At documenta 14, the contemporary art exhibition hosted every five years in Kassel, Germany, a key installation in the main hall are the remains of wooden rafts that carried refugees and migrants to the Greek island of Lesbos.
The artist Guillermo Galindo has made them into a musical instrument, and at certain times plays them as such. Fluchtzieleuropahavarieschallkörper this piece of art is called, which can loosely be interpreted as the remaining resonances of failed dreams to reach Europe. Guillermo found these boat wrecks on Lesbos, and we do not known what might have happened to those who once set to sea in them – did they make it, maybe rescued by one of the NGOs who have made it their mission to prevent more death in the Mediterranean and beyond?
A few months ago I attended the public presentation of a photographer friend in Berlin who had been on one of those NGO boats in the Mediterranean, partly doing his job as a photographer, but also, as are the general rules for all crew, doing his daily shifts in all things that needed doing. His talk was accompanied by powerful pictures of the experience – as this was his profession, and multiple tales of horror and joy: Joy when people safely sank onto the planks of the rescue boat, even if shivering and dehydrated, with something in their face giving way to relieve and the wry smile when the realisation they had made it sank in. Horror when their boat was on collision with Libyan coastguards, when in some tense moments it was unclear which way the confrontation would go – it remained a minor skirmish in the end. What remained most visible in my memory from his presentation where the different approaches to rescue by the NGO boat and the larger vessels of the Italian coastguard that took the people ‘saved’ by NGO boats on board and brought them to Sicily or other parts of Italy – as was the chain of rescue then.
The NGO helpers provided those rescued as best as they could with water, food, a place to rest and above all, respect and empathy, a hug here, a toy for a child there – even if of course, in a situation as stressful and traumatic, skirmishes did also occur. Once the Italian coastguard arrived, orders were barked at often traumatised people, and little visible compassion or empathy was on display. And still, it were those same Italian coastguards who did an in many ways heroic job, making sure people arrived safely in Italy, and were not sent back to places like Libya. It was Italy that was largely left alone on this frontline of the movement of refugees and migrants, as was Greece – and European solidarity was hard to come by beyond words. After all it was Italy that had once started rescue missions in the Mediterranean through the Mare Nostrum operation – and the NGO rescue boats only stepped in after Italy was left alone then as well and saw no alternative to ending Mare Nostrum.
One can thus partly understand that Italy had enough, and installed a new code of conduct for NGO rescue missions that brought more people to its shore – a code of conduct that most NGOs rightly could or would not sign, as it would undermine their key mandate and ethics. An old argument was rehearsed in this controversy again: that rescue NGOs are in fact responsible for increasing death in the Mediterranean, because their presence would encourage people to leave the shores of Libya in the first place. This already in 2014 was the UK government’s argument in rejecting to support Mare Nostrum, and thus washing its hands of any form of European solidarity (at least now it can point to the fact that it has actively decided on a hard break with Europe). Little has changed in 2017, a year that has already seen around 2200 death in the western and central Mediterranean Sea. A detailed report, Blaming the Rescuers, released in June 2017 and based on meticulously compiled evidence, refutes the claim that rescue missions, be they carried out by states as was the case with Mare Nostrum, or by NGOs, encourage refugee and migration movements. Increased obstacles to travel by land and desperate conditions in countries like Lybia are the forces that let people board unseaworthy boats like the one Guillermo Galindo found at the beaches of Lesbos.
The latest development, including more active involvement of Libyan coastguards in returning refugees and migrants to Lybia, have resulted in some of the major NGO actors suspending their rescue activities, as they feel their own security is being compromised. They did so with a heavy heart but felt they had no other choice. We all know what will happen: deaths will increase, as was the case when Mare Nostrum was ended.
More urgently than ever, Europe as a whole needs a proper policy on refugees and migrants, and a system that allows for journeys to be safe. But while much has been made about recent initiatives like the G20 Compact with Africa, as long as such initiatives are mainly seen as migration-prevention strategies that are accompanied by stricter border controls in the name of ill-conceived sovereignty, a journey on unseaworthy boats will remain the best bet for many in their quest to achieve a life in dignity. Even if all that remains of that dream might be a sound installation at a contemporary art exhibition.