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Italy Has Turned Cruise Liners Into Jails for Migrants

With Italy’s tourist sector sunk by the pandemic, authorities are now hiring cruise ships as floating jails for refugees. The migrant prisons show capitalism’s ability to restructure in times of crisis — but also the potential resistance to it.

As cruise ship companies went bust, little attention has been given over to one of the more peculiar yet indicative ways in which the sector has been rerouted: the "quarantine ship." (Unsplash)

How do you make a prison?

We like to imagine things being built from scratch. Perhaps stone and mortar heaped up by little computer game figurines, or Lego building blocks piled high. Most of the time, we have a simple idea of how our world is constructed, falling back on the games we played as children. Maybe this was occasionally the case when colonizers built their outposts. Perhaps they, too, were children once. But today’s world is already too built up for such endeavors — too full of things. Capitalists prefer to use what they find lying around, rather than invest in start-ups.

On the Mediterranean island of Sicily, the material at hand was the cruise ship — and the prison it has been converted into is the so-called quarantine ship, on which newly arriving immigrants are forcibly kept. These new prisons are the single piece of technology that most succinctly sums up the transformations underway in Italy’s COVID-19 capitalism. Doubtless, other islands and continents have their own landmarks strewn across the landscape of contagion, from the New York hotel rooms packed with the homeless, to the food warehouses of central Nigeria. (And to each monument, its resistance: the lawsuits being filed in US courts, or the looting of stockpiles by Nigerian protesters).

The Sicilian case can, even so, be used to open up some wider questions about what’s going on in this surreal border moment in history, how capitalism is reacting, and what forms of resistance we are witnessing. For years, working-class Africans and Asians have hammered on the gates of Europe to readdress the balance in global inequalities. The articulate call for freedom that reverberates from the borders is not hard to hear: one need only block out the deafening silence of our current barbarism.

So, what I will attempt to show, here, is that the resistance to the authoritarianism unleashed by the pandemic does have a side that can be supported by progressive forces — that is, without being dragged into the pitfalls of repudiating scientific evidence, casting aside our masks and our principles. It provides a way to hold onto the thought that perhaps, at the end of all this, our governments might build something other than prisons.

From Cruise Ships To Floating Prisons

One of the first media stories that lifted the pandemic beyond China’s borders (a long ten months ago) was the quarantining of the Diamond Princess. This British-owned cruise ship was quarantined at the port of Okinawa, Japan in early February, with almost four thousand passengers and crew on board. Over the following month, one-fifth of the passengers were infected and gradually flown off to their respective countries or disembarked at port (the crew were less fortunate and less mobile). There were fourteen deaths. This was followed by other mass outbreaks on cruise ships: the Rotterdam, the Zaandam, the Ruby Princess, and the Greg Mortimer — all luxury holiday vessels that helped spread the virus around the world. The last of these was probably responsible for half the cases in Australia.

Alongside the many criticisms made of how the Japanese authorities blocked everyone on board, leading to unnecessary deaths, it quickly became clear that cruise holidays would be one of the first markets to be axed in the name of human survival. Or rather, that the perils were so clear that tourists would soon disappear — and the invisible hand of the market would do its work. The sector sank. The cruise companies had, recently, began to hoist hopes of a new start to their ventures — but the second wave dashed such vanities.

(Carl Court / Getty Images)

Leaving aside the glee one may draw from the shipowners’ misfortune, cruise holidays also provide an extraordinary symbol of our contemporary crisis. They bring the generational divide — a far wealthier older generation with expendable capital — into collision with the hypermobile internationalism of contemporary capitalism. The same hypermobility, that is, which brought us just-in-time logistics operations, international art fairs, and (as the Marxist geographer David Harvey has rightly pointed out) the pandemic itself.

The cruise holiday’s disappearance was marked by a “traumatic” event: holidaymakers being held in quarantine on the ships. Indeed, journalists focused on passengers’ complaints and the sight of the upper classes roughing it onboard, while paying much less attention to the thousands of crew members trapped in cramped conditions. And as the cruise companies went bust and photographs of the new ship graveyards circulated on the internet, replete with the watery tears of the World Economic Forum and Saudi princes, far fewer words have been given over to one of the more peculiar yet indicative ways in which the sector has been rerouted: the “quarantine ship.”

The Italian government first landed on the idea of using ships to quarantine newly arrived migrants from Africa back in May, when the ferry liner Moby Zazà was sequestered for this purpose and docked near the island of Lampedusa with several hundred people trapped on board. Since then, two cruise companies — GNV and SNAV — have won public tenders to provide a small fleet of cruise ships employed to quarantine hundreds of people at a time. The companies are being paid around €100 per person, per day for this service: over €1 million a month per ship.

Those on board — mostly from Tunisia, but also Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Libya, Syria, and across West Africa — have experienced widely varying living conditions in isolation. Some of the ships have doctors and lawyers on board. Less fortunate passengers have seen only guards, crew, and police dogs. Newly arriving migrants, having already passed through the hell and high water of the Libyan war and the Mediterranean Sea, are trapped on board for a month or more, in conditions that potentially favor rather than prevent contagion. Even more extraordinarily, several cases have been brought to light of asylum seekers being sent from centers on mainland Italy to the quarantine ships, whether as a prevention against contagion or simply to punish those who rebel.

Perhaps we might more aptly baptize such vessels “temporary prison ships” or even “floating hot spots.” This last phrase is especially appropriate given that a few years ago the Italian government proposed that the so-called EU border “hot spot” centers (for the mass identification and detention of newly arriving immigrants, experimented on Italian and Greek islands) be set up on ships — naming them “floating hot spots,” no less. The idea was dumped by the EU for infringing on just one too many human rights. But in love, war, and pandemic, anything goes. Here’s a short transcription of a video made by a young Ghanaian man removed by the Red Cross from his refugee hostel in the middle of the night:

Last Sunday they bring people, say that they want to test us for COVID-19 . . . they tell me, they said I have positive. They take me from Roma to Palermo . . . I was asking my camp people — who tell me I am positive — so tell me, where is my positive document? They couldn’t show me . . . So now everyone in Roma with coronavirus, they are going to collect them on the ship? They quarantine me in Palermo, now we are in the Bari seaport, right now. Since they brought me here, no medicine, I couldn’t see doctor with my face . . . Try your best, and post [this video] to everywhere, so that the Italian leaders can also play it, to hear it, to fight for we the immigrants.

Luxury Containers

The use of luxury structures as centers of confinement is familiar to recent immigrants in Italy — and indeed to anyone (of whatever politics) who has followed the development of the Italian asylum system. It is extremely common for asylum seekers to be housed in government-funded (but privately run) hostels in former hotels, whether in the mountains or on the beach. Again, we very often find that these buildings have a lackluster history of Mafia-ish building speculation, rickety funding programs, market failure, and, finally, reconversion into hostels for asylum seekers. Or, to be a little less diplomatic, temporary housing for poor blacks.

Failed beach resorts and ski chalets were not the only businesses to be propped up: you also find a range of failed old people’s homes, failed foster homes, failed student halls, etc. Furthermore, over the years the hotel-turned-camp has become the unwitting symbol of the far-right’s smear campaign against the African working class. Labeled as feckless, lazy, and presumptuous, for years asylum seekers’ protests for basic amenities (Wi-Fi, decent food, medical attention) were reported under headlines such as “Migrants Refuse 5* Hotel” or “We Want WiFi! Hotel Not Good Enough For Migrants” and similar.

This kind of conversion of large housing structures from holiday homes/vessels into prisons/sites of confinement — floating or otherwise — represents a moment in what we might call “capitalist restructuring,” in which fixed capital has to be put to new uses. Following the Italian recession of 2012, these hostels and other containers were filled with the proletariat castoff (in one way or another) by the concurrent Arab Spring. The “quarantine ships” provide another moment of such restructuring.  This is representative of the kind of response we are seeing, and probably will continue to see, to the global recession of 2020: not cuts and austerity, but active investment and reconversion of industries, in spurts of booming and busting that follow the contractions and spasms of waves of contagion. So much for the ways of capital.

The question hanging over all of this, however, is to what extent this new world of things can be reshaped toward greater freedom, and not less. Mothballed factories can often be reopened, so long as the appropriate use is found. Moments of restructuring are not maneuvered by divine forces, but by ideas and the capacity of human beings to act upon those ideas. In the quarantine ships, we find the enactment of a particular idea of containment and the reconversion of luxury capital to those ends. It privileges containment as prison, over containment as community.

But what if the capital of luxury could be converted into a common luxury? What if the rusty wreckage of today could become the raw material of tomorrow’s visionary futures? The very idea around which these prisons are being formed is the kernel of revolutionary thought: isolation, exodus, the commune. For every Robinson Crusoe (isolated by accident), there is a Maroon community (isolated by choice!). There was and still is a choice about the direction that the current moment of restructuring takes.

The fixed capital of old sectors now laid into the waste bin of history — luxury cruise ships, packed shopping malls, packed anything really — can be put to new uses of many kinds. What we have seen with the “quarantine ships” is the expression of an authoritarian tendency that has prevailed over a utopian one. The idea of isolation has been interpreted as a prison rather than a holiday, as Lord of the Flies rather than Never Never Land.

Michel Foucault noted these two opposing tendencies some four decades ago when he wrote: “The exile of the leper and the arrest of the plague do not bring with them the same political dream. The first is that of a pure community, the second that of a disciplined society.” And what if — as the Zapatistas have suggested in their reaction to the pandemic — the disciplined society was not that of an authoritarian disciplining, but rather one in which we ourselves have taken responsibility? What if instead of trying to force people to stay in a place of violence, we could instead make a site of quarantine so full of care, of luxury, of fulfilled desires, that no one wanted to leave it?

The type of society I am alluding to is one that we have mentioned already: the holiday resort. OK, perhaps not the holiday resort as such — not Princess Cruises or the Four Seasons. Maybe capitalism still hasn’t managed to provide us with a true holiday. But perhaps even this minute form of utopia, the utopia of not working, of minibars and sun loungers, of exotic locations and intimate company, contains a small, tarnished vision of freedom.

Diving for Freedom

Perhaps it seems fanciful, even in bad taste, to discuss the utopian potential of containment amid a pandemic. Even more so to ponder such possibilities for Europe’s most exploited and least free population, the recently arrived working-class Africans and Asians aboard these ships. But the drive for freedom is there — rearing its head despite all the odds.

Migrants have broken out and evaded every prison designed to contain them. People have run away from quarantine centers on land, leading to manhunts for Arabs in the forests of Sicily’s mountain ranges. There have been mass breakouts at the militarized “hub” in Villa Sikania, where an Ethiopian man was killed by a speeding car as he ran from the gates. They have fought with the police on board the quarantine ships, they — “the Tunisian heroes” as a Moroccan comrade has dubbed them — have burnt their beds in the detention centers. They have swallowed razor blades to protest their watery imprisonment and impending deportation. Like the young Ghanaian man quoted above, they have reached out to leaders and formed alliances with activists.

Some have even dived overboard to reach dry ground. At least one man on board the Moby Zazà, the very first quarantine ship, died in the effort — if we needed reminding that the flight from containment can be a fight to the death.

This is not the first time that people rescued from the Mediterranean route have later drowned at sea, desperately trying to reach the shore or another ship. There can be few examples so horrendous of the fatality of freedom, of the sheer necessity of breaking away. But the tragedy and desperation of these deaths remove nothing from the impulse for freedom that they express. It is a recognition of what is at stake in this moment of capitalist restructuring.

Calls for freedom during the pandemic — and movements against the restrictive measures imposed by governments — have been dominated by a very different tone. Every country (or at least the ones I am familiar with) has its own version of the movement against lockdowns, enforced mask-wearing, and so on. Is this the same impulse for freedom? Do such movements represent the same acknowledgment of capital’s new turn? Is resistance to the quarantine ships the same as resistance to bans on alcohol sales or mass consumption in shopping malls?

I think not. Not so much for any of the “political” connotations of the no-mask movement in the United States (associated with Trumpism), nor because one urges a return to a bland consumerism while the other sheds light on the darker, carceral corners of European civilization. But rather, because they deal with very different levels of freedom, with different consequences for people’s lives.

In a society characterized by an authoritarian turn, everyone moves down a step on the scale of human rights. Those who had all their rights recognized and guaranteed find themselves with a few small tears at the edges of their personal constitutional charter. Those who were further down the ladder perhaps find themselves less free, crammed into makeshift lodgings, forced to renege on aspects of their autonomy. Those who were already clasping to the bottom rung of the ladder, however, now find themselves cast into gray zones of legality, their every freedom arbitrarily removed without reason or rhyme. And it is in these gray zones that capital makes its earliest advances when it restructures. It begins here, and works its way up.

Forget the mask-dodgers and their irrationality: the resistance we should be looking at is that of the fugitives from our new prisons.