Together on Europe’s New Shore: Notes on a Migrant Drowning

Recently we have witnessed a media spectacle of old trawlers, their decks impossibly crowded with people. In videos and news images, swimmers clinging to wreckage and drowned bodies are cut with outraged advocates for children and human rights arguing that European values require a greater rescue effort. The BBC shows a coffin marked only as a numbered body being buried.  Solicitous news anchors divide up simplistic alternatives and politicians make dramatic proposals to drop bombs (that these will be in crowded civilian areas is not mentioned in the flurry of news-bites). These all contrast with the weighty, steady pressure of migration from countries that have up to 30 times lower per capital GDP than European countries, the imponderable causes and the slow, hidden deliberations that seem determined by bureaucracies focused on neoliberal economics that cannot contemplate expenditures by States on human issues unless forced to.

The movement of people from Africa and the Middle East to European cities, often by any means available, has continued for over 50 years. It is entrepreneurial, desperate, determined, a lifestyle of repeat returns as undocumented labour, and exploited. Parts of every European economy depend on a cash economy of illegal immigrant labour, and European cultures are a tantalizing promise of freedom and a chance to establish oneself permanently – through refugee status, education, the assistance of an employer or through marriage. By virtue of the scale of their numbers, not all of these new arrivals can be sent back. Remittances to family at home ensure survival of others and also enhance the status of migrants in their communities of origin.

The term migrant warrant critical deconstruction. Media images show people migrating, but migrants used to be those who had in some way established themselves or been assigned an economic niche, a defined status, such as a “migrant agricultural labourer”. Migrants are now those with nothing except an image in a news reporters footage. Whereas migrants were sought in earlier centuries, now they represent a degree-zero of humanity, a “bare-life” where death occurs without great consequence, as Agamben notes. The Mediterranean has become a margin space of ignorance, like the shadowed binding fold between the pages of a book. In as much as we share their embodied humanity, all shudder to witness such a fate and most resolve to fight to remain amongst the privileged. Even if in secret, the sin of choosing self-preservation unites these witnesses.

It is a fundamental and violent communion, a “communitas” Turner called it.  Ironically it includes both the “insider” European and other audiences, safe on shore, so to speak, and those who keep struggling, the new arrivals.  This shared trauma is in the long term the historical basis of a shared community that will recast Europe.

This positionality removes the witnesses to safety, pulls them back out of the water and dilemma. The spatiality of the mediterranean as an expanse of refugee and migrant spectacle is matched by the presentism of the media spectacle which fails to remind us that this is a continuing flow and a fact of national political-economic inequality which should never have been ignored. The spectacle has the topology of the theatre with its division of audience and stage and its bounded temporality of a live event which stresses division: acts, scenes, a beginning, climax and end that can limit its effects outside the duration of a spectacle.

A gravitational flow of migration toward promise is not susceptible to analysis in these terms. Perhaps it has come as a surprise that the democratic uprisings of the last few years in so many countries that all share the status of being outside the club of the “developed world” has produced this movement from there to here, from afar “they” wish to join the privileged “us” and forge a collective demos?  Europe has been / is too preoccupied with its internal crisis, “la crise”, of resisting neoliberal economic restructuring.

This is not a sudden event but more akin to a meterological or magnetic phenomenon of regular attractivity and mobilities that not only alters but constitutes the character of its poles, warm and cold, positive and negative. While Europeans may variously wish to defend their continent or act on European humanism that values all lives, its has already changed with the presence of migrants. Europeans live in under the illusions of an ideology of political and economic independence. Media commentators reaffirm this in fetishized representations of the solidity and stability of the destination the migrants seek.

It is the migrants who are the realists, able to see the actual and the potential.  As Stuart Hall and others once affirmed in the title of their book The Empire Strikes Back, the relationship between Europe and its former colonies and dependencies has been reversed. Migrants, knowing colonial languages, affirm by this reversal the lines of colonising desire.  Their movement is in effect a lived programme that will re-constitute  Europe in time.  Migration is an expression of the actual reality of love and real potentialities of hope. Migration then is a postcolonial crisis of the relation between developed and underdeveloped, included and marginalized, beneficiary and exploited. In this crisis, migrants as individuals are drowning and are in every sense destitute, exploited and powerless. But as a collective multitude, migrants hold the winning cards of knowing the true situation of the interrelatedness of Europe and its Others.  They will prevail and shape the future.  We can only say with greater hindsight when turning points arrive but this appears to be both a historical moment of tragedy and change.  Together we stand on a new shore in a new Europe.

Rob Shields, University of Alberta