Counting Deaths

Arianne Shahvisi

On the glass of a bedroom window, one of the students across the road tallies ‘days inside’ in red lipstick, the letters oriented to be read from the street. My desk faces this window and its cheery running total that, with no release date in sight, lacks the sense of scratchings on the walls of a prison cell. An uncertain, unwelcome freedom awaits, with promises of economic collapse, unemployment, austerity and, for many, the long, potholed road of grief. Still, it is a comfort to see signs of life in another household, and to know someone is counting as though these were normal, individuated days and not a continuum of lost, fretful time.

While they count days, I, like many others, am counting deaths. Every day I wake up later than I’d like from thick, strenuous dreams, turn on my computer and bring up columns of live data. Once or twice I’ve caught a digit as it ticked over, and tried to chase from my mind an image of the movements that might have begun the chain of information: the gloves peeled back, the mask doffed, the pause before the phone call.

Death-counting isn’t new to me. For years I’ve been watching another counter with the same distress and no hope of abatement. The International Organisation of Migration’s Missing Migrants Project monitors and maps the deaths of those who lose their lives while trying to migrate, providing live, interactive maps pinpointing those who have suffocated, starved, frozen, drowned, been shot or hit by a vehicle, or failed to access medical care as they have tried to cross borders. As a Briton I take a particular interest in those who perish on their way to Europe. It’s like looking out from a Medieval bastion at bodies floating in the moat.

More than three hundred people have lost their lives so far this year in and around the Mediterranean, and 16,700 people have died since 2015. As spring advances, the seas are becoming calmer, and crossings will rapidly rise, as they do each year. Many more people will drown. Most will be healthy, far from home, with no one to reach for as they try and fail to take another breath, their lungs filling with fluid.

Last week, four boats containing hundreds of migrants set out from Libya, where 700,000 refugees wait, hoping for passage to Europe. Italy had already announced that it would block any rescue ships from docking at its ports. A day later, Malta did the same. Both claimed the pandemic reduced their capacity and prevented them from providing safe harbour. Over the Easter weekend, four boats, holding 258 migrants, were lost in the Mediterranean, with EU states refusing to respond to distress calls. One vessel, carrying 85 people, is still missing. A further 149 people have been held off the coast of Italy on a boat whose name, the Alan Kurdi, is an indictment of how little has been learned. Three people were evacuated on Wednesday after a suicide attempt on board. The others are now being transferred to a ferry for testing and quarantine.

Migrants’ journeys are not the beginning of their trauma but nor, for those who survive, are they the end. Half of the inmates at a refugee camp in Germany have tested positive for Covid-19. As with the camps in Greece, the answer so far has been to quarantine them, to lock in the outsiders. Yet there can be no physical distancing if 20,000 people are crammed into a camp that was meant for 3000: the infection will spread and many will die. Which of the counters will those deaths be reflected in? How many will have survived a sinking boat only to gasp for breath in their place of refuge?

Covid-19 is teaching many of us what it feels like to be dislocated from the past and face a future that hangs in the balance, to scan the faces of loved ones on grainy video calls for signs of illness or worry, to have our travel documents become meaningless, to feel unable to seek healthcare, to wonder who will be taken from us before we all land somewhere safe. Yet most of us are facing this discontinuity in our homes, speaking of the return to ‘normality’ as a place of refuge and belonging. There’s a port at the end of all this.

Now think of Italy at the height of its epidemic, synonymous in the West with fear, contagion, terror. And then imagine getting on a flimsy, crowded dinghy with a hundred others, sick and exposed on choppy waters, hoping against hope to reach Italy, a place of safety.


  • 18 April 2020 at 7:11am
    neddy says:
    I expect much heavy duty abuse for this post but why is home invasion at the individual household level, if made by poor and underprivileged outsiders, universally condemned, but at the national level, when made by equally poor and underprivileged outsiders, it is considered, by many, to be a human right. How many of those making the human rights argument actually offer their homes to migrants as an example to us all. Is this a little like quantum physics and cosmology, where the unification of the very small and the very large has eluded the very best minds.

    • 19 April 2020 at 10:22am
      Hunneric says: @ neddy
      I can't quite believe that I'm going to take the bait in this Neddy but, i think a big part of the reason most people do not consider "home invasion" and migration to be micro and macro versions of the same process is that, the two actions have very little in common apart from the beach of a boundary.

      Having crossed the boundary into your house, a burglar wishes to take your stuff and may conceivably do you violent harm in the process.

      A migrant crosses a border but, having done so wishes nothing more than to make her contribution to a society that will value it.

      She in not taking anything from anyone and her contribution may be considerable.

      See? Not the same so not often treated the same

    • 19 April 2020 at 11:58am
      freshborn says: @ Hunneric
      For a member of the middle classes, with a secure job and home, mass migration is just wonderful. Taxis, takeaways and various other services are cheaper and more prevalent. The raspberries are cheaper for having been picked by workers who can't unionise. The stock market (or "the economy" as I like to call it) appreciates free movement of labour, so my pension increases in value. (" Making a considerable contribution to a society that will value it" is a noble wish. If they desire anything more, they can keep wishing.)

      If you yourself are a factory worker or bricklayer, or on a council house waiting list, or your children attend an underfunded state school, then you might have something at stake. If you support any limit to migration whatsoever, you are also surely a racist.

      Our "no human is illegal" bromide probably should invalidate trespassing laws as much as immigration status. But the idea that the lifestyle of the bourgeois should be put at risk is so frightful, one refuses to believe that it could genuinely be held. Thus, the Eritrean must be legal in the hostel, but illegal on one's chaise-longue.

      And if we happened to belong to a customs union which paid North African regimes and Turkish despots to obstruct our prospective servants from the Mediterranean ... well then, that union should be reformed, somehow.

    • 19 April 2020 at 12:36pm
      neddy says: @ Hunneric
      I am an Australian and Australia has a "Turn Back the Boats (TBTB)" policy targeting immigrants seeking entry through the back door. Many boat persons died attempting to enter Australia before the TBTB policy was implemented. Australia, too, "quarantines" successful boat persons in detention camps, and will not allow them to settle here. These boat persons do not, I am sure, wish us any harm. But harm from "illegal" immigration may take generations to become apparent. Australia's living Aborigines doubtless fervently wish their ancestors had enacted a Turn Back the Boats policy when Europeans first arrived on Australia's shores - in boats, no less, uninvited and unwanted, and from the perspective of the Aborigines, illegally. But these immigrants did not come with the overt intent to harm the residents. The results of the Aborigines' lack of a TBTB policy have become apparent over the succeeding centuries and, for them, have been quite horrific. Aborigines now refer to European immigration as an invasion; a home invasion.

    • 19 April 2020 at 6:11pm
      BrendanInCPH says: @ neddy
      To comment on just one aspect of your utterly specious analogy; indigenous Australians, just as North & South American peoples, were confronted with a vastly technologically superior invading force that had the express intent of conquering and dominating.

      And you're genuinely suggesting that indigent refugees/migrants pose an existential threat to the amassed power, wealth, and weaponry of the European continent? We are, after all, speaking of human beings, nominally a part of a "global society." Shockingly these people are even legally guaranteed their humanity via some pesky document called the International Declaration of Human Rights!

      The notion that the "threat" of the refugee crisis is in any way comparable to the slaughter and subjugation of indigenous peoples is, frankly, obscene.

    • 20 April 2020 at 9:40am
      neddy says: @ BrendanInCPH
      Pizarro conquered the Incas, population (then) 16 million, with 168 soldiers; Cortez conquered the Aztecs, population (then) 5-6 million, with 500 soldiers and 16 horses. Pizarro and Cortez arrived by boat, and were not taken seriously enough. The Incas and Aztecs should have enacted a Turn Back the Boats policy. The consequences of them not doing so were horrific for their populations and cultures. The same applies to the Indians of North America, and the Aboriginal population of Australia. The New Zealand Maori fought back and managed to extract a far better deal from the European invaders. Nothing you or Hunneric have posted invalidates my point: illegal arrivals should be treated as home invaders. From little things big things grow.

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