Human mobility across the Central Mediterranean Route (CMR) is once again on the rise, and this phenomenon has significant political (securitization) and theoretical (securitization theory) implications. The project titled "SHUT-MED Securitizing Human Transit across the Central Mediterranean migratory corridor: shifting mobility governance discourses and practices in Italy, Malta, Libya, and Niger" intends to examine these developments and to offer an original contribution to security and migration studies through a series of empirical, methodological, and theoretical innovations. SHUT-MED team met with other researchers in the field during an international workshop at the University of Messina, Department of Political and Legal Studies, on 16 and 17 May 2024, and this blog post summarizes the main discussions, research outputs, and challenges discussed during the workshop.

SHUT-MED is a 24-month research initiative led by Eugenio Cusumano from the University of Messina’s Department of Political and Legal Studies, with co-leadership from Luca Raineri of the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies’ Institute of Law, Politics, and Development (DIRPOLIS). The research team also includes postdoctoral researchers Chiara Loschi from the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies and Diego Caballero Vélez from the University of Messina. The project is financed by the Italian Ministry of University and Research under the Research projects of relevant national interest (Programma Nazionale di Ricerca e Progetti di Rilevante Interesse Nazionale – PRIN) with the support of Next Generation EU fund. Research – Grant N. 2022NKLAFW, CUP J53D23005760006.

In more specific terms, the project aims at exploring the interplay between border control discourses and practices, SHUT-MED employs a combination of textual and visual content analysis alongside ethnographic fieldwork. By analyzing the connections between discourse and practice, as well as examining the dynamics between threat and vulnerability narratives, SHUT-MED aims to make a significant theoretical contribution to securitization theory and the broader field of international politics. The project also investigates the transnational movement of border enforcement practices, offering new insights into norm diffusion and the Europeanization process beyond Europe’s borders. It also highlights the role of both Global South countries and migrants in interpreting, challenging, and resisting externally imposed migration governance agendas. For more extensive information, it is possible to consult the website of the project here.

The first academic workshop for the SHUT-MED project took place on May 16-17, 2024, at the University of Messina. Part of the workshop was dedicated to discussing preliminary findings and ensuring the project's methodological robustness. The workshop also featured a series of presentations by participants, aimed at deepening the understanding of securitization processes and the evolving narratives and practices surrounding human mobility in this critical migratory corridor. The continuous exchange between the research team and participants created an environment of honest and stimulating intellectual engagement, where each contribution helped to strengthen and refine the project.

The discussion focused on presenting the corpus of the research (and of the rationale underlying its selection), the methodologies, and some preliminary findings. The corpus consists of newspaper articles and associated images narrating migrations, encountered in 8 designated journals (2 for each country relevant to the project) over a 20-year time span.   This analysis aimes to enhance understandings and provide empirical support for the project claims.

This data is being investigated through two distinct methodologies: textual analysis and visual content analysis, both foreseeing a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods. The former is based on detecting the different frames (terrorism, crime, health and humanitarian) that might qualify the migration narrative. Then, each frame was tested against part of the corpus in order to assess the recurrence of the words composing it and compare it to other frames. This allows measuring the prevalence and strength of a frame (in a given newspaper, in a given year etc...) both in absolute and relative terms. The counting of the words was conducted through a software called Atlas, intuitively raising the question of how the research team will manage the margin of error deriving from the predictable miscategorization of some words, acknowledging that the same world in different contexts might have different meanings. During the workshop, there was also a discussion on the logic underlying the selection of the 8 journals, highlighting the necessity to recognize and manage the potential biases arising by factual linguistic barriers.

Going back to the methodology, visual content analysis is based on the categorization of images according to their main focus (boats, buildings, dead bodies, politicians...). In this case, the polysemic nature of images represents a tough challenge for the researchers. It will be interesting to see how they will manage to overcome ambiguity and the associated risks of subjective interpretative biases. It will also be interesting to see how the research team will integrate the inferences coming from the textual and from the visual content analysis. Combining these two methods involves cross-referencing the frames derived from text with the visual representations, which can provide a more comprehensive understanding of the securitization processes. For instance, examining how certain themes or frames are visually represented can reveal the extent to which images reinforce or contradict textual narratives. This study could represent a precious opportunity for investigating the relationship between images and text in the context of securitization theory.

The research team also highlighted the key avenues the project intends to pursue, particularly the role of private actors (and the technologies they use) in implementing European migration policies. Chiara Loschi provided an example of the use of the MiMOSA database (belonging to the IOM) by border authorities to facilitate deportations. This hints to another hot topic in the project: the role of health management as a further securitizing tool. There were also several presentations on the role of often unacknowledged actors engaging in human mobility governance. For instance, Luigi Achilli (anthropologist) discussed the role of criminal groups in the European migration regime and the two-way relationship between legality and illegality in this context. Another anthropologist, Alessandro Corso added depth to the discussions by addressing not only the mobility of migrants but also the tragic fate of their bodies after perishing at sea, introducing the concept of "bare deaths" as a counterpart to the more notorious concept of "bare lives." The presentation by Federica Infantino (political scientist) dealt with this category of actors,Federica Infantino too, examining the privatization of immigration detention in the United Kingdom.

While the expansion on the number and characteristics of actors included offers interesting points for reflection, it is necessary for researchers to establish and clearly define the criteria that qualify an actor in this context. The definition of such criteria is essential for the accurate identification and categorization of actors involved in migration governance. This is a prerequisite for the mapping exercise that the project has set out to accomplish.

Another crucial element of the workshop was the presentation of the draft fieldwork plan. The research team, supported by the participants, deliberated on the feasibility and safety conditions necessary for conducting fieldwork in challenging environments, ensuring the safety of both the research team and the subjects involved. Based on the said considerations, it remains an open question whether the fieldwork will be conducted in Libya or Tunisia.   

The diverse expertise of the participants expanded the project's scope, bringing to light relevant topics that had not been previously considered and proofing the methodological soundness of the project itself, as for the presentation of Alice Massari (political scientist) on the visual governance of migration. The presentation of Leiza Brumat (international relations analyst) suggested the possibility of adding a comparative element to the project, discussing the effects of European securitizing dynamics towards other continents, focusing on borders in South America. Daniela Melfa’s (African history and institutions) presentation challenged the conventional approach to securitization by examining the securitization of Italian migrants in Tunisia, reversing the typical North-South dynamic component. Julien Jeandesboz (political science and sociology), by updating of the concept of “device”, explored the global diffusion of security devices for mobility control and associated practices. My own presentation (international law) covered the mapping of digital infrastructures, both state and non-state, characterizing the Mediterranean.

Further enriching the discussion, Stefania Panebianco (political scientist) introduced a new multidisciplinary doctoral network focused on Mediterranean migrations, the Marie Curie Doctoral Research Network on Mediterranean Migrations (EuroMedMig). Finally, Federico Alagna (political and social sciences) discussed legal mobilization around migration in the Mediterranean.

Beyond contributing to the project's richness, participants also benefited from feedback from the research team and their peers, having the precocious opportunity to enhance their work. The two-day conference was  fruitful, bringing  insights and critical analyses to the table. The challenge now for the research team is to operationalize and streamline these suggestions, reorganizing the multidisciplinary inputs into a coherent and comprehensive output.

The team faces several key challenges moving forward. Integrating the diverse range of insights and feedback into a unified framework will require careful planning and collaboration. Ensuring the safety and feasibility of fieldwork in regions like Libya or Tunisia is a critical  concern. The team must develop robust strategies to navigate these challenging environments while maintaining the integrity and ethical standards of their research. Translating the theoretical contributions into deliverables that can influence migration governance practices poses a significant challenge.

Stay tuned for more updates and insights as this project continues to explore securitization and human mobility governance!