Mapping the fatal borders of Europe

BY Karina Horsti

THEME LEADER Nikos Papastergiadis

SUPPORTED BY University of Melbourne, as part of the NGV Triennial – exploring the emerging intersections of art, design, science and society.

In maps that visualise irregular movement of people across European borders, clusters of arrows point from the south to the north. They suggest uninterrupted movement, and the maps act as visual metaphors of the invasion that supposedly threatens the Continent. In these maps, produced by the European border control agency Frontex and the media, there is sometimes a small dot, somewhere in the middle, marked with the name Lampedusa. The arrows that point to Continental Europe are larger than the dot, representing masses of people that obliterate the island and pierce through Europe’s imagined oneness. These visuals reproduce the mental idea of Europe as a container that has edges in the Mediterranean Sea.

Lampedusa is a small Italian island 100 kilometres north of Tunisia, and is a key point among the migrant processing centres in the European border zone. Its economy rests on tourism, the militarisation of the Mediterranean and policing the European border. Frontex, the Italian military and coast guard, as well as humanitarian NGOs, operate from the island. Between 2014 and 2016 Frontex counted more than half a million undocumented interceptions on the Central Mediterranean route where Lampedusa is situated.

From the perspective of the north, Lampedusa is at the edge of the imagined container. The island’s migrant registration centre serves as a pre-emptive border post to curb unwanted populations. However, from a Mediterranean perspective, the island is not on the periphery but in the centre: it has always been at the crossroads for people on the move, and this movement is not only from the south to the north. Before 1997, when Italy started implementing the European Union’s Schengen Agreement that abolished internal borders, the movement was also circular, back and forth.

While the migrants are not held in the EU registration centre, the so-called hotspot, for very long, it does not mean that their presence is insignificant to Lampedusa. Sometimes the guards at the centre let the people walk into town. The island, too, stays in the memory of the migrants, and they can return, from the north to Lampedusa.

For those people who have taken the risky boat journey from Libya or Tunisia, Lampedusa prompts memories. Along the perilous journey from war zones, dictatorships or the lack of future prospects, the island has offered a pause. For some, the island provides a momentary relief: a place in between a very hard journey and a hopeful future. It is where people call home to say they made it. At the registration centre, everyone who is rescued from the Mediterranean Sea gets a phone card that allows for one phone call. However, for some people Lampedusa might become a prison island – a stasis produced by border politics. Most people would like to rely on smugglers even after they have been moved elsewhere in Italy, and to choose the European country where they would seek asylum.

The border regime has tried to break the collective refusal to give fingerprints by not letting the people travel onwards.

Today, the Central Mediterranean is the most fatal border zone in the world. Other kinds of maps represent the full stop of the migrant journey – complete motionlessness, death at the border – by circles that represent the number of fatalities. In the early 2000s French scholar Olivier Clochard began making visual cartographies of the fatal border that were published in Le Monde diplomatique and various activist publications. For the European viewers, his maps were both familiar and unfamiliar. The circles of death were in places associated with holidays: the Canary Islands, Gibraltar, the Greek islands, Tunisia, Malta, Lampedusa and southern Italy. At the time, these maps provided critical imagery of the border zone, and migrant activists used them to wake up the consciousness of European citizens.

However, after 2013, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) also produced such maps. It counted 10,622 deaths in the Central Mediterranean between 2014 and 2016. Isn’t it paradoxical that an organisation that is part of the technology of border management, and represents the governments that produce the fatal conditions, became so interested in counting deaths? Was it perhaps that after two decades of fatalities, instead of disturbing the public, the knowledge of death at the border had become normalised, an unavoidable part of irregular migration?

Often, the dead bodies of people who drowned are not recovered, and the sea becomes their grave. This limitless and formless grave can nevertheless be seen from the high cliffs of Lampedusa. ‘This is the only place where I can really commemorate my friends, and feel connected to them’, says Adhanom Rezene, who has returned to the island from Sweden. He is an Eritrean who lost childhood friends in a shipwreck in 2013 that he survived. The journey backwards from the north to Lampedusa, to see the sea from the cliffs, becomes an act of remembrance for those who did not survive. However, for Rezene, remembering the loss of relationships is accompanied by the memory of survival and of finding new relationships. With other Eritrean survivors from Sweden and Norway, he visited the Lampedusani who pulled many of them from the sea. That moment signified the start of a new life for them, of being ‘born again’, as Adhanom says. To mark this, the survivors call the rescuers ‘papa’. There is Papa Constantino, who is a local mason, and Papa Vito from one of the gelaterias on the main street via Roma.
In Rome, I meet Zakaria Mohamed Ali, an Italian-Somali journalist who made a short film, To Whom It May Concern (2013), about his return to Lampedusa, the place where he was rescued after his second attempt to cross the border. In our conversations, Zakaria refers to Europeans’ lack of attentiveness to the humanity of those who travel by boat. By returning to Lampedusa, he has demonstrated that the one who was treated as a non-person is able to return, as a ‘free man’, as he likes to put it. He returns and asks questions, finds out what happens and why, and demands responses from those working for the border regime. ‘Do you know where they threw my friend’s wedding photo?’, he demands in his film when he visits the migrant registration centre.

Zakaria has returned to Lampedusa four times in the nine years he has lived in Italy. He has visited the anonymous migrant graves in the cemetery, remembering those whose deaths he witnessed during his first journey that ended back in Libya. There was a father who drowned while he was trying to save his two children – Zakaria has not forgotten them. The anonymous grave holding remains of completely different persons somehow seems an appropriate place to contemplate what he has witnessed. He imagines that the remains could be theirs, or that he himself could be buried there. For Zakaria, Lampedusa is not only a border that he crossed but also a place where he transformed. It is a moral test to return and think what he has become. He tells me:

Lampedusa is the place where you finally feel free. It’s the place where you call your family. You start your life. You think what you were, what you will become, what you will become after Lampedusa.

Dr Karina Horsti is an Academy of Finland Fellow at the University of Jyväskylä. She is writing a book about the aftermath of a recent shipwreck in the Mediterranean which resulted the death of 368 Eritrean refugees.

Image: Louisa Bufardeci, 18/10/2001, 7°36’25.09”S 106°44’9.99”E from The sea between A and I, 2014–15, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne