Crossing the Mediterranean sea by boat: human dignity and biophysical violence

This blog was written by Haley Curran, a PhD candidate in Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck.

MigrationDr Vicki Squire gave a talk at the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research on 29 March, on how the treatment of people on the move in Europe has provided a new lens through which we can understand why there has been no sustainable and humane policy implementation from European leaders, or more pressure from the wider public to address the current migration crisis.

What is biophysical violence?
Biophysical violence relates to the governing of migration through death and derives from Foucault’s notion of biopower and biopolitical racism ‘to make live and let die’. It is a particular governmental regime that separates people into groups- those that are ‘productive’ and those that are ‘unproductive’ and therefore values some groups over others. Biophysical violence can help to mask certain wider policies and practices.

This takes on a racialised form when looking at the refugee crisis in Europe and challenges the notion of Europe as a safe and welcoming space. It also brings the notion of privilege to light and the stark differences between certain groups of people making a journey across Europe compared to others. It is not the same for everyone and certain groups in society will occupy a much more precarious space when they are on the move.

There has also been an emergence of death as a ‘normalised’ concept for certain groups of people migrating and making the journey across Europe. People have been left to die in the name of security.

Biophysical violence also takes into account the significance of physical elements (deserts, seas, inclement weather conditions) which cause the deaths of countless people attempting their journey to and across Europe.

Culpability can also have a role to play in analysing biophysical violence and can perpetuate the ‘normalisation’ of death for certain groups of people on the move:

    • the evasion of culpability- natural forces as a cause of death at borders and along the routes
    • the displacement culpability- shifting the responsibility on to the person making the journey – it’s their fault as they were unable or unwilling to recognise the perils in making that journey
    • the rejection of culpability- the presence of a third actor, such as the people/ person smuggler as the cause of death.

The role of humanitarian responses:
While Search and Rescue missions may be helping to save lives at sea, what happens to those migrants if they are handed over to the authorities and detention centres?

Messaging around pity, sympathy and victimisation can be counter-productive in countering the fear and suspicion in populist sentiment towards people on the move. Humanitarian messaging is dependent on the innocence of the victim and is based on fleeting emotions. Instead they should be looking to create more sustainable interactions based on a relational model of empathy, mutual respect and dignity (politics of empathy & mutual respect). Politics of pity/sympathy can also be present in compensatory reactions to biophysical violence, such as large displays of grief.

Interventions challenging biophysical violence:
Where there is darkness there is also light and hope. The true spirit of humanity counteracts this grim and harrowing picture of violence and aggression with interventions grounded in empathy, dignity and respect.

‘Corridoi Umanitari’ (Humanitarian Corridors) is an initiative that is run by faith groups in Italy. Their focus is on safe and legal routes through assessing people in Lebanon in ‘vulnerable conditions’ (victims of persecution, torture and violence, as well as families with children, elderly people, sick people and people with disabilities) for legal entry to Italian territory with a humanitarian visa and the possibility to apply for asylum. They are flown to Italy and are helped with integrating, housing and learning the language upon arrival.

City Plaza Squat, a squat based in Athens in a disused hotel, houses refugees and activists together. There is a balance of backgrounds, gender, those who may require some support, and those who can provide it. This community does not define people by their ‘vulnerability’ and is a good example of integration and mutual respect.

Final thoughts:
This talk was lively and interesting, throwing up as many questions as it did solutions. There is no easy answer to this complex and politically charged situation and it is going to take creativity and innovation to implement solutions.

What is clear is that a new politics of empathy and respect needs to emerge to address this crisis in a humane way. Human mobility has always been a part of our history and has shaped Europe today, but the right to mobility is currently very unequal.

Safe and legal routes could be one way to address the chaotic and dangerous journeys and may also help to provide some confidence in European decision makers. It will take courage and bravery to take these steps however and it remains to be seen who will take that first step.

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