by Giovanna Fassetta Guariento
The images of a small, rickety boat full of asylum seekers being thrashed by the waves off the coast of Christmas Island are unforgettable. As remarked by a witness who watched in helpless desperation, it was like being in a horror movie, minus the relief experienced at the end when the lights come back on and the audience is allowed to return home. It was a nightmare without the awakening, a tragedy that should not have happened, not to those who perished — the children, the women, the men — or those who were forced to watch from nearby cliffs.
The dead now number 48, but many more have yet to be accounted for. They were Iraqi, Iranian and Kurdish women, men and children who left everything behind in search of a better life. They fled from the destruction of war, from the festering wounds left by forced democracy, and from the unbearable struggle of making ends meet, towards what they imagined as a better future. Sadly, this tragedy is not the first, and will not be the last. It was however the most visible yet, because it happened before the eyes of the anguished locals on the shore, and millions more who saw the images in papers or on their television screens. Many similar tragedies happen every year less visibly though, in a hushed and subdued manner. No one knows exactly how many people perish on their way to the ‘Developed World’, but the number of people who are believed to have drowned in the past decade is in the thousands, and this only accounts for people lost while crossing the Mediterranean basin.
Recent treaties between Italy and Libya mean that asylum seekers who reach Italian shores are now sent back to detention centres in Libya. From there they often embark upon ‘ping-pong’ trips across the desert, are sent to Sudan, and then back to Libya, repeating this trip (in what are not better than cattle lorries) several times. Each time they have to pay off police, smugglers and anyone else who has power over their lives due to their vulnerable state (and there are many). But they almost always end up back in a Libyan detention centre, guilty only of daring to make their dream of a a better life reality. This too happens quietly, away from cameras and from our hearts and minds. ‘Lontano dagli occhi lontano dal cuore,’ recites an old Italian saying, far from the eyes, far from the heart. The boat that sank on the coast of Christmas Island was close to the eyes, close to the heart. It was a shocking reminder that our gated countries can be ‘saved’ from the ‘hordes’ of the unprivileged by the deaths of innocent children, women and men.
The hardship that many endure during their quest for more equitable opportunities are rarely reported to potential migrants back ‘home’, and there is little proof that Europe’s restrictive policies of immigration have stopped people from leaving countries where they have little to lose. The policies have, however, curtailed the number of people who managed to penetrate Fortress Europe’s (and Australia’s) mighty moats. But what many in the West do not ask, and often do not want to know, is what happens to those people who leave but never arrive? ‘Lontano dagli occhi, lontano dal cuore’ — like the tree falling in the forest of Buddhist philosophy, if no one is there to see or hear it, is it really happening?
The haunting images of the boat destroyed by the waters of Christmas Island should jolt us into realising that yes, this really is happening, and that unless people demand that all humanity be guaranteed the right to move across man-made borders, it will continue to happen again and again.
— Giovanna Fassetta Guariento is completing a PhD that aims to explore the imaginings and expectations of children who have been affected by migration.