From Exodus 1947 to Lampedusa: Refugees, illegality and the Mediterranean | Part Two
It has been noted that of the 50,000 migrant deaths in transit recorded (and two thirds are not), for as many as one in five the region (let alone the country) of origin is unknown. That so many deaths literally leave no trace in a world of instant communication and constant surveillance reflects the utter obscurity and marginality of so many migrants today. The Mediterranean, for example, has been described as the busiest ocean in the world, yet thousands have drowned in it. Against that invisibility is the desire of many NGOs, journalists, campaigners, academics and others to give restore individuality to the migrant. Yet EU regulations force migrants into certain narratives in order to gain asylum.
Perhaps the most desperate attempt to 'perform' refugeedom is the desire to show innocence through the presence of young children on these boats. Abdul Azizi, and 26 other refugees from Afghanistan and Syria boarded a boat from Turkey aiming for Greece. After two hours their engine failed and a Greek coastguard vessel ordered them to return to Turkey. 'We said the boat had broken down. And we took the babies and held them above our heads, to show that there were children on board. But they didn't listen'. Their boat was towed towards Turkey and then began to sink:
The women and children were in the [hold] and we went to try and get them... Everything happened so quickly. There was no time to save our children. We had arrived in Europe. We were refugees. But in a flash I had lost my child and my wife.
The three hundred plus victims of the October 2013 Lampedusa disaster included 'a baby boy still attached to his mother by the umbilical cord'.
After 1945, Jewish survivors of the Holocaust performed their persecuted state through adopting, according to the British authorities, a 'Belsen' pose. In the first decades of the twenty first century, the climate of distrust is such that migrants have to exhibit their children to show they are not a threat to the receiving countries. No children under 12 reached Lampedusa alive following the 3 October 2013 tragedy. It is in that context that the ongoing refusal of the British government to allow anything other than a handful of unaccompanied child migrants from the continent of Europe must be viewed – in spite the efforts of campaigners to draw upon the Kindertransport as a ‘usable past’ in terms of past policy towards young refugees.
In the detention centres of Lampedusa and in its everyday life, the migrants have both resisted and formed alliances with the local inhabitants. In February 2014 this led to the creation of the Charter of Lampedusa which was not 'intended as a draft law' but as the expression 'of an alternative vision' where 'Differences must be considered as assets, a source of new opportunities, and must never be exploited to build barriers'. Lampedusa has also acted as a source of identity for those who have found asylum beyond its shores. It has led to groups including 'Lampedusa in Berlin' using the solidarity of this experience to campaign for better treatment of migrants at all stages of the journey.
Those migrants who have passed through the island have made a determined effort at self-representation, including in the form of heritage performance. An alternative museum and archive of Lampedusa has been created on the island itself, made up of the ruined boats and lost belongings of the migrants, and through an online archive, including the creation of a powerful film, 'To Whom It May Concern'. If Exodus 1947 was performed both at the time and subsequently as an epic narrative, it is already clear that Lampedusa has become part of a global story - one in which the migrants themselves are playing a significant role in constructing its present and future memory.
The island of Lampedusa has been a military base for various empires and it has continued this fortress role as a border for the European Union. It has also been a place of local welcome to newcomers escaping danger and a place of livelihood for fishermen and farmers. Population movements in and out of the island, forced and voluntary are integral to its remote history, a part of and apart from Europe. The boat people and the treatment of them, including deportation and return, as well as empathy towards them, are part of a deep history and not alien to it.
In the politics of performativity involving both Exodus 1947 and contemporary boat people, history matters. On one level, they share a common bureaucratic past and the construction of the 'illegal immigrant'. That there are few if any links made between the boat migrants of the twenty first century and the 'illegals' of the 1930s/40s, reflects largely the self-contained nature of Holocaust studies, including Jewish refugees from that era and the ahistorical nature of forced migration studies. Exclusive readings of the past hinder the universalism proclaimed in the Charter of Lampedusa that 'As human beings we all inhabit the Earth as a shared space'. It stands for 'global freedom for all', recognising that 'The history of humanity is a history of migration', admonishing 'No Illegalisation of people: migration is not a crime'.
Responding to the treatment of migrants in the twenty first century, including his adopted homeland America with regard to its treatment of those at its border, the late Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel has commented that:
You who are so-called illegal aliens must know that no human being is 'illegal'. That is a contradiction in terms. Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal?
How long have migrants been labelled 'illegal'? The answer is historically not too long, but ethically, far, far too long.