The Meaning of Non–Protest in the Struggle to Pass Borders

Since 1988, at least 21,439 people have died along the borders of Europe: 2,352 in 2011, 590 in 2012, 801 in 2013 and 2,086 in the first eight months of 2014. This data is reported in the blog Fortress Europe, created by journalist Gabriele Del Grande. He has described many silent stories of those migrants without an identity, past or future, and whose existence often ends in the depths of the Mediterranean Sea as it swallows their faint hope of a life away from war.

On October 3rd, 2013, many international newspapers reported the sinking of a Libyan ship near the island of Lampedusa. The sinking caused the deaths of 366 migrants, many more wounded, and only few survivors. Since then, with the increased number of migrants drowned, newspapers headlines have often recalled the “great humanitarian crisis” that afflicts the tiny island of Lampedusa. Moreover, they have often reported data on deaths at sea such as a war report during the World Wars. During trench warfare, soldiers fought for their homeland in search of victory and freedom. They clashed in a place with a definite boundary in which they died, suffered and exulted for victories. At that time, war reporting was focused on the sole specific location where the fighting took place.

However, in contemporary wars there is not one place where soldiers fight together to save their homeland; rather there are many undefined places chosen by the Warlords, who use them to the detriment of the population who live there. This shift in the place of war carries with it a nonsensical fight for civilians who are trying only to escape from their violated homelands. Thus, many migrants who arrive on the Mediterranean coasts have been forced to flee from a senseless war they did not decide to take part in. In this way, the figures of casualties on newspapers’ front pages can be compared to past reports on trench warfare – yet there are no soldiers who risk losing their life, but only people who are seeking salvation far from a nameless place.

Since the tragedy of 2013, the rescue activities of the Navy together with the activity of the First Help Center for Immigrants strongly increased, along with the landing of migrants on the island of Lampedusa. Above all, the inhabitants of Lampedusa have gained a deep understanding of what it means to be a “migrant” by trying to help all survivors to cope with the feeling of loss after crossing the Mediterranean Sea. On the one hand, locals are starting to get used to the presence of migrants as an ordinary thing. On the other hand, states are mainly concerned about the immediate emergency. They deal with the problem by implementing policies to prevent the influx of migrants from the Global South. In particular, EU policy on migration focuses mainly on the control of EU borders and on irregular landings . Recently, the Italian operation Mare Nostrum has been replaced by Triton, a new operation coordinated by Frontex (the agency for the control of EU borders) which has enforced a policy of control, assuring offshore and inshore border patrol, in conjunction with the rescue of migrants ships near the Italian coast, within a distance of 30 miles. Above all, EU policy on migration is interested in maintaining public order and assuring observance of international law at the borders. On the one hand, border patrols are effective in preventing the arrival of ships off the Italian coasts and in reducing casualties in the high sea. However, they do not resolve the core of the problem: How to allow migrants to stay in their homeland rather than flee abroad. Thus, international law and state boundaries are assumed as the main part of the problem; meanwhile, the human face of this phenomenon is neglected by states, which pay little attention to migrants stories and their destinies. In addition, the fate of these migrants inevitably ends up in the statistics shown by newspapers which do not take into account the personal migrant stories hidden in the numbers. It is precisely in silence of these statistics that these missing people continue to give voice to protest.

It looks like a silent protest, a non-protest of those who (like the missing migrants) didn’t have time to stand up and claim their rights because the Sea had swallowed them in its depths. Therefore, many lives of migrants end up in that interstice between two borders, in an undefined place that leaves no space to remember – with dignity – people who have perished while crossing the columns of Hercules. All these disregarded deaths are a non-protest, a cry without a voice, a cry of water and fear, an agonizing silence of words that leaves a lot of responsibility to the civil societies in having to remind to the world what it is hidden behind the figures of casualties. This non-protest of missing migrants acts retrospectively on the public consciousness. People learn and forget the number of deaths, putting no effort into understanding the root causes of those deaths. Our duty, therefore, is to imagine the perceptions of a journey into the unknown; what it means to cross the borders as many migrants do. Only by remembering the stories behind the numbers can the silence vanish and a new political action can start. Only then, the people will understand that, hidden in news headlines, there are human beings like them who bravely cross the Mediterranean in search of a life away from war.

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Daria Forlenza is a PhD student in intercultural communication at Lumsa University of Rome.  Her research aims at recognizing the role of the ethnic press in the process of confirmation of migrants’ identity. As a visiting student at SOAS, University of London, she is focusing her research on the historical background of the press for the black community in London.