Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Boat: Human Dignity and Biophysical Violence

On 29 March 2017, Birkbeck Institute for Social Research (BISR) presented speaker Dr Vicki Squire from the University of Warwick to talk on “Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Boat: Human Dignity and Biophysical Violence”. As a scholar working in the field of migration and border studies, Vicki is concerned with the ways in which people on the move are often viewed with fear and suspicion on the part of host communities. She pointed out that a security-orientated concern with ‘foreigners’ has come to dominate public and political debate on the so-called European refugee ‘crisis’, while efforts to construct other ways of engaging the issue appear to have failed. The question she raised was how alternative imaginaries – grounded in respect for the dignity of all lives, including those people who are rendered precarious through movement – can be effectively forged and put into practice.

Vicki first gave a diagnosis of the current political situation. There are many different dimensions of the European refugee ‘crisis’ and many answers to the question of what the ‘crisis’ may refer to. Vicki suggested that it is more proper to see this crisis as one of the modern European humanism that is exposed by the growing number of border deaths. In response to the troubling statistics of recorded migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, she asked two questions: How to make sense of the emergence of death as a routine or normalised dimension of contemporary bordering practices between more or less stable and privileged regions? What possibilities exist for a transformation of the disturbing situation whereby death becomes a norm through which migration is governed? Three theoretical frameworks provide important tools to analyse the practice of ‘governing migration through death’: Michael Foucault’s discussion of biopolitics, a generalised form of governing that not only includes mechanisms to render life productive, but also has a more destructive dimension in the form of ‘biopolitical racism’ that involves the creation of inferior race; Agamben’s idea of thanatopolitical ‘drift’, which is about the lethal dimension of sovereign-biopower that defines bare life devoid of political agency as ‘life exposed to death’; Mbembe’s reflection on the necropolitics, understood here in terms of maintaining the privilege of one region or population over another through the sovereign power to dictate who may die.

Based on these theories, Vicki put forward the concept of biophysical violence and highlighted its importance in understanding the dynamics of governing migration through death. Biophysical violence is a physical operation of violence enrolling so-called natural or physical elements thus blurring the distinction between killing and letting die. Despite there being search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea, a series of policies and practices actually create conditions for the dangerous journey of people who migrate across the sea, including prohibited visa policies and externalised practices of border control. Vicki pointed out that the EU member states are culpable or at least responsible for border deaths, yet these deaths are tolerated through various processes of displacement and rejection. These processes include the evasion of culpability by using natural forces as ‘moral alibi’ to avoid taking responsibility for migrant deaths on the part of the state; the displacement of culpability by emphasising that the dead are victims of their inability to recognize the dangers of the natural environment; and the rejection of culpability under the guise of anti-smuggling.

Vicki then turned to the discussion of humanitarianism as the obvious alternative to the hostile, security approach. Humanitarianism can be seen as a means to compensate or mitigate the excess of biophysical violence rather than providing a radical challenge to the latter. It is rooted in a form of compassion not embedded in rights but based on fleeting emotions, as we have witnessed in the case of Alan Kurdi’s death. This raises the question of how we can move from the ‘politics of pity’ which is unsustainable to the ‘politics of empathy’ grounded in the appreciation of the people on the move.

Vicki’s current work is driven by this question, as she presented the audience some examples that enabled us to see such ‘politics of empathy’ in action. The first case is the Humanitarian Corridors Initiative in Italy. It aims to prevent border deaths at sea by providing a safe flight to Italy and support people in so-called ‘vulnerable conditions’ to be able to make a claim to international protection once they have safely arrived in Europe. This programme broadens the understanding of who counts as a person in a vulnerable situation, and also deepens protection by providing a safe and legal route for those seeking safety. The second case is about Lampedusa’s cemetery and searching for the disappeared, which emphasises on the importance of sharing data and information of people arriving, whether alive or dead, in order to respect the life of the person and give migrants dignity. The third case is City Plaza, a disused hotel in Athens. It now accommodates migrants who arrived in Greece from Turkey. Instead of choosing residents on the basis of their vulnerable status, City Plaza maintains a mix of nationalities, a gender balance, and a combination of religious beliefs. In so doing, as Vicki suggested, “it recognises that people are facing a precarious situation but trying to avoid defining their existence according to their vulnerability.”

Vicki concluded her presentation with some reflections on the possible interventions from an academic perspective, which consists of working in solidarity with activists, refugees and migrants, providing critical reflections on particular interventions and contributing to positive transformations.

Listen to the podcast of the lecture

Image courtesy of

This post is contributed by Chenyang Wang, a 3rd year PhD Student in the Department of Psychosocial Studies.




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