Why doesn’t Europe grieve deaths in the Mediterranean?

The uncomfortable reality is that to Europeans, not all lives are equal.

This handout picture taken and released on July 23, 2022 by the NGO Sea-Watch shows a Sea-Watch 3 crew member on a lifeboat approaching an inflatable boat in distress with 120 people on board in the central Mediterranean. (Photo by Nora Börding / SEA-WATCH / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO /SEA-WATCH / NORA BORDING " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO /Sea-Watch / NORA BORDING " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS /
This handout picture taken and released on July 23, 2022 by the NGO Sea-Watch shows an inflatable boat in distress with 120 people on board in the central Mediterranean [Nora Börding/SEA-WATCH/AFP]

According to an April 12 report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) of the United Nations, at least 441 refugees drowned in the Central Mediterranean between January and March 2023, making it the deadliest quarter since 2017. “The persisting humanitarian crisis in the Central Mediterranean is intolerable,” said IOM Director General António Vitorino in response to the figures.

However, we do, in fact, tolerate these deaths.

This is evident by IOM’s dismal statistics. The organisation’s Missing Migrants Project has recorded nearly 25,000 drownings in the Mediterranean Sea since 2014. The true death toll is likely to be much higher.

Notwithstanding this, European authorities have not made any genuine attempts to create safe and legal routes for asylum seekers to Europe. To the contrary, recent years have seen further asylum restrictions and criminalisation of search and rescue activities. Moreover, the European Union-funded Libyan coastguard and the Greek coastguard both engage in regular and illegal pushbacks of refugee boats trying to cross the Mediterranean. This has all made seeking protection in Europe increasingly more dangerous.

That Europe is willing to accept these deaths is also indicated by the mild reactions reports of new shipwrecks and mass drownings spark. Apart from a small number of humanitarians and activists, hardly anyone protests against these deaths. And besides the usual condemnations from political figures, there is hardly any display of public grief or outrage.

What explains European leaders and citizens’ widespread acceptance of non-white refugees drowning in our backyard?

Compassion fatigue?

In 2015, the now-iconic image of the lifeless body of the Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi washed ashore on a Turkish beach went viral. The image incited empathy and solidarity with refugees across Europe, and political leaders expressed their personal grief and determination to act. Eight years later, news and imagery of children and adults drowning in the Mediterranean no longer seem to prick our consciences.

A common explanation is compassion fatigue: previously engaged citizens are too emotionally exhausted to care, or we feel helpless and powerless by constant news stories of tragedy and suffering. Others have observed that European attitudes to refugees changed towards the end of 2015, after the attacks in Paris and sexual assaults in Cologne.

Over the last year, the plight of refugees in the Mediterranean has also been overshadowed by the war in Ukraine and the millions of Ukrainian refugees seeking safety and protection.

However, there are other, more fundamental causes we need to also recognise.

Not all lives are equal

We must acknowledge that Europeans do not consider all human lives to be equally “grievable”. This might be because they are dehumanised or redefined from victims to threats, as in the wake of the events in Paris and Cologne.

However, as philosopher Judith Butler argues, the question of whose lives are grievable is also intimately related to the question of whose lives are considered worth living and valuable in the first place. “An ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all,” Butler wrote in her 2009 book Frames of War. Her analysis suggests that we have come to tolerate the routine drowning of non-European refugees because their lives and deaths “simply do not touch us, or do not appear as lives at all”.

It is also essential not to lose sight of history. During my fieldwork in Greek refugee camps, aid workers and volunteers often described Europe’s border policies as violating the continent’s liberal-democratic history and ideals. On the other hand, many refugees portrayed the widespread acceptance of non-white refugees drowning or suffering at the border as a sign of European hypocrisy. As Zekria Farzad, a teacher from Afghanistan who founded his own school and humanitarian organisation in Moria camp, asked: “Where are Black Lives Matter now?”

While the question is pertinent, moral contradictions and double standards are inherent features of European liberalism. Indeed, despite talk of freedom and equality as universal values, non-European migrants have always been cast as threats to “white” European nation-states.

European liberal democracies have always considered their freedom and security contingent on controlling or excluding non-white others. This both shapes and legitimises contemporary border policies, described by the French philosopher Étienne Balibar as an attempt to institutionalise a “European apartheid”.

What can we do?

This year has had a deadly start for refugees crossing the Mediterranean. At least 600 people have died or have gone missing in the Mediterranean in April and May so far, in addition to the high death tolls between January to March. What can we do?

IOM’s Vitorino has called for urgent and more effective state-led search and rescue operations. Meanwhile, humanitarian organisations like Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) have long urged European authorities to provide safe and legal crossings of land and sea borders into the EU. Both actions are important and will require political mobilisation and activism.

However, they are insufficient.

To challenge the normalisation of refugee deaths in the Mediterranean, we must address why they are seen as less deserving of grief than the deaths of white Europeans.

This requires antiracist work. We should also re-examine the stories we tell and share about displaced people. Rather than portraying refugees as suffering victims stuck in the present, we should give them space to express their personal experiences of loss and plans, their aspirations for the future; and more. Their stories deserve to be heard; just as their lives deserve to be protected, and when lost, grieved.

Addressing the causes

We must also change how we address and respond to the mass drownings in the Mediterranean. Like Vitorino, many humanitarian actors describe these drownings as a “humanitarian crisis” or “tragedy”. Very often, refugees are also described as “unfortunate people” who happen to be born in places where conflict or poverty is rampant. This language conceals how the repeated deaths of people trying to seek better lives and safety in Europe are the results of willed democratic politics and, therefore, avoidable.

We must always hold our elected politicians accountable. Besides calling for humanitarian evacuations or safe passage, we must also mobilise for political and institutional changes, including greater freedom of movement and mobility justice.

Lastly, whereas protecting the right to asylum is crucial, we must address the structural and political causes that lead people to risk their lives for a safer and better future. These causes include war, conflict and natural disasters, but also so-called “slow killers” like extreme poverty and global inequality, climate change and food insecurity.

More attention to these root causes should push us to examine our historical and political complicities as citizens, consumers and beneficiaries. It might also lead us to expand the legal definition of a refugee to include people escaping from extreme poverty and climate change — not only war and persecution.

Nevertheless, we must counter the stigma attached to “economic migrants”. There is nothing morally wrong with seeking a better life in a new country. Millions of European citizens did just that when they emigrated to the United States between 1820 and 1920.

It was acceptable then, and must be just as acceptable now.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.