Collective commemorations create a sense of community by publicly mourning the deaths of Europe’s unknown, unidentified and unmourned migrants, according to new research in the journal Citizenship Studies.
Cultural Studies scholar Maurice Stierl describes how three different ‘collective commemorations,’ parts of three different ‘migration struggles,’ both grieve and protest the loss of human life at Europe’s borders.
Key to Stierl’s observations is Judith Butler’s concept of grief as a ‘transformative process.’ Through his own personal experiences with public vigils and protests, as well as his case studies, Stierl explores how political communities are created through scenes of collective grief, ‘formulated around the loss of (other) life, life that may remain unknown to many of those mourning, and whose existence may have only emerged due to its absence’.
He writes: “Border deaths are mourned by family and community members, friends and colleagues, but also by those who may have never encountered the particular life before it was lost and who, nonetheless, seek to mourn an absence.”
The three campaigns Stierl studies – the Boats4People campaign (on the border between Italy and Northern Africa), Traces Back to the Border (the island of Lesbos, between Greece and Turkey), and Centre for Political Beauty (Germany) – intervene and protest against border deaths in different ways.
Boats4People, for instance, intercepted migrant vessels to provide supplies as well as organised public vigils for the dead. The Centre for Political Beauty removed crosses commemorating Germany’s border dead from Parliament and moved them to Morocco, as well as disinterred bodies of border crossers (with the permission of the families) and brought them to Berlin.
“What all three campaigns had in common was their merging of grief for particular and general loss with a radical critique of the European border regime,” he observes. By commemorating those who may forever remain unknown, “grief-activism seeks to foster some lives’ recognizablility, thereby rupturing the frames that consistently subdue these lives and reinforce the unequal distribution of harm.”
Recognising these commemorations as political, Stierl places the work of the activists in the context of the ‘selective humanitarian grief’ expressed by Europe’s leaders – a grief expressed at the same time as border controls have been tightened and shipwreck survivors barred from attending memorial services for lost friends.
Stierl concludes that by ‘turning collective grief into a resource for politics’, the protestors put themselves at risk – but also bravely create a new community in support of those whose names they will never know.