Navigazione – Mappa del sito

HomeNumeriAnno XXVI, n. 25 (1)Ermenautica. Per un’antropologia ...Life on board ship and cultural i...

Ermenautica. Per un’antropologia dei mari

Life on board ship and cultural intimacy. Notes from the Central Mediterranean

Vite di bordo e intimità culturale. Appunti dal Mediterraneo centrale
Jasmine Iozzelli


L’articolo intende restituire alcune delle riflessioni emerse a partire dall’etnografia condotta a bordo di varie navi di ricerca e soccorso nel Mediterraneo centrale tra il 2019 e il 2021. Le basi teoriche ed epistemologiche di simile campo d’indagine sono state delineate e sviluppate entro il contesto del progetto Ermenautica - Saperi in Rotta di Sapienza Università di Roma e poi nel percorso dottorale presso l’Università di Torino.

La costruzione di spazi condivisi a bordo di una nave o di una barca può avere caratteristiche radicalmente diverse in relazione alle “correnti” – culturali, politiche, simboliche – che attraversano il mare in cui essa naviga. Nel reciproco implicarsi di macrostruttura e micro-pratiche, l’articolo tenterà di evidenziare alcune delle contraddizioni – tra logica umanitaria e rivendicazione militante, tra efficienza e disumanizzazione, tra razionalità formale e imprevedibilità – per come si danno nel processo di appaesamento dentro una grande nave SAR.

Torna su

Testo integrale

1. Introduction1

  • 1 I would like to thank the reviewers of the journal Archivio Antropologico Mediterraneo whose valuab (...)
  • 2 At that time, what attracted undergraduate students, PhD students, activists, and sailing crew memb (...)

1Three years have passed since I first boarded a rescue ship in the Central Mediterranean. It was 17 March 2019 when I left the port of Palermo to join my first mission, with Mediterranea - Saving Humans. It had all started a few weeks earlier, when Matteo Aria, professor of economic anthropology at Sapienza University of Rome, had invited his students to assist in preparing the boat he oversaw, the Raj, which was shortly to join the Italian organization Mediterranea as a support vessel. A large group of us began to go to Livorno on weekends to help out, each according to our own abilities2. Although we initially felt somewhat disorientated, the Raj, from being an unknown, inhospitable, and totally “other” space, rapidly became more and more familiar, a place that could be crossed and traversed: so much so that some of us decided to join the crew that would take it to Palermo and thus embark on our first voyage.

  • 3 The “Introduction” to this monographic dossier offers an in-depth description of the project.

2This is how I arrived in Sicily and got to know Mediterranea’s crew members. After discharging various small duties on board the organization’s mother ship, the Mare Jonio, and then taking part in training sessions organized by Mediterranea staff, I was finally called to take part in a mission when, at the last minute, a journalist dropped out. At the time, I was not familiar with Mediterranea’s ideals, nor did my background resonate with that of the other members of the group, who therefore always perceived me as an “outsider”. At the same time, however, this experience led me to broaden and modify my outlook. Upon my return, it became clear to me that I should write a thesis on rescues in the Mediterranean. In the meantime, Ermenautica3 was taking shape, based on collective reflection and a series of seminars with an international group of academics, both on board vessels and at the university campus, which were designed to explore the dense meanings that crisscross this sea. The project gave me the opportunity to acquire foundational theoretical knowledge in which to ground my chosen field of inquiry – which I am continuing to explore as part of my doctoral research – into the politics, practices, and narratives that surround the key ritual of rescue in the central Mediterranean. In the context of Ermenautica, the boat came to be defined as a space of informality, indiscipline, and unpredictability; the hyper-personalization of relationships on board generated an environment that encouraged the participants to take a self-reflexive look at their own individual practices and to focus on relations of care based on cohabitation, sharing, knowledge transmission, horizontality, long timescales, waiting, and contamination (Aria 2016; Graeber 2012; Caillé 2014). This also allowed the participants to form a community, with whom I had the opportunity to constantly discuss, analyze, and problematize my experiences in the field.

  • 4 Indeed, the Italian and other European governments, beginning in the early 2000s and even more inte (...)

3During the rescue mission with Mediterranea, in my direct encounters with migrants, it suddenly became possible for me to perceive as “close” to me the people that I had helped onto our dinghy and then onto the Mare Jonio. Up to that moment, in my eyes, they had not seemed any more tangible than a photograph in a newspaper – blurry, seen from above, crystallized, and impersonal (Giubilaro 2017). However, following this experience, it became of urgent importance to me to understand the context within which the rescue had arisen. To ask, on the one hand, what personal and collective needs, and what horizons of meaning, had led these people to board a seacraft and risk their lives off the coast of Libya; and, on the other hand, to explore the broader backdrop to their journey. As a result, I set out to investigate contemporary scenarios marked by identity closures, sovereignisms, and deadly border politics4 (Khosravi 2019; Pinelli 2021). Scenarios within which the sea has been rendered – via a “discursive depoliticization” – a “natural” and “empty” border and made to «kill through contemporary forms of militarized governmentality of mobility, which inflict death first by creating dangerous conditions of crossing and then by refraining from assisting those in peril» (Heller, Pezzani 2014: 659).

  • 5 For example: Fassin 2018; Feldman, Ticktin 2010; Mellino 2019.
  • 6 At the same time, I embarked on a “maritime” trajectory towards greater awareness and technical kno (...)

4In parallel, in keeping with the Ermenautica approach, I strove to bring to light complex but coherent pushes to connect forms of life, value similarities and affinities, and grasp the possibilities that unfold in the course of the encounter. I particularly focused on the physical and theoretical spaces where subjects seek to creatively establish alternative forms of connection and solidarity that are bottom-up, associative, and spontaneous. On viewing the Mediterranean as an enacted context, a major field of action, it becomes a “transnational region” (Ben-Yehoyada 2019) where a range of actors clash, lay claim to rights, and engage in novel forms of struggle and resistance, whose “liquid traces” (Heller, Pezzani 2014) in turn constitute an effervescent political arena. To shift from a “terracentric” to an “aquacentric” viewpoint, as proposed by Marcus Rediker, and to offer an expanded perspective on “maritime history”, I – along with the other Ermenautica participants – tried to draw out the voices of the actors who construct a history from below via narratives of coexistence and “maritime radicalism” (Anderson et al. 2013). By interweaving these emphases with others emerging from the literature, including in the anthropological domain, surrounding migration, institutions, humanitarianism, and borders5, I was able to construct a theoretical apparatus that would subsequently underpin, from various perspectives, my return to the rescue ships6.

5Between October 2021 and June 2022, I thus sailed on three different Search and Rescue (henceforth SAR) vessels, each run by a different organization, on all three occasions as an actual crew member. Adopting a “cross-eyed” perspective (Van Maneen 2001; Padiglione 2008) – that is to say, taking on the roles of both researcher and rescuer simultaneously – and participating directly in life on the vessel, enabled me to begin to understand some of the tensions that bind together, at the macro level, (supra)state bodies and non-governmental organizations. Furthermore, I was able to see that contamination between the humanitarian and political dimensions pervades solidarity in the Mediterranean and defines the relationship among the different NGOs. But above all, I had the opportunity to learn, at the micro level, about rescuers’ individual representations, imaginaries, and individual practices, and how these intertwine with and contradict the broader organizational systems of the humanitarian that structure on-board practices.

6In this essay, I share some of the reflections that emerged from my ethnographic experience on board a SAR vessel and that were nurtured within Ermenautica. Specifically, I focus on the relationship between the political identity of organizations and the shaping of lives, construction of relationships, and conformation of spaces aboard SAR vessels. In the first section, I highlight some of the features that characterize the political landscape within which SAR missions unfold, such as tensions among (supra)state bodies, between different organizations, and within individual organizations. I then suggest that certain logics and practices that originated in state agencies have been assimilated and reproduced by the very organizations that set out to oppose them. In the second section, I focus on the lives aboard one of the SAR ships where I had the opportunity to conduct my ethnographic work. My account illustrates how the logic of formality and rationalization permeate spaces, time, the construction of the self, and relationships. Finally, in the third section, I touch upon forms of resistance to the framework just described, focusing on both individual experiences within macro-organizations, and on the collective experiences offered by smaller organizations through the efforts of activists and migrants. These alternative experiences depart from the logic of assistance, formalization, and bureaucratization, leading along undisciplined paths that can open up spaces of “maritime radicalism”.

2. Means of rescue: humanitarian and political action at sea

7After our first rescue with Mediterranea, we got caught in a storm on board the Raj. Our boat reached Lampedusa many hours after the Mare Jonio, having fallen prey to the wind and waves while unable to communicate with other seacraft and having run out of fuel. When we landed on the small island, the other crew members were there to welcome us, relieved that we had made it. However, after greetings had been exchanged, everyone retired to their own quarters. The Raj – its bilges full of water, its portholes broken and hanging open from the waves, its mattresses soaked and its crew exhausted – having safely concluded its perilous adventure, was no longer an object of attention. In Lampedusa, the Raj clearly manifested as it had been perceived by the organization throughout the entire voyage: an ordinary boat, a means for carrying out rescues like any other. The space of coexistence, sharing, care, and intimate connection that had been generated and would further develop in the context of Ermenautica seemed a world apart.

8As I was later to discover on the other SAR vessels I boarded, in rescue operations a seacraft is experienced and represented as a resource that is appropriated and modified with the sole shared purpose of effecting rescues. However, my ethnographic research has also drawn my attention to the fact that there are very different ways of experiencing rescue ships and, relatedly, also of conducting rescues: this is not only because SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) can differ greatly from organization to organization, or because the ships themselves can be gigantic or tiny (the largest in use today is seventy-seven meters long, the smallest thirteen), but because the act of rescue per se can be implemented from different perspectives. Accordingly, I have identified three main lines of tension – and inquiry – that affect the way rescues are carried out. The first is between state (or supra-state) institutions and NGOs. During the historical process of the progressive de-responsibilization of government institutions with regard to SAR in the Mediterranean, the relationship between NGOs and states was initially characterized by frank cooperation, then by overt conflict and, more recently, by a striking invisibility. In short, there have been different phases in the humanitarianization of the political and simultaneous radicalization of the humanitarian (Mezzadra 2020), yielding a complex scenario of balances, agreements, challenges, and resistance. The second line of tension runs between different organizations, and specifically among some of those where I conducted my ethnographic work. In fact, within the macro-political framework just outlined, different organizations have frequently adopted divergent positions reflecting true “organizational cultures” (Gellner, Hirsh 2001) made up of different narratives, the deployment of different political and technical strategies, different approaches to life on board, and different relationships with crew and migrants.

9Finally, the third line of tension is found within individual organizations, between the overarching structure and individual practices (including those of the researcher). By actively participating in a series of missions, I was able to observe some of the practices, rhetorics, and imaginaries drawn on by activists and aid workers in constructing their own subjectivities as “rescuers” (in relation to, and often in contrast with, the rescued migrants on the one hand and the structure they are part of on the other). Representations of the sea and the ship, constructed in relation to the broader political dynamics and tensions outlined above, may thus be defined as multifaceted and contradictory. For Mediterranea, for example, the sea is a new “arena of struggle”, a battlefield on which to negotiate new meanings and new rights, and a space in which new forms of political engagement can take substance. Not so much by “saving the lives” of migrants, as I had initially imagined, but by “supporting their escape from Libya” and their freedom. According to members of this organization, it is not only “human life” in itself that is valuable, but also and above all bringing to light the contradictions of the system. Hence, their goal is to appropriate humanitarian practice for political ends, and to create precedents – both political and legal – for changing the procedures that constitute the border regime in the Mediterranean. It is no coincidence that the organization’s work is informed by the ideas of leadership figures from “protest” movements that have been on the Italian political scene since the 1980s, and who continue to be intellectually and materially linked to the sphere of the so-called “social centres”.

  • 7 Following my first mission in March 2019 with Mediterranea, which lasted about a week, I returned o (...)
  • 8 For further background, see Giovannetti, Zorzella 2020.

10Indeed, in completing my master’s thesis, one of the themes I focused most strongly on was precisely the relationship between the political, militant and humanitarian dimensions of rescues, whose contradictions and vital energy I attempted to draw out. In the period spanning my mission with Mediterranea at the beginning of 2019 and my latest fieldwork starting in September 20217, the political landscape has been in a state of flux: amongst other factors, following the change of government in 2019, there was a shift – compared to the previous period – in the state’s approach to criminalizing the rescue organizations. For example, the NGOs are now only liable to incur civil sanctions instead of criminal ones8, thus making their criminalization less “visible”. Inside this framework, within which an ever-increasing number of organizations deploy vessels to carry out rescues, I have met with a growing bureaucratization and “credentialization” (Graeber 2016) of practices – for example, surrounding the granting of access to the field – and with a hyper-professionalized setting.

  • 9 Interview with a senior member of Mediterranea, conducted by the author in Palermo on 05 March 2019
  • 10 For a more in-depth look at my various positionalities on board different vessels, the problematics (...)

11While it was the clear position of Mediterranea activists in the period spanning 2018 and 2019 that «we are not professionals, nor do we seek them. We are activists, ours is a political struggle»9, by 2021 it was impossible to board any SAR vessel without licenses and certifications. Especially as a researcher. For this very reason, I could not have succeeded in getting on board without “being” 10a rescuer. The advantage of this, on the other hand, was that it allowed me to participate, as an equal, not only in the activities directly related to rescues (training, meetings, etc.) but also in various “recreational” or leisure activities. Sharing technical knowledge, and hence practices, spaces, and experiences, with the other crew members expanded my understanding of the non-explicit meanings, silences, and different constructions of self in the various groups. I shared moments of anxiety and tension, rushing adrenalin and overwhelming fatigue with the other rescuers, and not simply because I was observing them closely but because I was experiencing the same feelings myself. The intimate dialogues I had with my “colleagues” in many cases shed unprecedented light on problematic aspects that had hitherto remained elusive. From this closeness, on most of the ships that I boarded, the power of the organization to “structure” emerged strongly.

12Since 2015, NGOs have generally declared their intention, via their rescue operations, to oppose the measures, both practical and discursive, put in place by the European Union and individual states to combat immigration, albeit in tones that are not always openly confrontational. And yet, one of the phenomena that emerges most strongly on board the ships of the larger organizations is precisely the reproduction of an approach that tends to make migrants’ presence disappear or, alternatively, spectacularizes it. Managed in terms of a burden to be shifted, of space occupied on board, or of a shapeless “crowd” to be governed and monitored – and in many cases punished, according to logics already charted within the prison system (Foucault 2014) – or, alternatively, exalted in photos and videos portraying them as victims, who have been de-responsibilized and medicalized to the extent that their time on board becomes a question of merely subsisting while waiting to reach land.

13Some organizations seem to be resisting this pattern – especially those in which an activist outlook continues to prevail and where roles on board have been professionalized but are filled by unpaid volunteers. Volunteering staff strive to adopt a more critical perspective and to deconstruct discourses and actions shaped by the notion of the “white man’s burden”, which rescuers seem to assimilate once they become “professionals”. As used to be the case for Mediterranea, the value of rescue as a political and conflictual practice for emphasizing migrants’ rights appears to remain crucial for these organizations - much more than the biological fact of saving migrants’ lives. Furthermore, formulating the practices deployed during a climactic rescue ritual in terms of efficiency, speed, standardization, and technicalization has become the accepted key to guaranteeing the success of the operation, even under challenging weather-related or emotional circumstances. Thus, even organizations that set out to deconstruct victimizing and “assistentialist” outlooks find themselves replicating depersonalizing, efficiency-driven, and exasperatingly asymmetrical practices. Such logics seem to expand from the specific space of rescue from the water – the moment when people, in distress, are helped to disembark from their boats and to transfer first onto dinghies and then onto NGO ships – to cover the entire time spent on board.

  • 11 Informal conversation with a rescuer on board, noted by the author on 15 December 2021.

14During a mission in December 2021, the first rescue took place after many days at sea. After we had spotted just over sixty people in a wooden boat and taken them on board, the huge deck of our ship still looked empty. All the rescued people had their own individual space: blankets spread out on the floor delimited personal spaces that did not overlap. But a large ship like this could not afford to return to port with “only” sixty people. Another spell of bad weather was forecast for the following days, which would likely mean waiting a long time before finding other boats in distress; on the other hand, as the head of mission pointed out to me, there were no serious medical cases among those we had rescued, who were mostly men in good health. Furthermore, while vessels run by other NGOs were just then present in the same tract of sea – otherwise given over to non-assistance – all of these were now “full” and due to return north over the following few hours. There was no question of immediately transferring the “survivors” on our ship onto land: “They’re alive, they should be thankful. What have they got to complain about?”11. After a week of waiting, when the bad weather had passed over, eight more rescues followed within hours. Over five hundred people joined the first sixty, now unrecognizable among the crowd. It was impossible to move among the rescued people, who sat huddled on the ground or engaged in continuous disputes to regain a few lost inches in the queue for the toilet facilities.

15In this kind of scenario, procedures seem oblivious to the fact that they concern people, rather preferring the language of object management: people are made to embark or disembark, moved around, and counted; the emphasis is on getting things done, as though we were dealing with the rescue of a container load of merchandise. The rescuers’ practices themselves are normed and managed within a framework of rules and rigid formulae. Shower after each shift; change your clothes – the cameras inside are watching you; do not be overconfident; report vulnerable situations; do not establish greater rapport with some migrants more so than others; wash the toilets; empty the trash; do not give the children too many pieces of chalk; check that they return the playing cards; take away their water; check that they are not charging their phones; stop children from moving from one area to another because, having been assigned to a space with their mothers, they would like to see their fathers; do not give cartons to those who are lying on the ground. It took us twenty-four minutes to distribute the food today: tomorrow we must try to be faster.

16As I will try to show in the next sections, the space of the ship is thus constructed, within most organizations, as a crucible of contradictions and separations – between affirming one’s altruism and expecting gratitude, between “inside” and “outside”, “dirty” and “clean”, work time and free time, adrenalin and rest, hierarchies and resistance, feeling at home and bewilderment – in which time and space are marked out in almost military fashion. Hence, the ship acquires the features of a cold and anonymous container; the sea seems to become distant, to disappear from conversations except in the context of highly technical assessments; in many cases, the crew is not even aware of what direction the vessel is sailing in. The hyper-individualism practiced by the rescuers – who generally remain focused on their work, often without sharing what they know, or holed up in their cabins, as borne out by episodes that I personally observed and will discuss below – seems to constitute the space of the ship as a collection of individuals who rarely contaminate each other but rather function as cogs in a large machine – the rescue machine.

3. Getting ready for rescues: belonging and disorientation on board a SAR ship

  • 12 BST (Basic Safety Training) is a set of basic courses that is required to work on all ships. Course (...)
  • 13 Usually, one joins a crew by sending a résumé to an NGO, whose “Human Resources Department” will ev (...)

17While continuing to bear in mind the logics that characterize state agencies and organizational structures at the macro level, I would now like to focus on life aboard a specific SAR vessel, with a view to suggesting how the framework thus far outlined translates into individual micro-practices and representations. After weeks of attending courses to obtain the BST and Security Awareness certifications and thereby finding out what is meant by STCW12 – a time that I spent diving in survival immersion suits, conducting dummy rescues in simulated fires, and studying regulations, nomenclature, and laws – followed by “lifeguard” training and, finally, a course in Basic Life Support and Defibrillation, I officially had all the “credentials” I needed to embark on a SAR ship. Having sent off my CV, it was not long until I was called by an organization13. Working on board their ship then gave me access to others, as I rapidly gained “experience”. Then, in early December 2021, I boarded the boat that would take me from the port of Palermo to a ship run by one of the largest, most professional, and sought-after organizations. As I stepped onto the deck, the spaces immediately seemed so large that I could get lost in them and yet at the same time there was not a single spot from which it was possible to see the sea. A young man in orange overalls handed me a pen and pointed to a form that I needed to fill out with all my details. A card bearing my name had been placed among the name cards of the crew members currently “on board”: I was in!

18A person I knew from my time with Mediterranea, also on board, told me that she would be my buddy. She swiftly escorted me to my cabin so that I could leave down my luggage. Corridors, stairs, and neon lights formed a labyrinth leading to the lowest quarters of the ship, where my cabin was located. A single cabin, with a private bathroom and shower. «The floor heats up if you want!» – my guide told me, smiling. The door to my room was identical to all the others along that corridor. A plaque saying Jasmine: SAR technician was the only thing that prevented me from entering someone else's cabin during that first week. There was also a gym, and a sauna, down below, but no time to see them, because we had to tour the rest of the ship and then go to lunch. We were already behind schedule: it was 11.45am and by 12.30pm we needed to have cleared up the mess room. Going up a few floors, we first encountered the shelter deck, followed by the streamer deck, the helideck, the SAR locker, and the office, finally coming to the bridge. On all of the doorways, I noticed laminated posters that read Are you overwhelmed? Don’t worry, it’s normal. You are doing a great job! I felt disoriented. I had no idea how to find my way back to my cabin, and except for a few portholes the sea was completely out of sight. «You will see that zones will be set up: green, yellow, and red zones. There will be a changing room in the yellow zone where you can undress. The red zone will be set up the moment there are “survivors” on board. Until then, don't worry, you can move around freely. Then, you will have to take a shower and change your clothes each time you re-enter the green zone», my buddy admonished me.

  • 14 Different ships adopt different terms to refer to the people who are rescued (migrants, survivors, (...)

19We arrived in the mess room: it was a large room with portholes, where daylight was finally seeping in and illuminating the buffet counter and there were the five tables where the crew would be seated for meals. Some were circular, some hexagonal: «you need to know that the rescue crew can only sit at the circular ones, and the maritime crew at the hexagonal ones». After the meal, I was on an extremely tight schedule for a few days, between meetings, briefings, training, SOPs to be explained and new terms to learn. I ultimately spent exactly two months on board, without ever disembarking, yet this ship rarely felt like “home”, to me or to my “colleagues”. The amount of people that can be accommodated on board a vessel, in this case over a thousand, is more than a number: it represents the desire to take up a specific political and ethical position within the SAR landscape. A ship of this size that can accommodate so many between crew and “survivors”14 bears multiple implications. On the one hand, it reflects the intention to think in terms of the long-term, where rescue missions are concerned. The fact that the ship’s spaces are intended to be comfortable clearly suggests that they have been designed with a view to optimizing their livability. This removes the ship from an emergency dimension of improvised adventure, positioning it rather within a framework of normalization and systematization of sea rescue missions; a framework within which the role of NGOs has been meeting increasingly less visible opposition, especially since 2021. The tension has shifted towards the quest for spaces that can offer, even to the rescued – at least in rhetorical terms – more dignified spaces that intentionally depart from the emergency-oriented framework many of the other ships have been designed for.

20At the same time, however, these spaces drive the need to optimize rescue operations, so much so that in many cases the migrants taken on board during the first rescue are forced to remain on the ship, even for a period of weeks, until a “high” number of rescues has been accomplished. This also seems to imply a management style that is necessarily based on “crowd control”, prohibitions, punishments, surveillance of migrants and strict “standard procedures” for crew members to follow. The number of “people rescued” contributes to constructing the political identity of individual organizations. Within a framework where it is no longer the rescue per se that bears a conflictual valence, the disruptive actions that precede and follow the rescue constitute the challenge an organization has chosen to lay down. The focus on numbers seems in many cases to favor a flattening of the humanitarian act of saving lives, eclipsing its possible political leverage to question the system that forces people into such dangerous conditions. Such a process of depersonalization and veiling of the setting also transpires in the discourses of rescuers in the process of constructing a sense of home and of self on board a ship with its own peculiar structuring of spaces.

  • 15 Despite rhetoric surrounding the “dignified” spaces that should be made available on board for migr (...)

21On some ships, the deck is open and faces the sea; the bridge is directly connected with external space. On the ship of my first mission, in contrast, these spaces are completely cut off and enclosed. Thus, a clear separation is established between the space of the crew and the space of the migrants – via for example, the green, yellow, and red zones, which can only be traversed by showering and changing – at both the physical and symbolic levels (reflecting a clear asymmetry of privileges and comfort15). But the distance imposed between the crew and the sea can also be experienced as highly disorienting. The elements that make up the sea – wind, water, and movement – are barely perceptible, the cold light of the neon lamps is the main source of illumination throughout most of the ship. All circuits are concealed, precluding any direct relationship with the mechanics of the vessel – the management of which is relegated to the maritime crew, who are kept totally separate from the rescuers. There are no restrictions placed on the consumption of water or electricity. Defined as a “floating hotel” or an “office in the middle of the sea”, the ship is a barrier that clearly establishes an inside and outside and that contains numerous divisions within itself.

  • 16 In the “buddy system”, a “new” crew member is paired off with another with more experience on board (...)

22Thus, timeframes dictated by the logic of efficiency and spaces organized to separate seem to define a field of super-individualization and “specialization”. Within this framework, work, long timescales, and loneliness are intertwined, in practices and discourses. On the one hand, the need for efficiency is invoked (in sharp contrast with the “other ships” on which volunteer activists – “amateurs” – whose outlook is more collective in nature, share porous spaces over a short period of cohabitation characterized by emergency – and for this reason seen as deplorable). On the other hand, in the attempt to provide support within an environment that is designed to be aseptic, impersonal, and isolation-inducing, this organization promotes a rhetoric based on “team building”, “empowerment”, and sacrifice, while mandating “psychological briefings” and “debriefings” or arbitrarily defined support networks (such as the “buddy system”16) as a solution to cases of “stress”, “burn out”, or “depression”.

23When, following a dramatic rescue in November 2021, during which we found ten lifeless bodies in the bottom of a wooden boat, we had finished disembarking migrants at the port of Augusta, we spontaneously found ourselves all together in the mess room: this had never happened before. After days of exhausting shifts, handing one hundred and eighty-four people off the ship seemed like a rather hasty way of saying goodbye. As they were being lowered down, it seemed as though they would never end, how many rounds had we done? Incessant numbers, numbers. How many to go? How many have already left? How many have we got here? “What” have we got here? Families, unaccompanied minors, single women, serious and less serious medical cases. So many labels for turning individuals into an indistinct mass. Once “the living” had departed, the bodies still remained. Taking them from the cold-storage room, up the winding stairs, to the boat landing and then onto to the coastguard’s patrol boats, would mark the end of that rescue, at least legally and in terms of bureaucratic practices. The rigid stretchers were easy to handle, but there was an atmosphere of great silence. The other team members were lined along the deck, as though to bid farewell, as one, for the last time. Many were quietly weeping. Handing the stretchers to the captain and handling the black bags felt like a neutral, mechanical act. We next found ourselves gathered around tables – for once the shape did not matter, we all sat together. In silence, with a warm cup of something in our hands, we sought closeness from each other.

24However, the images of that operation would remain with us for much longer. Over the following nights, many of us would meet in the corridors: «Nightmares?»; «Nightmares». The next day, those of us who had crossed paths in the small hours seemed to recognize one other. A colleague, on one of these mornings, invited me into his cabin and read me an excerpt from his diary, showing me a sketch that he had drawn on a sheet of paper. The details of the bodies at the bottom of the boat had resurfaced powerfully. Even though the organization had set up a group encounter and then individual sessions with a psychologist from Brussels to discuss the “difficult situation”, few of us had benefited from this. The nightmares continued to trouble us on our days off between missions. On the other hand, a sense of closeness among troubled insomniacs seemed to be creating new lines of affiliation.

25The head of mission, who had considerable experience in humanitarian emergencies, led me to reflect on the similarities between other crisis settings and the sea. The ship can become an isolated space in which people – reduced to cogs in a large machine, having lost their overall perspective and exclusively focused on the performance of their own specific and never-to-be-contaminated task – find shared ground thanks to the intensity of the job to be done. It is in the course of conversations about nightmares and feelings of anxiety, or during emergency practices such as pulling people out of the water who are about to drown, resuscitating lifeless bodies, flying at forty knots in dinghies to try to get there before someone dies – that rescuers choose specific “colleagues” with whom to establish a close – frequently intimate – relationship.

  • 17 Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats: these are the fast inflatable boats that convey the rescue team from t (...)

26Each time that I boarded a RHIB17, I had the distinct sensation that my safety depended on the rest of the crew. However, it would be my own performance that would shape my identity as a rescuer in the eyes of others. A rescue that goes wrong shatters the integrity of the self. At that moment, competition, challenges, and self-assertion leave little room for other considerations. At the same time, it is precisely during such moments of constructing one’s own subjectivity that privileged relationships are woven, which in turn become key to surviving on board. Through exchanging glances, coordinating our efforts, and focusing on each individual gesture within the theatrical setup that we were immersed in, we formed impermanent yet crucial connections. The more difficult, risky, and unpredictable a rescue is, the more a shared experiential baggage is generated among those carrying it out.

27It was through such relationships that I was ultimately able to get to know and become close to a small number of people, and had the opportunity to access someone else’s cabin, a space of intimacy, where at least for a short while it was possible to cast off the garments of performance. Individual and hidden spaces were opened up, allowing dense objects to emerge, brought from home to make one’s private space more “homely”: a sarong to hang on the wall, a string of warm-toned lights, candies, or ribbons for making bracelets were some of the objects on which hopes of feeling less lost appeared to hang. Subsequently, such relationships seem to dissolve following our return to land, appearing to confirm what many refer to as an “addiction to SAR”. More specifically, a “cultural intimacy” (Herzfeld 2014) is constructed on board the ship, based on violent conditions or extreme actions to be technically performed in cooperation with others. The vessel becomes a “bubble” separated from the rest of the world. Outside of this setting, it is impossible to assign meaning to the practices enacted within (Malkki 2015).

28Rescuers encounter difficulty in having their feeling understood by those who did not share their experience; their relationships on land may have been undermined during the long time spent at sea; meanwhile, the relationships formed at sea are now interrupted due to geographical distance or because on land the emotional tension that originally gave rise to them has receded. Thus, drabness, excess, and a sense of everything having been “put on hold”, come to define space on land, which rescuers perceive as a hiatus in their “true” existence. Left with their baggage of heroism and their inability, in front of those welcoming them back, to display any weakness, the only way to survive seems to be to get back on board as soon as possible, which is where, paradoxically, they now feel “at home”. In short, something happens that in some respects seems to echo descriptions of the intimacy among war veterans who have shared specific experiences and roles.

29As Nadia Abu El-Haj (2022) points up in relation to the veterans and soldiers of recent decades, the soldier “trauma-hero”, who is “young, excited, patriotic, in search of adventure”, goes off to war only to come back in possession of insights that others cannot possibly fathom, suffering psychological pain as a result. Combat is horror, but also invigorating; it is painful but also sublime. In the words of journalist Roy Scranton (2015), the returned trauma-hero “struggles to turn the inassimilable reality of the traumatic event into narrative but finds himself blocked at every turn […] and it is impossible for people who were not there to understand”. Within the depoliticization process embodied in the medicalization of veterans and in the drive to provide care for them, El-Haj contends that the trauma-hero’s suffering is a feature of “moralist anti-politics” (Ticktin 2011) and the new humanitarianism, and that seemingly ethical and moral concern for him serves a strongly nationalist, imperial, and militaristic agenda, society, and state.

  • 18 The backgrounds of the people involved in the rescues are extremely diverse and impossible to summa (...)

30Similarly, the rescuer becomes on the one hand the white savior whom Europe needs, in order to keep on generating securitarian border management policies. On the other hand, minus any political motivation, being on board comes to represent an individualistic need for belonging. Thus, the ships of large organizations, which are run according to the logic of formality and depersonalization, function as prisms that transform whoever passes through them: one enters as a person18 and leaves as a lonely hero. For the rescuer, returning to land entails constructing a new self-image that straddles the line between heroism (for saving lives), victimization (due to the violence witnessed), and stigma (or at least skepticism, among those who see conspiracy theories of ethnic replacement behind relief organizations). The veteran (the soldier-become-“super-citizen”) is juxtaposed to the “civilian”, who has no experience of war and therefore cannot have any meaningful awareness of what it is like. Civilians are innocent, an innocence made possible by the sacrifice of the soldiers who go to war in their name. They owe soldiers an unrepayable debt for what they have sacrificed and suffered—and this means that they must step up and provide care.

31Similarly, rescuers lose their innocence – understood as both in + nocens and as in + noscere (Ticktin 2017) – at the very moment they see the Other. Even more so than death and violence, it is the very fact of encountering the Other that seems to undermine the rescuer’s innocence. Nevertheless, like veterans, rescuers will not necessarily succeed, through their stories and testimony, in making known what they have experienced. They will struggle to convey not solely their personal reality, but the broader reality that can potentially unfold when solidarity leads culturally, historically, and geographically different paths to intertwine. As in the case of the veterans, “known” realities are not always “acknowledged” (El-Haj 2022), and, thus, the depoliticization of rescuers obscures their narratives, making the complex political dynamics of the Mediterranean disappear behind the figure of the (traumatized) hero.

4. Looking for spaces of informality at sea, between individuals and sailing boats

  • 19 Translation from Italian by the author.

32In a scenario that plays out within a process of bureaucratization, depersonalization, and anonymization, the deployment of a large ship, the optimization of rescues, and the professionalism of the crew seem to be in line with other dynamics: the increasing formality, structuring, and controllability of rescue operations and management, with strong decision-making power assigned to the organization’s land offices, also serve to construct a maritime space that is dominated by a terracentric gaze. A gaze that tends to “striate” (Deleuze, Guattari 2017), dominate, and exercise control over sea spaces by assigning them to formal, separable, accounting boxes. The deployment of such formal rationality appears to mirror the modern organization of institutional agencies, which impose structure on the world via rigid taxonomic schemes and share a “moral economy” and “global hierarchy of values”19 informed by expanding neoliberal ideologies (Palumbo 2010) and their emphasis on regular, predictable, and calculable arrangements and functioning. Within this framework, Weberian bureaucracy promotes calculability and regimentation all the more perfectly to the extent that it “dehumanizes” itself.

33Thus, transnational organizations in general, and many rescue organizations in particular, attempt to deal with uncertainty (both at the macro level – that of sovereignisms, border management, and contemporary migrations – and at the micro level – that of rescue itself, an emblem of the uncertainty inherent in the encounter with the Other). To this end, they cancel out all forms of personalization, thereby joining other subjects, networks, constraints, formalized spaces of interaction and manipulation, technologies, and representations that constitute a vertical and encapsulated social governance (Ferguson, Gupta 2002). Within this framework, even those organizations that in some ways express political opposition to it – and that transfer this conflict on board their ships, leveraging threats to the operation of their rescue craft, via legal battles and media pressure, to expose the opacity of the system – seem in practical terms to fall victim to and be shaped by its formalizing mechanisms.

34However, it is of value to examine cases that do not entirely fit these definitions, both at the level of individual practices and at the organizational level. First, within organizations, individuals appear, in many cases, to succeed in constructing spaces of homeliness and relationality that resist the apparently all-pervasive processes of homologation and dehumanization. E., for example, received two official reprimands, after arranging with A. for a mother with a one-year-old daughter to meet with her husband (who was among the other rescued people). Discretely signaling to one another from deck to deck, to avoid attracting the attention of the “others” (crew members who would follow the rule without opposing it, or, according to E. “simply without asking themselves what they think of it”), the two rescuers had arranged for this family unit to be reunited, at least for a few minutes a day. It was being divided by a rule born of the refusal to consider the specific individual needs of the rescuers. Or, again, E. made his voice heard during a “debriefing” when, after he had pointed out that the way the “Logistician” had seated the rescued migrants was more akin to Guantanamo than to a safe place, the project coordinator had laughed and joked that Guantanamo should not even be named. However, by speaking out, E. prompted others to take the floor, and eventually sparked a deeper discussion about the need to find a way to “arrange” people in a more “humane” way. Remaining close to practices (Sorgoni 2011), with a view to exploring the “gaps” between the different scales of analysis, while taking into account the overwhelming and “structuring” power of organizational structures, inevitably prompts us to examine the interstitial paths of resistance that occur within some organizations at a more general level, within others in more specific instances, and in parallel, among the migrants themselves.

35In the ethnographic encounter, I observed spaces where the “un-looked for” could at times emerge (Strathern 1999). This included forms of “mutiny” and radical breaks with organizational structure giving rise to overlapping lines of conflictuality: small acts of disguised, undeclared, low-profile resistance that James Scott (1990) termed the “infrapolitics” of subordinate groups. In the knowledge that the act of rescue will inevitably always remain asymmetrical, some practitioner-activists attempt to restore some small form of autonomy to migrants.

36Usually, it is those who come from other SAR settings, rather than from humanitarian projects, who oppose the rules (this was clearly illustrated by the examples described above: E. was part of the SAR team, while the logistician and project coordinator had backgrounds in the humanitarian/ emergency sector). Small grassroots organizations may covertly challenge the structure by helping migrants to access certain services, creating opportunities for conviviality between different groups, inviting rescues to take greater responsibility for the various tasks to be performed, or giving them the opportunity to make certain decisions. Those with a seafaring background have usually taken a different trajectory characterized by a change of narrative: a romantic sea, the last space of freedom, has given way to a politicized space where individuals choose to work, even giving up far higher salaries on commercial ships for example, not just to “save lives” but above all to contribute to changing the world around them. Added to this is the resistance put up by the migrants themselves. In the face of the hyper-technicalization and standardization of procedures, migrants never fail to surprise during rescues, frustrating all attempts at prediction.

37The moment of the rescue itself is particularly emblematic: shouting, pushing, elbowing, and abrupt movements undermine any attempt at orderly progress, forcing the rescuers to improvise constantly. During my missions, we were frequently greeted by new and unexpected scenarios: a group of people on a boat half full of water who did not want to get off because they were engaged in silent group prayer, under the guidance of their leader. Our arrival, our procedures, the predefined discourse – «Hello! Everything is fine, we are here from Europe to help you!» – did not seem to interest or shake them in the slightest. Or, during another rescue, the sight of some rescued people, who, in the face, once again, of our attempts to get them to disembark neatly and quickly one after the other, and of the excitability of those who were first in line, steadfastly backed away, sat down and ate sandwiches extracted from plastic wrapping. Seemingly senseless behavior, whose meaning derived from a cosmology that the rescuers did not even attempt to decipher, rather reacting angrily and rudely to the apparent lack of cooperation – «It’s the least you can do, otherwise we’ll leave you here!». Even when the migrants are finally on board, fights, the appropriation and exchanges of valuables (cigarettes, blankets, food), the circumvention of rules, the quest for creative ways to meet personal needs, and the telling of fictitious stories, seem on the one hand to resist the organization’s attempt to “tame” its guests; on the other hand, such practices affirm the guests’ capacity for self-management and autonomy; in any case, they defy attempts at labelling and schematization.

38The friction between different forms of sovereignty (Feldman 2020) seems to generate scope for the re-appropriation of spaces and the return of personalization. This occurs even within large organizations such as that described in the previous paragraph, at the level of individual micro-practices. Of equal interest are insights from other, smaller organizations that seem to evade these patterns more entirely. Using small sailing boats rather than large ships, the members of these SAR operations appear to practice different logics. What emerges is that smaller spaces seem to impede separation – once on board, all parties eat, sleep, and spend all their time in close proximity to one other – while accommodating only the most essential equipment. Within such a framework, the relationship with migrants appears to develop along different lines – of cooperation and solidarity, rather than plain assistance – while the emergency conditions give rise to sharing rather than estrangement. The absence or minimal structuring of a “land board” means that the crew at sea is free to make its own decisions. These organizations generally do not conduct full-blown rescues but rather offer early assistance at sea (the so-called “stabilizing” phase, during which life jackets and water are distributed and an “initial assessment” of the vessel’s condition and medical cases is carried out) or pressurize the authorities to fulfil their rescue duties. This is a form of aid that attempts to “reshuffle the cards” in the structural asymmetry between rescuers and rescued, not so much by appropriating the humanitarian act in order to redefine it, but by avoiding it, insofar as possible, or stripping it of any possible formalization.

39On one occasion, following a very complex operation, in which attempts to retrieve bodies from the water had lasted many hours, I found myself beside the survivors on the deck of the sailboat we had conducted the rescue from. As I collapsed asleep next to two of them, they laid one of their blankets – the kind for “migrants”, not the “crew” kind – over me. I had the strong feeling that what was taking place at that moment was more than a mere instance of mutual courtesy. And no other crew member found that episode out of place. Indeed, some of the crew had the opportunity to eat with the migrants, after preparing couscous spiced to their liking with them in our (the only) kitchen. This did not appear, to my eyes, to be the same kind of “SAR” that I had experienced only a year earlier, on a ship that at that very moment was located only a few miles away from our position with the small sailboat. Through this style of improvisation, in the absence of SOPs, and the informality of the relationships on board, not only do subjects mount a more radical resistance to humanitarian welfarism and victimization, but they also narrate a space on board that becomes a home, a crossroads of people who live together and share their daily existence – among crew members and with migrants, fused into a single whole – thereby opposing the depersonalizing logics and practices of large humanitarian organizations.

40While many contradictions and ambiguities remain at the ethical and political level, these spaces seem to offer alternative views of the sea, and from the sea. Their questioning of the border systems that make the Mediterranean environment a deadly body of water marked by inequalities poses a radical and wide-ranging challenge to a broader system of neo-liberal organizations based on formality, rationality, humanitarian logics, specialization, bureaucracy, and depersonalization.

5. Conclusion

41The harsh crisis scenarios of recent years have increasingly been marked by racism, violence, and rigid separation. At the same time, the emergence of complex and multifaceted pressures to connect forms of life, to promote similarities and affinities, and to embrace the possibilities opened up by encounter may be glimpsed from many different perspectives. The space of the sea, and specifically of the Mediterranean, has proven to be a dense field of symbolic and political currents and countercurrents. Beginning with my involvement in the Ermenautica project, I have attempted to situate myself within this field, with a view to shedding light on some of the relationships, phenomena, and actors that traverse and inhabit it. I have consequently had the opportunity to personally inhabit and traverse highly diverse maritime spaces, boarding both motor vessels and sailboats operated by international organizations or informal groups. While travelling through these spaces, first with Mediterranea and later with other SAR vessels, I have been able to closely observe and experience firsthand some of the complex dynamics that play out at the personal and collective, ethical and political levels, in the contemporary Mediterranean of migration and rescue.

42In a not-always-explicit tension between macro and micro, between supra-state bodies and SAR organizations, and between organizations and individuals, shared ways of imagining maritime space and ship appear to emerge. Formality, humanitarian logic, specialization, bureaucracy, and depersonalization intertwine to shape, on the one hand, many of the deadly border policies that today drive asymmetries, inequalities, and violence; and on the other hand, also many of the logics that run through organizations in general, and those that operate at sea specifically. Within this framework, large ships are used as a means to an end. They are mere cogs in a machine. And even the human subjects that pass through these vessels are required to fit into this machinery. The resulting tension, which is projected from land to sea, derives from the striation, predation, and control of maritime space within formal, separable, accounting boxes.

43On the other hand, precisely in the tension between macro and micro, the “infrapolitics” that shape informal, super-personalized, and creative spaces of resistance appear to bubble up and overflow. It seems that experiencing a sense of belonging within the space of a boat can come about in a variety of ways, which span the opposing dimensions of politics and humanitarianism, professionalization and activism, civic engagement and financial remuneration, emergency and normalization, sharing and appropriation. The figure of the boat, in general, as an object-person or ordinary means of transport, may be defined as an isolated place where different subjects can find themselves living together for a diversity of reasons; within this cohabitation, the boats seem to function as a kaleidoscope that mixes and confounds the individuals on board, while radically transforming them.

Torna su


Anderson C. et al., 2013 «Mutiny and Maritime Radicalism in the Age of Revolution: A Global Survey», in International Review of Social History Special Issues, 58: 1-14.

Aria M., 2016 I doni di Mauss. Percorsi di antropologia economica, Cisu, Roma.

Behar R., 1996, The Vulnerable Observer. Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart, Bea-con Press, Boston.

Ben-Yehoyada N., 2019 Incorporare il Mediterraneo. Formazione regionale tra Sicilia e Tunisia nel secondo dopoguerra, Meltemi, Milano.

Boni S., Koensler A., Rossi A., 2020 Etnografie militanti. Prospettive e dilemmi, Meltemi, Roma.

Caillé A. et al., 2014 Manifesto Convivialista. Dichiarazione d’interdipendenza, ETS, Pisa.

Deleuze G., Guattari F., 2017 Millepiani. Capitalismo e schizofrenia, Orthotes, Napoli-Salerno.

El-Haj N. A., 2022 Combat Trauma: Imaginaries of War and Citizenship in Post-9/11 America, Verso Books, London.

Ellis C., Bochner A. P., 2000 «Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity», in N. K. Denzin, Y. S. Lincoln (eds.), Han-dbook of Qualitative Research, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage: 733-768.

Fassin D., 2018 La ragione umanitaria, DeriveApprodi, Roma.

Feldman G., 2020 The Gray Zone. Sovereignty, Human Smuggling, and Undercover Police Investigation in Europe, Stanford University press, Stanford California.

Feldman I., Ticktin M. (eds.), 2010 In the Name of Humanity. The Government of Threat and Care, Duke University Press, London.

Ferguson J., Gupta A., 2002 «Spatializing States: Toward an Ethnography of Neoliberal Governmentality», in American Ethnologist, 29, 4: 981-1002.

Foucault M., 2014 Sorvegliare e punire. Nascita della prigione, Einaudi, Torino.

Gellner D. N., Hirsh E. (eds.), 2001 Inside Organizations. Anthropologists at work, Berg, Oxford.

Giovannetti M., Zorzella N. (a cura di), 2020 Ius Migrandi. Trent’anni di politiche e legislazione sull’immigrazione in Italia, Franco Angeli, Milano.

Giubilaro C., 2017 «Shooting Borders. Per una geografia visuale delle migrazioni», in Rivista geografica italiana, 124, 4: 315-336.

Graeber D., 2012 Debito. I primi 5.000 anni, Il Saggiatore, Milano.

Graeber D., 2016 Burocrazia. Perché le regole ci perseguitano e perché ci rendono felici, Il Saggiatore, Milano.

Heller C., Pezzani L., 2014 «Liquid Traces: Investigating the Deaths of Migrants at the EU’s Maritime Frontier», in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis. The Architecture of Public Truth, Sternberg Press, Berlin: 657-684.

Herzfeld M., 2014 Cultural intimacy: Social poetics in the nation-state, Routledge, Londra.

Iozzelli J., 2021 «Leggere il mare: il canale di Sicilia tra politiche e umanità naviganti», in M. Aria (a cura di), Ermenautica. Dai mari condivisi i segreti della convivenza, Prospero, Novate Milanese: 123-136.

Iozzelli J., 2022 «Rescue in the Central Mediterranean», in Antropologia Pubblica, 8, 1:251-260.

Khosravi S., 2019 Io sono confine, elèuthera, Milano.

Malkki L. H., 2015 The need to help: The domestic arts of international humanitarianism, Duke University Press, Durham.

Mellino M., 2019 Governare la crisi dei rifugiati. Sovranismo, neoliberalismo, razzismo e accoglienza in Europa, DeriveApprodi, Roma.

Mezzadra S., 2020 «Abolitionist vistas of the human. Border struggles, migration and freedom of movement», in Citizenship Studies, 24, 4: 424-440.

Padiglione V., 2008 Poetiche dal Museo Etnografico. Spezie morali e kit di sopravvivenza, La Mandragora, Imola.

Palumbo B., 2010 «Sistemi tassonomici dell’immaginario globale. Prime ipotesi di ricerca a partire dal caso Unesco», in Meridiana. Antropologia delle Istituzioni, 68: 37-72.

Pinelli B., 2021 «Death and salvation of refugee women on European borders. Race, gender and class of bodies and power», in Anthropology Today, 37, 1: 17-20.

Scott J. C., 1990 Domination and the arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, Yale University Press, New Heaven.

Sorgoni B. (a cura di), 2011 Etnografia dell’accoglienza. Rifugiati e richiedenti asilo a Ravenna, Cisu, Roma.

Scranton R., 2015, «The Trauma Hero. From Wilfred Owen to “Redeployment” and “American Sniper», in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Los Angeles.

Abu El-Haj, Nadia. Combat Trauma (p.313). Verso. Edizione del Kindle.

Strathern M., 1999 Property, substance, and effect: anthropological essays on persons and things, Athlone Press, London.

Ticktin M., 2011 Casualties of care: Immigration and the politics of humanitarianism in France. University of California Press, Berkley.

Ticktin M., 2017 «A World without Innocence», in American Ethnologist, 44, 4: 577-590.

Van Maneen J., 2001 «Afterword: Natives ‘R’ us: Some notes on the ethnography of organizations», in D. N. Gellner, E. Hirsh (eds.), Inside organizations: Anthropologists at work, Berg, Oxford: 233-261.

Torna su


1 I would like to thank the reviewers of the journal Archivio Antropologico Mediterraneo whose valuable reading and commentary contributed to the final version of this text.

2 At that time, what attracted undergraduate students, PhD students, activists, and sailing crew members was the opportunity to participate, albeit only symbolically, in setting up that first Italian search and rescue project – which was driven by political ideals; however, it was from these initial meetings that the Ermenautica - Saperi in Rotta project was born.

3 The “Introduction” to this monographic dossier offers an in-depth description of the project.

4 Indeed, the Italian and other European governments, beginning in the early 2000s and even more intensely between 2017 and 2019, have introduced increasingly invasive and “visible” practices and rhetorics of criminalizing solidarity and the humanitarian. For a reconstruction of this historical-political framework, see for example Iozzelli 2021.

5 For example: Fassin 2018; Feldman, Ticktin 2010; Mellino 2019.

6 At the same time, I embarked on a “maritime” trajectory towards greater awareness and technical knowledge – for example, obtaining “lifeguard” certification and basic nautical skills, as well as attending “fire-fighting” and first aid courses.

7 Following my first mission in March 2019 with Mediterranea, which lasted about a week, I returned on board with a range of different organizations for more extended periods, starting in September 2021: first for a month in October 2021 with an Italian organization, where I was an “RHIB leader”; then for two months spanning November 2021 and January 2022, on a large ship run by an international organization, with which I was a “SAR technician”; then for another two months in April-June 2022 as “head of mission” on a small ship run by a large German organization; and finally in April 2023 as a “communication coordinator” on a sailboat run by a small German organization.

8 For further background, see Giovannetti, Zorzella 2020.

9 Interview with a senior member of Mediterranea, conducted by the author in Palermo on 05 March 2019.

10 For a more in-depth look at my various positionalities on board different vessels, the problematics and advantages of “total immersement” (Strathern 1999), the relationship between ethnography and militancy (Boni et al. 2020), and possibilities for autoethnography (Ellis, Bochner 2000) in a context of violence and exposure of the researcher’s vulnerabilities (Behar 1996), see Iozzelli 2022.

11 Informal conversation with a rescuer on board, noted by the author on 15 December 2021.

12 BST (Basic Safety Training) is a set of basic courses that is required to work on all ships. Courses of this kind are regulated by the STCW (International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers) adopted on 7 July 1978 by the IMO (International Maritime Organization).

13 Usually, one joins a crew by sending a résumé to an NGO, whose “Human Resources Department” will evaluate it. I initially applied to several organizations and waited for one to select me. In practice, once you have participated in one mission, given crew members’ high rate of mobility between ships (as a function of individual preferences surrounding salary, life on board ship, or political outlook), you are then generally introduced to subsequent organizations by others who already work for them and you begin to build your own “reputation” (whether positive or negative) which will henceforth go before you.

14 Different ships adopt different terms to refer to the people who are rescued (migrants, survivors, castaways, guests) depending on the advocacy policy of the particular organization.

15 Despite rhetoric surrounding the “dignified” spaces that should be made available on board for migrants, in practice the logic of optimizing rescue missions means that, in most cases, the guests still find themselves crammed on top of one other under conditions that are barely viable.

16 In the “buddy system”, a “new” crew member is paired off with another with more experience on board, who takes responsibility for showing the newcomer around the ship and providing them with the necessary operational guidance and – in theory – with any required moral support. Wherever possible, buddies are allocated – as in my own case – based on prior acquaintance, otherwise assignation is random.

17 Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats: these are the fast inflatable boats that convey the rescue team from the mother ship to seacraft in trouble and then take the migrants back to the ship.

18 The backgrounds of the people involved in the rescues are extremely diverse and impossible to summarize in the context of this essay. Hence, I would draw the readers’ attention to the striking diversity that characterizes the rescuers’ life stories but at the same time also to the convergence of their trajectories once they board the ship.

19 Translation from Italian by the author.

Torna su

Per citare questo articolo

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Jasmine Iozzelli, «Life on board ship and cultural intimacy. Notes from the Central Mediterranean»Archivio antropologico mediterraneo [Online], Anno XXVI, n. 25 (1) | 2023, online dal 24 juin 2023, consultato il 12 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

Torna su


Jasmine Iozzelli

Università degli Studi di Torino Dipartimento di Culture, Politiche, Società

Articoli dello stesso autore

Torna su

Diritti d'autore


Solamente il testo è utilizzabile con licenza CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Salvo diversa indicazione, per tutti agli altri elementi (illustrazioni, allegati importati) la copia non è autorizzata ("Tutti i diritti riservati").

Torna su
Cerca su OpenEdition Search

Sarai reindirizzato su OpenEdition Search