Mare Clausum

Forensic Oceanography (CH/IT), Forensic Architecture (UK)

As the EU’s policies of deterrence deployed since the Arab uprisings failed to stem migrants’ crossings of the Mediterranean, the Italian government – in collaboration with other European governments and agencies – deployed a two-pronged strategy to close off the central Mediterranean: on the one hand, by criminalizing and limiting the rescue activities of the NGOs that have stepped in to make up for the lack of state rescue operations; and on the other, by reinforcing the collaboration with Libyan authorities and militias to prevent and intercept departures, thus physically containing migrants on the Mediterranean’s southern shore without requiring the direct involvement of Italian or EU authorities. This undeclared operation, which dramatically escalated throughout 2017, is what Forensic Oceanography has called Mare Clausum (“closed sea” in Latin).

Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture have investigated two cases central to this ongoing Mare Clausum research, The Iuventa and Sea Watch vs. Libyan Coast Guard, each concerning one of the dimensions of this policy which entails migrants being brought back to a country where their lives are endangered, and their human rights are systematically violated. These investigations have been made possible by an exponential increase in video documentation by the different actors involved, allowing for a unique form of 3-D-modelling of incidents developed together with Forensic Architecture.

Mare Clausum / Forensic Oceanography (CH/IT), Forensic Architecture (UK), Credit:

The Iuventa, June 18, 2017

Since the end of 2016, culminating in summer 2017, a growing campaign of delegitimization and criminalization has systematically targeted NGOs engaged in search and rescue. On August 2nd, the ship Iuventa, of the German NGO Jugend Rettet (“Youth Rescue”), was seized by the Italian judiciary under suspicion of “assistance to illegal migration” and collusion with smugglers during three different rescue operations: the first on September 10, 2016, the second and third on June 18, 2017. The seizure came only days after the NGO, along with several others, had refused to sign a “code of conduct” that would have dangerously limited their activities. The video presented here offers a counter-investigation of the authorities’ version of these three episodes, and a refutation of their accusations.

The SeaWatch vs Libyan Coast Guard Case, November 6, 2017

On November 6, 2017, the rescue NGO Sea Watch (SW) and a patrol vessel of the Libyan Coast Guard (LYCG) simultaneously directed themselves towards a migrants’ boat in distress in international waters. The boat, which had departed from Tripoli a few hours earlier, carried between 130 and 150 passengers. A confrontational rescue operation ensued, and while SW was eventually able to rescue and bring to safety in Italy 59 passengers, at least 20 people died before or during these events, while 47 passengers were ultimately pulled back to Libya, where several faced grave human rights violations – including being detained, beaten, and sold to another captor who tortured them to extract ransom from their families. The unfolding of this incident has been reconstructed in a video by Forensic Oceanography in collaboration with Forensic Architecture.

Mare Clausum/Forensic Oceanography (CH/IT), Forensic Architecture (UK), Credit: Forensic Oceanography, Forensic Architecture

To reconstruct the circumstances of this particular incident, however, Forensic Oceanography has produced a detailed written report which argues it is also necessary to understand the policies that shaped the behavior of the actors involved, and the patterns of practices of which this event was only a particular instantiation. Before arriving on the scene, the LYCG liaised with the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center of the Italian Coast Guard, which informed them of the presence of the boat in distress. The Ras Jadir, the very patrol vessel of the LYCG that engaged in reckless behavior and thus contributed to the death of several passengers, was one of the four patrol boats that had been donated by Italy to the LYCG on May 15, 2017, in the presence of the Italian Minister of Interior. On board that vessel on the day of the events, 8 out of the 13 crew members had received training from the EU’s anti-smuggling operation, EUNAVFOR MED.

Based on these elements, the Mare Clausum report argues that this particular incident is paradigmatic of the new, drastic measures that have been implemented by Italy and the EU to stem migration across the central Mediterranean. This multilevel policy of containment operates according to a two-pronged strategy which aims, on the one hand, to delegitimize, criminalize and ultimately oust rescue NGOs from the central Mediterranean; on the other, to provide material, technical and political support to the LYCG so as to enable them to intercept and pull back migrants to Libya more effectively. This undeclared operation to seal off the central Mediterranean is what we refer to as Mare Clausum.

While in the report “Blaming the Rescuers,” released in June 2017, Forensic Oceanography has analyzed in detail the targeting of rescue NGOs, the Mare Clausum report focuses instead on the second aspect of this strategy. The report shows that through policy agreements and multiform support to the LYCG, Italy and the EU have come to exercise both strategic and operational control over the LYCG. In this way, the LYCG has been made to operate “refoulement by proxy” on behalf of Italy and the EU, in contravention to one of the cornerstones of international refugee law, the principle of “non-refoulement”.


Investigation by Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture 
Video reconstruction by Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture 
Report by Forensic Oceanography

Realized with the support of Borderline Europe, the WatchTheMed platform and Transmediale