Islands are defined by the sea that surrounds them. The sea opens up boundless possibilities for transport and travel but also helps set boundaries and separate the islands and ports from the world around them. The history of the Mediterranean is a tale of ports and cities on three different continents; it is a story of over three thousand large and small islands and the people who have arrived from the sea.
The Mediterranean Sea has an area of 2.5 million square kilometres and a coastline of 46,000 kilometres. This seat separates and connects Europe, Africa and Asia, and for millennia it has been the place where religions, traders and political systems have met, fought and influenced each other. In Norwegian, the name Middelhavet comes from the German Mittelmeer, which means the sea in the middle. In Latin, it has been called Mare Nostrum – our sea; in English, it is called the Mediterranean Sea from the Latin Mediterranean for middle and land; in Turkish, it is called Akdeniz, the white sea, which the ancient Egyptians called the Mediterranean Sea; in Hebrew, it is called ha-Yam ha-Tichon, the sea in the middle.
For the first time in twenty years, all the sea routes used by displaced people to cross the Mediterranean are active. Every day boats set out from Libya towards Malta and Italy, From Tunisia towards Lampedusa, from Morocco to Spain, from Lebanon to Cyprus and from Turkey to the Greek islands. Every year thousands drown, and tens of thousands are being illegally deported to the gruesome humanitarian abuses they escaped from.
Never before has the difference between who is and who is not allowed to cross the sea with the many names been so clear. While tens of thousands of people are transported daily across the Mediterranean in huge cruise ships, the same sea is slowly being transformed into the world’s most dangerous and deadliest border for displaced people.
In recent years, hundreds of thousands of boat refugees have arrived on the islands in the Mediterranean, sometimes more dead than alive.
The Messenger from Hell
I write Hell with a capital H; for me, Hell is a place. This place, Hell, lies just outside of our Mediterranean paradise; at this place, we let children drown and sink down 5000 meters into the deep ocean only to be eaten by fish. Hell is where we make no attempt to rescue people, even when we know precisely where they are. It has become the world’s deadliest border, and bloated corpses wash ashore on someone’s beach every day. The pictures of these poor souls are indescribable, the smell even worse. This will be the shame of our age, our indescribable heritage to our children, yet we are allowing it to happen right on our doorstep. At the bottom of Hell lie thousands of cell phones with missed calls and worried text messages that will never get an answer. Down there in the dark, SIM cards are full of pictures and memories, university papers and dreams of a life somewhere else. Down there are the maps to another life. Every time we take a step out into the Mediterranean, we swim on someone’s grave.
Let the atrocious images haunt us! Susan Sontag.
The sight of green body bags lined up in the harbours across the Mediterranean haunts me with such tremendous force. So do the memories of five dead siblings on a beach in a winter storm and the attempt to identify them from the images we had just received on our mobile phones from a mother who was left on the other side of the ocean after the boat capsized, and the waves separated them from each other.
I am haunted by the physical weight of a young man we had to lift down from a barbed wire fence after he hanged himself in Moria when we told him that his pregnant wife and their three children had been found but that none of them was alive. And then there is another shipwreck, a boat with hundreds of people on board, burning out at sea, no rescue boats are nearby, and over fifty children have been confirmed dead. The media is quiet. Then I know I have to keep on documenting. Not because I can take it, but because I promised.
“Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us,” wrote Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others. It is evident that the pictures of drowned children no longer haunt European politicians enough to act or journalists sufficient to write, so I keep trying, through the narrative, and as I am writing my Facebook blog, Budbringeren fra Helvete/The Messenger from Hell has an average of 100.000 views per day. This proves that the silence from the media is wrong. People want to hear about the refugee crisis; they just cannot find the proper information in Norwegian media. For when the media writes about the refugees crossing the Mediterranean, it is only in brief updates, often filled with mistakes and dehumanising words, and very rarely do they take the time to explain what people are escaping from, what a refugee’s plight looks like, and how it is done. Readers only get flash texts about displaced people’s lives, and this, I think, leads to an even more polarised debate. So, twenty years ago, I decided to really understand what was going on in the Mediterranean and to document not only who was crossing but also who was drowning.
It was on Lesvos during Christmas 2015 that I seriously became known as the Messenger from Hell. Readers from Norway shared a post I wrote to the migration minister Sylvi Listhaug, from the far right party FrP, meant as an open letter on Facebook, but later published in Aftenposten and a number of other newspapers.
Read what the Messenger from Hell writes, my followers said on Facebook.
At that point, I had for many years – without much response – written about desperate people crossing the Mediterranean in search of a safe haven.
My first encounter with people who came by sea across the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe was in 2001. As someone who is half Norwegian and half Maltese, I have lived a lifetime in transit between my two home countries. Not far from Marsaskala, the fishing village where I learned to swim myself, came a boat of refugees on a stormy night. The boat slammed into the cliffs, and one of those who had been on board drowned just metres from shore. The Maltese did not know then that this was the beginning of one of the greatest refugee crises of all time, that regular people would drown just off the coast of Malta for the next twenty years, that thousands of women, children and men would sink into the sea just off our island without the world caring.
I had no idea then that I would be taking part in rescue operations in different parts of the Mediterranean and that I would document what I saw year after year.
However, I knew that something inside me had changed forever. Slowly, my beloved Mediterranean was transformed into a mass grave.
In one of the speeches Pope Francis gave at the beginning of the pandemic, he emphasised how crises change us and that he himself believed one could not be the same when entering a crisis as when one comes out of it. Eventually, in what was referred to as the refugee crisis, which I think we should refer to as the crisis of refugees, I also realised that I could never be the same again. For I had seen and learned too much.
The more I learned about the Mediterranean, the more I realised that Europe was about to lock itself up behind a wall of borders, both at sea and on land. At the same time, I was increasingly impressed by people’s ability to survive the most brutal humanitarian abuses.
Who were these people who put their lives at stake by taking the most dangerous route to Europe? What had they left behind, and what did they expect to find where they arrived?
Who were the people who arranged these deadly journeys? Were they just evil human beings or also sometimes people who actually wished to help?
Who were the ones who never made it?
Whole families lying at the bottom of the sea, who would forever lie there with no grave or burial – what was their story?
One thing in particular which has kept me going during my numerous encounters with displaced people is that I am asked to tell their stories.
Time and time again, I have heard the words:
Do not forget us; tell the world what happens to displaced people and refugees.
As a messenger, I have often been referred to as the voice of the voiceless, but displaced people are not really voiceless.It is the years of forced detention and seizure of mobile phones and other assets that deprive them of their voice and communication with the outside world. I have worked as a translator for many years, and I see my work with refugees and this documentation project as yet another translation assignment.
I try to lift the stories up from the Mediterranean and the refugees’ plight and, as best I can, translate them so that readers can understand what’s going on out there.
As I am writing this, I am sitting in the far south of the island of Malta, on the cliffs of Munxar Hill outside the fishing village of Marsaskala, scouting for boats coming from Libya; it feels like being at the end of the world.
I let my fingers slide over the cold, soft limestone as I listen to the waves. I was conceived in Malta myself. This is the land of my ancestors; this is where I took my first steps, where I learned to swim.
I think of everything these honey-coloured cliffs have seen. What if they could talk?
On April 18, 2015, a boat with over 1,000 people on board sank off Malta. Only 28 people survived. Twenty-four bodies were brought ashore in Malta and buried next to my grandparents. The rest of the drowned were left rotting at the bottom of the sea. It took a year before the large blue boat was raised. Then the thousand people were impossible to identify. The body parts were no longer connected. In Italy, a female pathologist has spent six years desperately trying to put the different body parts together so that some family members may get an answer to what happened to their loved ones. She barely receives EU funding for the project, and so far, only 30 people have been identified.
If this was a boat filled with European people, don’t you think you would have heard about them? Over one thousand people drowned in a single shipwreck, yet almost not a single word in the western media?
The media covers the crises of refugees for very short periods. For many years I thought, perhaps naïvely, that if the atrocities could only be shown and described clearly enough, most people would take in what was going on out there in the Mediterranean. There were thousands of images of children drowning in the Mediterranean for over fifteen years before the photograph of Alan Kurdi woke the world on September 2, 2015.
As early as 2007, the Maltese media used the word crisis-weary about the Maltese people because while thousands of people drowned just outside the bays of southern Europe, people in Norway had hardly heard of boat refugees across the Mediterranean through Norwegian media at the time. Malta and the Mediterranean were not close enough for the press to write about the horrific shipwrecks that took place there. And while fishermen from the Mediterranean lifted corpses out of their fishing nets and stopped eating their own catch, Norwegian tourists continued to enjoy themselves a few meters away without being aware that there was a huge humanitarian crisis out there at sea. Not until 2015, the year the refugees suddenly reach our borders. By then, fishermen, divers, rescue workers and locals in Malta and Lampedusa were already exhausted. The refugee crisis did not start in 2015 – and it did not end in 2015, even though Norwegian media have long since stopped reporting.
What is the reason behind the lack of attention the drownings in the Mediterranean receive in the Norwegian media? How can we have a proper debate on such a polarised issue as immigration and asylum policy when we do not receive regular information about what is unfolding along Europe’s external borders? In order to participate in the debate on asylum policy, we must understand the major global questions about who is entitled to protection and what obligations the various EU Member States have or should take. While discussing who should accept how many and when to do so, we must ensure that people do not drown in the search for a safe haven.
Are we exhausted? Should we really just keep regarding the sufferings of others?
On October 3, 2013, a twenty-metre fishing boat with over five hundred people on board sank just off the coast of Lampedusa. 155 people were rescued ashore, but over 360 people drowned. The dead were granted Italian citizenship post-mortem, and a plaque was put up underwater to honour their memory. The survivors were fined 5,000 euros each for entering Europe illegally.
What does this tell us about the value of the lives of the survivors?
On October 28, 2015, a large wooden boat with hundreds of people on board capsized just off the north coast of Lesvos. More than sixty people drowned while distraught local restaurant owners and volunteers stood at the port of Molyvos, trampling over bodies to reach the living. The peaceful fishing village looked like a war zone. A thirteen-year-old girl from Afghanistan lost both her parents and three young siblings. Their bodies were never found.
Even though she had an aunt in Sweden who wanted to care for her, she was only allowed to stay with her aunt in Sweden until she turned 18. Then, Swedish authorities deported her. The month she turned eighteen, she was sent back to Greece. For such is the Dublin agreement. Not even a child who loses her whole family in a shipwreck is allowed to start a new life and have a future with what little family she has left.
She was sent back to Greece to a country and a language she had never known because her family had drowned in Greek waters and stepped on Greek soils as she was pulled out of the waves. Yes, she is alive, but what life is this that Europa has offered? We must stop committing humanitarian abuses for which our children must apologise in 50 years. I so very often hear people say they might as well have drowned, as life in displacement when your loved ones have drowned before your eyes is not a life worth living. The perverse agreement the EU has made with Libya has led to a significant flare-up on the even more dangerous route straight out of North-West Africa, including from Senegal to the Canary Islands. It is estimated that as many as 1/5 who set out on this route are drowning.
Undocumented Ghost Ships
Even though the Mediterranean does not look so big on the map, searching in an ocean of 2.5 million square kilometres is experienced almost endlessly. Every single day, boats out at sea just disappear, sometimes with hundreds of people on board. The boats we never find again are referred to as ghost ships. In the last twenty years, hundreds of vessels have simply disappeared. There is a list of almost 50,000 names of people who drowned in the Mediterranean in recent years. We who work with search and rescue are in no doubt that this number is many times greater. Some rescue workers are, like me, sure it’s tenfold. Up to half a million people may have sunk to the bottom of the ocean just outside our holiday paradise, and we will never find them. This is because a person is only registered as dead if someone has seen that they have drowned or the family knows for sure that they were on board a boat that sank. But there is another cruel reason why so many are not registered as dead.
Many do not survive for days out on the open sea in icy cold or scorching heat, without food and water or the opportunity to stretch their legs; many die already while sitting in the boat. Fuel mixed with salt water creates a strong corrosive agent, many people simply die from poisoning or burns along the way, and even though their very girlfriend may be sitting with them in the boat, the condition of the bodies and the stench of corpses becomes so great that they have no other choice than to lower them into the sea. For many, this will be the only funeral they receive. The shame this entails and the grief the relatives have to bear, together with the fear of being punished, means that many do not report that their loved one died on the road. Therefore, they are also never registered. Forever undocumented.
Mr Adam Oga
The Maltese Coast Guard found an inflatable boat just off Malta two years ago. On the front page of all the newspapers, one could read: that a man on the run was the only survivor in an inflatable boat. 15 people were dead. The ships that had passed had ignored their cries for help. The survivor was Adam Oga. When he left Libya, fifteen people, including a pregnant woman, were on board the boat. After 11 days out in the scorching heat under the sun without food, water, or fuel, only Adam was left. One by one, everyone on board the boat died. Oga and his friend Ismail sank them into the sea. It was the only funeral these people received. This is not an isolated incident; precisely because of countless events like this, no one knows how many people are at the bottom of our Mediterranean. Oga says
that they were passed by several boats that saw them, both merchant ships and private yachts. This is not unusual either. On the contrary, people drown even when we know exactly where they are.
How can this happen?
The duty to help people in distress at sea is enshrined in international law, but the old law of rescuing people at sea has a significant shortcoming. The law does not define what pain at sea is, and it does not define what a safe haven is.
But what exactly is the problem? Why is search and rescue in the Mediterranean so inflamed – what is it that makes it so difficult to pick up people in distress at sea? Is this not the oldest and most undisputed law of seafarers: when people are in distress at sea, you pick them up? You would think so in practice, but it does not work that way in theory. In the last twenty years, the merchant fleet has become painfully aware of what the consequences could be if they save people in need. Many of the sailors I have interviewed think this is problematic and struggle with a bad conscience. But they say they are going bankrupt if they are to save the people they discover in the sea. Almost all the refugees I interviewed about their crossing of the Mediterranean on the Libya-Malta route say that they have been close to other ships but have not been rescued. As early as August 2014, MRCC, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, the maritime rescue centre based in Rome, sent out an emergency message to 26 ships in the Mediterranean between Malta and Libya about a boat with refugees who were in distress at sea. Just a few seconds later, only six ships were visible on the radar; everyone else had hidden their position. The law to save people in distress at sea does not work in practice, and once people are saved, they are often treated as second-class people.
The three major challenges
The Mediterranean today faces three significant challenges in terms of the absence of search and rescue: Standoff, Push back, and the general absence of initiating rescue operations. Standoff means that a boat that has rescued people, such as a merchant ship, is not allowed to dock anywhere because no country wants them. Pushbacks mean that people in international or European waters are drawn against their will back to where they fled from. The absence of initiating rescue is about the Coast Guard simply not wanting to answer the phone and not taking responsibility for the people after being rescued.
All three challenges have catastrophic consequences for those concerned. This is why people drown even when we have accurate GPS positions. One of the basic principles in the EU is solidarity between EU countries, but there has been little solidarity to be seen with the four countries in the south that are at the forefront of the refugee crisis: Malta, Italy, Greece, and Spain are wondering what the hell we are doing up here in the north?
A few weeks ago, the Norwegian ship Geo Barents docked in Sicily with 472 survivors on board. And before we give any credit to Norway, this is MSF’s own operation; the people rescued by Geo Barents are never allowed to come to Norway. Our politicians have emphasised this time and time again. Norwegian-flagged ship, ‘but not our responsibility.
As a nation, Norway has never actually sent any rescue ships to the Mediterranean, but we have been quick to say yes when asked to contribute with border control. Why is it so difficult for us to understand that people get on a boat hoping for a better future if they live a life where their human rights and dignity are not taken care of at all? Norway is a country that is at the very top when it comes to respecting human rights. Can we ever imagine what it does to a human being to live in constant insecurity, oppression, resistance, poverty, war, torture, powerlessness, corruption, violent policemen, abuse, fear of kidnapping, organ theft, circumcision and systematic mass rape and slavery?
What do we see when we consider the sufferings of others?
Who counts as human?
Which lives are considered valuable?
What lives are worth mourning over?
How can the value of human life be ranked so differently?
I think justice must be a promise.
A promise of future justice, and this is where our responsibility lies.
The biggest crime is not what we have done; it is that we let it happen again.
Justice and human rights require that we all take responsibility and that we all act.
Each of us bears that responsibility and is thus responsible for how we act.
Have we become so accustomed to other people’s suffering that it no longer affects us?
If we are no longer responsible and aware of the earth that belongs to us all, we end up without the ability to take care of each other. Is it the case that we have entered into globalised indifference in this globalised world? We have become accustomed to the sufferings of others: it does not affect me, it does not affect me, it is not my responsibility.
Globalised indifference makes us all nameless, responsible, but nameless, faceless.
I have a picture of a small child, not yet a year old, on my mobile.
The little one has washed ashore on a beach, dead and alone; the half-naked body is wrapped in sea plastic.
The image perfectly symbolises our betrayal of both people on the run and the earth we live on.
Do you know that the last thing a person shouts before they drown in their own name, sometimes the children’s?
Many have their name sewn on the inside of their clothes so they will at least be identified; inside the hulls of the boats we find, people have left claw marks and engraved their own names when they realise they are going to die.
And already in their drowning moment, a human being’s biggest fear is that they will never be found, that they will be undocumented.