change and migration. She obtained a PhD conducting an ethnographic research on social workers with asylum seekers and refugees. In 2018 Elena was a visiting research fellow at the University of the Western Cape (South Africa). Her research and publications focus on mobility and migration, ethnography and cultural sociology. She can be found on Twitter at @ElenaGiacomell5

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Sarah Walker

Sarah Walker worked for a number of years as a researcher and practitioner in the refugee sector in London, as well as in academia. She is currently working as a Research Fellow on the EU funded project #ClimateOfChange examining the nexus between climate change and migration at the University of Bologna. Her PhD in Sociology examines the interaction between migration regimes and young African men, bureaucratically labelled ‘unaccompanied minors’, who have made the perilous, illegalised journey to Italy. Her work is inherently interdisciplinary, cutting across research in anthropology, geography, politics, and sociology. She can be found on Twitter at: @stow_sarah

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Elia Bedoni

Elia is a young cartoonist from Brescia, now based in Bologna. His publications may be limited but his passion is not. He can be found on noblogs at:

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