Greek shipwreck oracle: A horrible accident at sea or the inevitable function of militarised borders? – Interview with Lauren Markham

The militarisation of the EU’s external borders replicates many of the deadly practices of the United States on its Mexican border

Interview by Todd Miller, author of ‘Build Bridges Not Walls’ and editor of The Border Chronicle.

Cross-posted from Counterpunch

Picture by Steve Evans

In the early morning on June 14, 47 nautical miles from the coast of Pylos, Greece, a fishing boat packed with about 700 passengers sank into the water. The boat carried people from Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan, and Palestine, many who were asylum seekers. One hundred and four of them have been rescued, leaving the anticipated death toll near a staggering 600, which would make this one of the deadliest tragedies ever recorded in the Mediterranean.

In the following conversation, Lauren Markham, author of The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life, explains how this shipwreck fits into and needs to be understood within a larger historical context. Since 2014, 27,629 migrants have gone missing in the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration. And that is an undercount. As Mussie Zerai recently told the CBC, the Mediterranean is a “big, open sea of graves.”

The U.S.-Mexico borderlands have also been referred to as a land of open graves, which is the title of a great book by anthropologist Jason De León about U.S. deterrence policies.

Here, Markham discusses how the EU uses similar strategies and demonstrates how they led to the tragedy. From there, she gives a wider panorama of the event, unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere, drawing from extensive reportingshe’s done over the years from Greece and research and thinking she’s done for her forthcoming book A Map of Future Ruins: On Borders and Belonging. In the book (out next spring!), she examines Greek border and immigration policies (as she explains below), but it’s also a meditative and philosophical treatise that examines her own Greek ancestry and migration story, and the importance of the stories we tell about borders and people on the move, and how they become oracles that predict the future.

What historical context can you share about what happened on June 14?

The recent shipwreck is a gutting tragedy—one of those losses of such epic proportions that it both makes the blood boil and bends the brain and empties out a cavern in your chest. It’s one of the deadliest crashes in recent history. And it absolutely could have, and should have, been prevented.

As in the U.S., the EU uses immigration deterrence strategies that only succeed in pushing people into more deadly territory and more perilous crossings. The ship was headed to Italy but had been blown into Greek waters. The Greeks, however, wanted nothing to do with this boat. The Coast Guard claims that the boat was doing fine, that it was making good headway toward Italy, and so it denied the boat assistance. But these claims have already been brought into serious question. Whether tacitly or intentionally, it’s possible the Greek Coast Guard’s inaction led to this wreck.

So to put this all in context: In the early years of the refugee arrivals, which began en masse in 2015, many Greeks were remarkably welcoming, transforming their fishing boats into search-and-rescue vessels, their tavernas into mess halls, their homes into shelters, their beaches into emergency command centers. But in years since, the Greek government has been adopting a more hard-line, anti-immigration stance. This is, in part, because Europe as a whole has essentially foisted the administration and logistics of its regional refugee “crisis” onto its border countries—places like Italy and Greece, which are already struggling economically. Greece, for instance, is still reeling from the economic crash of 2008 and the austerity policies of the northern European banks. The ongoing economic crisis in Greece has found predictable fall guys: asylum seekers. In part, the refugees outgrew their welcome.

But nationalistic, exclusionary rhetoric had something to do with this too. If people in power tell stories about refugees bringing diseases, and crime, and not belonging—that’s how more and more people begin to see them. We know this very well here in the U.S. And, just like in the U.S., right wingershave used immigration—and the tired but successful play of blaming immigrants for domestic woes—as a rallying point to get more votes. I’m sorry to report that it’s worked.

How does European border policy compare with what we have in the United States?

As I mentioned above, Europe has really externalized its border enforcement to border countries like Greece. In turn, Greece has foisted this enforcement on the Aegean island “hot spots” like Lesbos, Chios, and Samos, among others. As in the U.S., the Greek government, with either the tacit or explicit backing of the EU, is doing what it can to deter people from coming: by making conditions in the camp miserable, by making the asylum process complex and lengthy, by prosecuting refugees for human smuggling and other trumped-up crimes, and above all by ensuring that the passage across land or sea is as risky as possible.

Last year I wrote about the “pushback” phenomenon in Greece for Mother Jones. Pushbacks are extrajudicial mass expulsions of refugees—known as “refoulement” under international law. The Greek Coast Guard or other authorities routinely drag boats of refugees from Greek waters back into Turkish seas, often destroying their engines and leaving them to drift. But it’s also very common for Greek authorities to round people up once they’ve already made it to Greek shores, then load them back onto boats, drive them past the Greek border, and deposit them in dinghies with no food, water, or engine. These are people already on European soil, making clear that they want to apply for asylum, and instead they are being spirited away onto an EU-funded coast guard ship and taken out to sea to drift.

It goes without saying that this is wildly illegal, yet it is happening regularly—we’re talking hundreds if not thousands of boats in the past couple of years—and with impunity. But despite widespread proof, the government denies that these pushbacks are happening. So much of politics, as we know in the U.S., is a matter of defining reality.

To make matters worse, and to keep this practice as hidden from view as possible, the Greek government has criminalized coming to the aid of refugees before they’ve registered with the authorities, and even criminalizing journalists covering these new arrivals. Yet it’s not secret. It’s like a bizarre, upside-down-world, doublespeak open secret. Recently, the New York Timesput out a bombshell report on pushbacks that has video evidence of a pushback in action: families, including babies, being taken from land, marched onto a Coast Guard vessel, and driven to sea. The video was completely unequivocal. And yet the government denied the charges, and the practice continues.

I mention pushbacks here because the shipwreck seems to be part of a continuum of cruel and fatal action—or inaction, as the case may be—on the part of the Greek government when it comes to refugees.

How does your forthcoming book, A Map of Future Ruins, inform your thinking on this tragedy?

A Map of Future Ruins: On Borders and Belonging (out next spring!) attempts to grapple with the violence of borders, connect the dots between nationalism and exclusion, and look directly at the mythologies built around migrations past and present and who and what they serve.

The book is centered around the story of the fire that destroyed Moria refugee camp and the swift case made against six young Afghans accused of burning it down. (I wrote about this case in The Guardian last year.) Moria was the largest and most infamous refugee camp in all of Europe, often described as a “human rights graveyard.” Though there was scant proof of these young men’s guilt, the Moria 6, as they came to be known, were all tried and convicted.

But A Map of Future Ruins isn’t a traditional journalistic narrative. Alongside the reporting on the Moria case and contemporary migration policies in Greece, I also write about my own family’s migration story from Greece in the Ellis Island era, about the myths of Western civilization and of whiteness, about the global border regime, and about the power and the limitations of storytelling. The book asks what mythologies are built, and how and by whom, in a heavily bordered world, and their consequences.

In the book, you say that migration stories such as this one don’t just explain what happened but are also oracles that predict the future. Does the shipwreck show more of the future? And what could the future be?

My book probes the way migration narratives are told—from the story of my great-grandmother’s arrival to Ellis Island, to the stories of Haitians arriving to Del Rio, Texas, last year, to the stories of this shipwreck.

My family has a hero narrative with a happy ending—in part because that’s the way we’ve written the story. In our case, the hero is my great-grandmother, Evanthia. Like the stories of many southern European families of the Ellis Island era, ours is about a poor immigrant who wasn’t considered white back then, a single mother of four who faced a good amount of discrimination but who nevertheless pulled herself up by her bootstraps, didn’t complain, made things work, and paved the way for the rest of us (now very much white people) to live and to thrive. But of course, there’s much more to this story than that. It’s just not so simple, so clean, or with such an ordered arc. But we tell the story this way because it makes meaning of our present. That is to say, we tell the story to reify what we feel and want to be true: that we belong here and that we earned our station via her struggle.

How we tell stories matters—that’s a truism verging on platitude, I know, but I believe it deeply. It makes a difference whether this shipwreck story is rendered as a horrible accident at sea or an inevitable function of militarized borders. The way we tell, read, and understand such stories cements a certain viewpoint, and from that viewpoint emerges policy. That’s what I mean when I say stories are oracles and that they predict the future. While it can feel really pat to be all “stories can change the world!,” it is very true that the way something is spun or cast dictates real decisions and stances that in turn determine whether people live or die.

Sadly, I do not think history will show this most recent shipwreck to be an anomaly. I think we are seeing more of the future here: exclusionist border policies and practices that lead directly to death. I think they call that murder? I certainly do.

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