The Mediterranean as a site of racist murder

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On the northern coast of Morocco, in North Africa, lies Melilla, one of two enclaves occupied by Spain. On June 24, 2022, a group of around 2,000 migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, attempted to cross the border that separates Moroccan territory from occupied Spanish territory. Consequently “unjustified“use of force by Moroccan security forces, 23 migrants”deceased.”

A successful crossing of the land border by these migrants would have meant their passage to Europe, even though the enclave is in Africa. This so-called attempt to illegally cross land borders is akin to the so-called illegal crossing of the Mediterranean that migrants south of the sea undertake to go north towards Europe.

As in the articles published by many press organs as well as in the reports of international organizations, the Human Rights Watch event report opens with the “deaths at least 23 African men” (emphasis mine). Here, two words indicate how these reporting institutions interpret these events; a racist murder is qualified as “death” and the presence of men of Africa in Africa is presented as an anomaly in the context of the Melilla incident.

Borders are a human construction and are maintained by rulers through political, economic and military force; to say that 23 men “died” is to refrain from naming the borders – and the guardians of these borders – as assassins.

The Mediterranean as a racist border

It’s summer now and the beaches of North Africa are full of European tourists enjoying the pleasures of the blue sea. It is their white bodies that appear recurrently in photographs and documentaries on the Mediterranean. It is they, we are told through these images, who belong to the Mediterranean. European Union passport holders can visit the beaches of Morocco and Tunisia on their own, without a visa.

Boundaries hardly exist for these white bodies; on the contrary, borders are experienced as a hot summer inconvenience of queues at airport border security.

But for the obscure bodies carrying their Global South passports, the Mediterranean is a humiliating frontier. It is known that passport holders from the Global South (including Tunisians, Moroccans, Congolese and Indians, among others) have to go through the humiliating experience of applying for visas to travel to the European shores of the Mediterranean. But border regimes on the southern shores of the Mediterranean replicate racist border structures similar (and perhaps more violent) to those found in the Global North.

Take the case of Tunisia. Imagine that you are coming from the Ivory Coast to Tunisia; Ivorians are entitled to a 90-day visa-free entry into Tunisia. Yet many of my Ivorian interlocutors (in my research-related interviews) spoke of cases where their compatriots were denied entry to Tunis airport, detained at the border in humiliating conditions for days and without a clear reason for detention, then were asked to pay for return flights to their country.

Black bodies are automatically labeled as “migrants” and potential criminals who are always suspicious. White bodies are automatically labeled as “expatriates” or “tourists”.

Now imagine that as an Ivorian (or for that matter in sub-Saharan Africa), you managed to enter Tunisia. You try to apply for a residence permit. You are repeatedly asked to pay bribes, sometimes amounting to more than 500 dollars, with false promises of residence permits. You pay the bribe! But the license never appears after three months; after one year; or after three years.

In the midst of this Kafkaesque bureaucracy, you have already exceeded your “legal” limit of 90 days. You know countless white Europeans who have also exceeded their “legal” 90 day limit in Tunisia. But you, with your dark black body, you’re the only one arbitrarily stopped and searched by the police.

A sub-Saharan interlocutor told me how a false accusation of transporting drugs had been fabricated against them during their arrest; they were asked to sign a document in Arabic which they did not understand and were refused a French translation.

Maybe with your black body, you’ll go to jail or be deported!

Now imagine that as a “migrant” from sub-Saharan Africa, you managed to escape by going to prison or being deported. With each passing week, you accrue a penalty of 20 Tunisian dinars (about $6.5); or about $325 per year. But you have almost no money in Tunisia; many of my sub-Saharan interlocutors mentioned not having been paid by their employers for months because these employers exploit the legally precarious situation of these migrants.

Facing death as the only option

Now, after two years, you really want to leave to go back to your country. Or maybe you have a family emergency; the father of an Ivorian interlocutor died while he was stranded in Tunisia. But you have accrued an overstay penalty of $650 (or more). Additionally, a one-way flight to anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa from Tunis costs between $500 and $1,000. You know you will never have that money.

You try to go to your country’s embassy. For example, me, as an Indian researcher, I could not obtain a residence permit after two years in Tunisia. Last month, I visited the Indian Embassy in Tunis and my request for legal advice and diplomatic intervention was rejected because, as I was told, “it is the internal sovereign affair from Tunisia”. My sub-Saharan interlocutors mentioned similar stories of denial of aid in their respective embassies. At the same time, I was told that if I had been a French citizen, the French Embassy would have intervened in my case.

I am not black and I do not depend on the labor market in Tunisia to feed me; these are the two privileges I have in Tunisia. But Sub-Saharan women and men who depend on the labor market have told me of the persistent racial exploitation and violence (both verbal and physical) in the workplace.

Many tell me they feel stuck because they barely earn a day-to-day existence knowing that they will never be able to pay the accumulating penalty. They know that at any moment the police can arrest them and send them to prison. It’s too expensive to go home, and too humiliating to stay in Tunisia.

The only option? “Take the boat”, as many of my sub-Saharan interlocutors call it, meaning the so-called illegal journey across the sea to the shores of Italy on tiny boats that are not meant to float through strong waves .

Abel (a 32-year-old Ivorian, living in Tunis since 2019, who drives a truck delivering furniture; name changed) told me it is cheaper for people in his situation to pay Tunisian smugglers around $1,000 and face a “40% success rate” in crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, rather than paying the penalty plus flight costs to return to their home country from Tunisia. “60% chance of dying? I asked Abel, and he nodded.

Not death, but murder

According to UNHCR, in 2021, 123,300 migrants crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa to arrive in Europe. A total of 3,231 people were reported as “dead or missing at sea”. However, these figures remain disputed.

For example, according to Caminando Fronteras, a Spanish NGO, on average 12 migrants per day (i.e. 4,404 over the year) died trying to reach Spain via the Mediterranean in 2021; according to them, the success rate of crosses is about 80%. But this success rate is inflated because it does not include boats being towed to North African shores by National Guardsmen on either side.

Many scholars and activists have pointed to the role of the externalization of European borders to North Africa in the cause of these deaths. For example, France slashed visa quotas for Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco last year, closing legal avenues of immigration for many. For those who ‘take the boat’ and find themselves in distress at sea, EU border patrol boats become a blindessentially leaving these migrants to drown.

Yet in conversations about borders, we rarely talk about how countries in the South invest in and maintain violent border regimes. In the case of Tunisia, a non-immigration/immigration policy is deliberately maintained by institutional actors at different levels (border police, interior ministry, private legal agencies promising red tape) because, among other things, it is a lucrative place of corruption.

In India, the state has made 1.9 million citizens stateless persons by omitting their names from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) list in Assam in 2019; those who are omitted remain vulnerable to arbitrary arrest and detention. Furthermore, the arrival of Afghans in India after a political crisis last year has also made visible the absence of a national refugee protection framework; India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, and its treatment of people seeking protection remains ad hoc.

What we need, as countries of the South, is to go beyond the framework of the North as creators of borders and to reflect on the violence that we continue to perpetuate through immigration policies in our countries. We must name those responsible for maintaining non-transparent policies and those who invest (instead) in the border security and surveillance apparatus, murdering the most marginalized.

Shreya Parikh is a PhD candidate at Sciences Po, Paris and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, studying Western Asia. She currently resides in Tunisia.

This research was funded by the ZEIT-Strifung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius, Hamburg, as part of the “Beyond Borders” doctoral scholarship program.

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