Mediterranean journeys in hope

A humanitarian battlefield: redefining border control as saving victims

Care and control both fuel and feed off each other, nurturing a ‘compassionate repression’ that fails to bridge the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Pierluigi Musarò
1 June 2016
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Two survivors are saved from a shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa in which 360 people died on October 3 2013. Flickr/Guardia Costiera. Some rights reserved. ‘We need more than a humanitarian response… We need political leadership and action,’ said Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on 8 March 2016. Referring to the fact that “Europe is now seeing record numbers of refugees, and migrants, arriving on its shores”, Grandi stressed that “this emergency does not have to be crisis, it can be managed”. 

Grandi, who was speaking to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, did not mention to what extent, in recent years, the militarisation of migration and border controls has been explicitly bound with notions of humanitarianism. Nevertheless, I suspect he is aware that the current focus on both the securitarian and humanitarian sides of the phenomenon supports a complex logic of threat and benevolence that allows for a security-humanitarian response. 

Unfortunately Grandi’s concern is not new. The problematic relationship between humanitarianism and politics was clearly stressed by Médecins Sans Frontières' James Orbinski when he delivered his Nobel Lecture 17 years ago. "Humanitarianism is not a tool to end war or to create peace", Orbinski said. "It is a citizen's response to political failure. It is an immediate, short term act that cannot erase the long term necessity of political responsibility". 

The novelty is that Orbinski was criticising those interventions called ‘military-humanitarian’, while Grandi is referring to ongoing migration management, too often framed as a humanitarian emergency.

A quick look at how the moral discourses typically associated with the humanitarian aid organisations are today gaining importance in the context of border control makes clear what types of political and epistemological implications this discursive dislocation has. Consider, for example, the news, images, and video produced by the Italian Navy during the operation Mare Nostrum – the military-humanitarian operation in the Mediterranean targeted at both rescuing migrants and arresting smugglers.

Mare Nostrum (our sea) was the Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea. It was picked up again by Mussolini to frame fascist propaganda about the ‘Italian lake’. As the same (ambivalent) name indicates, the possessive 'our' imagines the Mediterranean as a European space of care and control, while it ambiguously refers to both Italy and Europe.

Moreover, it is noteworthy that the launch of the operation in October 2013 marks a transformative moment in Italian communication strategies. Until this point news on dead migrants was limited, and the few images circulating only portrayed those rescued on Italian shores. With the start of Mare Nostrum, for the first time, Italian soldiers began producing photographs and videos about the operations on the high seas. These images were immediately distributed by the main newspapers and television news channels,  widely influencing public perceptions of what was happening in the Mediterranean. But in these images, death is the exception; emphasis is on rescue.

Women with tiny, innocent babies are the most commonly represented subjects.

Moral imagination

Most photographs trigger sympathy for the soldiers and pity for the migrants. There are plenty of images that portray the soldiers’ activities with the aim of drawing us into a community of witnesses. Emphasising practices and discourses of care, aid, and assistance, soldiers covered this operation as a programme of humanitarian, national benevolence that institutes an ‘imagined community’ between spectators and soldiers from the same country: a community in which the spectator is positioned as the possible saviour, while the rescued bodies are the ‘other’.

Through such images it becomes clear that border control is being redefined within a moral imagination that puts emphasis on human vulnerability. The soldiers’ activities are depicted like recurring imagery of aid delivery, with rescued, grateful migrants receiving food parcels and water. Women with tiny, innocent babies are the most commonly represented subjects.

The extent to which the legitimacy of this military-humanitarian operation – which cost €9 million per month – depends on how it is described and explained through media becomes evident through the analysis of the official video of the operation.

As you can see, while in the first part of the video we are invited to witness the dramatic ‘emergency’, feeling the pressure to be concerned or upset in response to the horrifying images; in the second part, the high-adrenaline spectacle pivots on the soldiers challenging the waves to resolve the catastrophe. And what about the happy ending of the final frame that presents us with an intensely moralistic context that reframes the operation as humanitarian benevolence? All this lies outside any historical or political framework, of course.

Catia’s choice

This rearticulation of the military as humanitarian is even more evident in the docudrama co-produced by the Italian Navy and broadcast at prime time in October 2014 by the Italian national television network (RAI): 'Catia’s Choice: 80 miles south of Lampedusa'. 

Catia Pellegrino is the (female) lead character of this 92-minute docudrama, chronicling the rescue of refugees crossing borders during the last two months of the Mare Nostrum operation.

Alternating images of the brave rescue operations with personal stories of the crew, the video focuses on the positive influence of Catia’s strength and empathetic nature in serving others, while maintaining vigilance, keeping the seas safe on her watch. Catia is the candle that helps conquer some of the darkness of our world, lighting a path of hope to those in need. Next to security scenes depicting the fight against violent and brutal smugglers, we watch scenes in which a crewmember begins crying as he recalls the dead bodies he retrieved from the churning waters.

The issue of irregular migration flows is here construed as a journey without destination, as a tragic game of fate.

As in the video previously mentioned, the images of this docudrama exclusively highlight the effectiveness of the marines' efforts, rather than present the causes behind the operation. The issue of irregular migration flows is here construed as a journey without destination, as a tragic game of fate. As protagonists of a crisis that comes from nowhere, migrants are depicted at the same time as subjects who are forced to put themselves in danger – departing on unsafe boats – and as subjects at risk – of death and trafficking – who need to be saved. The story is about an aid operation, and the suffering party is only ever a recipient of aid, never an agent of his or her own destiny. Furthermore, it not only denies migrants’ agency to decide to move, but also translates the very notion of ‘human’ into ‘life to be rescued’, and transposes the human rights discourse into securing migrants’ lives at sea.

Speaking the language of combat – in terms of human smuggling and potential terrorists – while rescuing lives and protecting migrants’ human rights, Mare Nostrum performs the spectacle of the ‘humanitarian battlefield’. It is one spectacle, but different publics understand it differently. Like the different light refractions of the same kaleidoscope, the national spectacle of surveillance, policing, and border control is also the cosmopolitan spectacle of rescue and salvation. Mare Nostrum speaks different languages to different political constituencies: to migrants and to citizens, to smugglers and to transnational activists, to right-wing government coalition members and to NGOs.

Aesthetics of trauma

Let me conclude with a recent example that unequivocally demonstrates the integration of the humanitarian discourse of assistance and protection within the on-going language of migration governance. On 15 October 2015, during his visit to the Italian Parliament, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, paid homage “to the Italian soldiers who saved thousands of human lives in the Mediterranean”, and thanked “the Italian population for the efforts made to welcome and assist migrants”. Concluding the event, the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, affirmed: “the Italy that welcomes you is the country of the Italian officers who became nurses to deliver babies in the ships on the Mediterranean. It is an Italy of which we are proud”.  

Again, the bio-political imperative of managing lives is expressed in an aesthetic of trauma, where war (on migrants) is represented both as an intimate experience of sorrow and as a public act of peace-making.

Let me be clear about one point: I am not affirming that militaries deliberately manipulate communication by denying us ‘the truth’. In the last months, I had the chance to interview several militaries who took part in the operations and I sensed how passionate they are about their jobs. As one of them said to me, "consider the despair of these people, you see that and you see a human being in danger and anyone who has a little bit of empathy will aid people who are in distress”.

And I agree with him. My point is a different one.

Despite this emotional framing (the empathic identification with the heroes or the innocent victims), we must be aware that solidarity can be found only if we understand the political, financial, and ethical interests in the world outside the frame. They don’t say, for example, that the borders of Europe have required increasing investment, as in the case of Frontex, created in 2004 as a ‘compensatory measure’ to Schengen. It receives funding mainly from the European Commission, in addition to funding from some member-states, such as the Schengen countries. The agency’s budget has grown from €6.2 million in 2005 to €119.2 million in 2013, with only a very small amount earmarked for supporting asylum procedures and the needs of refugees. 

People on the move challenge the subject position of helpless victims.

Rather than promoting solidarity in the name of human dignity, the military-humanitarian narrative certifies the complex ontology of inequality that gives specific hierarchical value and meaning to human life. As in other instances of humanitarian government, care and control both fuel and feed off each other, nurturing a ‘compassionate repression’ that fails to bridge the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’. On the contrary, this risks providing support to neo-liberal global governance in establishing an asymmetric (in terms of both agency and dignity) moral geography of the world.

In stark opposition to this framing, we should keep in mind what has been happening in the last months. 

The collective march of refugees across the Balkans has rendered the agency of migrants themselves highly visible, exposing the crucial role they play in challenging existing governance structures. As we can see, people on the move challenge the subject position of helpless victims, and reassert their agency, their social and political identities, their hopes and dreams, their capacity to choose their own destiny.

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