Palermo Convergence 2021

Towards the next 10 years of common struggles across the sea! 

10 years ago, in the wake of the Arab uprisings, migrants seized their freedom to move and re-opened the Mediterranean frontier. Nongovernmental actors who support them also seized this moment to develop new forms of intervention at sea – from the use of cutting-edge technologies of documentation towards litigation to direct intervention through rescue vessels and communication infrastructures, from the identification and commemoration of the diseased to new articulations between activism at sea and solidarity cities. This has been a unique sequence of collective political invention, but migrants’ rights continue to be violated and people keep dying while crossing the sea as a result of border violence, and far more work remains to be done. In September 2021 we want to bring these diverse actors together for several days in Palermo, to share and reflect on our initiatives, their successes, limitations, and blind spots. We want to consolidate existing practices and create synergies between them, but also imagine and plan for the new interventions that will be necessary in the next 10 years of struggle against border violence and for freedom of movement across the Mediterranean and beyond.

10 years of relentless struggle across the Mediterranean battlefield

The 2011 Arab uprisings led to the toppling or destabilising of the authoritarian regimes in North Africa that had served as the pillars of Europe’s policy of externalised border control. These popular uprisings—and the foreign military interventions that accompanied them in the case of Libya—also made the European border regime vacillate. In Tunisia, migrants took advantage of the power vacuum to seize their freedom to move, which the Ben Ali regime had denied them in tandem with the EU. The counter-revolutionary turmoil that spread in Libya and Syria further triggered large-scale population movements across the region, amplified by a series of crises that have continued to affect several African countries. European states have struggled to respond to this crisis of the European border regime triggered by migrants’ movements, deploying new means of militarised deterrence and containment to channel and block migrants’ unruly trajectories.

In support of the illegalised migrants who reopened the Mediterranean frontier in 2011—and faced the violence of its roll-back since then—a multitude of nongovernmental actors have also taken to the sea. The central Mediterranean has become a laboratory for new and highly innovative initiatives to support migrants in the exercise of their freedom to move and to block the violence of borders. Without any claim to exhaustivity, these have included first of all the mobilisation of the families of the disappeared in Tunisia and Algeria, who have demanded as of 2011 truth and accountability for the disappearance of their loved ones. These families have been supported by activists and NGOs and both sides of the sea, such as the FTDES, Boats4People and the Missing at the Borders platform. Their voices have resonated within large activist gatherings such as the 2012 Boats4People campaign that linked Italy and Tunisia. Later the 3rd of October 2013 and the 18th of April 2015 shipwrecks spurred further processes involving survivors and relatives in the forms of commemorations, identification of the deceased and their families (with the support of a growing range of actors, including the ICRC), and demands for justice. To support demands for accountability, projects such as Forensic Oceanography have mobilised surveillance technologies against the grain to document the violations of migrants’ rights at sea towards litigation by many different NGOs such as GISTI, ASGI, GLAN. Since 2013, the WatchTheMed platform has sought to make these tools of documentation available to the migrant solidarity movement. It has mainly been used by the Alarm Phone project since 2014, a 24/7 emergency phone line to support migrants during the crossing which has extended the underground networks of solidarity of No Border activists across the sea.

In the wake of the ending of the Italian military and humanitarian operation Mare Nostrum—which led to a staggering increase in migrant deaths at sea in early 2015— citizens and NGOs deployed their own vessels to rescue migrants in distress, soon forming a civilian rescue flotilla. By 2017, there were more than 10 rescue NGOs, including SOS-Mediterranée, MOAS, Sea-Eye, Save the Children, LifeBoat, Médecins Sans Frontières, Jugend Rettet, Proactiva Open Arms, Boat Refugee Foundation, Sea-Watch. But after the 2015 summer of migration profoundly destabilised the European border regime and put the EU itself into crisis, the EU desperately sought to seal its borders once again by re-establishing externalised border control. To this effect rescue NGOs – as well as Tunisian fishermen – were increasingly criminalised and prevented from operating. While some were forced to stop their activities, several NGOs have persisted against all odds, and counter-surveillance aircrafts missions to support their rescue activities have been deployed – such as the Moonbird and Pilotes Volontaires. The extraordinary collaboration between the activists at sea has allowed to effectively support migrants in exercising their freedom to move and defend their lives and rights against border violence.

The EU’s policy of closure was further radicalised following Matteo Savlini’s institution as Italy’s Interior minister. In the face of increasing criminalisation of migration, solidarity and the drastic “closed ports” policy declared by Italy, migrant struggles have been heightened as well. In addition to contesting the closure of borders through their very mobility, migrants have directly opposed heightened border violence – initiating hunger strikes to protest the refusals to disembark them as in the Diciotti standoff, or resisting their privatized push-backs as in the El-Hiblu and Nivin cases. Nongovernmental actors have also sought to respond to these challenges by enacting forms of civil disobedience and launching new platforms such as Mediterranea, Seebrücke and the From the Sea to the City network, which have increasingly articulated activism at sea with solidarity cities so as to create corridors of solidarity.

The Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 saw the conflation by states of the “war against the virus” with the war against migrants they have waged since years, leading them to push even further their politics of closure, criminalisation and abandonment. Despite it all, 10 years after the Arab uprisings, states have not been able to seal off the Mediterranean frontier. Migrants persist in their disobedient crossings – Tunisians in particular have once again been crossing autonomously in growing numbers – and nongovernmental actors continue to adapt and invent new forms of support and opposition to border violence. In the wake of the 2020 uprising against anti-Black racism, illegalized migrants and those who support them have claimed that “Black Lives Matter, also at sea”. In this they have underlined that border struggles are a fundamental form of anti-racist struggle as they oppose a deeply racilaised European border regime. To become anti-racist in the strongest sense, we border activists we must also tackle racial hierarchies within our modes of organisation and action.

Towards the next 10 years of common struggles!

While there are many more initiatives then those mentioned here – also across the Eastern and Western Mediterranean – but these are enough to indicate the extraordinary persistence and inventiveness of a wide range of nongovernmental actors acting in solidarity with migrants to support them in their transgressive movements and shield them against intensifying and ever shifting border violence. Together, these actors have turned the in-between space of the “Medi-terranean” into a transnational space of political experimentation, and a space of politics in its own right. While the last 10 years have seen actions that seemed impossible become real and effective, the horrendous suffering that the policing of borders structurally generates continues. How can we consolidate these diverse practices, better link, and coordinate them together, and imagine the new interventions that may allow us to be even more effective in countering border violence in the future? These are the questions we want to raise and discuss together during several days of meeting.

We aim to bring together actors from various networks to join workshops and discussions around at least six clusters: (1) activism at sea; (2) documentation and litigation; (3) identification and commemoration; (4) solidarity across land and sea; (5) border struggles and (6) transversal struggles. We want to create spaces of exchange between practices and visions for freedom of movement and equal rights. We want to organize very focussed workshops as well as cross over debates. We want to think of how we can be more effective in our initiatives, and about what new initiatives need to be forged. Key questions to be discussed within each of these four clusters will be defined collectively in the coming months.

We also hope to open our thinking towards questions and issues cutting across the clusters and explore how activism against migrants’ deaths at sea can be better connected to other (5) transversal struggles before and after the maritime frontier. Questions we may wish to raise together may include for example: How can we draw inspiration from – and connect with – other anti-racist struggles? How can we undermine the White saviour attitudes and involve more migrant and racialised subjects in these struggles against border violence? How can we make visible and denounce the violence against migrants crossing the maritime frontier, without contributing to reproduce the imaginary of invasion upon which restrictive policies are founded? How can we not only oppose the implementation of restrictive policies on the ground but shape the formulation of policies towards a vision of freedom of movement? What forms of support can we offer to the migrants who arrive autonomously – from Tunisia for example – but who face precarity, repression and deportation on firm land? If solidarity is necessary to support migrants after they have arrived on European soil, the articulation between land and sea is also necessary before migrants cross the sea. How can we struggle against camps and violence in Libya, support migrants in their crossing of the desert (as the Alarm Phone Sahara), and contest the extractive policies and authoritarian regimes migrants flee (as the Africa Europe Interact network and others)? In short, we want to think of how activism at the maritime frontier can become a node within a broader field of struggles towards global justice.

Join the Palermo Convergence Process

The Palermo convergence will take place from 15th to 19th of September 2021. We are convinced that we need a physical coming together this year and that online events cannot replace a face-to-face communication.

We want in any case to start the preparation as a more collective process already now. With this invitation we wish to inspire various actors from the sea to cities and from both sides of the Mediterranean to join the discussions for a comprehensive program in a diverse composition of participants. Within the next months we will plan for a series of online meetings and working groups. We will contact and try to get involved friends from various networks. We will set up a digital forum to collect ideas, to develop the logistics and to shape the program. We will begin discussions within the 5 different clusters mentioned above, and work to produce together a „reader“, a digital and printed version of texts and information, which should contribute to a vivid preparation process and serve as the basis for our common discussions.

In May 2018 several of us met a first time in Palermo and we started to form, what we called the Palermo Charter Platform Process. We published a statement, which ended with the following sentences:

We are active in municipalities and church groups, we belong to migrant communities, non- governmental organisations and human rights initiatives, we are lawyers, researchers and activists, we are self-organised and supporters. We all build and spread novel structures of disobedience and solidarity. From sea rescue to solidarity cities, from access to housing to medical care and fair working conditions, from legal counselling to protection against deportation: we prefigure and enact our vision of a society, in which we want to live. And we ask the civil society to join this process: to create corridors, spaces and projects of solidarity, criss-crossing and subverting all internal and external borders of Europe. We call for safe passage, safe harbours, and safe transit to a dignified life at the places of arrival. We are all humans and we want an inclusive and open society with the right to mobility and equal rights for all.

With the Palermo convergence in summer 2021 we will try to continue and to further develop this process of networking, collective thinking and forging of new practices against border violence and for freedom of movement. Please let us know if you want to join the process.


January 2021, activists from Forensic Oceanography, Mediterranea, Sea Watch and WatchTheMed Alarm Phone