From “MARKS: The scars and trauma of illegalised migration“. Photography by Max Hirzel.
Author: Dr Federica Mazzara
For at least the past three decades, migrants crossing the sea via unauthorised routes have been victims of shipwrecks in one of the most recent human relocations, where Europe and UK are the desired destinations. Today, people watching news reporting on migrant deaths at sea have become desensitised towards what should be an avoidable daily human loss.
The increasing enforcement of EU and UK borders has seen nation states making agreements with third countries, such as Libya and Turkey, to handle what is mistakenly defined as a crisis. Crises are situations of emergency, interruptions of a perceived order, that require prompt responses and solutions. Migrant deaths have been going on for way too long to be defined as a crisis, and nothing has been put in place to halt this loss. While the response to migrant deaths should be like that of deaths in “commercial air crashes, shipwrecks or humanitarian disasters, where immediate steps are taken to count the dead, record the missing, identify the victims, interview survivors and preserve evidence”, as lawyer Stephanie Grant observes, this does not happen in the case of victims of unauthorised journeys, where the dead are considered responsible for their own fate.
This was the case, for instance, of the Kurdish-Iranian family, whose members all drowned on October 27th, 2020 off the coast of Dunkirk, France, while attempting to reach the UK in a boat alongside 15 other people. The bodies of Rasoul Iran-Nejad and his wife Shiva Mohammed Panahi, together with those of their children, Anita and Armin, were recovered on the same day. Their third child, a 15-month-old boy, was not found at the time. Instead, his body drifted hundreds of miles across the North Sea and was found by the Norwegian police two months after the horrid tragedy. As for all other shipwrecks where migrants lose their life, —including the latest one that happened on the November 24th in the English Channel, causing the deaths of 27 of the 30 people on board— nobody was convicted of murder. Politicians keep on blaming the smugglers and the travellers’ irresponsibility —as shown by the recent border bill conceived by Priti Patel and discussed in Parliament—, while the need to create safe passages and change policies is never addressed.
I have been working on migration for more than a decade, particularly interested in unveiling aspects of migration that the current political narrative tends to conceal. What I have been scrutinising is the extent to which death of migrants at the borders is caused by the ill management of migration by powerful nations, whose main interest is to protect their sovereignty, rather than human rights. Over the past years, I have been obsessively invested in making sure that people would not forget too easily that there are human beings dying at the borders of our nations daily for the simple reason of wanting to reach a safer place. My concern about migrant deaths at sea led to the curation of an exhibition on the subject with artist Maya Ramsay. The exhibition, called Sink Without Trace, took place over June and July 2019 at the P21 Gallery, London. SWT presented work by eighteen artists on the subject of migrant deaths at sea. Through drawing, painting, photography, printmaking, sculpture and video works, Sink Without Trace offers alternative perspectives on a subject that is often only presented through the eyes of the media and politicians. As part of the exhibition, the work of Italian photographer Max Hirzel was included. In 2015, Hirzel began a long-term project entitled Migrant Bodies. His work focuses on one of the very rare forensic cases carried out on fragments of corpses from the so-called ‘boat of innocents’ shipwreck of April 18th 2015 between Libya and the Sicilian city of Augusta that caused between 700 and 1,100 deaths, while only 28 people survived.
While Migrant Bodies has the merit to document the unusual story of forensic attempts to trace victims of shipwrecks caused by the EU policies on immigration, Hirzel’s latest project Marks focuses on who survives those journeys and what scars are left on their bodies and minds. Hirzel, together with medical doctor and forensic specialist Antonietta Lanzarone and psychotherapist Silvia Torresin, was part of an event called Marks: Forensic Photography and the Removal of the Trauma of Migration at the University of Westminster’s Difference Festival 2021. The event revolved around the above-mentioned photographic project by Hirzel that documents more specifically the medical-legal certification work carried out by forensic doctor Antonietta Lanzarone on the marks of violence and torture suffered by migrants and asylum seekers. The project addresses the concealed pain and trauma experienced by people on the move, who are forced to use unauthorised routes, such as the Libyan route for migrants coming from the African continent and directed to Europe. In Libya, physical violence and torture are inflicted on ’illegalised’ migrants, who rarely have the time, space and ability to process their trauma.
The photographs are a testimony of the attempt to measure, document, quantify and qualify the physical and mental trauma suffered by the people on the move. Some photos show the callous scars with a ruler next to them as a way to turn those marks on the skin into data; some others show their intertwined hands and clenched fists, while the migrants try to recall their trauma in order to report it to Dr Lanzarone. The marks are there to testify a crime that nobody is held to account for, the photographs are a powerful means to make sure that that trauma is documented and public. As Max Hirzel observed, “in front of me, there were people who must undress and have their bodies analysed in the hope not necessarily to be treated for existing traumas, but most importantly to be believed and receive a document, a permission to stay and obtain asylum”.
Max Hirzel’s documentation of the violence of our borders is a much-needed act of resistance to any attempt of concealing governments’ negligence and responsibilities. Many more migrants will die at the borders of Europe and UK, and more will survive carrying marks of trauma for the rest of their lives. More corpses will drift across ‘our’ seas and yet this will not stop more people from crossing borders via unauthorised routes in order to reach desired countries. This makes me wonder: when will governments acknowledge the need to change policies to allow safe passages? In other words, when will nation states stop prioritising the protection of their borders to the detriment of human lives? The answers are blowing in the wind, and it is everybody’s responsibility to look for them.
Dr Federica Mazzara is a Reader in Cultural Studies at the University of Westminster, School of Humanities. Her research focuses on migration, art and politics, media and communication. She is the author of Reframing Migration: Lampedusa, Border Spectacle and the Aesthetics of Subversion (Peter Lang, 2019).