Death and the Moral State: Making Borders and Sovereignty at the Southern Edges of Europe (Working Paper #136)

Maurizio Albahari, Center for Comparative Immigration Studies and University of California -Irvine

Abstract: European governmental and non-governmental sources estimate the death toll of would-be migrants (including asylum seekers) in the Mediterranean between 6,000 and 10,000. This paper investigates the chronicle of death off the coasts of southern Italy from 1996 to the present, together with the accompanying legal and political framework of deportations, internment, bilateral agreements (e.g., with Libya) and EU provisions. Building on fieldwork in coastal southern Italy and on the analysis of key incidents and of the responses of Italian and EU institutions and mass media, the paper explores how lethal border practices become morally and politically acceptable and legally enforceable and thus constitute a clear paradox of liberaldemocratic power and rule of law. It is proposed that the EU and the state, in the daily struggle with would-be migrants and asylum seekers resorting to unauthorized travel, find in the de facto power to “let die” a key prerogative of their sovereignty. At the same time, they also propose themselves as agents of humanitarianism in rescue operations, finding in this moral intervention a paradoxical legitimization of border enforcement.

Working Paper #136 »