Death in the Mediterranean

It was probably the biggest tragedy in the history of Mediterranean migrations. According to the testimonies of some of the 28 survivors, between 700 and 900 people, mainly from Sub-Saharan Africa, were on the boat that sank in the Strait of Sicily on April 19.

We have gotten used to it, and this indeed is one of the most terrifying aspects of this story. Yes, we – white Europeans of different nationalities who hold passe-partout (masterkey) passports – have gotten used to thousands of non-white bodies swamped in the Mediterranean waters, like we got used to many other forms of extermination perpetrated along racial lines in the past. How did it come about?

European policies in the Mediterranean have been constantly oscillating between humanitarianism and policing. Our discussions about migrations always reproduce a sort of state of self-denial.

Questions are framed as if the processes that transformed the Mediterranean in the biggest marine cemetery of the world were in some way disconnected from our Schengen legal-territorial regime.

White vs non-white passports

This regime transformed the “Schengen area” into a single territorial unit and erected a wall, especially against Asian and African passport holders. Schengen ultimately discriminates between white and non-white passports and denies the latter universal human rights such as the basic right to freedom of movement.

Portraying Schengen as a European achievement (“Europe has no borders!”) while ignoring its political effect on the non-white enables us to speak about “accidents” when people sink in our watery frontiers, and to deny that our own laws killed them.

In October 2013, after 366 people drowned close to the island of Lampedusa, the Italian government created the military-humanitarian mission Mare Nostrum (“Our Sea”), in coordination with North-African governments. In spite of the considerable amount of rescuing operations, the mission has not managed to prevent the deaths of many migrants.

In November 2014, Mare Nostrum was substituted by Triton, an operation led by the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union (Frontex), whose mandate is “to support the Italian authorities in collecting intelligence on the people-smuggling networks operating in the countries of origin and transit of the migrants”.

The moral and legal duty of rescuing was put on the back burner with the security imperative of border control and smuggling prevention now calling the shots.

Right wing declarations

Since then the tension between rescuing and policing has continued to characterise the debate and accompany the further deaths of migrants. Schengen, obviously, remained untouched.

During the recent months there were numerous appeals among European politicians to even suspend any rescue operations of migrants in Europe’s southern sea.

“We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths,” stated the British Foreign Office minister in October 2014.

“We must sink the boats [that transport migrants]. An act of war is better than losing a war,” or “We must impose an international naval block [against Libya],” some Italian right-wing politicians exclaimed immediately after this last tragedy in the Strait of Sicily.

There is an explicit killing drive in these statements. However, we would commit a mistake if we understood these frequent invitations to liquidate non-white human lives as isolated cases of political insanity.

Compassionate solution

It is much more frightening to look at the way in which we, ordinary passe-partout Schengen Europeans, have normalised our Mediterranean massacres. We normalised them exactly because we feel relieved after listening to right-wing extremists or governmental hard-liners articulating their virulent acts of racist speech. We tell ourselves: “This is too much, we have a moral obligation to save lives.”

But the problem is that rescuing – what we might think is the compassionate solution to the problem – is simply part of our process of interiorisation of our own homicidal laws.

In fact, rescuing is entirely part of this legal killing mechanism we safely call migration management. The hundreds of human beings who yesterday lost their lives died while a rescuing team of the Italian coastguard approached them.

The migrants moved to the side of their boat closer to the coastguard boat in order to be saved. The weight of their bodies overturned their boat and they were killed in the midst of the rescuing operation.

Being appalled by the statements of the extreme right on rescuing is not enough. We should ask our governments to give up the privileges offered by the Schengen treaty and open our frontiers.

Nicola Perugini is the author of The Human Right to Dominate.

This article originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Nicola Perugini teaches at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. He is the co-author of The Human Right to Dominate.