The concentric circles of the toxic environment: the entrance to the labyrinth

How do we come down from heaven and enter the hell of a toxic environment, as represented by Dante Alighieri? Through nine circles, each one of which is deeper and tighter than the previous one? The French lawyer Francesca Candellaro is part of the Iuventa legal team, the German rescue ship that in August 2017 and due to a legal decision was left stranded in the port of Trapani (Sicily, Italy) unable to get into the sea and save the lives of the people in transit. It is clear to her that, 

“In 2017 people who rescued migrants in the Mediterranean were angels for the politicians, the media and the public opinion. Now they are demons.” Therefore, this funnel that gets deeper and deeper does not split up in nine levels, but in three concentric circles.

The political circle

The rise of the far right in Europe and its hate speech sides with the stigmatisation of solidarity, the defenders who support those who want to migrate, and the migrant and refugee population itself, who are the target of its racist and xenophobic discourses. The EU itself, in the EU Anti-Racism Action Plan published in September 2020, admitted this structural, institutional, and historical racism. 

Vox and PP in Spain, La Lega in Italy, Golden Dawn in Greece, the National Rally in France, or the New Flemish Alliance in Belgium. These are just a few examples of political parties that spread anti-immigration discourses, which are becoming stronger and reinforced by good poll results. The way these anti-immigration discourses have been embraced has led to several parliamentary initiatives, which have toughened the EU migration and refugee legislations. This poses a dilemma for the EU institutions, as in many cases individual states have no power in these matters. The reality is that all this is smearing the reputation of the EU as an institution beyond its foundational values, as it encourages a far-right that is not only anti-immigration but also anti-European.


The media circle: stigmatisation

All this (the tightening of Frontex measures, politicians’ anti-immigration discourses, and the arrival of migrant and refugee population to the UE) was seen by the hegemonic media as a threat to the EU social and democratic rights. Media coverage was far from promoting a welcoming reception among responsible citizens. 

It didn’t seek out solutions nor did it humanise these people who were risking their lives through migratory routes that were becoming extremely dangerous, especially for women who suffer from violence and sexual and labour exploitation. Some of these migrant women are mothers, who add to their suffering the fear and guilt for bringing their sons and daughters on the dinghies, and the separation from them once they arrive at their destination countries.

EU media limited itself to repeat the racist and xenophobic discourses spread by the blooming far-right parties, contributing to the stigmatization of the people in transit and the volunteers who stand for their right to live and migrate. In addition, the publication of biased and unverified information about international solidarity and its connection with human trafficking helped to create doubts around the legitimacy of protecting migrant rights. Consequently, this also promoted the stigmatisation in the public opinion of various countries.

However, this circle within the labyrinth has not always fulfilled its function. Helena Maleno is a human rights defender who, together with her teammates from the NGO Walking Borders, reports and documents the existence of missing migrants in the Mediterranean. They alert Spanish and Moroccan rescue services, provide them with the last location of the boats, and give the families of the missing migrants information about their latest news. The smear campaign she suffered for years, first in Spain and later on in Morocco, was responded with several support campaigns by both the Spanish population and social media. This not only created a bandwagon effect that stopped the legal cases and dignified her work as a defender, but also managed to generate support and awareness among people that previously were not involved in the defence of migrants and refugees rights.


The last circle: public opinion

“Saving lives is not a crime.” It is not that easy to permeate society with this statement when migrants and refugees defenders are associated with human trafficking, mafia, and criminal organisations, through both stigmatization and criminal prosecution.

These types of messages carry a negative connotation that leaves a mark on a population with a strong political disengagement that increased substantially during the 2008 and the 2020 crises. It leads to a rise in the number of racist and xenophobic discourses and to aggressions against vulnerable groups across Europe, as well as to the emergence of far-right, anti-immigration, and anti-European parties. These three concentric circles are thus related to the media and political stigmatisation, and to the acceptance of anti-immigration discourses within the political agenda. As a consequence, the EU position in favour of defending human and migrant rights has been weakened, and its foundational values have been discredited.


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