Today hundreds of international studies scholars are gathering in Giardini Naxos, Sicily for the #9thPanEuropean Conference on International Relations. Our meetings take place on the shores of the Mediterranean, where according to the Missing Migrants Project, over 2700 people have died this year in attempted crossings. Many participants at the conference will be taking this opportunity to publicise the need for reform in the European Union (and elsewhere) that will provide safe, legal channels for immigrants and refugees – sign the petition here.
As part of this effort, convenors, organisers and participants will be discussing the migration and refugee crisis explicitly. I will be convening a section of panels and roundtables on the conference of ‘More-Than-Human-Worlds of Violence’. The text below is the introduction to this section:
I’d like to welcome you warmly to our section on “More-than-human Worlds of Violence”. This series of panels and roundtables is convening in order to explore how violence extends far beyond the boundaries of ‘humanity’.Today, we’ll hear fascinating new work on subjects ranging from the environments shaped and constituted by violence, to the sensory dimensions of posthuman warfare, the circulation of violence through animal bodies and the intersection of posthumanism and security. In each of these sessions, we’ll push the boundaries of how violence is understood, approached and mediated through international politics. We’ll rethink the concept of ‘international relations’ as the global set of relations that emerge between diverse forms of being. And, as the conference theme prompts us, we’ll examine the distinctive ‘worlds’ of violence that emerge from these relations, challenging our ontological assumptions and ethical imperatives.
As we know, there is an urgent ethical imperative unfolding in the particular world in which we find ourselves: the beautiful coast of Northeastern Sicily. We are flanked by the Mediterranean ocean, in which thousands of refugees from across the Middle East and North Africa have died in attempted crossings. How can our work on more-than-human international relations help us to engage more actively with their struggles?
Please have a look at the image above, which was created by the artist and activist Ramzi Harrabi from his project ‘Uprooted’, which was originally exhibited at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, and more recently at the Anime Migrante festival in Siracusa (please see more info on Ramzi and his work below).
What immediately strikes us in Ramzi’s painting is the elemental power of the water. At first, it seems to engulf and consume the human figures, to threaten and overwhelm them. Yet, at the same time, it enables a mode of mobility that allows them to escape unliveable conditions in their homes and the hard borders of territorial boundaries imposed by states and the European Union.
The water is an ambiguous material-temporal space that batters and floods the striated space of states and sovereignty. It is a space in which the politics of territoriality and the poetics of flow shape the futures of the voyagers in unpredictable ways. The currents, winds, tides and weather of the sea can determine whether a boat arrives safely or is submerged, and where its inhabitants land. So, the refugees are in a constant tactical battle not only with the strictures of territorial sovereignty but also from the tumultuous aquatic space into which this power forces them by denying safe, legal passage on land.
Yes, they are dwarfed and endangered by the sea, but they are not merely drifting. They are also lively beings engaged in an oceanic negotiation, attempting to harness the dynamism of the water, embracing its fluidity and force while attempting to escape its violence.
As Ramzi told me, his boats “carry a political message of hope and dignity. The multi-coloured skies tell us that migrants have a dream”
So, to understand not only the plight of refugees, but also their hopes, the modes of agency they employ, and the politics of their struggle, we need to pay more attention to their relations with the sea. This does not only mean focusing on traditional geo-politics – that is, on the so-called ‘natural’ borders created by bodies of water. Rather, it means attending more closely to this oceanic space,the unique conditions it imposes and opens, the relations the voyagers forge with it and the powerful forms of agency the exert as they try to make their way towards safe harbours and new futures.
I offer these observations as a provocation, to get us thinking and talking about this issue, and about how being humanitarian – and human – means engaging with the more-than-human -and how a more-than-human perspective can allow us to move beyond the sometimes disempowering effect of humanitarianism.
Let’s keep these crossings, the people who make them and the seas they traverse in our minds as we enjoy our discussions.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Ramzi Harrabi is a Tunisian artist, activist and lecturer. He is the founder and director of the Intercultural Studies Center and the President of the Immigrants Council for the Province of Siracusa, Italy. Ramzi also manages many projects related to integration and migration, as well as teaching intercultural communication, Arabic language and the history of Islam throughout Italy. Ramzi recently worked as a member of the Tunisian independent elections authority in Italy. His poems were awarded the Italian national prize (premio Maria Marino) and one of his paintings won the second prize at the European Tendari Festival. In 2008, Ramzi was among the finalists for the Euro-Med award, organised by the Anna Lindh Foundation, obtaining a special mention for promoting intercultural dialogue in the Euro-Mediterranean region.