This year’s CommemorActions, which took place in quick succession, highlight different kinds of border violence in the Mediterranean context. The case along the Moroccan-Spanish border exemplifies acts of direct border violence that kill people on the move, while the case off Libya’s coast exemplifies acts of abandonment and letting people drown. Although different, these are connected strategies and enforcement methods along contemporary borders. Like the academic and prison abolitionist, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, we refer to them as “organized abandonment alongside organized violence”.
What leads to the suffocation of Black and brown people in the Mediterranean are both rubber bullets shot at those trying to circumvent a border fence and the decisions of European authorities to non-assist and let people drown. Necropolitical borders work through direct and indirect forms of violence and through the selective presence and absence of authorities.
The disappearance of bodies, according to Suvendrini Perera, the John Curtin Distinguished Professor and Research Professor in Cultural Studies at Curtin University, has both a secret and public function. “They are unnamed, undifferentiated, hidden from sight, but also signs of sovereign power over life, markers of warning and spectacles of ‘deterrence.’”
The disastrous effects of acts of border violence and abandonment have led to the loss of tens of thousands of lives over recent years. The drowning process is cruel. When someone drowns, liquid enters their airways and stops them from breathing air. The human body suffocates due to hypoxia, the deprivation of oxygen, and shuts down. Dead bodies float for about one or two hours before they sink. They may surface again, days later, but very few bodies are ever found washed-up along African or European coasts – the majority vanish.
The disappearance of loved ones haunts relatives and friends. As the philosopher Gaston Bachelard once wrote, “death associated with water is more dream-like than death associated with earth: the pain of water is infinite.”
Disappearances mean a particular kind of pain for relatives, friends, and often entire communities. When a body is absent, and hope of return and reunification can persist, common rituals associated with mourning the dead cannot begin.