Reaching Terraferma: Boat Migration to Southern Italy

Terraferma literally means “firm ground” and can be used to mean “dry land” or “mainland” in Italian. 

Arrival of immigrants in the sea of Lampedusa via Wikicommons.

Last week more than 230 migrants from Eritrea and Somalia died when their boat sank off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. The tragic incident provoked an out-pouring of blogs, articles and tweets across the world and the Italian government declared a national day of mourning. It was a tragedy, and one that should never have happened, but it was not the first and unfortunately will not be the last time that a migrant dies crossing the Mediterranean.

In January 2012 UNHCR declared the Mediterranean Sea the deadliest stretch of water in the world for migrants and asylum-seekers and estimates suggest that around 25,000 migrants have lost their lives in the Mediterranean in the past two decades. Every year, thousands of migrants journey from their homes in Africa with the aim of reaching Southern Europe.[i] As we were reminded of last week, many never make it, and life is not easy even for those that do. Over 30,100 migrants have already arrived in southern Italy and Malta this year and the number continues to rise. Such numbers put extreme pressure on the countries involved, where boat migration represents a major social and political issue.

Destination Italia

Italy has traditionally been a country of emigration and it was not until the late 1980s that the country began to witness the mass-immigration of people who were neither returning Italian emigrants nor their descendants. By the early nineties immigration from Africa was strong with large numbers of migrants coming from Tunisia and Morocco and many more journeying up from sub-Sahara.

In the first decade of the new millennium irregular boat migration from North Africa, Greece and Turkey was strong, peaking at 36,000 arrivals in 2008 (an increase of 81% from the previous year). Following this peak, the number of boat migrants fell and stayed low until 2011 when they rose to a staggering 61,000. Of these migrants 56,000 arrived from Libya and Tunisia where the Arab Spring had erupted. Italy was the fourth largest single recipient of new claims in 2011 with an all-time high of 34,100 new asylum claims.

On the 13th of September this year, UNHCR estimated that almost 21,900 people had already arrived in southern Italy in 2013, a massive increase on 2012 when the total number was 7,981. By the end of September the number was estimated at 31,000 (although this also includes arrivals in Malta). In 2012 most boat migrants detected in the central Mediterranean were from sub-Saharan countries, departing from Libya, and this year follows a similar pattern with the boat migrants arriving from Eritrea, Somalia and in recent months Syria. In fact, in the 40 days prior to 13th September 3,300 Syrians arrived in Italy and of these 230 were unaccompanied children. The number of Syrians arriving on the southern islands of Sicily and Lampedusa has continued to rise since then with boats coming mainly from Egypt but also from Turkey. Meanwhile migrants from sub-Saharan countries continue to make the journey to Europe.

Political and legal issues

Talking in August about the recent surge in migration from Syria, the Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano explained that it has not become an “unmanageable emergency”. However, he also explained that “the issue of immigration to Lampedusa cannot be considered a national problem” because “it is the entrance to all of Europe”. As a result of its location on the southern border of the EU free movement area, known as Schengen, Italy is of particular interest to the whole of Europe. In February 2011, when boat migration from Tunisia was strong protection of these borders became a major concern. This prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to explain that “Not everyone who does not want to be in Tunisia can come to Europe”. The central Mediterranean is also a major site for Frontex (the European border agency) operations.

Italy has not always dealt well with the pressures of boat migration. In 2009 Berlusconi’s government received international attention for its poor treatment of boat migrants when he instigated a controversial “push-back” policy, which ordered the interception and return of migrant boats to Libya[ii]. This included the return of individuals who may be in need of international protection. UNHCR, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch all expressed concern that the policy was preventing access to asylum and undermining the international principle of non-refoulement and the practice of “push-backs” was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights. Despite this, Italy recently tried to push-back two ships to Libya only accepting one of those ships (with 102 African migrants on-board) when the captain refused to return them.

Living with boat migration

Italian society often struggles to come to terms with the realities of its immigration. Particularly in the South, and especially on islands like Lampedusa and Sicily where the majority of boats land, there is public resentment over the large numbers of migrants. Many residents believe the state gives more attention to migrants than to local Italian citizens. Lampedusa, with a population of just 6,000, struggles to maintain its hospitality, which has waned as immigration is seen to affect tourism and crime on the island.

It is hard to live in a place where drowned migrants wash up on beaches and the resentment many people feel is balanced with their human desire to help. In August, when a boat carrying 160 migrants became stranded of the coast of Sicily bathers jumped in to help them to shore. For the Italian President their reaction demonstrated a prevailing “sense of humanity and solidarity that is stronger than any prejudice or fear”. People care, and for the most part the resentment felt on the Italian islands is not directed at the migrants (although some certainly is).  Rather, it is directed at the government and Europe who are not providing the assistance required or sharing the burden of boat migration.

The complex sentiments of local people are nicely represented in Emanuele Crialese’s 2011 film Terraferma. The film explores how the life of an Italian fisherman and his family are transformed when they rescue a pregnant Ethiopian lady from the sea. They take her into their home before helping her escape, against the direction of the authorities who punish locals for not reporting migrants. The film portrays some of the conflicts within communities, families, even within individuals between the desire to help another person and the (in this case economically driven) ability to leave them suffering. It raises important questions over how we respond to other human-beings’ suffering. Of course there are very real reasons why an island of six thousand inhabitants may struggle to come to terms with the mass-arrival of thousands of new migrants, however, it is essential that in the face of such human distress states and citizens remain committed to human rights principles. The laws that demand boats in distress be rescued in the high seas and the principles of non-refoulement and asylum are there for a reason. And they keep us human.


“To leave people to die at sea is a sign of a great lack of civilization, for a country that proclaims itself civilized” – Emanuele Crialese

It is important to remember that last Thursday’s tragedy is not unprecedented. Tens of thousands have lost their lives crossing to Europe, and every life is significant. Of course the loss of hundreds last week is a shock but equally shocking is the death of 13 migrants a fortnight ago, 6 Egyptians in August, and every other migrant that has lost their life seeking a better life in Europe.

Migration is a fundamentally human process. It is something people do and it is important to remember that they are people. They are people who have been forced to move for political or economic reasons in search of a new life. But when borders are closed this is what happens.

The shock and sympathy that has swept Europe in the wake of last Thursday’s tragedy is of course appropriate, however, we need to look long and hard at the human consequences of our border controls. Boat migration is a reality of life on Italy’s islands and southern coastlines and it is likely to continue as men, women and children continue to arrive from Syria and the African continent. They seek safety, they seek opportunity and they expect civilisation. Let’s try to make sure they get it.

Further reading

Migrants at Sea

Fortress Europe [Italian]

Asylum and Migration: All in the same boat: The challenges of mixed migration, UNHCR.

Euronews reporter: Lampedusa: Italian island at the sharp end of immigration. Euronews on Youtube. 


[i] Hundreds of migrants die crossing the Mediterranean each year. For example, in 2011 alone 1500 migrants are estimated to have lost their lives. However, there are also many migrants who stop in North Africa for long periods of time see for example Collyer’s work on Trans-Saharan Transit Migrants (2007).

[ii] The policy was facilitated by a bi-lateral agreement with Gaddafi’s Libyan regime


  1. […] Reaching Terraferma: Boat Migration to Southern Italy ( […]


  2. […] I attract almost hypnotically this tall and thin man to our table. Coming from Central Africa, he tells us he left behind his starving, civil war-tortured family who concentrated all their hopes into his own self, own body and soul peregrinating from the heart of his continent. He walked thousands of miles being literally hunted down in the Northern African region, then got into one of the more than overloaded boats of smugglers and finally arrived physically, mentally and emotionally to the Promised Land. And he is one of the lucky ones: he did not get drowned or shot at one of the dangerous spots on his way. […]


  3. […] were killed in a shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa, sparking international outrage. However, as I argued at the time, the problems facing migrants continue long after any arrival on the shores of Lampedusa. Such a […]


  4. Poignant film and very relevant topic for these days. Glad to report that boat people are hitting the agenda in Geneva with ICMC and UNHCR both organizing events in December 2014. Thanks for this.

    Liked by 1 person

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