“Borders and Divisions. Immigration to Europe.” New book published in Germany including my chapter on Italy and the EU

This book was published in December 2019 in German titled “Grenzen Spaltungen. Immigration nach Europa”. It was edited by Sabine Beppler-Spahl and includes chapters by twelve contributors. It can be ordered on Amazon by clicking on the link below:


Below is an initial English translation of my chapter if you cannot read in German:

The role of Italy in the European Union’s barbaric treatment of migrants from Africa

Dominic Standish


The fall of Italy’s ‘populist’ government in August 2019 and its replacement by a pro-EU government in September 2019 is an appropriate moment to reflect on the migration issue. The previous government was widely labelled populist because it was led by a coalition formed between parties that vowed to challenge Italy’s political establishment: the Five Star Movement and the League. Their coalition was sworn into government in June 2018 following three months of negotiations after the March general election. These parties were opponents in that election campaign and negotiations to agree on a policy programme and government ministers were protracted. Nevertheless, one issue they agreed on was to reduce immigration to Italy and this was another reason the government was often called populist.

Migrant Rescuers

The reduction of immigration by the 2018-2019 government predominantly focused on challenging the right of migrant rescue vessels run by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to dock in Italian ports. This issue became highly controversial in June 2018 when the Italian government was widely condemned for refusing to allow the NGO ship the Aquarius to dock in Italy. The Interior Minister in that government and leader of the League, Matteo Salvini, ordered all Italian ports closed to foreign flag NGO ships as the Aquarius approached Italy. After the Aquarius ship carrying migrants was refused the right to dock in Italy or Malta, Spain agreed to take the German flagged vessel and its 629 migrants. The Aquarius ship, operated by NGO charities Doctors without Borders and SOS Méditerranée, docked in Valencia on 16 June. Some of the people on the overloaded Aquarius were transferred to Italian coast guard and navy ships, which also took them to Spain.

It is interesting to note that when the Aquarius was approaching Italy there was sympathy for these migrants among Italians, even though a poll on 18 June 2018 indicated the League had become the most popular Italian political party. The mayors of Palermo, Naples, Messina and Reggio Calabria all offered the Aquarius ship the opportunity to dock in their ports in defiance of Salvini’s demand to close all Italian ports to it. Moreover, there were protests against the government’s port restrictions across Italy from Milan to Palermo and Turin. (https://www.corriere.it/foto-gallery/cronache/18_giugno_12/da-milano-palermo-migliaia-piazze-italiane-contro-chiusura-porti-da677510-6e67-11e8-9963-ead0cc069d04.shtml) However, as more NGO migrant ships were refused the right to dock in Italy and the popularity of the League increaed, the protests against closing ports to NGO migrant ships waned.

The debate about migrants and the Aquarius initially developed into a diplomatic rift between the French and Italian governments. Salvini told the Italian Senate on 13 June 2018 that France had taken 340 of 9,816 migrants due to be relocated there over three years and had turned back over 10,000 people at its borders in the first five months of 2018 amid reports of French police mistreating migrants. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/14/french-border-police-accused-of-cutting-soles-off-migrant-childrens-shoes) “We must adopt European responses, there cannot be national responses,” declared French President Emmanuel Macron after meeting Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte, who went on to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the migrant crisis spread to her government. (http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/merkels-rule-cant-end-soon-enough/21506#.WyjSVSf4lZg) Merkel and Macron met on 19 June 2018 and agreed a European response to migration was needed. But several EU countries asserted such non-national solutions having imposed national restrictions. German and Austrian police had increased border checks on migrants close to the Brenner Pass at Italy’s border with Austria as Italy’s government coalition was finalised in early June 2018. (http://www.ansa.it/english/news/politics/2018/06/01/austria-germany-boost-brenner-controls-2_c48d30b8-88bf-4701-b354-6ceb1710447e.html) These checks appeared to be a response to the election campaign pledge to expel 500,000 illegal migrants from Italy by Salvini. (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/01/23/italian-politician-pledges-kick-half-million-illegal-migrants/)

While criticism for restricting immigration and blocking NGO migrant rescue ships from docking focused on Italy’s populist government, such blocking had occurred in other countries and under the previous government led by the Democratic Party between 2013 and 2018. It was under that government when the NGO ship Iuventa was seized in August 2017 by the Italian authorities after Italy and France refused to give the ship a port to dock in. The Iuventa is a former fishing vessel which was run by the German NGO Jugend Rettet. The Iuventa ship rescued thousands of migrants, often near the coast of Libya, and transported many of them to Italy. In 2017, the Iuventa was seized on the Italian island of Lampedusa, phones and computers were taken and the crew had been bugged. Lawyers for ten of the Iuventa crew were told that charges were being considered including prison sentences and fines. To date, the ‘Iuventa 10’ have not been called to a court hearing but the former captain of the Iuventa, German Pia Klemp, was warned she risked detention if caught navigating boats in Italian waters. Indeed, Salvini called for Klemp to be arrested as she continued to be involved in migrant rescue missions until June 2018. Salvini claimed Klemp was in breach of Italy’s policy of closed ports to NGO vessels. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/15/captain-of-migrant-rescue-ship-says-italy-criminalising-solidarity) But Klemp rightly criticised “the Nobel peace-prize winning European Union” for not helping when the Iuventa was stranded with 60 migrants and one dead boy on board. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/15/captain-of-migrant-rescue-ship-says-italy-criminalising-solidarity)

Although Klemp has not been arrested, German Carola Rackete, who was captain of a migrant rescue ship, was unfortunately arrested. Rackete is under investigation for aiding people smugglers and ignoring the orders of Italian authorities while navigating in Italian waters, which was then illegal under the Italian government security and immigration law signed into force by Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella on 14 June 2019. According to this law, boats entering Italian waters in violation of international law or ignoring the orders of the Italian authorities can be fined between €10,000 and €50,000. The law does not mention migrant rescue boats, but they were evidently the focus. The law was drafted by Salvini. “They say they are good, but they are kidnapping women and children in the middle of the sea,” was how he described migrant rescuers as the law came into force (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/15/italy-adopts-decree-that-could-fine-migrant-rescue-ngo-aid-up-to-50000) It is important to point out that this law has been applied to criminalise migrant rescuers on foreign flag NGO ships and to prevent them from docking in Italy. But this law has not been used to prosecute or prevent the captains of other vessels which dock in Italy with rescued migrants. In addition, the Italian coast guard and navy have continued to rescue migrants and bring them to Italy. For instance, on 13 June 2018, over 900 migrants arrived in Sicily from the Libyan coast on a ship of the Italian coast guard, which also rescued 500 migrants from four boats near Libya on 15 June 2018.

The charges under the June 2018 law were issued after Rackete navigated the NGO charity ship Sea-Watch 3 into a port on the Italian island of Lampedusa so 40 migrants rescued close to Libya could disembark. She decided to dock there after her crew and the migrants had been stranded at sea for over two weeks after Italy and other EU countries had refused to accept the migrants. Indeed, the ship Sea-Watch 3 was at sea with the migrants for so long that Rackete could have navigated it to a port in her native Germany during that time.

To her credit, Rackete commented on the failure of the EU to help when she was appealing for a port to dock in and to the European Court of Human Rights; “It is a disgrace to both words: Europe and union…not a single European institution was willing to assume responsibility.” (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-48838438) Moreover, when Rackete was asked about being a heroine, she replied “I’ve been surprised by how personal things have gotten. It should be about the issue, about the European Union’s failure to fairly distribute those who have been rescued and to take shared responsibility.” (https://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/interview-with-sea-watch-captain-carola-rackete-a-1276264.html)

After the Sea-Watch 3 rescued the migrants on 12 June, Salvini Tweeted that Rackete was a “pain in the arse”, “criminal” and a “delinquent.” (https://www.france24.com/en/20190705-sea-watch-captain-sue-italys-salvini-defamation) On his Twitter and Facebook accounts, Salvini referred to Rackete as an “outlaw” and “pirate”. “When it comes to offensive, defamatory and hate-provoking statements like those of the minister, the only way that the judge can stop it is by blocking the accounts,” said Rackete’s lawyer, Alessandro Gamberini, explaining the motivations behind her issuing a defamation lawsuit against Salvini.

In the lawsuit, Rackete declared “the serious damage to my honour is obvious.” (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-italy-captain-idUSKCN1U626L) The lawsuit also noted Salvini’s messages generated “a massive and widespread spiral of violence” against Rackete by transmitting “visceral feelings of hatred, denigration, delegitimization and true dehumanization”. Rackete said she had received threats of death and violence on social media. Shouts calling for Rackete to be “raped by blacks” from a crowd when the migrants were disembarking on Lampedusa are referred to in the lawsuit. (https://www.telesurenglish.net/news/Cap.-Rackete-Sues-Minister-Salvini-for-Instigating-Hate-Crimes-20190712-0005.html) In addition, Rackete has called Salvini “a racist” and a “dangerous” man. (https://www.dpa-international.com/topic/sea-watch-captain-rackete-calls-italy-salvini-dangerous-urn%3Anewsml%3Adpa.com%3A20090101%3A190706-99-949066) Salvini has not issued a defamation lawsuit against Rackete, even though he filed one against the journalist Roberto Saviano in 2018 over Tweets Salvini claimed implied he had mafia links. (https://cpj.org/2019/03/italys-matteo-salvini-pursues-criminal-defamation-.php).

In early September 2019, it was reported that Rackete’s defamation lawsuit against Salvini was proceeding and she was still facing charges. “I am still under investigation by the Italian authorities but am I worried? Honestly no, because my actions were justified,” stated Rackete. (https://www.thelocal.it/20190911/my-actions-were-justified-sea-watch-captain-carola-rackete-defends-bringing-rescued-migrants-to-italy?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter) It is inhumane to fine migrant rescuers and German Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Adebahr said “the criminalisation of those who save lives at sea is not desirable.” (http://www.ansa.it/english/news/politics/2019/08/07/ngos-shouldnt-be-criminalized-berlin_09577eed-2bbd-4a3a-8153-a0c63a7d78db.html) Yet Rackete was wrong to sue Salvini for defamation.

Defamation lawsuits undermine free speech and should be dropped from the legal system of a democracy like Italy. Rackete’s lawsuit against Salvini is especially undemocratic as it seeks to limit communication by the elected leader of a political party which, at that time, was leading opinion polls for its approval rating by Italians. He was also Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister when the defamation case was issued. Finally, this lawsuit was naïve; did Rackete think she could stop Salvini from publicly commenting on her? Salvini uses social media extensively as a communication tool and, at that time, had more followers than any other Italian politician; 3.8 million backers on Facebook and 1.1 million on Twitter.

Although Salvini and the populist government were very vocal in opposing migrants and their foreign NGO rescuers coming to Italy, it was under the previous government led by the Democratic Party that migration to Italy by sea fell more significantly. The number of migrants arriving in Italy by sea fell from 181,436 in 2016 to 119,369 in 2017 and 23,370 in 2018. By 9 September 2019, there had been 5,796 sea arrivals by migrants in Italy. (https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean/location/5205) It was not until June 2018 that the populist government was sworn in. So why did the number of migrants reaching Italy by sea fall so much before this and what changed in terms of EU and Italian policies towards migrants?

EU and Italian Migration Policies

Italy has coordinated rescue missions in the central Mediterranean since October 2013 when a shipwreck killed more than 350 migrants near Lampedusa. It was also in 2013 that the EU agreed the Dublin Regulation, which usually requires the applications by asylum seekers to be processed in the first EU country where they arrive. But this was agreed before a huge surge in migrants arriving in southern Europe in 2015-2016. (https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean). The Dublin Regulation placed a disproportionate burden on southern EU member states for processing migrants who had departed from nearby Africa. But, instead of changing this to make the processing of migrants more equitable between EU states, the EU invested to prevent migrants from reaching the EU. Turkey has been paid €6 BN by the EU to hold migrants and asylum seekers. (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-eu-turkey/eu-to-offer-turkey-more-cash-for-syrian-refugees-before-erdogan-meeting-idUSKCN1GP1K7 ) In addition, the EU emergency trust fund for Africa offered 26 countries an initial €2 BN in 2015 to deport migrants and prevent them from leaving for the EU. (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/10/sunday-essay-how-we-colluded-in-fortress-europe-immigration) Then, in 2016, the EU planned migration deals with five African countries to link aid to restricting migration to the EU. (https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/dec/15/eu-claims-success-curbing-migration-niger-scepticism-meps-international-organisation-for-migration)

The EU launched Operation Sophia to rescue migrants in international waters in 2015 with its headquarters in Rome. This Operation was dependent on the Italian navy, coast guard and other vessels saving migrants and bringing them to Italy and other southern European countries to have their requests for asylum processed. International law is unclear on which country should receive migrants rescued in international waters. “International maritime law does not provide for specific obligations which would determine in all cases which state is responsible to allow disembarkation on its territory,” states the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). (https://www.thelocal.it/20180611/what-rules-apply-to-migrants-rescued-at-sea) Operation Sophia initially used aeroplanes, submarines and drones to rescue migrants and disrupt people-smuggling networks. It had become common practice for human traffickers to take migrants in small boats twelve miles out from the Libyan coast into international waters, where NGO ships waited to rescue migrants. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea identifies the country responsible for operations in that area of the sea as having a duty to take rescued people from boats. It also states that the relevant government “shall arrange for such disembarkation to be effected as soon as reasonably practicable”. (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-44452760). By definition, NGOs do not have the responsibilities of governments. Yet if the NGO ships were to take migrants rescued off Libya to the nearest safe port, this would be in Tunisia or Malta. Instead, typically, until 2018 they travelled about 250 miles to Italy.

Many NGO boats used to frequently rescue migrants from small boats and co-operated with the Italian coast guard, navy and other vessels to pass migrants to them or took migrants directly to ports. But, after the numbers of migrants entering the EU increased, in 2016-2017 the EU and the Italian government led by the Democratic Party shifted the emphasis to paying African countries to keep migrants in Africa to reduce the number of people departing. This change included EU training of the Libyan coast guard and navy to bring migrants back to Libya.

EU officials knew that members of the Libyan local authorities were involved with people smuggling, the Libyan coast guard included former militia fighters and EU policies were making crossings more dangerous for migrants. (https://www.politico.eu/article/europe-deadly-migration-strategy-leaked-documents/) In 2017, Operation Sophia officials suggested shifting away from search and rescue work to concentrate on anti-smuggling operations. (https://g8fip1kplyr33r3krz5b97d1-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/ENFM-2017-2.pdf) The EU reduced the number of migrants leaving Africa by paying and training the Libyan coast guard and navy and funding horrendous detention centres in many African countries.

Although the number of migrants reaching Italy fell in early 2019, Italy asked other EU states to share the distribution of migrants, sea patrols and to open their ports for migrants to disembark from Operation Sophia missions. They mostly refused. Consequently, in March 2019, Operation Sophia was extended for six months, but with the end of maritime rescue patrols and more training for the Libyan coast guard. (https://www.euractiv.com/section/justice-home-affairs/news/eu-to-end-ship-patrols-in-scaled-down-operation-sophia/)

In addition, the EU decided to increase air patrols and cooperation with Libya. The EU border and coast guard agency Frontex is part of £95m invested by the EU in unmanned aerial vehicles and many of these have been flying over the sea off Libya. On 22 June 2019, Frontex posted a short film of migrants leaving a ship for a smaller boat on Twitter. (https://twitter.com/Frontex/status/1142373165076766720) On the same day on a thread under that film, Frontex Tweeted “A Frontex plane and drone kept observing the fishing trawler and the boat with migrants over several hours, alerting Italian and Maltese authorities.” (https://twitter.com/Frontex/status/1142373175243804673) A spokesperson for Frontex confirmed that incidents observed of boats in distress were passed to the “responsible rescue coordination centre and to the neighbouring ones for situational awareness and potential coordination”. Rome’s maritime rescue coordination centre shares information with its Libyan counterpart in Tripoli. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/04/drones-replace-patrol-ships-mediterranean-fears-more-migrant-deaths-eu)

Between the start of 2019 and early June 2019, more than 2,300 people were picked up off the coast of Libya and put in detention facilities. A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, condemned the “ghastly conditions” of Libyan detention centres, including deaths from diseases, malnutrition, lacking water, overcrowding, overflowing human waste and reports of people being sold to smugglers for forced labour and sexual exploitation. (https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=24681&LangID=E) Moreover, under Libyan law, any undocumented migrant or refugee can be detained without the right to challenge the detention, making it arbitrary. (https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/07/12/european-union/libya-act-now-save-lives)

No wonder that the EU has been accused of crimes against humanity by two lawyers based in Paris. They have provided a submission to the International Criminal Court accusing the EU of “orchestrating a policy of forced transfer to concentration camp-like detention facilities [in Libya] where atrocious crimes are committed.” The case aims to show many of the people detained and returned to Libya have faced human rights abuses, including murder, slavery and torture. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/04/drones-replace-patrol-ships-mediterranean-fears-more-migrant-deaths-eu) In addition, 53 migrants were killed and 130 injured during an air strike on Libya’s Tajoura detention centre on 3 July 2019 and some of the migrants in the centre had been taken there by the EU funded and trained Libyan coast guard. (https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_unacknowledged_costs_of_the_eu_migration_policy_in_libya)

The end of the EU Operation Sophia sea rescues in the Mediterranean Sea and the change in policy to prevent migrants from leaving Africa and detaining them in detention centres is barbaric. It has also increased the death rate for migrants attempting to cross from Africa to Europe by sea. It is estimated that 567 of the 8,362 people who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea between January and August 2019 have died. The death rate for attempting this crossing is claimed to have risen from an historical average of 2 per cent to 14 per cent in July 2019. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/04/drones-replace-patrol-ships-mediterranean-fears-more-migrant-deaths-eu)

The future of EU and Italian Migration Policies

The reduction of migrant sea rescues due to EU and Italian policy changes has coincided with fewer NGO rescue ships operating in the Mediterranean Sea in 2019, which is undoubtedly related to the criminalisation of their docking in Italy. From the start of 2019 to July 2019, fewer than ten per cent of the 3,126 migrants who have arrived in Italy by sea have done so on NGO charity vessels and most of them have been picked up by the Italian coast guard or navy. (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-italy/italy-seeks-fresh-migrant-clampdown-as-more-boats-arrive-idUSKCN1U416L) Therefore, it seems likely that the Italian coast guard and navy will continue to make such rescues. In addition, boats have even reached Italy directly from Libya. A boat docked on the Italian island of Lampedusa on 5 August 2019 carrying 48 migrants, including three pregnant women and six children. According to the religious organisation Mediterranean Hope, during the boat’s two day journey from Libya, an unspecified number of people fell into the sea and drowned during the journey. (http://www.ansa.it/english/news/general_news/2019/08/05/boat-with-48-migrants-lands-on-lampedusa_5a7e35fa-5784-41a3-8b7b-bae155ed36f6.html) This begs the question of why were these people not rescued?

It remains to be seen whether the new Italian government will change the criminalisation of NGO migrant rescuers. With reference to NGO migrant boats, Luciana Lamorgese as the new Interior Minister warned “ports are staying closed” on 6 September 2019. This indicated the new government will continue this measure championed by Salvini. (https://www.ilmessaggero.it/politica/governo_migranti_ultime_notizie_luciana_lamorgese_ministro_di_maio_salvini-4716565.html)

In the first real test of the new government’s migration policy, the Ocean Viking ship rescued 82 people off the coast of Libya and requested a safe port to dock during the second week of September 2019. The ship is run by the French NGO charities Doctors Without Borders and SOS Méditerranée whose spokesperson told Reuters on 12 September 2019 the ship had not received an indication it could dock in an Italian port despite requesting this as it headed towards Italy. In the same article, Reuters reported that Prime Minister Conte stated “several EU countries” had agreed to take in migrants aboard the Ocean Viking ship. (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-italy/new-italian-government-reaches-eu-deal-on-migrant-rescue-boat-idUSKCN1VX26W). On 14 September, the Ocean Viking ship was offered safe docking in a port on Lampedusa by the Italian government with the migrants to be distributed among EU countries. Italy, Germany and France agreed to take 24 migrants each, while 8 were destined for Portugal and 2 for Luxemburg. “The safe port is only assigned because the EU is taking the migrants,” stated Luigi di Maio, Foreign Minister and leader of the Five Star Movement, about these migrants. (http://www.ansa.it/sito/notizie/cronaca/2019/09/14/migranti-italia-assegna-porto-a-ocean-viking-_04b75232-76f9-49bb-94a1-82849812a98f.html) From this episode, it appears that, in the short-term, the new government intends to declare ports closed until EU states agree to share the distribution of migrants on NGO ships.

For the long-term, the new Italian government has issued a challenge to other EU member states regarding the distribution of migrants. On 12 September 2019, it was reported that Italy’s Prime Minister Conte was pushing for an automatic system of distributing rescued migrants between EU countries and that France and Germany had already agreed. This system was due to be discussed at a European summit in October in Luxembourg. (https://www.thelocal.it/20190912/how-would-italys-idea-for-a-new-european-migrant-distribution-system-work?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter) “Those who do not participate in the redistribution of migrants at the European level will feel the impact in a significant way in financial terms,” asserted Conte on 11 September 2019. In response, French government spokesperson Sibeth Ndiaye said that the Dublin Regulation should be reformed and the EU border agency Frontex should be strengthened. (https://www.ansa.it/english/news/2019/09/11/conte-wants-penalties-for-those-refusing-to-help-on-migrants_57f88bfc-1544-432c-8842-a70364eae656.html)

Indeed. the next European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, has called for plans for a massive expansion of Frontex to be brought forward from 2027 to 2024. In May 2019, the European Commissioner for Migration, Dimitiris Avramopoulos, confirmed 10,000 armed guards would be deployed by 2027 to patrol the EU’s land and sea borders. This is a huge increase on the 1,500 Frontex border guards identified in September 2018. The guards will be able to speed up the repatriation of people who have failed to secure asylum, intercept new arrivals and stop unauthorised travel. Moreover, these guards will be able to operate outside the EU in other countries with the ‘consent’ of their governments. (https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/19415/frontex-a-harder-border-sooner?ref=tw)

The EU evidently has plans to expand its operations in Africa to detain migrants to prevent them from reaching Europe. After setting up migrant transit centres in Niger, the United Nations refugee agency has evacuated some 4,000 people there over the last two years, mostly using EU funding. At the Agadez transit centre in Niger its capacity is for 1,000 people, but it was estimated that at times it has held up to three times as many as resettlement to the EU or USA has been slow. Now the EU is planning another transit centre in Rwanda to hold 500 people evacuated from Libya. It was reported that there are approximately 500,000 migrants in Libya with 5,000 of them in wretched detention centres. (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/08/world/europe/migrants-africa-rwanda.html)

The policies developed by the EU and Italy will only make it harder for migrants to escape from collapsed states, war and poverty. Rather than implementing policies which encourage migrants to pay smugglers thousands of Euros to risk their lives at sea, why does the EU not allow migrants in north Africa to pay a couple of hundred Euros to fly to Europe without visas?

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