Photo: (Abbate,  2021)     

Written by Annalisa Scaletta

Introduction: the new hygienic-sanitary logic 

Interventions operated along the EU Southern borders to prevent migrants from reaching Member States’ mainland have long been inscribed within a humanitarian narrative aimed at ending deaths at sea (Stierl, 2018). According to this logic, military anti-smuggling operations, increased border surveillance, and collaborations with North African countries are seen as essential practices to protect migrants’ precarious lives. The paradox deriving from the merging of humanitarian and militarised logics is described by William Walters as a new “humanitarian border [where] border regimes are composed not just at the level of strategies and technologies of control, but also at the level of strategies which combine elements of protest and visibilization with practices of pastoral care, aid, and assistance” (2011:155). 

However, since the outbreak of Covid-19, the humanitarian-security paradigm has come to coexist with a new hygienic-sanitary rationale, motivated by the fear of the virus infection. As a result, precarious and displaced peoples face not just the socio-economic crisis that characterised migratory movements in pre-pandemic times, nor with the health crisis affecting EU citizens; they also have to endure a protection crisis undermining their fundamental rights (UN, 2020). In this context, migrants are not just understood as subjects of pity or threats, but also as possible disease spreaders, or – even more paradoxically – as individuals that need to be contained for their safety (Tazzioli & Stierl, 2021b). The political focus, therefore, is shifting from the hostile environment of the post-migration crisis period towards an unsafe environment (both for displaced and local people) that legitimises further the intervention of governments or non-governmental agents (Tazzioli & Stierl, 2021a). 

It is within this hygienic-sanitary logic that the Italian government’s decision to declare its harbours unsafe and contain migrants in the so-called quarantine ships comes to be justified as an extraordinary measure to cope with an unprecedented sanitary emergence. However, almost two years into the pandemic, the Italian government seems not willing to dismiss the quarantine ships, which – on the contrary – have become an integral part of the reception system.

Quarantine ships: from an exception to an integral part of the reception system

On April 7, 2020, the Italian government announced being no longer able to welcome migrants and asylum seekers given the emergency triggered by the pandemic and, therefore, closed its harbours as a preventive measure to safeguard the lives of local and displaced populations. Italy’s self-declaration as an unsafe country allowed the government to exempt itself “from any humanitarian obligation, in the name of migrants’ health” (Tazzioli & Stierl, 2021b:546). These precautionary measures kept irregular migrants out of the national territory but did not prevent them from being turned into scapegoats for the spread of Covid-19 both in public and political discourses (Tazzioli & Stierl, 2021b). For instance, the former Interior Minister, Marco Minniti, declared that “while legality fosters health, illegality enhances the pandemic”, suggesting a correlation between migrants and the virus (Dardari, 2020). These discourses and the increase in arrivals to the Southern shores prepared the ground for the introduction of an extreme measure for migrants’ containment. Indeed, less than a week later, a government decree authorised the so-called quarantine ships, passenger ferries rented directly from private companies by the Italian government to host migrants rescued at sea during the two-week preventive quarantine (Camilli, 2020). The first quarantine ship, Moby Zaza, has entered into service at the beginning of May with a capacity of around 250 passengers and a total rent price estimated between 900 thousand and 1,2 million euro, not taking into consideration the costs for the medical personnel and basic supplies (Camilli, 2020). 

Despite the skepticism raised both by the public and political parties concerning the high costs, the quarantine ship, originally meant to be an extraordinary measure, has soon become embedded in the Italian migration reception system (Bottazzo, 2021). As of January 2022, five quarantine ships (the GNV Azzurra, the SNAV Adriatico, the GNV Aurelia, the GNV Atlas, and the GNV Allegra) continue to operate in various Sicilian harbours; in addition, five ferries (Aurelia, Splendid, Rhapsody, Adriatico, and Moby Dada) will soon be deployed in Friuli Venezia Giulia and Sardinia to welcome people that have crossed land borders (Accardo, 2022). Based on the official information provided by the Civil Protection Department, the Italian government will pay shipping companies a daily rental fee of 36,000 euros for each boat, plus another 25 euros a day for each migrant guest (Dipartimento della Protezione Civile, 2021). 

An (in)efficient measure to contain the virus

Even if the recent events suggest that the Italian state is not planning to abandon this new method of migrant containment (at least in the short-term), the skepticism characterising anti- as well as pro-migration discourses increasingly question the governmental decisions. On the one hand, migration opponents blame the government for “sending migrants on a cruise” with public funds, protesting against the high rent and maintenance expenses (Simonelli, 2020). On the other hand, migration supporters denounce the lack of legitimacy of the quarantine ships system, which undermines migrants’ rights (Accardo, 2022). Although motivated by different ideals, both parties seem to agree on the fact that quarantine ships are not an effective way to protect migrants and the local population from the virus, contrary to what was initially claimed by the current Italian Minister of the Interior, Luciana Lamorgese (Ministero dell’Interno, 2020).

As Valerio Nicolosi (2021a) pointed out in his inquiry, the quarantine ships are failing in their mission for two main reasons: first, the narrow and rigid structure of the ferries does not allow for the efficient isolation of individuals who test positive for Covid-19 from the rest of the migrants and the often overcrowded ships turn into virus incubators; second, the shortage of qualified personnel and the poor communication between the staff and the migrants (especially at the beginning of the pandemic), leave the latter confused and unaware of their rights. In many cases, even when migrants test negative, they are still kept on the ships well after the fourteen-day quarantine (AugustaNews, 2020) and then repatriated to their countries of origin without having the chance to present a request for international protection (Accardo, 2022). 

As recounted by Red Cross volunteers, the growing tension on the ships has often led to violent protests (Nicolosi, 2021b) or even extreme acts of individuals, who put their lives at risk to escape the prison-like ferries (Bottazzo, 2021).

A new instrument of border externalisation: here to stay?

Although officially presented as an extraordinary measure to protect migrants and the local population from Covid-19 infection, quarantine ships did not lead to the expected result; the cramped ferries, the misinformation, and lack of personnel fail to provide the necessary support to migrants who feel increasingly abandoned and vulnerable (Nicolosi, 2021a).

Almost two years after the Covid-19 outbreak, it remains unclear why the Italian government continues to support this expensive and discriminating measure instead of investing in the construction and improvement of reception centres in the mainland. However, what is clear is that this hygienic-sanitary rationale, characterising the new unsafe environment, instrumentalises the pandemic as a justification for Italy’s inability (or unwillingness) to provide for migrants’ appropriate reception (Tazzioli & Stierl, 2021a). The result is a multiplication of “carceral geographies ”of migration which are no longer limited to the hotspot and reception centre on the mainland but can also be a ferry in the middle of the sea (Tazzioli & Stierl, 2021b). In this sense, the quarantine ships become another instrument of border externalisation aimed at projecting the migration issue further away and, thus, making it invisible to the eyes of Italian citizens, and to a certain extent, the government itself (Accardo, 2022). 

The pandemic has profoundly changed the Italian approach to migration introducing new extraordinary measures that have soon been integrated within the reception system; however, what will happen to these exceptional tools when the sanitary emergency is over? Will the quarantine ferries still operate as detention centres for irregular migrants, or will these return to their original function of cruise ships? And when will the Italian government welcome back to the mainland the hundreds of people currently held in the ferries?


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