Excerpt: ‘Drowning’, by Agri Ismaïl

image

Image by Zoi Koraki. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

“The facts remain that that terrible image was not brought about by recent events in Syria or Iraq. That boy and his family had lived in Turkey for three years. The money for that boy's father to pay the people smugglers was sent from Canada. The father sent them on that boat so the father could get dental treatment. They were in no fear; they were in no persecution and they were in no danger in Turkey … People are drowning at sea because of the incentives that were being provided by their cockamamie humanitarian ethos. It is much more humane for people to go through an orderly migration program, to be put in place where they are safe and where they do not have to take such tempting things.”

— Senator Cory Bernardi in an address to the Australian Senate, 7th September 2015, after the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach near Bodrum, Turkey.

1.

My father and I are sitting in a doctor’s waiting room in Slemani. A child who has been unable to sit still for the past hour is pulling at the fringes of a Kurdish flag, which droops from a makeshift pole. His parents, just like my own, are gazing downwards into their cupped palms, looking as though partaking in a communal prayer—at least until the devices in their hands become visible. Even here, emails and text messages must be replied to.

An older, unshaven man approaches us. He introduces himself and launches into an emotional monologue: his entire family have drowned trying to make their way from Iraq to Sweden and, though he knows five of his family members were on a boat that sank in the Greek waters a month ago, only two bodies have been found. He speaks with the resignation of the truly desperate, his voice never rising above a whisper: “Can you help me?”

He hands my father a sheet of paper, folded in half, and my father promises he will do whatever he can.

The man hovers, muttering a litany of thank-yous under his breath. “I just want to know what happened to them. It is so hard not to know.” (In Kurdish the sentence is far longer, including several honorifics and extraneous references to a God and said God’s will.)

Later, I wonder what made him approach us. Could he sense that we have Swedish passports, documents that grant us access to most of the world, that allow us to board a flight to the very place his family died trying to reach? Or perhaps, unbeknownst to us, he gave an identical paper to the other family too; perhaps he gives them to everyone he meets.

The doctor calls my name and we disappear into another room. When we re-emerge, the man is gone.

Back home, we inspect the paper we’ve been handed: it contains the names of the three missing people and their years of birth: 1989, 2009, 2014. Beneath this, a scribble: “They drowned on 21–22 January, 2016, Rhodes,” followed by a phone number. I note that even though the bodies had not been found, he still used the word ‘drowned’.

2.

Even though many of us have lost hard drives, had files corrupted or vanish, we still trust that what is digitally documented can never go missing. Our faith in the permanence of data leads us to believe that all history can be summoned by the correct incantation typed into a search bar.

And yet, at the time of writing, the Wikipedia entry for “List of maritime disasters in the 21st century” includes only eight such disasters related to migrants and people seeking asylum, with none listed as having occurred after 2015. (In January 2016 alone, there were more than twenty reported shipwrecks in the Mediterranean; deaths in the waters between Turkey and Greece were deemed to be an almost daily occurrence.) A Google search for migrants who have drowned near the Greek island of Rhodes brings up only a few incidents: one in February 2014, one in October 2015, and one in April 2015, which had the fortune of being filmed and uploaded onto YouTube, thus ensuring its continued presence in indices.1

There are no government or supra-governmental entities that attempt to estimate the number of people who die trying to reach Europe. Frontex, the European Union agency that was founded in 2004 to “manage the cooperation between national border guards securing its external borders” (similar in scope and authority to Australia’s OSB Joint Agency Task Force), publishes ‘Risk Analysis’ and ‘Guidelines for Processing of Third Country Nationals through Automated Border Control’, but does not provide any statistics regarding the people who die at or around those borders.

Published on their website, the ‘Frontex at a Glance’ brochure includes illustrations of the numerous ways the organisation is tasked to control borders. One drawing shows figures shaking hands, welcoming arrivals across various borders—except for those who appear on a dinghy. A giant magnifying glass that hovers over the boat reveals drugs, bombs and radioactive material hidden inside. (Clearly, some people can’t be trusted.) And yet, in a 2015 BBC-produced video that attempts to explain what Frontex does, the first words that flash across the screen are “Could this be the answer to the migrant crisis?”2

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), a UN organisation with the mandate to facilitate the processes of migration and transfer of refugees (which sets it apart from UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, whose role is to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees), writes in a 2014 report on tracking the lives lost during migration:

… there is a general paucity of information about those who have died attempting to cross the southern external borders of the European Union (EU) without authorization, especially when compared with the amount of data generated about the arrival, interception, rescue, detention and deportation of migrants—statistics which can serve to justify funding and intensification of border control.3

The bodies that make it across the borders are turned into data, while those that do not remain unrecorded. In 2013, after two shipwrecks off the Italian island of Lampedusa led to the deaths of at least 368 people, the IOM began the Missing Migrants Project. This resource attempts to track the number of dead migrants, and publishes estimates, which are then picked up by global news outlets, and inform politicians and academics. They are careful to point out, though, that their data represents only those deaths reported by “government entities, media, the UN or NGOs” and that “countless others have died on migratory routes around the world; thus, these are minimums of the actual numbers.” Nobody knows how many people have died, the real amount remains elusive.


This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #33. Get your copy here.

Agri Ismaïl is a Sweden and Iraq-based author. His piece, Drowning, was a runner-up in the Lifted Brow & RMIT non/fictionLab Prize for Experimental Non-Fiction.


1. www.youtube.com/watch?v=17bSwjZrdi4

2. www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34671369

3. fortresseurope.blogspot.se.

Image by Zoi Koraki. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

“The facts remain that that terrible image was not brought about by recent events in Syria or Iraq. That boy and his family had lived in Turkey for three years. The money for that boy’s father to pay the people smugglers was sent from Canada. The father sent them on that boat so the father could get dental treatment. They were in no fear; they were in no persecution and they were in no danger in Turkey … People are drowning at sea because of the incentives that were being provided by their cockamamie humanitarian ethos. It is much more humane for people to go through an orderly migration program, to be put in place where they are safe and where they do not have to take such tempting things.”

— Senator Cory Bernardi in an address to the Australian Senate, 7th September 2015, after the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach near Bodrum, Turkey.

1.

My father and I are sitting in a doctor’s waiting room in Slemani. A child who has been unable to sit still for the past hour is pulling at the fringes of a Kurdish flag, which droops from a makeshift pole. His parents, just like my own, are gazing downwards into their cupped palms, looking as though partaking in a communal prayer—at least until the devices in their hands become visible. Even here, emails and text messages must be replied to.

An older, unshaven man approaches us. He introduces himself and launches into an emotional monologue: his entire family have drowned trying to make their way from Iraq to Sweden and, though he knows five of his family members were on a boat that sank in the Greek waters a month ago, only two bodies have been found. He speaks with the resignation of the truly desperate, his voice never rising above a whisper: “Can you help me?”

He hands my father a sheet of paper, folded in half, and my father promises he will do whatever he can.

The man hovers, muttering a litany of thank-yous under his breath. “I just want to know what happened to them. It is so hard not to know.” (In Kurdish the sentence is far longer, including several honorifics and extraneous references to a God and said God’s will.)

PULL QUOTE:

Could he sense that we have Swedish passports, documents that grant us access to most of the world, that allow us to board a flight to the very place his family died trying to reach?

Later, I wonder what made him approach us. Could he sense that we have Swedish passports, documents that grant us access to most of the world, that allow us to board a flight to the very place his family died trying to reach? Or perhaps, unbeknownst to us, he gave an identical paper to the other family too; perhaps he gives them to everyone he meets.

The doctor calls my name and we disappear into another room. When we re-emerge, the man is gone.

Back home, we inspect the paper we’ve been handed: it contains the names of the three missing people and their years of birth: 1989, 2009, 2014. Beneath this, a scribble: “They drowned on 21–22 January, 2016, Rhodes,” followed by a phone number. I note that even though the bodies had not been found, he still used the word ‘drowned’.

2.

Even though many of us have lost hard drives, had files corrupted or vanish, we still trust that what is digitally documented can never go missing. Our faith in the permanence of data leads us to believe that all history can be summoned by the correct incantation typed into a search bar.

And yet, at the time of writing, the Wikipedia entry for “List of maritime disasters in the 21st century” includes only eight such disasters related to migrants and people seeking asylum, with none listed as having occurred after 2015. (In January 2016 alone, there were more than twenty reported shipwrecks in the Mediterranean; deaths in the waters between Turkey and Greece were deemed to be an almost daily occurrence.) A Google search for migrants who have drowned near the Greek island of Rhodes brings up only a few incidents: one in February 2014, one in October 2015, and one in April 2015, which had the fortune of being filmed and uploaded onto YouTube, thus ensuring its continued presence in indices.1

There are no government or supra-governmental entities that attempt to estimate the number of people who die trying to reach Europe. Frontex, the European Union agency that was founded in 2004 to “manage the cooperation between national border guards securing its external borders” (similar in scope and authority to Australia’s OSB Joint Agency Task Force), publishes ‘Risk Analysis’ and ‘Guidelines for Processing of Third Country Nationals through Automated Border Control’, but does not provide any statistics regarding the people who die at or around those borders.

PULL QUOTE:

One drawing shows figures shaking hands, welcoming arrivals across various borders—except for those who appear on a dinghy.

Published on their website, the ‘Frontex at a Glance’ brochure includes illustrations of the numerous ways the organisation is tasked to control borders. One drawing shows figures shaking hands, welcoming arrivals across various borders—except for those who appear on a dinghy. A giant magnifying glass that hovers over the boat reveals drugs, bombs and radioactive material hidden inside. (Clearly, some people can’t be trusted.) And yet, in a 2015 BBC-produced video that attempts to explain what Frontex does, the first words that flash across the screen are “Could this be the answer to the migrant crisis?”2

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), a UN organisation with the mandate to facilitate the processes of migration and transfer of refugees (which sets it apart from UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, whose role is to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees), writes in a 2014 report on tracking the lives lost during migration:

… there is a general paucity of information about those who have died attempting to cross the southern external borders of the European Union (EU) without authorization, especially when compared with the amount of data generated about the arrival, interception, rescue, detention and deportation of migrants—statistics which can serve to justify funding and intensification of border control.3

The bodies that make it across the borders are turned into data, while those that do not remain unrecorded. In 2013, after two shipwrecks off the Italian island of Lampedusa led to the deaths of at least 368 people, the IOM began the Missing Migrants Project. This resource attempts to track the number of dead migrants, and publishes estimates, which are then picked up by global news outlets, and inform politicians and academics. They are careful to point out, though, that their data represents only those deaths reported by “government entities, media, the UN or NGOs” and that “countless others have died on migratory routes around the world; thus, these are minimums of the actual numbers.” Nobody knows how many people have died, the real amount remains elusive.

This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #33. Get your copy here.

Agri Ismaïl is a Sweden and Iraq-based author. His piece, Drowning, was a runner-up in the Lifted Brow & RMIT non/fictionLab Prize for Experimental Non-Fiction.

1. www.youtube.com/watch?v=17bSwjZrdi4

2. www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34671369

3. fortresseurope.blogspot.se.