A European Spoon River: migrants without names, without voices and without rights

As economic logic supplants all other considerations in crisis-ridden Europe, the plight of immigrants who knock on the doors of Fortress Europe becomes inextricable, often ending with tragic consequences.

A migrant boat cemetery in Lampedusa. Demotix/Michele Lapini. All rights reserved.A migrant boat cemetery in Lampedusa. Demotix/Michele Lapini. All rights reserved.

In the short poetry anthology Spoon River, Edgar Lee Masters narrates the lives and losses of the more than two hundred dead citizens buried in the fictional small town’s cemetery. The epitaphs on each grave carry the name or nickname of the dead and tell us, the readers, a short anecdote, a story about the dead’s lived life, about love, friendships, relationships, feelings and experiences.

Graves have names in the fictional Spoon River. But this seems another of the privileges refused to the thousands of migrants, children, women and men, who lose their lives on their fatal journey to get into fortress Europe. Their names remain buried with them under the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, or on the many nameless graves on the shores of Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain, where lifeless bodies sometimes re-emerge. The dead are migrants without identity and history - and families that will never know what happened to their relatives. This is only one of the most fatal consequences of Europe’s war on immigration.

In 2012 over 52,000 people arrived by sea from North Africa, in particular on the island of Lampedusa, which due to its location, is one of the strategic doorsteps into Europe from Africa.

This number does not include those many who did not ‘make it’, and lost their lives during the journey. This is why in November 2012, the mayor of Lampedusa and Linosa (a neighbouring island), Giusi Nicolini, launched her personal j’accuse, condemning the silence and oblivion surrounding the deaths of the migrants she regularly buries in the graveyard of Lampedusa.

‘How big must the graveyard of my island become?’ she asks in a public letter (Italian) that went viral in the Italian social media. ‘In the past six months we have buried here more than 21 women, men and children (…) I cannot understand how such a tragedy can be considered something normal. I am indignant with the way we have all got used to this. I am outraged about the indifference of Europe, which recently was given the Nobel Peace Prize, but keeps silent when confronted with this terrible slaughter, which has the body count of a war’.

Needless to say, none of the national or European authorities reacted. Silence and indifference. The same thing happened on Christmas day 1996, in events lucidly described by Italian journalist Giovanni Maria Bellu, when 300 migrants from Sri Lanka and Pakistan perished while attempting the sea journey from Egypt to Italy. It was the worse shipwreck in the Mediterranean area since WWII. None of them survived and their bodies and limbs continued for weeks to get caught in fishermens' nets around Portopalo, a small Sicilian fishing village, a tragedy met with silence by Italian and European authorities.

According to recent UNHCR estimates, more than 1,500 people drowned or went missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe in 2011 alone. This made 2011 the deadliest year for this region since UNHCR started to record these statistics in 2006; a number which is of course much lower than how many actually died at sea.

The estimates for 2012 will be even higher. The conflicts in Libya and in other neighbouring African countries have augmented the number of refugees and migrants who flee or are forced to set out on risky journeys, away from these places and regardless of the dangers of the voyage. But despite the increasing number of deaths, the war on migrants and migration continues, following the same patterns, driven by the imperative impetus of curbing immigration. The European Union and its member states have adopted and upheld a repressive approach, considering migrants as ‘clandestine’ and illegal even before they have sailed from the shores of Africa.

Since the mid-2000s, the EU border control agency Frontex launched bilateral agreements with North African countries such as Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. This was a time when Colonel Gaddafi was still considered a good partner by Europe; someone to make agreements with and invite over as our guest. An example of this is the treaty of friendship, partnership and cooperation signed by Italy and Libya in 2007, granting the control and intercept of migrants on the Libyan coastline and sea to local authorities and police forces.

The pact ‘awarded’ Libya with a six years’ 200 million dollars contract and promises of Italian infrastructural investments in the country (Libya is a former Italian colony). The agreements were hastily renewed with post-Gaddafi Libya: in 2012 a delegation led by interior minister Adriana Cancellieri, representing the Italian ‘technical’ Monti government, met with Libyan authorities in Tripoli to improve bilateral cooperation in the field of migration and ‘strengthen the privileged relationship in countering illegal immigration’, considered a priority requiring consolidation through operational measures. Migration control has remained at the top of the political agenda.

The new agreements between Italy and Libya reinforced the previous ones and entailed the further enhancement of border monitoring and coastal controls - supported by Italian expertise and technical assistance, together with the resumption of activities at the reception and detention centres for apprehended ‘illegal’ migrants. As all migrants are considered and treated as 'illegals', all migrants in distress at sea and intercepted can in this way be “pushed back” to the countries they came from for detention.

The same fate awaits those migrants who are rapidly repatriated/deported by the authorities. This more and more often takes place in disrespect of basic human rights, of asylum seeking rights and of international laws that for instance protect unaccompanied migrant children, as recently denounced by international reports, organisations and NGOs.

The economic and financial crisis has only intensified already existing practices, contributing to worsening even more the conditions of detention and deportation and ‘push-back’ practices. A case in point is Greece, which was been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights and repeatedly criticized by international organisations for human rights violations and for its appalling detention conditions in its centres for immigrants, particularly in the border region of Evros. The increase of racist violence in the country also puts the lives of refugees and migrants at risk on a daily basis.

Nevertheless, Italy is still prominent among the European countries that have continued to send the migrants detected and apprehended in Italian ports and on the southern coasts back, well aware of the consequences. The reports on these abuses and discriminations proliferate, as well as the protests of people seeking asylum.

Although a good portion of responsibility for the consequences of punitive immigration regimes, infamous reception conditions and asylum detention practices is imputable to single countries, in this case past and present Italian governments, the problem is not exclusively Italian, Greek, or Spanish.

Particularly in times of economic crisis, one would expect Europe to act collectively on migration issues (and particularly on asylum policy), but instead the economy has become the factor that allows and legitimizes certain common practices and discourses. The voices we hear underline narrow cost-benefits logics and the nefarious economic consequences of an increase in the number of migrants and asylum seekers. People are being transformed into numbers and numbers into budget expenses and welfare costs. It is virtuous to keep the numbers of the undeserving and unproductive as low as acceptable: 'it is the economy, stupid!'

As in Denmark, when statistics suddenly reveal that a increasing number (Danish) of asylum seekers has come to the country and family reunifications have increased, comments often point to the ‘consequence of the current government’s lenient politics’, which can only result in ‘higher costs and lots of troubles’, as directly formulated (Danish) by the integration spokeswoman of the Danish Liberal Party - although Denmark comparatively receives less asylum seekers than the other Scandinavian countries.

The impetus to control costs and expenses of asylum seekers and migration here and now makes all other connections, considerations and links irrelevant; many would like to prevent them from landing and presenting their applications altogether, thus making the sea in between an even more dangerous stretch of water for so many unwanted refugees and migrants.

About the author

Susi Meret is assistant professor at the department of Culture and Global Studies, Aalborg University. She is affiliated with the COMID (Centre for the Studies of Migration and Diversity) research group.