Migrant deaths: tragedy – or murder?

At least 500 people have drowned in the Mediterranean in a single incident, just the latest in increasingly normalized disasters. Yet in the Western political milieu, it made barely a ripple.
Migrant deaths cartoon by Papadam/Shutterstock
Papadam/Shutterstock

Details of the tragedy, down to the name of the fishing trawler, remained murky for days. Surveillance footage released by FRONTEX, the European border agency, then revealed that the boat was under Greek coastguard surveillance for at least two hours before it capsized.

The coastguard has since confirmed it did indeed have the boat under surveillance ‘from a close distance’, but did not attempt to intervene even while the boat rocked aggressively on the waves of the Mediterranean Sea. But survivors say that the agency did in fact act – an enforcement boat tried to attach themselves to the boat three times before finally towing it and allegedly causing it to capsize.

The full number of those who died may never be known – because there was no official manifest on the vessel – but at least 104 people were rescued. Those on what EU authorities call a ‘smuggler’ vessel were primarily from Syria, Pakistan, Egypt and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, attempting to cross from Libya. Survivors insist that it was the act of towing that caused the disaster: leading the boat to take on water much faster than its unseaworthy hull could take, and condemning most of the approximately 750 passengers to drown.

The rising tide of death on the Mediterranean Sea is a direct consequence of official European border policy

Although this journey is only a few hundred kilometres, the waters of the Mediterranean are highly unpredictable. News of this hazardous journey travelled the globe when the lifeless body of three-year old Alan Kurdi washed ashore on the beaches of Greece in 2015. Since the EU ended its policy of search and rescue on the open water, tens of thousands have lost their lives making this crossing. According to the Missing Migrants Project, at least 27,000 people have died crossing the Med since 2014, but many more are likely unrecorded.

The EU border agency has consistently said it will not assist those they consider ‘smugglers’, going as far as prosecuting humanitarian vessels that offer vital aid to boats in distress. Yet people continue to come.

Human rights groups argue that the Greek tragedy represents an even darker development in EU border policy. Since 2020, EU countries like Greece have been engaged in illegal ‘pushbacks’ of similar vessels – forcing them to turn around, out of EU waters – to deny passengers the right to seek asylum. Their account, disputed by Greek authorities, is that the coastguard was not trying to tow the boat towards safety, but instead to turn it back out to sea.

The undeserving mobile

Much the violence that happens at the European border results from Europe’s value judgements over one’s worthiness to travel or seek asylum, translated into crude bureaucratic metrics. While those travelling from the Global North are worthy until proven otherwise, those travelling from the Majority World must provide increasingly complex documentation on their identity, financial status and justifications for travel. Simply put, people from poor countries are increasingly being told they don’t deserve to travel for any reason: safety, opportunity, much less fun.

For the Global South’s working class, meaningful alternatives to these perilous crossings have almost completely disappeared. The passports of those on the capsized boat rank in the lowest rung on the Global Passport Index, meaning they can get into fewer countries without applying for a visa than those nationalities ranked higher. Out of 97 possible rungs, Syria ranks 96th, Pakistan 93rd, The Occupied Palestinian Territories at joint 89th with Libya, and Egypt as a relative outlier at joint 76th with Guinea and Niger.

At the same time, these visa application processes have become more expensive, opaque, and complicated, requiring endless reams of documentation, extensive financing, middle-men – and even, in many cases, certification of good conduct from the police. For nationals of countries with weak passports the odds of having a visa approved are practically zero – unless you are wealthy or prepared to take on dangerous work like deep-sea fishing.

People seeking asylum are expected to evidence their vulnerability through a variety of subjective metrics, and these are increasingly opaque and complicated. For single young men particularly, the presumption of unworthiness is especially high. Indeed, official policies routinely exclude this demographic from refugee protection at borders around the world, driving more of them to unconventional border crossings.

State-funded migrant deaths?

Moreover, the global circumstances that make escape an attractive option are often a direct consequence of the foreign policy of the states that also condemn people to treacherous migration routes. For Palestinians and Egyptians, their experience of both occupation and military rule is a direct consequence of the Global North projecting its foreign policy into their territories.

On 19 June, five days after the Greek tragedy, EU high representative Joseph Borell was in Cairo offering the Egyptian government $22 million to ‘help address the wave of Sudanese refugees’, even while political prisoners resisting the military regime languish in Egyptian prisons. On the same day, the Israeli government – the largest recipient of US foreign assistance – announced plans to build thousands of new homes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, implicitly promising to displace the Palestinians who already live there.

Meanwhile, Syrians are escaping from a war whose trajectory is intimately connected with the politics of the global majority while Pakistanis are confronting economic collapse triggered in part by their nation’s crippling public debt. Flight, whether for safety or opportunity, is intimately connected to the position that a specific nation occupies in global politics.

Just as importantly, the rising tide of death on the Mediterranean Sea is a direct consequence of official European border policy. Researcher Maurice Stierl has argued the EU has ‘weaponized time’: deliberately sought to create delays to rescue operations. And if the Greek coastguard was engaged in an illegal pushback, it was acting in complete contravention of humanitarian law and the law of the sea.

This gap between illusion and reality enables governments to craft border policies make killing vulnerable people a core function of the state.

These pushbacks are a secretive but increasingly common feature of EU border policy. A 2022 investigation by a consortium of media outlets found that Greek authorities conducted at least 145 such pushbacks that year alone, bureaucratically labelled ‘prevention of departure’. In at least 22 of these incidents, asylum seekers were ‘taken off dinghies, placed on Greek life rafts, and left adrift on the sea’.

The Greek coastguard is under investigation following the reports, but continues to receive funding from several European countries. If the survivors’ account of what happened on the open water is true, then this capsize is a dangerous but altogether predictable escalation. Should ongoing investigations conclude, as mounting evidence suggests, that the act of towing the boat is the immediate reason why it sank, then everyone who drowned as a result was murdered by the EU’s border policies.

Will this latest disaster prompt the kind of humanitarian review of EU – and indeed global – border policies that we urgently need? It seems unlikely, after a week where the story of the boat’s capsize was quickly overshadowed by the news of five extremely wealthy men (some billionaires) in an improvised submarine disappearing on their way to the wreckage of the Titanic. Mere days later, the EU was offering the autocratic Tunisian government €1.1 billion to curb migration. Finally, the quiet bit was being said out loud: only the wealthy can migrate safely, and only the wealthy deserve to be rescued when things go wrong.

Mobility, particularly when it’s in search of opportunity, has never been accessible to all, but the uncomfortable juxtaposition of these two extremes starkly demonstrates the paucity of opportunity available to citizens of the Majority World. This tragedy should be a moment to face up to the new reality that Western border policies are building. Tax receipts fund these draconian border policies, and it’s only through self-deception that we can unsee their cruelty, and wonder aloud: ‘Why can’t they just come through legal means?’

This gap between illusion and reality enables governments to craft border policies that – slowly but surely – make killing vulnerable people a core function of the state.