Can Migrants at Sea be heard?

Can Migrants at Sea be heard?

Maurice Stierl

It is so fucking inhumane what they are doing with us. We are here in the sea for more than a day now. They came with airplanes, helicopters and everything. They know where we are and they just wait for the Libyans to come tomorrow to pick our corpses. Those who will still be alive will maybe then also go into the water because they want rather to die than to go back to Libya. Why can’t they let any fishing boat save us and then at least to avoid people to die. They can bring us to whatever shitty prison. But this situation here is so inhumane; you cannot imagine how we suffer.

These are the words of a person whose name I don’t know, a man stuck on a rubber boat in the central Mediterranean Sea, somewhere between Libya and Europe. He spoke these words into a satellite phone, on the 30th of June 2019, and they were heard, on the other end of the line, by activists of the Alarm Phone, a hotline that assists migrant travellers in distress at sea.

The man sat among a hundred people, including women, men, and children who had fled from Libya a day earlier. They were entering their second night at sea. Both the Italian and Maltese authorities had long been informed about this distress situation and had even sent aerial and maritime assets. But nevertheless, and while knowing that such a rubber boat can deflate and capsize at any moment, the Italian and Maltese assets kept their distance from the distressed. As the man on the boat had suspected, the European authorities were waiting for the so-called “Libyan coastguards” to come and return them to Libya where they would end up once more in inhumane detention camps. In the end, the Libyans did not come. A public pressure campaign was mobilised in Europe and eventually they were rescued to an Italian harbour.

Although survivors said upon arrival in Italy that several of their travel companions had not survived their Mediterranean journey, the man on the phone was probably among those who reached Europe. His words express desperation about their predicament, and indignation about the cynical game being played with their lives. For nearly a whole day, ‘they’ – the European authorities – knew about the migrants’ distress but decided not to act. ‘They’ just observed the migrants’ suffering without remedying it. Accounts such as his are rare.

The Mediterranean Sea is often considered as a space devoid of politics where people ‘on the move’ just happen to encounter, and often succumb to, the dangerous forces of the sea. Commonly, migrant drownings are naturalised, not least as we have become accustomed to imaginaries of migrants as natural forces themselves – the migrant wave, stream, swarm, or flood. In dominant narratives in the media and the political sphere, those who board boats in northern Africa or elsewhere appear either as threats, an invasion against which Europeans need to be protected, or as passive victims who need European saviours in order to survive their ill-fated journeys.

At sea, many migrant voices are never heard. When a person drowns, liquid enters their airways and prevents them from breathing. Submerged in water, one’s breath can be held voluntarily for some time, but without the ability to take in oxygen and to eliminate carbon dioxide, uncontrolled muscular contractions of the vocal folds ensue. One then experiences circulatory arrest, multiple organ dysfunction, and in the absence of rapid intervention and resuscitation, death. Europe has drowned out thousands of migrant voices in this way.

At sea, even voices that successfully reach out, for example through the satellite phone, are often not fully heard. Calling from a boat in distress with hundreds of people on board, passenger Dr Mohanad Jammo alerted European authorities on the 11th of October 2013. Instead of launching rescue procedures, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome asked him to inform the Maltese authorities. As Dr Jammo testified later:

I got in touch with the Italian telephone number before 11 o’clock in the morning. A woman answered the phone. She spoke in English and said: “Give me your exact position”. So I gave her our geographical coordinates. I said: “Please, we are on a boat in the middle of the sea, we’re all Syrians, many of us are physicians, our lives are at risk, the boat is sinking”. Should there be a recording of that telephone call, these are the exact words: “We’re heading towards death, there are more than one-hundred children on board. Please, please, help us, please.

However, due to quarrels between the authorities in Italy and Malta over who would take responsibility to coordinate the rescue operation, time was lost and rescue efforts delayed. The vessel capsized, leaving more than 200 people dead in the water, including Dr Jammo’s two little sons. Only in 2019, about six years after the shipwreck, were two Italian coast guard officials charged with manslaughter and negligence.

Migrant voices that do reach the European public via the sea are often wilfully misconstrued. In March 2019, the tanker Elhiblu 1 rescued 108 people escaping from Libya by boat. When realising that the crew intended to return them to Libya, some of the rescued began to voice their protest, reportedly forcing the crew to change course and steer north towards Europe. For Italy’s then interior minister Matteo Salvini, the rescued were not migrants but pirates who had hijacked the tanker. In the international media, this imaginary of the migrant pirate was reproduced a thousand-fold. In the cover of darkness, heavily armed Maltese military forces boarded the tanker and escorted it into the harbour of Valetta where the 108 disembarked. Three African teenagers, aged 15, 16 and 19, were arrested. Because of their ability to communicate in English and thus with the crew of the tanker, they now stand accused of having led the ‘hijacking’. Currently, they remain in prison and face charges of having engaged in ‘terrorist activities’.

Dangerous threats or abject victims – migrants at sea seem merely to fit into these two categories. Often depending on how close they are to European coasts, they can easily move from one category to the other, usually from victims to threats. Wondering whether migrants at sea can be heard is thus not merely a question of audibility. Sometimes, when they reach out via satellite phones or give testimonies after rescue or interception at sea, they are being heard, but their words tend to fall into preconceived notions of who they are. Besides the dominant categories of threat or victim, they are labelled as either refugees or economic migrants, with the former deserving rescue and protection more than the latter as they were ‘forced’ to move and did not do so ‘voluntarily’.

When we ask ‘can migrants at sea be heard?’ we need to question and break with these dominant narratives and imaginaries. One cannot understand ‘the other’ if one believes, or pretends, to already know who they are. An assumption through which all words are channelled and thereby distorted. Often, migrant survivors are asked to merely reproduce personal stories of suffering – violence experienced at the hands of smugglers, for example in detention or at sea. In particular those seemingly speaking ‘on behalf’ of migrants, such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are keen to personalise stories of migrant suffering but less keen to understand them as political expressions and a critique of the violence inscribed in the international policing of populations. This may come as no surprise as both organisations have been accused of being directly implicated in such policing efforts. They stand accused of doing Europe’s ‘dirty work’, for example by facilitating deportations of rescued migrants back to countries of origin or “whitewashing the devastating and horrific impacts of hardening European Union policy aimed at keeping refugees and migrants out of Europe.”

If migrants go beyond the retelling of stories of suffering, speak up, make demands, and refuse to comply, they are often deemed ungrateful subjects and undeserving of protection. In a recent tweet, Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR’s special envoy for the Central Mediterranean, referred to the refusal of refugees “to attend language & vocational training classes, job placement in some countries” and their demand to be resettled to Europe as “abnormal”, warning against “the radicalisation of the migratory dreams & demands of some migrants & refugees in Libya & neighbouring countries.”

In view of such dominant portrayals and the continuous depoliticisation of migrant claims and acts, what regularly falls out of view are the structural forms of violence that are responsible for these precarious migrant journeys in the first place. How can we really understand the meaning of migrant stories of suffering if the forms of violence that constantly produce and reinforce global injustice at various levels remain unidentified and unaccountable? How can we comprehend the phenomenon of sea migration if the roles and effects of nationalism and borders, white supremacy and racism, warfare and militarism, capitalism, poverty, and environmental destruction are being ignored?

What also often falls out of view are the stories of struggle, accounts of practices of resistance and resilience without which most people on the move would have never made it so far. In order to really hear and understand the words voiced by those travelling precariously at sea, one needs to acknowledge the “utopian yearning” that underpins migration projects and the fact that, as artist John Akomfrah puts it, “everyone who leaves is a rebel who is saying no to somewhere”. Migrant boats can be death traps but they are also places of political contestation that carry subjects who enact their right to leave, move, survive and arrive. Political subjects, who move on tenaciously and who speak up indignantly when noting how “fucking inhumane [it is] what they are doing with us”.


Maurice Stierl is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Warwick. Before, he was an Assistant Professor in Comparative Border Studies at the University of California, Davis. His research focuses on migration struggles in contemporary Europe and is broadly situated in International Relations, International Political Sociology, and Migration, Citizenship & Border Studies. His book ‘Migrant Resistance in Contemporary Europe’ was published by Routledge in 2019. His other work has appeared in the journals Antipode, Globalizations, Citizenship Studies, South Atlantic Quarterly, Movements, Global Society, Spheres, and elsewhere.

Image: Maurice Stierl