Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Lisa Mullenneaux: The Raft of the Medusa

Will European politics bury the human rights laws it once created?

In November 1818, a 27-year-old Théodore Géricault, who until then had been inspired mainly to paint the horses he rode at Versailles, sealed himself in his Paris studio and worked dawn to dusk on a huge canvas of dying men adrift on a raft. Friends who dared visit him reported that he had turned his atelier into a morgue with severed heads, truncated thighs, emaciated arms and legs, all putrid and decomposing, the better to replicate what had actually happened to the castaways he was immortalizing. The young painter had read the account by two of the 10 surviving castaways when the government frigate Méduse ran aground off today’s Mauritania in July 1816. He was as scandalized as the rest of Paris by the heartlessness of a captain, who had violated any number of naval codes and traditions when he abandoned his vessel. 

Opponents of the recently restored monarchy made sure that the details of Captain de Chaumarey’s incompetence were front-page news for he had been awarded his command not because of seamanship but because he was a Royalist. As he later testified, he knew the five lifeboats would never hold his 400 crew and passengers so he had the ship’s carpenters build a raft of wooden beams tied with rope. He promised to tow the raft to shore but, once at sea, cut the line, setting 147 people, half-submerged in seawater, adrift. After 13 days, 15 were rescued, of which 10 lived. They had survived starvation, dehydration, mutiny, insanity, and cannibalism—all of which Géricault sought to convey in the agony and despair of his misérables

Today when newspapers carry daily reports of migrants drowning in capsized vessels, Géricault’s achievement, The Raft of the Medusa (1819), is the perfect metaphor for human refuse pushed aside and ignored by the state. That’s why in 2015 Banksy stenciled an image of the painting on a wall in Calais, his comment on the notorious “Jungle” camp of refugees hoping to reach Britain. Modern versions of the Raft, such as that created by 14 artists for a 1997 exhibit at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts, show that the horrors of Europe’s “boat people” are very much with us. I read yesterday of 58 migrants drowning off Mauritania nearly in the same spot where the Méduse broke up, and I think of Géricault.

One of the most popular sea routes for African refugees leaving from Libya and Tunisia is the central Mediterranean, especially the island of Lampedusa. Since the mid-1990s, over 400,000 refugees have made the journey by sea to this island 70 miles from Tunisia and 127 miles from Sicily, such that the tiny shelf of land is synonymous with shipwrecks and sea rescues. Dr. Pietro Bartolo, who runs the lone medical clinic there since 1991, admits in his memoir Tears of Salt: A Doctor’s Story (Norton, 2018) that he never gets hardened to the corpses he has to examine. “Every time I open a green body bag, it feels as if I am doing it for the first time. Every body carries the marks of its long and tragic journey.”

For most, that journey begins by crossing the Sahara Desert, crammed into a truck or van driven by traffickers, who don’t care—migrants report—if their passengers live or die. When water runs out, as it often does, they drink their own urine. When they arrive in Libya, they assume their nightmare is over: it has just begun. Because that country is at war, they are often caught in armed conflict. Only those who survive abuse, prison, and torture make it onto a boat. Often the pregnant women Bartolo examines beg him to abort their fetuses, conceived, not by love, but by rape. Those who can’t pay smugglers’ rates for their sea passage—from $1500 to $800, depending on upper or lower decks—often sell their own kidneys; Bartolo has seen the scars.

Asylum seekers plead for assistance from a dinghy off the coast of Italy’s Lampedusa coast on April 17th, 2016. (Photo: Patrick Bar/SOS Mediterranee via AP)

Between 2003 and 2007 the Italian investigative reporter Fabrizio Gatti crossed the Sahara Desert four times with hundreds of migrants, infiltrated a gang of human traffickers in Northern Africa as a personal driver, was rescued at sea and jailed in the Lampedusa detention center as a Kurdish illegal migrant named “Bilal”, and worked as a slave laborer picking tomatoes in Puglia. Gatti recounts his undercover experiences from Africa to Europe in BilalIl mio viaggio da infiltrato nel mercato dei nuovi schiavi, (Bilal: My undercover journey into the modern slave-trade, Rizzoli, 2007). Here is his description of the Dantean entrance to Lampedusa’s Center of Temporary Permanence (CPT):

Humanity’s noble sentiments end in front of this gate. That common feeling that unites us as individuals free to think, that doesn’t differentiate between men and women, and forgets what they are. Friends or enemies. Compatriots or foreigners. Citizens or illegal immigrants…Beyond this gate, the state takes over. The lies of their governments. The betrayal of their MPs. Thanks to this green gate we are no longer individuals. But we are what we are. 

Is it surprising that the lifeline for detainees, whose freedom of movement is so restricted, is their mobile phone? Stephanie Malia Hom, who specializes in Italy’s policies of immigration and detention, uses Lampedusa as a stark example of two social classes whose paths never cross: global elites who arrive with Gucci luggage to enjoy the island’s famous beaches and migrants with just the shirts on their backs. More and more, she argues, our world is divided into those who move by choice, like the island’s tourists, and those who are moved by force, like refugees. As of the end of 2019, 79.2 million people worldwide had been forcibly displaced because of threats of death and violence; about one-fifth are minors

Gatti made his journeys to prove that immigration is a “slave factory,” making money for smugglers and corrupt state officials at every turn. Increasingly, migrants are telling their own stories, encouraged and funded by cooperatives like Rome’s Archive of Migrants’ Memories. In his film “To Whom It May Concern”, Zakaria Mohamed Ali, a Somali refugee, returns to the Lampedusa detention center (CPT) where he spent 10 days and where he lost everything he valued, his “memories.” “They threw away my documents, certificates, diplomas, photos,” he explains. “I told them: I don’t want to lose these things. They certify what I’ve studied and who I am. They have value. That’s the real violence. It’s the violence of losing one’s memory.” 

As Ali tries fruitlessly to recover what was stolen—for himself and a friend—you grasp just how vulnerable a refugee is: he has escaped with his life—across the desert and the sea—only to lose his identity at a “welcome center”. The loss is even greater for those who die nameless; Ali visits their graves and then another kind of cemetery, the wreckage of boats that line the shore. “I am not asking for anything big,” Ali says, “I’m only asking to remember human values, to respect people. I hope that our arrival will be useful, not a burden.” 

Ali’s feelings are repeated in many migrant narratives: the desire to be treated with respect and to be useful in their new home. Yet the EU’s policies of expulsion criminalize those who have already suffered trauma, removing their humanity and stripping them of basic rights. “Closed Sea”, a film produced at Rome’s Zalab, interviews migrants who fled Libya and were intercepted by the Italian Navy. Their elation lasted only until they saw from the horizon that they were being taken back to Libya. What was true then is true today: the chances of being “welcomed” in Italy are slim to none. Do Italians understand the moral cost of their push back (respingimento)?

Andrea Segre’s 2017 feature film “The Order of Things” grapples with that moral dilemma in the person of Corrado, a high-ranking official at Italy’s Ministry of the Interior, whose job is to carry out draconian policies. Things change when he meets Swada, a young Somali woman, and hears her story. He breaks the only rule for an immigration officer: never treat migrants as humans. Segre’s film anticipated the hard-right turn Italy has taken with the rise of the Lega Nord and its aggressively anti-immigrant agenda. “For many months,” the filmmaker explains,” I met with a few ‘real Corrados’ and as we spoke with them I sensed that Italy was preparing to send migrants back to the Libyan detention centers. No one said so publicly but now… it’s all being done in broad daylight. I hope the movie will help people reflect on what is going on nowadays and on the long-lasting consequences we will experience for years to come.

For Segre, Italy’s migrant crisis is an ethical crisis, even a political crime. Italy is not alone in treating immigrants as “non-persons,” but if it knowingly condemns those it returns to violence and abuse, it is breaking its own laws. Torture is often used, Libyan detainees report, to extract ransom from their families.

Outsourcing migrant flows can be traced to a memorandum of understanding in February 2017—and renewed November 2019—that commits Italy to provide technical and technological support to the Libyan institutions in charge of the fight against illegal immigration. To that end, the EU has trained and equipped the Libyan Coast Guard and Italian Navy ships based in Tripoli coordinate its efforts, an efficient partnership that, per the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has intercepted at least 40,000 people and returned them to Libya since the agreement was signed. The deal also commits Italy to finance Libyan migrant centers, where as of June 2020 an estimated 1,800 people were being detained

With this new priority—not to save those in flight but to remove the evidence of flight by bringing passengers who survive back to Tripoli—confrontations between rescue ships run by NGOs and the Libyan Coast Guard are inevitable. One of them on Nov. 6, 2017, was reconstructed using video, radio, vessel tracking data, and witness testimony and published by the New York Times on Dec. 2018. In the film, a Libyan patrol boat runs over the rubber raft and many of those in the water, threatening the Sea Watch-3’s rescue efforts. Eight of the 13 Libyan crew had received training from the EU’s anti-smuggling program known as Operation Sophia. They are seen beating migrants, some of whom jump back in the sea. Twenty drowned that day in a clash between the goals of rescue and interception. Johannes Bayer of Sea Watch speaks to the hypocrisy of the EU’s agenda. “In Europe we can’t kill people at our border, but if the Libyans do it, we can live with that.” 

For Italy and the EU, this is an ideal arrangement. Europe is able to stop people from reaching its shores while washing its hands of any responsibility for their safety. It’s what the research team Forensic Oceanography calls “refoulement by proxy” in its 2018 report Mare Clausum (Closed Sea), a direct violation of article 33(1) of the 1951 Refugee Convention (CSR51). For that reason FO’s report and video reconstruction of the Nov. 6 shipwreck are being used as evidence in a lawsuit filed May 2018 on behalf of 17 survivors at the European Court of Human Rights. They show the Libyans interfered with efforts to save 130 people on the sinking vessel. “We hope,” they write, “this will lead the European court to rule that countries cannot subcontract their legal and humanitarian obligations to dubious partners.”

This isn’t the first time Italy has used Libya to keep migrants from its borders. In 2012 the European Court of Human Rights in Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy ruled as illegal Italy’s practice of directly returning to Libya migrants intercepted on the high seas. This go-round the Libyan Coast Guard is Italy’s “proxy” and, because Libya is a failed state, those returned disappear into a kind of no-man’s-land. Writing with the majority in 2012, Judge Pinto De Albuquerque’s opinion can’t fail to remind us of the EU’s own 40 million refugees after WWII:

The ultimate question, in this case, is how Europe should recognize that refugees “have the right to have rights,” to quote Hannah Arendt…. Refugees attempting to escape Africa do not claim a right of admission to Europe. They demand only that Europe, the cradle of human rights idealism and the birthplace of the rule of law, cease closing its doors to people in despair who have fled from arbitrariness and brutality. That is a very modest plea, vindicated by the European Convention on Human Rights. We should not close our ears to it.

A very modest plea, which if you listen closely to migrant stories you will hear again and again. Will European politics bury the human rights laws it once created, the humanitarian practices it has followed for 70 years? 

Even the global pandemic has played into the hands of the EU’s current strategy to shut down search-and-rescue operations. On April 7, 2020, the Italian ministries of transport, health, interior, and foreign affairs issued a decree claiming that Italy, due to the Covid-19 crisis, would not be able to provide the “places of safety” obligatory under international law for the disembarkation of migrants rescued at sea. Closing Italian ports caught the rescue ship Alan Kurdi in Italian waters with no place to take its 150 shipwreck survivors. Four NGOs—Sea Watch, Doctors Without Borders, Open Arms, and Mediterranea—condemned the new ruling as exploiting the Covid-19 health emergency “to carry on a plan to obstruct search rescue activities at sea.” Implicit in the decree was the idea that foreign ships carrying shipwreck survivors from the central Mediterranean were a threat to EU citizens. “Pandemics don’t eliminate the reasons why people risk their lives at sea, and we should not allow this pandemic to eliminate our values,” argued Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch. If anything the isolation imposed by our current health crisis reminds us not to turn our backs: we are all on the Raft.


Lisa Mullenneaux is the former editor of Westways magazine, lives in Manhattan, and teaches advanced research writing for the University of Maryland GC. Her articles and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, The New England Review, The Progressive, the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and others.

First published in Common Dreams. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License. 

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This entry was posted on September 10, 2020 by in Art and Cinema, Opinion Leaders, Social Justice and tagged , , .

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