New report examines the brutal human costs of 'necroborders'

Over 1,000 people died or went missing whilst attempting to reach Spanish soil between January 2018 and April 2019, the result of 70 shipwrecks and 12 missing boats on routes crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, traversing the Alboran Sea and travelling to the Canary Islands.

The figures – and the human stories behind them – are recounted in the report Vida en la Necrofrontera (Life on the Necroborder, link to pdf), which was published by the collective Caminando Fronteras (Walking Borders) in June this year.

The term ‘necroborder’ is taken from the work of the political theorist Andrés Fabián Henao Castro, who adapted it from the term ‘necropolitics’ – a neologism coined by the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe, who used it to refer to the political power of deciding who lives and who dies.

The report focuses on giving a voice to survivors and their families and uses their words and feelings to demonstrate the effects of borders on their lives and their resistance against it.

“The night was so dark and it was so cold that I can’t say when people fell into the water. We asked for assistance, but nobody came. People were falling and I thought I would be next. I held my baby close. I do not remember the rescue, only the hospital. Their families were calling and asking those of us who survived why they had died. I told them ‘the border killed them’ because if we had not been drowning at the border, they would have come to save us. It has taken me years to learn what borders mean in our lives as migrants,” the report quotes F.S., from Cameroon, as saying.

Ambiguous loss

204 people died and 816 went missing during the period in question, and the report highlights the particular trauma caused by someone going missing and their body not being found – what the investigator Paulina Boss calls “ambiguous loss”.

Because there is no body, there is no funeral or any other rites that help friends and family come to terms with the permanent loss: “the loss can be indefinitely prolonged, it is physically and emotionally exhausting, people suffer generalised confusion,” says Boss. They live with the false hope that one day their loved one might turn up alive.

“Sometimes people go back to religious leaders or to ancestral beliefs. They say that they see them somewhere, on islands, but alive. It might seem mad, and you Europeans might think we say it to be ‘backwards’ but it is a way of protecting the family and community from such a painful loss,” according to the community leader S.P.

Two years of struggle

“It is here through two very hard years of persecution of our defence of migrants’ rights, two years in which we have been criminalised to the extreme, but in which we have continued to do what we know we must, which is to work hand in hand with migrant communities that are fighting for their rights,” announced the journalist and activist Helena Maleno, the founder of Caminando Fronteras, upon the release of the report.

She herself has faced persecution for her activism. It was only in March this year that the Moroccan authorities closed an investigation into her for alleged human trafficking, after launching proceedings in December 2017 following a request from UCRIF – the Spanish national police’s Central Squad of Illegal Immigration Networks and False Documents. UCRIF passed the case to the Moroccan authorities after a Spanish court shelved the proceedings, citing a lack of evidence.

“In 2012 they began to dig a pit. It was made for me, they wanted to bury me,” recalled Maleno. “First it might be me, but then, who knows? It could be adapted to so many human rights defenders. UCRIF, the Spanish border police, along with Frontex, have used the most devastating, horrible shovels, the least democratic, to create this pit.”

More than a line

“I thought the border was a line, but it is much more: it is gangs, the police, the military, dogs, fences, the motorbike mafia, arms. It is also fear, your heart racing, your body shaking, eyes closed, voice lost. At that moment your body is at the mercy of everything. The first time was from Mali to Algeria. Several soldiers passed through my body; that was the border. They passed, they fucked, and they left a baby inside. My border baby. Then it was from Algeria to Morocco. The Algerian military dogs bit my legs and I broke my arm falling in the ditch," F.S. told the report’s authors.

The report cites Marusia López, a member of Jus Associates and of the Mesoamerican Initiative for Human Rights Defenders: “States’ abandonment of their obligation to guarantee human rights is evident at borders. At borders, the law is only an instrument to legitimise racism and patriarchy, colonial power that divides humanity between valid persons and bodies that can be exploited, discarded, raped and killed to maintain the interests of the capital continues to be exercised."

The militarisation of the borders and externalisation of control of movement are part of the necropolitics resisted by migrants. “Our shoes broke from running so much that night. This is how the larger raids in Morocco started. I had never seen so many soldiers at once, nor so many handcuffs to bind us, or so many buses. To detain so many people takes a large material investment,” highlights C.G. from Cameroon.

Their compatriot, S.M., went through a similar experience in Libya. “The Libyan coastguard rescued us. I don’t know how to define the word “rescue”, because when you arrive at the shore, you arrive alive, but in most cases enslaved. I was in one of those centres created to lock us up. They called my family to send 200 euros to pay for my release, and as that did not seem enough to them they sold me as a slave. For five months I worked as a slave, literally, in construction, and one day, when I could not work anymore and I didn’t have the same output as before, they released me," they explained.

L.S. from Guinea managed to jump the fence into Spain, but was swiftly returned to Morocco. “We had entered via the fence. Many of us were bloody, but we did not feel pain. It feels like you’ve left so much suffering behind. Everything was so fast, like a film. Your heart is racing; it’s get in or die. You know it is dangerous, but you have to keep going forward. I don’t know how to explain it, you can’t understand it because you are not in my skin, in my blood. There were translators, but only for French and I don’t speak good French so I couldn’t understand anything. What was happening was not being done to protect us, it was done to do us harm. I could tell, I didn’t understand what confirmed it, but it was painful. I was in complete shock. I found myself on the Moroccan side again. Afterwards, in jail and deported to the south," they recalled.

Violence against women

Particular violence is used at the border against migrant women, who despite everything find strategies to survive and care, even at the cost of their body.

“My chest hurts, more when I don’t know what to give my two daughters to eat. Sometimes I will prostitute myself for two euros to make them cereal in the mornings. Many women do it. I don’t know who is the father of one of my daughters because four men raped me when I crossed the Algerian border. The second is from a Malian man to whom I gave myself for a marriage on the road,” explains A.G. from the Congo. A ‘husband’ that some women look for in order to survive – violence from just one man who will protect them from the violence of many others.

R.G. from Cameroon highlights that the violence does not cease on this side of the fence. “When I tried to board another boat, I couldn’t do it, I was arrested on the beach. My sister went with my son and she stayed on the boat which set off without us. They took him from her when they arrived. I arrived to Spain tired, but only thinking about him. I told any white person I found that I was looking for my son. I told the police I was looking for him, but they only asked me things about the boat, and about the times I had crossed and who I had called. I just asked them where my son was. They took me from one place to another, they put us in a line. I was a desperate mother, but they didn’t understand me. They gave me clothes, they interrogated me, but they were not interested in listening to me. So what I did was cry and cry, I don’t know, if I cried enough maybe they would listen. I felt like a black woman, with all that that means. Sometimes I was the poor little black woman, sometimes just the black woman.”

An entire system

The report argues that the necroborder extends to the reception system in which new centres are built in order to preserve the practices of control. Bodies are codified - as soon as they arrive they become a number, with no rights but their redistribution “according to their situation of vulnerability and victimisation.”

A key theme in 2018 was the displacement and abandonment of hundreds of people from cities in the south of Spain to three principal destinations: Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao. A reception system organised like a country of transit. A type of onward movement justified by the dominant story that “everyone wants to leave”. It is hard to want to stay when it is impossible to have space to rest and think and rebuild your life.

“I had first suffered the displacement to the south because of raids in Tangier at the start of the summer, and now I saw the displacement to the north of Spain. I am not stupid, an immigrant, yes, but not stupid. In the end Morocco profits from displacing us south and Spain sending us north also brings them money. Or is Spain not a recipient of EU money? Is this not all a business?” asks A.B. from Guinea.

“We took a bus and arrived in Malaga, but nobody was waiting for us. We slept in the station and sent a video to Helena. When she put it up on Facebook, the Red Cross collected us and took us to a site where we could shower. They gave us 80 euros and told us to leave. I had risked my life to come here and found myself in this situation where I couldn’t be anywhere," says R.O from the Ivory Coast.

In the end, he was able to make himself at home through a community association rather than the state-sanctioned reception system. Once in France he met “people from a citizens’ network who were helping migrants like me. I could relax, they explained things to me, they helped me. I thought that it was all right in Irún and decided to claim asylum, Now I live here in Hondarribia, I assist other people in the same circumstances through the network. My perception of Europe has changed since being here, I have found my place,” he concludes.

Translation from: “Si no hubiésemos estado ahogándonos en la frontera, hubiesen venido a salvarnos”, El Salto, 25 June 2019

Full report available (in Spanish) here: Vida en la Necrofrontera (link to pdf)


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