Next time you see the Mediterranean

The number of African migrants who have lost their lives in the Mediterranean is a tragedy, shamefully under-analyzed over the past 20 years.

Image by unicellular. Vi Flickr.

Next time you see the Mediterranean think of all these bodies brown and black, declared dead or missing in its waters.

So far this year, 2,405 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean. Last year, the number of migrants declared dead or missing reached 5,143. In 2015, 3,771 deaths were documented. Between 1993 and 2012, according to the UNITED for Intercultural Action (UNITED), a total of 14,600 “border deaths” (a death which occurred during the sea passage) were recorded. The number of African migrants who have lost their lives in the Mediterranean is a tragedy, shamefully under-discussed and analyzed over the past 20 years. The number of those missing or unaccounted for is unknown.

Next time you see the Mediterranean, think of the trauma and the abuse that African migrants endure in their search for a better life.

Marie Rajablat’s “Les naufragés de l’enfer” (The Shipwrecked of Hell), is a collection of testimonies she gathered from rescued migrants during eight weeks on board of the Aquarius, an SOS MEDITERRANEE vessel. These stories of journeying to death register how the Mediterranean has always been a Black Mediterranean. On a perilous journey through Niger and to Libya, African migrants are abused physically and psychologically, kidnapped, raped, and enslaved by numerous militias and armed groups that infest the Sahara. A recent report by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) outlines terrible conditions of “summary executions and other unlawful killings; arbitrary deprivations of liberty; and torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” By the time they are embarked on their dinghies, these migrants have already sacrificed the most.

Next time you see the Mediterranean, think of Abi and Enzo.

Abi, 18, recalls that she feared for her life when she refused to prostitute herself, “As I refused to sleep with him, he [one of the smugglers] pushed me to the ground, beat me with his belt and then kicked me everywhere … He took out a knife and he slashed my breasts … Later, he raped me … I stayed there for several days but I do not know exactly for how long … But, I know when he leaves and when he comes back … I could hear the door … I know he came in me but I did not feel anything anymore … He returned with other men … I think I fainted … I do not know how long it lasted … when I woke up, and for a few seconds, I did not know if I was dead or alive … I realized I was in hell … I cried … I wished to go home, to see my Mother … But at the same time, I knew at that time that there was no return possible. I also understood what had happened to my sister and why she did not give me a number to join her.”

Enzo remembers, “In Ghadames, we were locked in a warehouse for four days. We could only get out to go to work escorted by armed guards and with nothing to eat and just a little salty water to drink. People were beaten, sometimes to death. Sometimes, you hear the people-smugglers say, “There is a new important arrival of “merchandise”, in reference to a new group of migrants. Only then, we were able to leave.”

During the sea crossings, when their dinghies are not capsized off the promised land of Lampedusa, these migrants are voluntarily thrown to their deaths into the sea by the people-smugglers in charge of the vessels. The decision about who gets thrown first is based on the migrant’s skin color. Black migrants, seen as inferior because of their blackness, are always chosen first.

Next time you see the Mediterranean, think of it as the Black Mediterranean.

The Mediterranean migrant crisis cannot only be understood and negotiated within a rhetoric of humanitarian intervention and institutional crisis management. The Black Mediterranean shows how mobility, instead of work, becomes a distinct concept and experience around which Europe’s capitalism and Africa’s neocolonialism can be understood. Strikingly, the same absolutist conversations on race, nationalism and modernity that Paul Gilroy’s “The Black Atlantic” criticized as “fatal mistakes” continue to mediate the debates and analyses on the Mediterranean crisis.

The Black Mediterranean is not this empty liquid space that separates a neocolonial and impoverished south from a post-empire and fractured north. It is a hybrid and discursive space through which both Europeans and Africans have defined themselves and their project of modernity. As a result of a long history of violence and war, that far exceeds that of the Black Atlantic, this space can only be mediated, for now, through the negative.

Next time you see the Mediterranean, think of how Europe’s institutional and political responses have turned the migrant crisis into an enduring tragedy.

Three moments are important here to understand how, in times of crisis, Europe does not know what to do with itself and lets loose its repressed, violent self. Ode to Joy turns into The Robbers.

First, there is European Union-Turkey Refugee Agreement signed in March 2016 with the declared objective of finding “a way to prevent unchecked arrivals into the European Union”. It involves Greece returning newly arrived refugees migrants to Turkey, and in return, the EU guarantees that asylum seekers in Turkey will be resettled in Europe. This deal ensures that “the problem has once again been squeezed elsewhere rather than resolved.” Eventually, the only loser is the refugee. Despite a strong backlash from such organizations as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Amnesty International, the agreement is still in effect and refugees and migrants are indirectly forced to find new routes to escape violence and abuse. After Spain’s bilateral agreements with Morocco, Senegal, and Mauritania, the only route for “unchecked” migrants is through the Central Mediterranean, linking Libya and Tunisia to Italy. A deadly sea route.

Second, The Schengen Agreement, which came into effect in 1995, ensures that the EU provides few directives on issues of migration, refugees and asylum seekers. The Dublin regulation adds another layer of control on mobility by dictating that the country of arrival is responsible for the registration and processing of migrants and refugees alike. With the surge of the number of new arrivals, things spiral out of control. And Europe’s colonial self resurfaces.

In response to the crisis, persistent calls to close borders and reinstate checkpoints reflect a rhetoric of the empire’s anxiety of “never again.” The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, a liberal, offers an interesting comparison with the decline and fall of the Roman empire: “Big empires go down if the external borders are not well-protected.” The toxic metaphors of “swarms, floods and marauders” used by British and European politicians reinforce this trope of invasion. It is within this understanding that the French President Emmanuel Macron put forth his delusional suggestions to “clear migrants off streets by the end of the year” and to “create “hot spots” in Libya this summer.” “Disturbing” was the epithet used Human Rights Watch (HRW) and a number of NGOs to qualify his proposal.

Third, in response to the surge in the number of migrants and asylum seekers coming from Libya and Tunisia, Europe came up with a new Marshall plan for these unruly countries. Italy’s Prime Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, a center-leftist, formulated “a plan to send Italian warships into Libyan territorial waters to combat smugglers.” In Tunisia, President Béji Caid Essebsi was forced into a “bilateral agreement” during his recent visit to Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel with that would. The agreement ensures the repatriation of 1,500 Tunisian asylum seekers through a process local organizations in Tunisia deemed coercive.

These far-right policies have driven stronger populist and xenophobic reactions from Europeans. After Petra László, the Hungarian journalist who kicked refugees felling police, after onlookers verbally abused  Pateh Sabally, a 22-year-old Gambian, as he drowned in Venice’s Grand Canal, and after Italian Coast Guard ignored a call from a sinking vessel and let 250 migrants drown, the European far-right has moved from isolated individual actions to a more organized and technology-based movement. Crowdfunding and 4chan threads are the latest trends among far-right activists.

The C-Star, a ship chartered by the far-right and anti-immigration French-based group Génération identitaire (GI – The Identitarian Generation), tracks SOS Mediterranée’s Aquarius in order to hinder its search and rescue efforts. The GI’s mission, titled “Defend Europe”, is to force “the closing of the Mediterranean route as the only way to Defend Europe and save lives.”

At the same time, left-wing activism is problematic. An excellent argument on the Black Mediterranean by Ida Danewid challenges a rhetoric of solidarity, endemic to both left-wing activism and academic debate, that reproduce “the foundational assumptions of the far right” and removes “from view the many afterlives of historical and ongoing colonialism.”

Next time you see the Mediterranean, think of how these migrants’ decision to migrate to Europe through the help and guidance of people-smugglers is never a choice.

The motives for African migrants to flee their home countries are various and complex. They are not necessarily motivated by the fleeing from political and sexual violence in South Sudan or driven by economic interests, such as a better life than in Senegal or Ivory Coast.

Extreme vetting conditions in Europe and the U.S. make it difficult for a large number of African migrants to apply for a work visa and force many to opt for illegal immigration. As the Canadian journalist Geoffrey York clarifies, “New restrictions within Africa and opaque deals between European countries and African regimes [have produced] a much more dramatic effect.”  For instance, the largest numbers of African migrants in the flow to Italy are not from Eritrea or Somalia, but Nigeria, Africa’s second biggest economy.

Next time you see the Mediterranean, think of Chemseddine Marzoug.

Marzoug, a retired Tunisian fisherman and a Red Crescent volunteer, spends most of his days burying the drowned bodies he finds on the littoral area of Zarzis, in the south east of Tunisia and close to the Libyan coast. For Marzoug, a death toll of 23 announces another ordinary week of burial of the drowned. And there are all the others who will never reach the coast.

“They lived through hell in Libya. We showed them little respect when they were alive. The least we can do is to show them respect in death… It’s too much.”

With little help, he routinely buries the corpses in an ad-hoc cemetery hastily laid out on a municipal dump. There is no coffin or tombstone, just cones of sand that indicate a mortuary presence.

Further Reading

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Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.

Kwame Nkrumah today

New documents looking at British and American involvement in overthrowing Kwame Nkrumah give us pause to reflect on his legacy, and its resonances today.