800 people dead at sea. That’s more than the passengers who perished when the Titanic sank. Except the names of most of these will never be known: migrant deaths are most often vanishings. It took two weeks to even estimate the casualties of this latest wreck to the nearest hundred. Yet another function of these almost incomprehensibly large numbers is to inure the media and the public to future tragedies.
366 deaths were enough in 2013 to ditch the Italian laws that criminalised clandestine immigration, launch a year-long search-and-rescue mission, and turn the day of the tragedy – 3 October – into a yearly commemoration of migrant drownings in the Mediterranean. Two years later, that kind of toll barely makes the papers. The bar has been reset.
Those 800 bodies, still trapped 375 metres under the sea halfway between Malta and Lampedusa in the boat that sank on 18 April, will never be recovered. The state prosecutor at Catania has explained that they are not needed for his investigation, and nobody else seems either able or willing to authorise the expense. The investigation, evidently, is aimed solely at capturing the people smugglers. Producing an accurate count of the dead is unimportant. Identifying the victims to offer comfort and closure to the relatives who have been phoning the Red Cross toll-free number from all over Africa is not a fiscal priority for Europeans.
Everywhere, the language of economic rationalism and law-enforcement pragmatism is dominating the debate. We can no longer afford the cost of the ‘Mare Nostrum’ rescue mission, says Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and anyway other countries should pay for it as well. We should turn the boats back, says UK Home Secretary Theresa May, because giving migrants safe passage will embolden the smugglers (an argument that is very familiar in this part of the world). Talks are stalling amidst a flurry of swiftly discarded options, with each passing day leaving less room for whatever shred of human concern is still allowed to permeate the rhetoric of European lawmakers.
‘Rational’ is spending a quarter of a century outsourcing manufacturing jobs to Asia and using the resulting unemployment to justify not saving African lives in your small sea. Meanwhile, according to figures released last year by UN High Commission for Refugees, over 86 per cent of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries, a proportion that has increased dramatically over the last decade. On these paradoxes of wealth and poverty rest the foundations of the new vocabulary of xenophobia I documented last year, as well as the political rhetoric that frames migrant deaths as a useful deterrent.
The language itself is a blanket, or a white sheet thrown over those bodies. It suffocates any debate or talk of alternatives. What does it even mean to distinguish between economic refugees and the regular kind, when those who flee poverty are driven to attempt such a dangerous crossing? ‘No one would put their children in boats unless the sea is safer than land,’ as the phrase attributed to Somali-British writer Warshan Shire goes. And the Mediterranean, which claimed over 1,600 lives in the first four months of this year alone, is easily the most dangerous patch of sea in the world. Yet the same international community that minutely regulates the flow of trade and goods on a global scale appears incapable of creating similar frameworks not just for dealing with this continuing humanitarian emergency, but even for talking about it.
This much we know: that the next decades will see an increase in migrant flows, and in the levels of desperation of those who seek to rebuild their lives away from homes that are no longer inhabitable. The response of the first world, just as increasingly, is to turn itself into an unassailable fortress, following a logic that is in step with the dominant political economy. According to this logic, the movement of capital and goods is what produces wealth, and any attempt to regulate or restrain this movement constitutes an attack on human freedom. The movement of people, by contrast, is what spreads poverty and creates instability and danger. It must not just be regulated and discouraged but actively punished and repressed.
One response to the paralysing state of this conversation, as Jeff Sparrow has shown recently on this magazine, is to historicise it: what are the precedents for thinking of acts of human migration as an existential threat, and in what conditions did they flourish? The other is to understand that advocating for justice for migrants and refugees requires us to radically rethink our institutions, on a scale not dissimilar from – indeed, intimately connected with – the level of change that tackling climate change will demand of us.
Until then, in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, death will be the norm, and every time its horror will be less newsworthy. On this day one month ago, twenty-eight people survived by literally climbing over the bodies of 800 fellow passengers. It happened in this world. It will happen again.