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Excerpted from: Roza E. Patterson, Black Bodies Drowning in the Mediterranean Sea: Why Does the World Not Care?, 23 UCLA Journal of International Law and Foreign Affairs 183 (Spring, 2019) (259 Footnotes) (Full Document)

RozaPattersonIn 2013, I came across a news article reporting that more than 300 African migrants traveling on a dinghy boat across the Mediterranean Sea had drowned in Lampedusa, Italy. As I read the article, I was overcome with feelings of disbelief and devastation. I also had many unanswered questions. I tried to dig deeper into the story, and eventually found a few additional news articles on the issue. While the articles offered only brief and decontextualized reports, they corroborated the death toll and included pictures and first-person accounts of some of the survivors. That shocking incident, however, occurred four years ago. Since then I have come across far too many news articles reporting similar tragedies of Africans drowning in the same body of water. Over the years, what seemed like a one-time, 300-person death phenomenon has escalated to a frequent tragedy, with nearly 13,000 dead from January 2014 to April 2017. The Lampedusa drowning, which I internalized as a devastating one-time event, has become a reoccurring one. In 2014, the BBC reported that more than 3,000 migrants coming from mainly African countries drowned in the Mediterranean Sea that year. In November 2016, the BBC reported that “so far this year, 4,690 people have died at sea in the region, compared with 3,771 last year.” As of May 10, 2017, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that 1,309 migrants have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean. The number of deaths reported during the first three months of 2017 were nearly twice as high as those seen in the first three months of 2016.

Behind these numbers are the stories of countless African migrants who travel from sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa, where they then solicit the help of human smugglers in an attempt to reach Europe. The route from the Central Mediterranean to Europe is considered “among the world's deadliest and most dangerous” migrant routes, especially for women and children. Even after paying their smugglers large sums of money, migrants face abuse, exploitation, starvation, dehydration, and are piled on overcrowded and rickety boats to make the long journey to Europe. And even after enduring this arduous journey, there is no guarantee that these migrants will actually reach Europe, as one in forty of them can expect to die.

Despite the record number of drownings recorded in recent years, this international crisis has received limited media coverage. As Jesper Bjarnesen, senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute, explains, “[n]ews reporting and debate is focused on war refugees from Syria ... [but] citizens from sub-Saharan African countries also constitute a significant proportion. That must also be taken into account in fully understanding the Mediterranean crisis.” Not only has this tragedy received inadequate media coverage, but efforts to combat the crisis rarely prioritize African migrants' interests. In the eyes of the rest of the world, African migrants seem to be “invisible.”

This Comment explores why the world does not seem to care about Black bodies drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. Because this is a complex issue, this Comment draws on various academic disciplines and theories--such as international law, Hannah Arendt's “right to have rights” philosophy, the media's depiction of Africa, the psychological concept of “compassion fatigue,” and Critical Race Theory--to make two significant claims. First, I argue that the neglect of the problem, as well as the lack of proposed solutions, concerning the drowning of African migrants can be understood through the metaphor of the “Dark Continent,” which has been used for centuries to “other” Africans in western philosophy and consciousness. Second, I contend that, at least in the United States, racist attitudes towards Blacks more generally also play a significant role in our lack of public concern with this issue.

Part II of this Comment explores the migrant crisis and the legal framework for understanding the rights of migrants and refugees. Subpart A identifies migrants' main countries of origin and countries of departure, traces their migration routes, and highlights the risks faced along their journey. Subpart B provides an overview of refugee, maritime, and human rights laws to identify the legal protections available to migrants and refugees.

Legal tools and strategies, however, are useless unless there are concerted and energetic advocates motivated to use them. The 20th century political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, coined the term, “the right to have rights,” to describe populations, like stateless persons, who cannot call on any government to provide them with basic security and, by virtue, lack any human rights. According to Arendt, human rights are civic rights and are dependent on a political community to realize and enforce them. Consequently, “'the loss of a community willing and able to guarantee any rights whatsoever,’ is the most damaging outcome of statelessness.” Today, the plight of African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea not only shows how nation states consistently prioritize border security over human security but also demonstrates that, without legal or political protection, these migrants are viewed and treated as less than human--effectively, stripped of their “rights to have rights.”

Part III acknowledges the source of Arendt's powerful phrase and unpacks how the 19 century metaphor of the Dark Continent is still used to draw distinctions between Africa and the West. In Subpart A, I trace Africa's history with European colonialism to demonstrate how colonialism plays a role in depicting Africa as the Dark Continent and justifies both the past and present subordination of African citizens. In Subpart B, I argue that contrary to hopeful promises made by European colonizers, colonialism promoted the destruction of African cultures and stripped African nations of their sovereignty. In Subpart C, I contend that through the metaphor of the Dark Continent, Africa is often depicted as being the opposite of the West; consequently, the process of othering justifies attitudes and policies that view Africans as both different and inferior to Westerners. In Subpart D, I argue that a common psychological phenomenon exacerbates the effects of the Dark Continent metaphor. Because of the disproportionately negative news, viewers employ a psychological technique of “compassion fatigue” to distance and detach themselves from news regarding Africans.

Part IV uses Critical Race Theory (CRT) to trace the role of race in American's lack of response to the Mediterranean crisis. Subpart A introduces the key tenets of CRT, which argues that the law plays a significant role in creating and maintaining racial hierarchies. Subpart B uses the interdiction of Haitian refugees to the United States as a primary example to demonstrate how race factors into decisions of who does or does not belong in our borders. Finally, Subpart C compares the U.S. interdiction of Haitian refugees to the European Union's response to African migrants attempting to reach Europe. I conclude that, nationality notwithstanding, in the United States race is almost always part of the immigration policies that determine who will be excluded or included at the border. Additionally, after presenting how these ideologies of difference--the othering of Africa and the subordination of Black people-- intertwine, I raise a question with respect to the international migrant crisis that is parallel to the question raised in the United States: do Black lives matter?

[. . .]

The decision to take the long and dangerous journey along the Mediterranean Sea is unlike any decision that the average American or European will have to make. It is a decision that weighs two horribly bad choices: (1) remaining in abject poverty and suffering persecution, or (2) putting one's life in the hands of smugglers along one of the world's deadliest migration routes. As one migrant reflected, “I considered returning to Sudan but thought I would try my luck in Europe and leave it to God: either I would die or survive, I would try it out .... I knew the journey to Italy was dangerous and that I could die.” The sad reality is that, just as this migrant predicted, many migrants do, in fact, end up dying. The statistics are horrifying, with over 3000 deaths recorded in 2017 alone. Nonetheless, the media coverage and the efforts to combat this crisis pale in comparison to the magnitude of this tragedy.

Unfortunately for these migrants, they happen to be African, and that fact is an important distinction. They are from the “Dark Continent,” and that racial ideology permeates throughout the fabric of United States and European immigration policies. Colonialist perceptions of Africa as dark, dirty, and diseased and of Africans as barbarous, savage, and primitive served to both alienate the continent and its people and also perpetuate racist, anti-Black beliefs through political and legal institutions. As the drownings illustrate, traces of these colonialist beliefs as they pertain to Black bodies are still alive and thriving on the domestic and international stages.

Do “Black lives matter” actually? This current conversation in the United States challenges the anti-Black institutions upon which Western politics were established. As Professor Gordon pointed out, the apathy toward horrific events concerning Africa, such as the Rwandan genocide, “is characteristic of American attitudes towards [B]lack people at home and throughout the diaspora.” As Gordon notes, the domestic “racial ideology of America” is reflected on an international stage; “[r]ace shapes our perceptions, our reactions, our recommendations, and our solutions.” Consequently, if we have to question whether Black lives matter in the United States, then questioning why the world does not seem to care about the Black bodies drowning in the Mediterranean Sea may be unnecessary. 

J.D. 2018, UC Davis School of Law; M.S.c. 2014, London School of Economics and Political Science; B. A. 2013, Southern Methodist University.