A black baby was born on a boat on the Mediterranean Sea in late June. Its mother was trying to escape from Libya, together with 92 men and women. Help was on the way, with the Italian rescue vessel Mare Jonio nearing the boat in distress, ready to rescue them to a place of safety in Europe.
But Libyan forces were quicker, intercepting the boat on Europe’s behalf and returning the migrants to the Libyan war zone against their will. Upon disembarkation, survivors spoke of six people who lost their lives during the odyssey.
Official statistics record 377 deaths so far in 2020 but these are rough estimates, and the true figure is certainly considerably higher. Even in known shipwrecks, of which there were three in the central Mediterranean just in June, numbers of deaths are often unclear. And as there are few official investigations into these shipwrecks, the number who die often remains unclear, leaving families and friends of the disappeared in endless cycles of hope and despair.
Despite the absence of data on the ethnicity of those who lose their lives at sea, statistics on migrant crossings register that the vast majority of people originate from Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa or South Asia.
When black lives don’t matter at sea
During a period when Black Lives Matter protests are reverberating around the world following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the silence around black lives lost at sea is astounding.
If the video footage of Floyd’s killing was not enough to reveal his cause of death, the independent medical examination confirmed death by homicide: “Cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.”
The process of drowning is also cruel. In medical terms, someone who drowns becomes hypercarbic, hypoxemic and acidotic. They experience circulatory arrest, multiple organ dysfunction and, in the absence of rapid intervention and resuscitation, death.
Actions taken by border guards at sea may be less visible than a police officer kneeling on a person’s neck – and are rarely caught on camera – but they are no less violent.
Over the past few months, European authorities have left hundreds of people consciously in distress and adrift at sea, merely watching them from the sky. Some have attacked vulnerable people and sabotaged their boats while wearing paramilitary-style masks. Others have threatened people at sea at gunpoint, preventing them from landing, or left migrants in need offshore in the cattle cages of a livestock cargo ship.
European politicians such as the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell expressed shock about the “abuse of power” by the police in the US in the wake of Floyd’s killing. But they have remained silent on Malta’s acts of non-assistance and push-backs that cost at least 12 lives in April. They have also stayed silent on Malta’s mass incarceration of 425 vulnerable people in floating detention centres off Europe’s coast. And few politicians have spoken up against reports of systematic attacks by Greek coastguards on migrant boats in the Aegean.
Silence and impunity
Deaths in the Mediterranean are the result of racist ways in which the rich countries of the north govern and police human movement, particularly those emerging from countries with ongoing conflict or severe poverty. The philosopher Étienne Balibar once referred to these structural conditions of segregation as producing “global apartheid”.
It’s estimated that more than 19,000 lives have been lost in the Mediterranean since 2014. Relatives of the dead and disappeared, as well as activist supporters, are desperately trying to raise awareness about this mass dying. They struggle, however, to be heard.
It is particularly revealing that, even in a moment of global attention on issues of racial inequality, certain lives – those who fall between global frontiers – are erased from public consciousness. Such erasure is the result of a deep-seated Western-centric imagination of what lives count or are deemed worthy to grieve over when lost.
Some social movements are beginning to make connections between systems of violence and segregation within nation states and those global ones that segregate between populations worldwide. In the US, calls to defund or even abolish the police are slowly connecting to issues around migration control, including calls to defund and abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In Europe, similar calls, for example to defund and abolish the European border agency Frontex are rarely heard. Carola Rackete, captain of one of the ships run by the NGO Sea-Watch, says it’s difficult to make the case to abolish Frontex when “the majority of EU citizens don’t know that agency even exists, less so what they do”.
Such awareness, however, is desperately needed. The expiration of black and brown lives at sea must be connected to Europe’s border practices and policies, in the same way that Floyd’s death is being connected to racist policing in the US. In order to do so, however, we would first have to acknowledge that black and brown lives also matter at sea.
Maurice Stierl receives funding from the Leverhulme Trust. He is affiliated with the activist network Alarm Phone.