The Afterlives of Dead Migrants

by Carolina Kobelinsky

Migrant boat wreck in the boat graveyard of Lampedusa. Photo: GUE/NGL under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Migrant boat wreck in the boat graveyard of Lampedusa. Photo: GUE/NGL under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The graves and alcoves in the cemeteries of Lampedusa, Tarifa, and Lesvos are the materialization of one of the effects of the contemporary politics of migration in the European Union. The deaths of migrants coming from Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia at the borders are numerous. In the last few years, the discovery of bodies on Mediterranean, Atlantic and Aegean coasts, as well as at land borders, has become a daily reality, covered by the media and acknowledged in political discourse.

The project I am currently working on – and I briefly presented through some ethnographic vignettes at the Academy – deals with the material and symbolic treatment given to these dead. Taking an ethnographic approach, I look at the different institutions and agents at the Spanish-Moroccan borders that are involved, officially or unofficially, in trying to identify the corpses, pay them tribute, and potentially return them to their families. I also explore how these dead are made visible/invisible in the daily lives of both the inhabitants of the places where the dead migrants are found and the migrants who are in transit in these places.

My work entails mapping out the afterlives of migrants’ bodies in their multiple dimensions – that is to say, examining their itineraries through the judicial system and bureaucratic registration. It also involves considering the attempts made at identifying the dead and the activities related to paying tribute to them, as well as exploring the imaginaries and the experiences of those who cross the borders and risk their lives to come to Europe – that is to say, examining their narratives related to the possibility of death, to risk-taking, and to the dead they have left behind during their journeys.

These deaths can be envisaged through a biopolitical lens. Several studies have linked migration policies and border politics with Foucaldian biopolitical thinking. Migrants’ deaths at the borders can definitely be analysed from this perspective. A framework that helps understanding the government of a population but also, and above all, as a way to reflect upon the value ascribed to the lives of migrants and the recognition of the dead.

But I think that migrants’ deaths can be considered in another, complementary, way by combining migration studies with the anthropology of violence. All the data I have gathered so far, and all the narratives I have collected that put border crossing deaths into words, in very different ways, speak about the physical and symbolic violence of contemporary borders. The stories expose this violence which penetrates people’s everyday lives, contributing to shaping their subjectivity.

It seems to me that the ethnographies of violence can be helpful as there are several works which seek to understand the productive dimension of violence, the way it penetrates and shapes the ordinary lives. Anthropologists interested in political violence have opened up new methodological and theoretical avenues which are fruitful for this research: dialogue with forensic anthropologists and other forensic scholars; ethnography centred on the trajectories of corpses; exploring the social meaning of discovering unknown bodies; analysing the notion of the “disappeared”; examining the spatial effects of finding, burying and exhuming bodies. These tools – not commonly deployed for examining migration in Europe – can contribute to unpacking the EU border regime.

In this sense, tracing the trajectories of the bodies of dead migrants, and articulating them with the narratives on death circulating at the border, allow for a creative convergence between the anthropologies of borders, migration, death and violence.

Carolina Kobelinsky was a member of the steering committee and is a research fellow at the Laboratoire d’Ethnologie et de Sociologie Comparative (LESC) in Paris.


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