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Migration as agency

It is interesting how widespread a violent idea can be, and how socially normalized it can become.

“Shouldn’t they have spent that money on some beneficial project, instead of riding the sea?”

Over the last few days, the personal views of different people — expressed through chats in taxi rides, while awaiting bank turns and coming out of television sets — has sounded like a single chorus coming together from different places. It is this pervasive single chorus that is the product of tightly enmeshed political propaganda and personal belief that is capable of turning one’s city, or entire country, into an open-air prison.

“I want to tell you that any of our youth, to be able to make this trip, have to pay large amounts of money that he has to find or borrow. People, people, our country deserves us more. Our country deserves us more. And, honestly, we are not leaving you alone.” This is what President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said last Monday in the aftermath of the death of 202 out of an estimated 450 migrants (many of whom are still missing), who were crossing the Mediterranean from the north coast of Egypt in a fishing boat. Forty-three Egyptians were among them.

Sisi and his people echoed angry sentiments toward Egyptian migrants, who pay smugglers sums starting from LE35,000 to cross the sea in search of a better life in Italy or elsewhere in Europe. His and their words only came in the aftermath of this death and loss, because almost no one thinks about the migrant until he or she become a lost migrant, a dead migrant, a deported migrant or an imprisoned migrant.

But the moral ground on which this criticism is battled is also not without its issues. Of course death has to be respected, and perhaps the dead shouldn’t be guilt tripped for their fate. Yet the political articulations of many of those who have contempt for campaigns against migrants have contributed to stripping them of their agency.

There is a humbling courage required to risk riding the sea, just like taking the risk of protesting, when protesting can mean extensive incarceration or potential death by the bullets of the state.

Those who are more sympathetic to the migrant build their sympathy on blaming the state for failing to address their needs, leading them to despair. At a loss, they had nowhere to go but the sea.

There is an undeniable state responsibility toward its citizens and toward making them feel at home. But in the state’s failure to assume this responsibility, we have to come to terms with the broader failure of the nation state, particularly in its neoliberal iteration, and its main recipe: namely for estrangement. Of course, estrangement is bound to intensify when the grand notion of the nation state is represented by none other than a political authority that only worries about its own survival, and for whom the romantic notion of the nation lies somewhere between being a gesture and a vehicle of control.

It is true that many migrants who have chosen the sea over the years have spoken the language of death, saying things like, “the quick death of the sea is better than the slow death of Egypt.” It is also true that in speaking to many migrants, there is a deep-seated despair at having to remain in the country.

But there are other sentiments that are often unaccounted for.

There is the imagination of a better life on the other shore, a life where constructions of freedom, preservation of dignity, good living conditions and opportunities are constantly unfolding. You find them, abundantly, in the coffeehouses of villages known for sea crossings — in Borg Meghezel, Tatun, Meet Badr Halawa, and many others.

This is not to say that migrants have a romantic view of what awaits them on the other side. The experiences of friends and family members have made most people aware of the rising woes of Fortress Europe and its anti-migration regimes. A lot of Egypt’s migration by sea is circular, in the sense that people travel from certain villages, and come back with money and success stories.

But in this articulate imagination, deep consciousness of a desire for a better life and insistence to pursue it, lies some powerful politics that even the most progressive among us can fail to see.

There is a humbling courage required to risk riding the sea, just like taking the risk of protesting, when protesting can mean extensive incarceration or potential death by the bullets of the state. Both endeavors depart from a personal desire to be free, to regain dignity and to live well, and both contain the brusque and disruptive nature of riding risks, which belongs to the realm of revolution. It is the kind of risk where one’s entire being, body and soul, are summoned for the adventure.

Migrating by sea is a bolder, more guerilla-like risk than that of starting a small project instead of complaining about what the state doesn’t do, which is what Sisi and his people have been saying. It might be at times a more calculated risk with the high success rates of migration in the past, and with a completely disloyal economic and political environment at home, which may fail to incubate the small project of an average citizen.

Aside from the ability to imagine an alternative reality, and the courage to take risk as an arguable marker of some form of contentious politics, there are other aspects of resistance to local and global systems that restrict movement and provide no alternatives for staying still. Such restrictions are mostly based on confidently well-defined nation states, protected by physical borders and sentiments of belonging that are mediated, at times, through populism.

And think how the sea is always thought of as the bearer of the migrant’s death and the prisoner of their desires, when, more often, it is a rite of passage and possibility.

Of course, imagining an alternative reality and taking a risk to pursue it is different when the motivation is more urgent and more tangible, such as the case of African and Syrian refugees escaping war at home. Here too, there is the compound agency of redeeming oneself when the entire universe is pushing you to immediate death, at home, in cities of transience and temporary hosts.

It takes us, observers from afar, from the comfort of privilege, to mentally migrate and to make a leap of imagination in order to see a different story: To think of the criminalized, vilified smuggler, who is often not differentiated from the trafficker, as an alternative travel agent. To think of returning migrants, who often choose to invest in their original villages, as a form of hyper local belonging that doesn’t consider the broader nation or state. To think of the gathering of funds for the voyage through family loans and what it tells us about economies of solidarity, while it is criticized on the basis that it is money spent on death, when it could have benefited the nation.

And think how the sea is always thought of as the bearer of the migrant’s death and the prisoner of their desires, when, more often, it is a rite of passage and possibility. While the sea in its entirety is not freedom, with states expanding their control over international waters through alliances, rendering piracy and theft of resources legal if done by states, its fluidity and uncharted trajectories continue to be a site of possibility, as it has always historically been (think how the movement by sea from Africa is how America was first discovered and populated).

This is not intended to romanticize migration by sea, but is more of an attempt to retrieve the less spoken of stories lying behind the bodies floating on the surface of the water.