Crossing the Mediterranean: Between Utopia and Entrapment

By Mayssoun Sukarieh

“I never thought of the way to get there, I just thought of wanting to be there, dreaming to be there…the journey there, the process to reach Italy was not in my calculations…. I was told Italy is just on the other side of the Mediterranean and I always felt it is just there, it was only when the ship started to fall, that I realized I am trapped, I can’t go back and the sea is so big I can’t reach my dream.” — A survivor of a sinking ship from Egypt.

Bouchra Khalili: The Mapping Journey Project , Photo by Georges Khalil

Bouchra Khalili: The Mapping Journey Project , Photo by Georges Khalil

“My son went there because there is no work here, he can’t come back because he will be subject to the Terrorism act, and he does not want to stay. He does not want to kill, he is trapped in Syria now.” — A mother from Tunisia.

A striking parallel has been developing in the Mediterranean: at the very same time that there is mass migration in one direction, towards Europe to get a better life, there is also migration in the other direction, towards Syria, Iraq and Yemen to fight with ISIS or other groups.

Despite the differences, we can find important similarities that focus on the drivers, motivators and final realities of both sets of migrations.

In Escape From Alienation: From the “Here” and “There”

“I’m dead here, no social security, no medical insurance, no work, no job… I hear from people who go to Italy and who are under eighteen that they have a good life. The state gives them everything, they have everything. Why should I stay here? I will try again and again and again till I get to Italy before I am 18,” says Mousa from El Bahriyya, Egypt.

“It is a feeling of alienation that drives young people living in Europe to go fight with ISIS in Syria… alienation from the society they live in here, so they can be easy targets for recruiters,” says Suraj Lakhani, who studied recruitment in UK.

In Search of a Utopia: Between the “Here” and “There”

“Recruiters promise them a life in Dar el Salam under Sharia law… It is a just life , a community, a paradise, a Utopia on earth that will also lead to the ultimate Utopia: heaven.” — Suraj Lakhani.

“I hear people get homes and work when they get there. They take care of children, streets are clean, and hospitals are good, and there will be good schools for my children. The government will take care of their education and their health and from my work I can save money and send to my parents that I m leaving behind… I will have a real home, no power cuts, no polluted water, no garbage, no traffic,” says Ahmad from Shatila Camp, who is trying to secure an illegal crossing to Sweden.

The Utopia is always somewhere else. It is “there” wherever the “here” is.

Neither Here nor There

“I really hate it here, but I can’t go back there… and now there is nothing to hope for, no more “there” to escape to, the “there” is now “here” and it is ugly, cold, dead, boring and different,” says one of the Iraqi refugees in Chicago: They put us in the slums, and it is dangerous to go out, no access to schools, no access to medical care, we are just abandoned… and on top I do not know when winter ends or the summer begins… there are no seasons. It is cold… cold weather, cold life, cold people.”

“My opinion of the situation quickly changed when I was faced with the harsh reality of war… death… and destruction… The romantic image I had of brothers going out together on an adventure vanished when I started to witness first hand the corpses and mutilated bodies. I realized then that the here is no better than the there, humans are cruel, they can be cruel… wherever they are, here, there, everywhere.”  — A Pakistani fighter in Syria who went with his friend.

Leaving the Middle East for Europe to escape “slow death,” exclusion, poverty, in search of a Utopian easy life there.

Leaving Europe to the Middle East to fight in wars to join brothers, to find a sense of community, search for work, look for a Utopian life away from alienation, racism, and exclusion.

They reflect the human conditions of being entrapped, and of a continuous search for a utopian life somewhere else.

When the “there” is reached, alienation becomes accentuated with a feeling of exile: feeling at loss, uprooted, missing the Nile, the Euphrates, the jasmin and the sun.

Europe on the Wall of a House in Maroulas. Photo: Georges Khalil

Europe on the Wall of a House in Maroulas. Photo: Georges Khalil

For those whose here is the Middle East, they are recruited by TV images of a great life waiting for them on the other side of the Mediterranean… where everything is easy, there are jobs, medical care… and freedom… and the beneficiaries are mafias of smugglers who sell life by death.

And those whose here is Europe, they are recruited by “charismatic, online savvy” recruiters who promise paradise, or easy money, maybe humanitarian aid, or perhaps free sex or “halal sex” as someone tried to understand why would Muslim girls from good families go to Syria – and the beneficiaries are warlords who sell death by promising life.

They form a network of death around the Mediterranean whose traffic goes both ways.

Entrapped, looking for a Utopia somewhere else maybe helps alleviate the human condition of alienation, and makes people ignore the road to reach there – death by sea, for those coming to Europe, or death in the battleground in war zones.

Perhaps to curb death by crossing the Mediterranean and to save the sea from the accumulation of bodies, of children, of women, of old and young, of the poor. And to curb death by going to war and to save the land from the blood of the young, the old, the sick and the healthy, the men and women. Perhaps to curb death by going “there” by sea or going “there” through borders, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan.

We need to create a different world, a world less alienating, less unequal, less racist. It is time to pull the emergency brakes, and start a…?????? Let us consult Walter Benjamin.

This blog post was authored by Mayssoun Sukarieh, lecturer at King’s College London and former Fellow of Europe in the Middle East—The Middle East in Europe (EUME), a research program at the Forum Transregionale Studien. Mayssoun is member of the academy’s steering committee. The quotations originate from her own fieldwork, from newspaper articles and television broadcasts.


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