Dead Refugees and Immortal Nations, Sights and Sites of Global Asia

What would it mean to examine the current European migration crisis from a Global Asia framework? This question only seems odd when adopting the perspective of European state actors rather than those of the Syrian refugees who are the largest population of the 1.3 million migrants who applied for asylum in the European Union, Norway, and Sweden in 2015. On average, ten migrants drowned in the Mediterranean each day in 2015, and the numbers rose to almost fourteen in 2016. West Asian migration, or people from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, comprise the top three countries of origin for migrants to Europe.

We begin from the Mediterranean Sea, the watery border separating Europe from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East that is the graveyard for thousands of migrants on overcrowded, flimsy boats and that has deterred migrants for millennia. What if we were to analyze the current European migration crisis using the Mediterranean Sea as method? If we take inspiration from critics such as Isabel Hofmeyr who posit the Indian Ocean as method, the Mediterranean then emerges as the site of cross-cutting diasporas with intercontinental circuits. These flows may or may not develop through the violence of single nation-states and their imperial and colonial networks and hierarchies. Extending recent analyses of circuits of migrants and capital across the Indian Ocean to the contemporary Mediterranean, we posit this seascape on the edges of three continents and its surrounding nations as another crucial, if overlooked, site of Global Asia. Speaking about the “Chinese Atlantic,” Sean Metzger identifies the seascape as countering the rigidity of borders and enabling a more flexible geographic epistemology: “Demanding attention to flow, [they] decenter claims to authority and territory grounded in particular places. Views from and of the ocean enable ways of seeing and knowing that emphasize not only forms that lie on surfaces but the processes that enable and sustain those forms as well as the ripple effects emanating from such constructions.”

The European migration crisis, often interpreted and treated as the Syrian refugee crisis, exposes not only the fragility of the European Union, but also the dislocation of the Middle East from Asian diasporic frameworks in the Global North imaginary. Gayatri Spivak has theorized the absence of West Asia in her essays on “other Asias,” and Spivak’s specific discussion of how the War on Terror reconfigured Asia echoes Europe’s millennia of marginalizing Africans, Jews, Muslims, and the Roma and Sinti. These groups, as Fatima El-Tayeb observes, must deliberately be ignored for Europe to maintain its white, Christian continental conception of itself. Pro-migrant artivism around the circulation of (dead) West Asian migrant bodies in the European Union and the Mediterranean challenges and redefines Global Asia through the seascape. Art represents the circuits of migrants’ lives and deaths around and through the Mediterranean that the EU and US attempt to keep hidden in extraterritorial refugee camps and border nations such as Turkey.

The Mediterranean seascape is not only about living migrants but also about remembering those who lost their lives in the waters, in the refugee camps or at any stage in their migration. Holding German citizens and politicians to their word and their constitution, the Berlin-based artivist organization Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (Center for Political Beauty) contests nation-state based notions of geography, form, and life in its 2015 multimedia performance project Die Toten kommen! (The Dead Are Coming!). The piece involved the exhumation in Italy of a drowned Syrian migrant woman, her transport to Germany, and her burial in a proper Muslim ceremony with the permission of her family, who had survived and had managed to reach Germany.

The activist group then organized a large-scale memorial service for this migrant woman in front of the German Bundestag. Their PR campaign promoting the service included chairs reserved with large-lettered signs for Angela Merkel and other top politicians, chairs which of course remained empty. Alongside the day-to-day politics engaged by this woman’s burial, the Center’s artivists also continuously drew parallels to the German past. Across the street from the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a mock-up installation was exhibited for a Memorial: To the Unknown Immigrants, to be built in the green space in front of the German Chancellery so that “the Chancellor, cabinet and visitors [would] now literally have to walk over dead bodies” of “victims of Europe’s military isolation.” By memorializing the drowned Syrian migrant woman in Germany’s national imaginary through this burial, the Center emphasizes the incorporation of her and other West Asian migrants into a European history and memory, as we have detailed elsewhere. This artivism also extends Asia into Europe.

To understand the treatment of Syrian refugees requires audiences to understand the EU’s treatment of its African migrants, which brings the three continents of the Mediterranean seascape into the Center’s performance artivism. An earlier installation done by this group was called “The First Fall of the European Wall” and forced another direct comparison between the victims of the Berlin Wall (shot while trying to flee totalitarian East German rule) and the “future victims of the Wall” at Europe’s outer borders. This juxtaposition of victims past and present revealed that more people have died attempting to migrate via the Mediterranean in recent years than died trying to pass through the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. The doubling of the Wall extends the geographic imagination of Germany and Europe toward its neighboring continents and exposes the differential status afforded the refugees.

In prompting global audiences to witness images of migrants huddled in overcrowded boats, or apprehended by Greek and Italian maritime authorities, or drowned on the shores of the Mediterranean, the project exposes the circulation of dead bodies as the forgotten underside of financial and political connections linking Europe, Asia, and Africa. These images produce the globally imagined seascape of this body of water beyond the ostensible certainty of land masses and the fixity of nation-states. Since the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now the civil war in Syria, movements of refugees across borders and circulating throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas have emerged as a critical rubric of globalization.

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Jennifer M. Gully

Jennifer M. Gully is lecturer at the College of William & Mary. Her research interests lie at the intersection of translation theory, language policies, and the emerging aesthetics prompted by mass migration. She has published in TRANSIT: A Journal of Travel, Migration, and Multiculturalism in the German-Speaking World and co-authored an article for philoSOPHIA: A Journal of Continental Feminism that more extensively analyzes the Center for Political Beauty’s “borderscape” performance artivism and its challenges to Germany’s present-day exclusionary border policies. Her book project is entitled the Territories of Language: Law, Literature, and the Nation-State and analyzes German- and English-language texts.


Lynn Mie Itagaki

Lynn Mie Itagaki is associate professor in the Department of English and the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Missouri. The past recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Council on Germany, she has recently published Civil Racism: The 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion and the Crisis of Racial Burnout (2016) and has articles and reviews in philoSOPHIA: A Journal of Continental Feminism, Prose Studies, Feminist Formations, Biography, Kalfou, African American Review, Amerasia Journal, and MELUS. With Jennifer Gully, she is currently working on co-authored articles and a book project on West Asian migration into Europe. Her next single-authored book projects examine economic citizenship after the global recession of 2008 and the aesthetics and politics of the media bystander in the post-9/11 era in international human rights discourse.