Drowning at sea, washed up bodies, body bags and coffins: The new normal

By Teresa Piacentini

The new normal. A popular expression that captures the following: a previously unfamiliar or atypical situation that has become standard, usual, or expected. This is how I see the present humanitarian crisis unravelling in Europe. Images of washed up bodies, of overcrowded dinghies, of endless lines of people marching, of razor wire fences, of people sleeping on the ground, of limited belongings in plastic bags grasped tightly by desperate hands, of people making the victory sign as they land on dry land, in shock that they have made it. There are also images of coffins and body bags, of burst life jackets and dinghies, of unmarked graves on Lesbos, no names, often just a number.  This has become the new normal.

The geyser of empathy that erupted with the tragic images of Aylan Kurdi on the island of Kos on 2 September was in many respects what we might call a game changer. It seemed that there was a sudden change not only in how the general public engaged with the humanitarian crisis but also in the way in which empathy was used as a justification for this groundswell of compassion.  The image was so compelling because he looked as though he was sleeping, in that position so common in young children as they lie in their cots. This could be our child we all said. His and his brother Galip’s tragic life cut short. It is true that every now and then, there is an image that breaks through the noise, and pierces our hearts. It has been said that these devastating photos changed history. This image made us stop in our tracks and think.

Over the years there have been hundreds of images of dead bodies washed upon shores. As a teacher I recall almost ten years ago preparing material from the British Red Cross for a Globalisation and Migration course. I used a series of photographs that has been taken on a tourist beach on the south of the island of Tenerife, which over recent years has been a destination for people smugglers.  Then, as we are seeing now, hopeful men and women paid large sums of money to smugglers, were crowded into open boats designed for local fishing in coastal waters. They set off with little protection from the sun or adverse weather, facing a journey on open seas of at least 600 miles. They expected to be at sea for days. Some were caught by police or coastguards and returned, perhaps to try again later. Then, as now, the boats have never been fit for purpose, they have always been overcrowded and many have died, unable to cope with the dehydration, hunger and exposure of the journey or drowned. Their bodies washing upon the beaches. The Red Cross images showed locals providing water, towels, blankets comfort to those who made it. In 2006, British Red Cross estimated that an estimated 31,000 migrants arrived in the Canaries during 2006. Many hundreds died and like Aylan and Galip Kurdi their bodies also washed up on beaches, sometimes in full view of holidaymakers, some of whom continued their sunbathing. Back then, this was becoming the new normal.

Going further back to 2003, Les Back, a sociologist at Goldsmiths wrote a piece entitled ‘Falling form the Sky’, examining the human costs of immigration policy through recovering the stories of the desperate stowaways who are literally falling out of the skies over London. By then, he noted that some 3,000 people had died trying to gain entry to Europe.  In 2003, he like many other commentators forewarned of new borderlands and pariahs.   He spoke of the routine reference point in the media of refugees as ‘beggars’, and their alleged involvement in ‘violent crime’. This way of speaking about people desperate to begin a life elsewhere had already become the new normal back in 2003.

Fast forward to 2015:  we are seeing razor wire fences and new physical walls erected, Fortress Europe coming to life before our very eyes. These images of borders and walls have also become  a new normal in Europe, as is the journey being made every day by hundreds of thousands of people seeking a better life. To give us some perspective compared with the 2003 and 2006 figures above, Germany expects over 1 million people in 2015 alone.  And yet, as suggested in the Washington Post on 1 October, the world is already losing interest in the refugee crisis. And the surge of interest in early September has waned quite dramatically by early October.. Data on the popularity of topics on social media appear to show a similar trend (Tweets per day using the search terms refugee and migrant (between September 6th — October 6th) have dramatically fallen.  This is despite the fact that people are still drowning every day, men, women and children as young as babies. Their bodies are still being washed up on Greek and Turkish shores. Men and women are still dying in the Channel Tunnel. They are still suffocating in trucks. They are still falling from the sky.

A couple of weeks ago one of my students asked me how do we maintain public interest in supporting the plight of these many thousands of people, whilst avoiding becoming desensitised when we feel overwhelmed by traumatic and harrowing visuals and stories? How do we fight compassion fatigue and navigate the ethical question about using images of dead children to raise public awareness?  How do we maintain pressure on our political leaders to act? How do we stop this becoming our new normal? My answer was that it has already become our new normal. Rather let’s change the question: if this is our new normal how are we going to survive it? This unprecedented movement of people is not going to stop, they will keep coming and they should keep coming, they need safety.  The questions is not whether Europe can make it – the rubric for this post – but the conditions under which Europe makes it. These conditions have to be ones of humanity and compassion. So we need to keep putting our political leaders under pressure, through lobbying, petitions, through social media, through getting involved. We need to challenge dehumanising language of those leaders but also in the media and in our everyday interactions. We need to keep our personal interest in what is happening, we need to   find out what is happening locally and where we can channel our support. This has to become our new normal.

Teresa Piacentini is a lecturer at Glasgow University. Her research interests lie in the broad field of migration studies, covering the various aspects of social, cultural and political life affecting migrants’ experiences of ‘settlement’, integration and belonging.