Spectral vessels, Theodore Baird, Thomas Spijkerboer, Paolo Cuttitta, opendemocracy.net, 17/01/2015

  cuttitta.3Powerful institutional agendas have acted to bolster the ‘ghost ship’ obsession. Such symbolism renders the  specificities of Mediterranean migration opaque.

 « Over the past few weeks, three cargo ships transporting migrants to Italy were abandoned by their crews with the engines still running. They were directed towards Italian coasts and would have crashed there if the coast guard had not intervened to rescue the migrants. While the first went almost unnoticed, the other two – the Ezadeen and the Blue Sky M – made headlines worldwide. The cargoes were labeled as ‘ghost ships’, and the international press readily accepted the notion that abandoned ships constitute a new trend in the history of boat migration. This led to moral indignation and outrage over the fates of large groups of migrants at sea. (…)

The symbol of the ‘ghost ship’ is invoked to conjure folkloric and mythological imagery, and suggests that its cargo is deeply threatening. Such a move represents migration routes and trajectories as somehow mysterious, without corporeal origin: an image of people set adrift without history or narrative. The invocation of the ‘ghost ship’ thus renders the specificities of Mediterranean migration opaque, clouds over history, and ignores explanations or causes of boat migration. Mediterranean boat migration stems from a complex combination of factors including conflict, persecution, global inequality, border surveillance, lack of legal alternative routes, demographic factors, and geopolitical shifts in Europe and the region. To gloss over the complex history of migration and the causes and explanations of migration in the Mediterranean only serves to skew the public debate.

Institutional agendas

The idea of a ‘ghost ship trend’ has been pushed by important international organizations, whose (diverging) institutional agendas are served by the notion. But the focus on this ‘new trend’ stands in the way of addressing Europe’s actual moral and legal dilemmas over migrants’ right to life versus security and surveillance – dilemmas which have been heightened and re-articulated since the recent Paris attacks.

The notion that ‘ghost ships’ constitute a new phenomenon has been spread actively by three organizations with differing institutional mandates and agendas. The International Organization for Migration (predominantly funded on a project basis by western governments) has asked for more attention, most notably in a report via its Italian office which culminates in an appeal by the IOM Director General for an international task force to combat human smuggling, modelled on the task force combating Somali pirates.

The EU border agency Frontex has limited itself to the circulation of reports about ‘ghost ships’. In light of its general policy objectives, it can reasonably be assumed to have a border control agenda similar to the one formulated by IOM. EU Commissioner Dimitris Avramopolous immediately condemned the “ruthless criminal organisations” involved, without however providing any evidence that the people driving the boat were either criminal or organized and not refugees themselves. The current outcry from European politicians over boat migration is not new, and typically resembles previous condemnation by previous leaders. Take for example Jacques Chirac in 2001, claiming that an abandoned migrant boat “highlights the total absence of morals of those who traffic in human misery.”

The UN refugee agency UNHCR refers to a “worrying new trend”, while calling on European governments to step up rescue operations at sea, and “to provide legal alternatives to dangerous voyages”. In this way, UNHCR seizes the ‘ghost ship trend’ for a different aim than IOM and the EU. Instead of calling to step up border control by combating smuggling, it advocates rescue at sea and admitting more Syrian refugees to Europe. The latter request is based on the fact that the Levantine countries are hosting many more Syrians than the whole of Europe, and that Asia and Africa host more than 90 percent of the world’s refugee population. Why should Europe keep its doors closed?

However, the UNHCR position is problematic because it is not only refugees, or those who would claim to be refugees, who are drowning. Although UNHCR does not have the same institutional mandate or obligations as IOM and Frontex, its appeal for humanitarian corridors for refugees has led to arguments for external processing. »  (…)


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Photo : @Paolo Cuttitta, Lampedusa, 2012