Migrant Death and Disappearability at Sea: Mediterranean Necropolitics as a European Strategy of Migration Deterrence

April 22, 2024

by Bertille Motte


The Mediterranean Sea has become the deadliest passage in the world over the past decade, as thousands of migrants lose their lives at sea each year. It has become a key actant of European border violence perpetrated against migrants, as European national and supranational migration institutions instrumentalize the Mediterranean’s natural properties through necropolitical strategies of deterrence. The sea must be understood as a wet ontology and a fluid hybrid border. It is shaped by dynamic and complex interactions between human actors and more-than-human elements through which European violence is passed onto non-European migrants’ bodies. It conceals migrants’ deaths and disappearances, as they become ‘inevitable accidents’ caused by natural and untamable elements. The Mediterranean Sea therefore invisibilizes European structural violence occurring at the border zone and acts as an archive and witness to this violence.


From 2015 onward, political and media narratives have stressed the urgency of the ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe. These narratives arose after a massive flow of migrants coming from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq (Krzyzanowski et al. 2018, 1; Presti 2020). The ideological conception of the ‘refugee crisis’ emerged from the intentionally alarmist rhetoric of emergency used by European media and politics (Kallius et al. 2016, 2). Its terminology is dubious as recent migration processes toward Europe do not concern ‘refugees’ who, by definition, have already been granted asylum protection (Krzyzanowski et al. 2018, 3). Rather, they concern undocumented ‘migrants’ coming to Europe and ‘asylum seekers’ who are demanding European asylum protection once they have reached the European Union’s territory. Moreover, the narrative of the ‘refugee crisis’ simultaneously produces and reinforces the highly heterogeneous shift that is occurring across European imaginaries toward migrants, portraying them as sources of danger. It conceals the fact that movement and migration have characterized Mediterranean cultures for millennia (Presti 2020, 5). It also constructs the state as “a cohesive institution” that possesses the authority and the responsibility to remove the threat (Kallius et al. 2016; 3). In this way, the ‘refugee crisis’ normalizes extremely xenophobic and anti-immigration opinions, attitudes, and sentiments and fuels the growing success of right-wing parties in Europe in recent years (Krzyzanowski et al. 2018, 7). 

Media and political narratives concerning the ‘refugee crisis’ highlight the EU’s alleged incapacity to deal with this ‘unprecedented humanitarian crisis.’ They assert the purported necessity to secure European borders and legitimize the implementation of a violent border regime at the European border zones. This regime abandons border-crossing migrants and invisibilizes their deaths (Presti 2020, 6). It is necropolitical, as understood by the decolonial historian and political theorist Achille Mbembe. This European border regime “simultaneously extends and delimits the right to life” through past and present colonial projects (Newns 2023, 5). It establishes and preserves its colonial “capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not” (Mbembe 2003, 27). In other words, Europe kills in the name of sovereignty. Consequently, ever-increasing numbers of migrants lose their lives each year while crossing the Mediterranean Sea in an attempt to reach European sovereign territory (Presti 2020, 7). According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 19,000 migrants died in the Mediterranean waters between the years 2014 and 2020, 70 percent of migrant deaths globally (Presti 2020, 4). These numbers have not decreased over the past few years, as the IOM reported that 2023 was the deadliest year for migrants in the Mediterranean since 2016, with more than 3,000 losing their lives at sea (UN Press 2024). The Mediterranean Sea has become the deadliest migration passage in the world over the past decade. European (supra)national immigration institutions have clearly failed to limit the loss of life in Mediterranean waters. European state and suprastate institutions instrumentalize the sea and its environmental properties to kill, disappear, and conceal the deaths of migrants crossing its untameable waters. These institutions produce these deadly conditions while simultaneously, implementing strategies through which they avoid legal and moral accountability for these deaths. 

Map of the Mediterranean Sea with subdivisions, straits, islands and countries.

Map of the Mediterranean Sea from Wikimedia Commons is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

This article explores the Mediterranean Sea’s crucial, yet mostly overlooked, role as an actant, archive, and witness of the European necropolitical border regime. It conceptualizes a framework which acknowledges the complex, fluid, and interrelated relationships between humans and non-humans which shape the Mediterranean as a wet ontology and a hybrid border. This framework allows us to consider the sea as an actant that possesses a certain level of agency. It unveils the complicity of the sea with the violent European border regime. It also considers the Mediterranean to be an archive and a witness of this violence, if interrogated appropriately by human actors. Further, this article contextualizes the implementation of harsher migration policies and practices over the past few years in Europe. It does so by examining the intermixing of humanitarian care and securitization policies at the borders. It reveals the necropolitical strategies of migration deterrence by focusing on European regulations regarding migration and legal responsibility as well as overall media and political ideologies. Lastly, this article investigates the ways in which the European necropolitical border regime relies on the Mediterranean sea and its natural properties to structurally perpetrate violence against migrant populations. It explores how European authorities exercise their (post)colonial sovereign power by killing migrants and invisibilizing their deaths in and through Mediterranean waters. 

This article inscribes itself within postcolonial and decolonial studies, as it interests itself with how European (post)colonial states consider and treat non-European (post)colonial subjects. Moreover, it problematizes the modern epistemological and ontological division between humans and more-than-humans by emphasizing the agency of the Mediterranean Sea and its interrelations with other actors. Hence, it critically analyzes existing academic literature, media releases, migrants’ testimonies, and European immigration policies.

Rethinking the Mediterranean Sea as an Actant

The role of the Mediterranean Sea in producing migratory experiences toward the European continent is often overlooked, and, in most narratives, human institutions are the primary actors of the European border regime. This oversight results from the dismissal of natural elements’ agency in modern history and in its inherent capitalist exploitative system (Newns 2023, 6). Dominant European epistemologies of modernity position nature as opposed to humanity. Humanity and ‘culture’ are now often binarily understood on a global scale as outside, if not superior to, nature (Moore 2017, 595). Much of humanity considers the natural world as nothing more than resources to be capitalized on, as it controls, exploits, and extracts them to produce value. These binary ideologies have resulted in the undervaluing of dialectic relations between human and non-human environments (Moore 2015). Yet, it is essential to take into account the deep and intertwined interactions between humans and ‘more-than-humans’, that is between humans and the multiplicity of species and processes that produce particular contexts (Elton 2022). These interactions are crucial as they shape geographical and socio-political phenomena. The institutional violence continually perpetrated against migrants across the Mediterranean border zones must be apprehended through a broader, more-than-human lens. This framework does not aim to minimize the role of human actors and institutions. Rather, it allows for a fuller understanding of the complex human and non-human forces and dynamics that shape the violent border regime in the Mediterranean (Bennett 2010). This lens attempts to shed light on the Mediterranean and other ecological elements’ geographic and geopolitical subjectivity. It simultaneously reveals the ways European migration actors strategically instrumentalize more-than-human entities for necropolitical border deterrence (Newns 2023, 2). In short, this framework aims to reveal how European migration policies and the Mediterranean Sea jointly produce migrant death and disappearability at the European border zone.

To conceptualize this broader approach regarding the Mediterranean border zone, scholars have provided different frameworks that acknowledge the sea’s agency and the role it plays in border deterrence strategies. For instance, Steinberg and Peters’ concept of ‘wet ontologies’ suggests that the interpretation of space frames “understandings of political possibility and limitations” (2015, 24). It rejects the commonly accepted portrayal of seas as motionless and static. Rather, it re-envisions bodies of water as sites of politics, shaped by their unique material and phenomenological properties, that either participate in or disrupt human practices. Wet ontologies highlight the sociocultural and above all political significance of the sea and its elements. The sea becomes a contact zone, a dynamic space shaped by various cultural encounters, hybridization, depth, and fluidity (Presti 2020, 4). It is “a material and historical site” that no longer represents a mere body of water to be crossed but rather a non-human subject in itself (Mentz 2009; Newns 2023, 7). To avoid imposing human forms of intentionality on the Mediterranean Sea, it is best understood as an actant—rather than actor—which “has efficacy, can do things, has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, [and] alter the course of events'' (Bennet 2010, viii). The notion of wet ontologies emphasizes the fact that humans share their environment with multiple more-than-human actants “whose agency – regardless of being endowed with degrees of intentionality – forms the fabric of events and causal chains” (Iovino and Oppermann 2012, 451). This concept highlights the complex and interrelated relationships of agency between actors and actants which turn the Mediterranean Sea into what De León (2015) calls a hybrid border. The Mediterranean’s ecology and climate do the work of material borders, fences, and of border patrols themselves. They make the crossing painful, dangerous, and deadly in an attempt to keep migrants out of the EU and to deter future migration. Similarly, the notion of ‘necropolitical ecology’ frames the Mediterranean as a hybrid border by recognizing the role it plays in shaping a violent border zone. It sheds light on how “more-than-human nature is brought into the service of such border maintenance” (News 2023, 6). Necropolitical ecology perfectly reveals that the sea has become a mediating force through which European (supra)state actors inflict violence onto migrants’ bodies (Heller and Pezzani 2020). In this way, European national and supranational migration institutions already recognize the Mediterranean Sea as an actant. They instrumentalize the sea’s ecological properties to carry out necropolitical violence at the border zone through death and disappearability.

The Mediterranean Sea is not only an actant of the European (supra)state violence perpetrated toward migrants but should also be considered a historical record, an archive of this violence (Lehman, 2017). It acts on bodies and is in turn acted upon as these bodies become nutrients for fish and other marine non-human life (Dziuban and Dead 2023, 254). Additionally, on an atomic level, human blood has a residence time in water of 260 million years. Hence, the sea archives the European institutional violence, which unfolds at the border zone (Sharpe 2016). It represents a fluid archive “formed and filtered through marine dynamics, and only available to us in partial and unpredictable ways” (Chambers 2014; Lehman 2017). As natural processes completely differ depending on the waters’ depth, flows, and other material properties, human remains and their trajectories vary greatly in water (Ducan 2019, Haglund and Sorg 2002). While the sea submerges the bodies of those it has killed and made disappear, its unruly and fluid material properties sometimes reveal “what was thought and hoped to have disappeared below the surface” (Dziuban and Dead 2023, 254). Consequently, bodies can unexpectedly resurface at any time as evidence of the necropolitical violence of the Mediterranean hybrid border. 

Through a more-than-human approach, it is possible for oceanographers to interrogate the Mediterranean Sea as an archive of European border violence. During their ‘Forensic Oceanography’ project, Heller and Pezzani explicitly revealed the possibility to consult the Mediterranean waters (2012). Their project documents human rights violations against migrants and their deaths in and through the sea. To do so, these authors corroborated the testimonies of the survivors of the “Left-To-Die Boat” by turning toward the sea, which they considered the only external witness of the events. Heller and Pezzani reconstructed the spatiotemporal coordinates of the boat, which departed Libya on March 27, 2011, through remote sensing technologies, electromagnetic waves, vessel tracking systems, and satellite imagery (Heller and Pezzani 2012; Dziuban and Dead 2023). Moreover, they examined meteorological and geospatial data of winds and currents through an oceanographic analysis (Heller and Pezzani 2014). Their work proved that advanced oceanographic techniques can track migrants’ boats and learn about the fate of their passengers. These techniques can be used to recognize the agency of the sea in the European border regime. The Mediterranean is not only an archive but also a decodable crime scene (Dziuban and Dead 2023, 254). It bears witness to the systemic violence of European border policing, abandonment and invisibilization as it makes traces of this violence recoverable. 

As both an archive and a witness, the Mediterranean Sea produces a great ethical and political claim. It reveals and challenges the European regimes of invisibility at the border zones. The sea’s retention of disappeared human remains in the water through biological archival processes haunts European imaginations of the Mediterranean (Sharpe 2016; Dziuban and Dead 2023, 264). What is our role in imagining the presence of these bodies beneath the waves? Can this shocking imagery shed light on and challenge the structural killing of so many people and the invisibilization of their deaths? Through this lens, we can confront the colonial, nationalist, and racial ideologies of exclusion that shape the Mediterranean as a cultural and geopolitical space (Chambers 2014; Dziuban and Dead 2023, 253). 

Toward Securitization: Shifting Migration Narratives and Policies in Europe

Over the past 15 years, new migration narratives of humanitarianism and securitization have emerged within the European public and political spheres. On the one hand, the humanitarian approach to immigration depicted by the media ahistorically defines migrant populations as inherently vulnerable, passive, and lacking agency. Although it views them as bearers of human rights, this narrative primarily stresses migrants’ urgent need for humanitarian assistance from European nation-states and institutions (McNevin 2014, 8). The humanitarian approach portrays them as dependent and compulsorily grateful receivers of aid. In doing so, it erases migrants’ genuine experiences, demands, needs, and feelings (Polychroniou 2021, 254). More concretely, humanitarian aid fails to provide durable solutions to displaced populations as the use of crisis rhetoric results solely in short-term efforts to de-escalate the situation’s urgency. On the other hand, racist and xenophobic securitization ideologies portray migration as representing a fundamental threat to European national sovereignty, cultural identities, and populations themselves (McNevin 2014, 10; Polychroniou 2021, 254). These narratives result in the reinforcement of legal restrictions to immigration and of border policing efforts. Although these humanitarian and securitizing approaches to immigration seem to be contradictory, they in fact interact to generate intermixing practices of care and control at the border zones. In other words, state actors have increasingly used the humanitarian approach as “a key justification for controls on social, legal, political, and even financial levels” at the European borders (Andersson 2017, 69). This attitude leads to increased policies and practices of control, surveillance and deterrence, as such measures are supposedly necessary to aid and rescue the maximum number of people (McNevin 2014, 71). 

This humanitarian-security nexus has come to shape European borders, especially in the Mediterranean, as the result of shifts in public and political opinions regarding immigration. In the years prior to 2013, border practices in the Mediterranean Sea were characterized by border security and control alone (Mascareñas 2021, 1). Saving lives, though an important part of coastguards’ duties, was not highlighted in official narratives regarding immigration and border control. However, saving lives became the central priority of border policies and practices following the shipwreck on October 3, 2013 (Mascareñas 2021, 2). In this shipwreck, more than 360 people from Eritrea, Somalia, and Ghana lost their lives in the coastal waters of Lampedusa, Italy. This tragedy caused a significant shift in public opinion (Coppens 2013). UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon exemplified this changing attitude with his call on the international community to act to prevent future tragedies in the Mediterranean (UN News 2013). As a consequence, the Italian government, supported by the EU, increased the resources allocated for border patrolling in the Mediterranean Sea. They launched Operation Mare Nostrum on October 18, 2013. The operation’s main priority was to save as many lives as possible on the Mediterranean. In addition, the Italian state and the EU encouraged non-state actors like NGOs and European citizens to participate in rescue operations at sea (Mascareñas 2021, 2).

Patrol vessel of the Irish Naval Service during Operation Triton on 15 June 2015 near the shores of Tripoli, Libya.

Patrol vessel of the Irish Naval Service during Operation Triton near the shores of Tripoli, Libya on June 15, 2015. Image "LE Eithne Ops 2 15 June 2015" by Óglaigh na hÉireann licensed under CC BY 2.0.

European immigration policies drastically shifted once again over the following years, due to increasing migration flows. As a result of the rising securitization ideologies and right-wing anti-immigration sentiments in Europe, these policies no longer aimed to save lives but to deter migrants from coming to Europe. European immigration authorities significantly reduced maritime rescue efforts while strengthening legal restrictions to immigration (Presti 2020, 8). The EU’s border security agency Frontex launched the maritime operations Triton and Sophia in 2014 and 2015, respectively. These initiatives were granted fewer resources than Operation Mare Nostrum and focused primarily on border control and combating human trafficking (Mascareñas 2021, 3). More recently, Frontex’s plans to replace boats with drones reveals their intention to reduce the numbers of human actors operating at the border. It also shows that rescuing migrants stranded at sea is no longer the goal of European maritime operations, as drones are incapable of providing life-saving assistance (Howden et al. 2019). The securitization shift in European migration policies also criminalized NGOs and other informal actors that attempted to save migrants’ lives (Mascareñas 2021, 3; Newns 2023, 5). Consequently, articles 58(2) and 98(1) of the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS 1982), which refer to the moral and juridical obligation under customary international law for any boat to assist other boats in distress as soon as they are informed of their need for assistance, have been disrupted in Mediterranean waters. NGOs or European citizens providing any form of assistance now risks legal action (Newns 2023, 5). The EU frames rescue efforts as human trafficking and so justifies its harsh border securitization as the only way to stop trafficking and to save lives. The shift in the European border regime is therefore legitimized through a humanitarian framework even as it uses harsher border practices to deter migrants from attempting to cross and risking their lives (Mascareñas 2021). As a 2014 article of the British newspaper The Telegraph stated: “Drown an immigrant to save an immigrant” (Hodges 2014). Yet, the actual consequence of the humanitarian-security nexus is necropolitical, as it leads to the increase of migrants’ deaths in Mediterranean waters (Andersson 2017). The ever-growing numbers of people attempting to cross the sea have to take riskier routes to avoid border patrols, while they simultaneously receive significantly less assistance in cases of distress.

The principle of non-refoulement is an important reason why European states focus border policies in the Mediterranean border zone on migration deterrence rather than on saving lives. This principle was defined during the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. It “prohibits States from returning a refugee or asylum seeker to territories where there is a risk that his or her life or freedom would be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion” (Lauterpacht and Bethlehem 2003, 87). It is considered customary international law and thus uniformly applies to both states that have ratified the Convention and those that have not ratified it (Maani 2018, 94). The UNHCR is responsible for adopting and enforcing it when necessary (Kennedy 1986). Therefore, as a result of the non-refoulement principle, European states are not legally allowed to deport migrants who have reached European territories back to their countries of origin before reviewing their demand for asylum protection. Additionally, the 2013 Dublin Regulation III determines that the first EU country in which a migrant enters becomes legally responsible for registering and processing their asylum application (Dublin Regulation III 2013). As the processing time of applying for asylum is quite extensive, the regulation allows for the asylum claimant to remain in that EU country until a decision is established. The goal of this regulation is to determine within the shortest period of time which European member state is responsible for examining the asylum claim. It also aims to ensure the effectiveness of asylum procedures and to prevent asylum seekers from applying multiple times in different EU countries. Yet, the Dublin Regulation results in the unbalanced burdening of smaller Mediterranean countries, most notably Greece and Italy (Maani 2018, 98). It holds these countries legally responsible for processing administrative asylum procedures and providing migrant populations with basic necessities. While the EU has attempted to relocate some migrants arriving in Greece and Italy to other European countries, these efforts have not been successful (Kingsley 2016). This failure has affected both migrant populations' and local populations’ security and livelihoods (Mouzeviris 2013).

In response to the non-refoulement principle and the Dublin Regulation, the EU, North African nations, and Turkey passed legal agreements that closed European borders and externalized migratory control to neighboring countries (Mascareñas 2021, 4). Such outsourcing strategies in the Mediterranean occur mostly between Italy and Libya, but also between Spain and Morocco. They are characterized by the endorsement of North African border authorities by European countries. Yet this endorsement is done in such a manner that European authorities cannot be legally linked to North African ones. Through these agreements, the EU and European nations provide material, technological, and financial assistance, which enables the non-European countries to fulfill international maritime legal requirements (Müller and Slominski 2021, 813). However, non-European border authorities remain insufficiently equipped compared to European immigration institutions. The goal of these outsourcing strategies is to prevent migrants from leaving the North African coast for European sovereign territory. They aim to relegate the legal responsibility of migrants’ lives to non-European nations, as EU members have no legal obligation to grant protection to individuals who have not yet reached European territory (Müller and Slominski 2021, 808). North African authorities, who are not bound by European human rights laws, bring the migrants they rescue back to the African continent. There, these migrants can be more easily returned to their countries of origin (Mascareñas 2021, 5). Additionally, North African border authorities often deliberately endanger the lives of migrants in the Mediterranean by obstructing rescue missions in Mediterranean waters (MSF 2024). European outsourcing strategies contribute to the necropolitical border regime in the Mediterranean as European (supra)national institutions indirectly kill migrants at sea while avoiding legal responsibility.

The Mediterranean Necropolitical Border Regime 

Mediterranean Necropolitics and Death

European necropolitical border policies and practices have led to the systematic occurrence of deadly tragedies in the Mediterranean over the last 15 years. For instance, on March 27, 2011, a small vessel carrying 72 people left the Libyan coast as it started its journey to Lampedusa, in Italy (Newns 2023, 3). Around 15 hours after the departure, the driver sent out a distress signal to Rome. They were soon approached by an aircraft that took photographs of the boat but did not provide any sort of assistance. Over the following 10 days, the boat sent out distress signals every 4 hours, and helicopters or fishing boats repeatedly approached the migrants’ boat but never provided help nor attempted to rescue its passengers. On the 14th day, the boat finally drifted back to the Libyan shore. Nearly all passengers had perished. This horrible tragedy, which happened before European immigration policies and border control practices drastically hardened, unfortunately inscribes itself amongst too many similar occurrences in the Mediterranean. It illustrates how the European border regime of the past years has continuously transformed the Mediterranean Sea into a “state of exception” (Agamben 1998). Indeed, the people who attempted to cross the Mediterranean in 2011 did not perish because their whereabouts or their need for rescue were unknown. They did not die because the European authorities did not possess the capacity to assist them. On the contrary, authorities determined the position of the vessel through satellite images. They were aware of the boat and of its passengers’ precarious situation and even approached the vessel multiple times. They chose to deny passengers assistance and to let them perish, because the sea has, over the years, become a space-time in which human law is intentionally, and without sanction, revoked for certain people (Newns 2023, 2). European state and suprastate authorities continuously turn migrants who are crossing the Mediterranean into “bare lives” (Agamben 1998). Through legislation that withdraws lifesaving aid from institutional and informal actors, authorities deprive migrants of all rights and radically expose them to death (Arendt 1986; Polychroniou 2021, 257). 

Hence, the Mediterranean Sea is positioned both outside and inside of the European and international juridical-political order, as “sovereign power is not absent, but rather legislates for its own removal” (Newns 2023, 4). In this way, the Mediterranean remains juridically intertwined with European nation-states’ and the EU’s sovereignty, through Search and Rescue Regions (SSRs) or NATO actions. Yet, European actors legitimize their absolution from legal accountability for migrant deaths because the sea physically remains beyond their borders. Hence, European authorities instrumentalize the Mediterranean Sea as a state of exception through their strategic abandonment, rather than prohibition, of migrants. Migrants become “exposed and threatened on the threshold in which life and law, outside and inside, become indistinguishable.” (Agamben 1998, 28). The EU and European nations make the intentionality of these processes clear through their lack of intervention and assistance and above all through the criminalization of attempts to rescue migrants.

Consequently, the Mediterranean Sea embodies European necropolitics. It materializes European sovereign power and its capacity to determine certain people’s disposability (Mbembe 2003, 27). Europe derives its sovereignty over the Mediterranean from past and present colonial projects. The Mediterranean Sea symbolically embodies a dividing line between the “North” and the “South.” It represents a barrier between European sovereign territory and its “others” (Iovino 2017). European colonial sovereignty determines migrants’ disposability based on racial legacies and on the illegality of their mobility (Mbembe 2003; Laakkonen 2022, 4). In fact, the illegality of migrants' journey across the Mediterranean is itself the result of colonial projects (Nasiri 2023, 68). It is part of the colonial European regime of penumbral visibility. European nations and the EU render non-European migrants legally and politically invisible, while submitting them to intense surveillance and control mechanisms. They force migrants to travel on clandestine and untraceable boats and to request visibility solely in cases of life-threatening situations at sea. Simultaneously, European (supra)state actors possess the ability to remain undetectable to migrants’ boats and to refuse to provide assistance (Presti 2020, 9). In other words, the European border regime produces migrant deaths in the Mediterranean through necropolitical regimes of disposability and visibility, which are continuations of colonial structures of exclusion (Newns 2023, 6).

Importantly, the European necropolitical border system inherently relies on the Mediterranean Sea as an actant. Migrants who boarded the “Left-To-Die Boat” did not directly perish from the hands of European actors, although they did directly die from non-assistance, but were killed by the sea. They died from their exposure to the violence of natural elements—such as salt water, waves, current, winds and the cold, as well as from hunger and thirst—rather than from human acts (Newns 2023, 14). These migrants died as victims of the Mediterranean’s “liquid violence” (Heller and Pezzani 2020), through which the violence of the European border regime was displaced and passed “through the medium of water onto the bodies of migrants” (Newns 2023, 14). In this manner, the Mediterranean Sea is a mediating force of European structural violence toward migrants. As Heller and Pezzani state, the sea’s “‘geopower’ becomes embedded in a form of killing operating without state actors directly touching migrants’ bodies” (2020, 95–96). The sea and its natural properties therefore materialize as a hybrid border where complex and violent relationships between human and other-than-human agencies emerge and evolve (De León 2015). European (supra)state actors mobilize the sea and its agency through a “letting die” strategy. This strategy takes the form of non-assistance to migrants stranded at sea. It relies on the “appearance of the slow detectability of distress events, and the ability to make [European authorities] seem incapable of dealing with the crisis” (Presti 2020, 9). This strategy shows that the rhetoric of emergency which characterizes European public immigration narratives is in fact used as a way to devalue human lives and render them impossible to save. It prevents European actors from being held responsible for migrants’ deaths, as these deaths are attributed to the violent, unexpected and untamable nature of the Mediterranean Sea. 

Mediterranean Necropolitics and Disappearability

The Mediterranean Sea does not only play an important role in the deaths of thousands of migrants but also in their disappearance. It kills migrants, then erases and conceals the traces of their deaths. It turns into a mass grave of a forever unknown number of people. The sea perpetuates European border violence post-mortem through disappearability, as it renders migrants invisible and disposable not only through their death but also beyond it. Mbaye, an NGO employee working with migrant issues in the south of Spain, recalls the disappearance of his nephew’s friend Amadou at sea: “They were put in Morocco together and took the boat to Spain the same day. They were put into different boats, but on the same day… And my  nephew arrived, but the other boy… the boat did not arrive… they didn’t arrive… they stayed at the sea” (Kivilahti and Huttunen 2023, 239). Above all, Mbaye remembers Amadou’s parents’ frantic search for their son and their reluctance to accept his death amid the absence of his body: “Almost everyone knew that the boy had died, but the father did not want to accept it. Until, I don’t know, four, six, seven months passed, then [the authorities] said that there is no need to search any more and that the boy is dead. After that the father finally acknowledged that he was dead” (Kivilahti and Huttunen 2023, 239). Mbaye’s heartbreaking testimony illustrates the consequences of disappearability at sea, as migrants’ loved ones are confronted with hope, despair and endless doubt (Kivilahti and Huttunen 2023, 242; Laakkonen 2022, 1; Pearl 2019). It reveals the “threat of dying without anyone close to you knowing about it” at the hands of the Mediterranean Sea’s natural qualities and through the institutionalized inactions of European authorities. Indeed, the sea kills migrants and covers their death by concealing and eroding the bodies (Laakkonen 2022, 5). Death and disappearability become closely intertwined as loved ones are left with haunting uncertainty. Although many countries have implemented police authority policies allowing national or transnational search requests, many families are reluctant to contact the authorities due to the disappeared person’s undocumented status ((Parr et al. 2016; Shalev Greene and Alys 2017; Kivilahti and Huttunen 2023, 229). Families have to gather and assess different forms of evidence themselves, such as testimonies of co-travellers. However, third parties’ accounts are usually fragile and insufficient, and the loss of contact over an extended period often becomes the most convincing proof of tragedy (Kivilahti and Huttunen 2023, 242). This climate of uncertainty and the absence of the body, lost to the sea, impede the possibility of conducting mourning rites. The impossibility of grieving furthers the dehumanization of the people who died at sea (Newns 2023, 9). 

The European necropolitical border regime and its instrumentalization of the Mediterranean Sea produce migrant disappearability as they greatly hinder the process of recovering drowned, undocumented migrants. The unruly nature of the sea renders this process very difficult. Its waters conceal bodies and solely reveal them in unpredictable and volatile ways, if they do at all (Duncan 2019, 169). Authorities rarely retrieve bodies despite the technical ability to locate them and the presence of archived forensic evidence in the waters, as shown by Hellen and Pezzani’s work (2020).  European and non-European states consider these bodies to be unimportant. Their recovery represents excessive political, jurisdictional and temporal constraints (Albahari 2016, 277). Moreover, there is no international framework to regulate the collection and sharing of information regarding migrants’ deaths (Grant 2011, 151). As a consequence, neither European nor non-European states prioritize bodies’ retrieval or systematic data collection regarding the people who never reached European shores (Dziuban and Dead 2023, 250). These authorities deliberately produce migrant disappearability as a continuation of violence post-mortem. They devalue, abandon and invisibilize migrants’ deaths in and through the Mediterranean waters. They weaponize the natural environment as a mode of concealment and erasure of border violence (Duncan 2019, 36), as the Mediterranean Sea “offers a convenient means of covering up the crimes committed in the name of border ‘security’ by hiding the evidence beneath its depths'' (Newns 2023, 9). The Mediterranean is not a site of repose for drowned migrants but rather one of violent disposal and invisibilization. It forever conceals the true number of lives lost (Dziuban and Dead 2023, 252).

Red Crescent volunteers recover the bodies of 74 people from a boat washed ashore near Zawiya, Libya in February 2017.

Red Crescent volunteers recover the bodies of 74 people from a boat washed ashore near Zawiya, Libya in February 2017. From IFRC MENA on X (formerly Twitter).

In cases where bodies are successfully found and retrieved, both institutional actors and non-human actants render the forensic procedures of identification of the bodies almost impossible. The Mediterranean Sea’s natural conditions and the non-human life it shelters obscure and conceal the evidence of migrants’ deaths. They do so through biological processes of ingestion, digestion, and decomposition (Newns 2023, 9). The sea transforms waterlogged bodies and erodes qualities that can be essential to identification, such as facial features, genitalia, and tattoos, amongst others. In addition to these natural challenges, the institutionalization of ‘non-identification’ reinforces migrant disappearability (Laakkonen 2022, 4). The forensic processes that aim to identify the retrieved bodies are frequently unsuccessful due to the ‘organized irresponsibility’ that characterize European forensic identification procedures (Perl & Strasser 2018, 511). Indeed, poor management, lack of a common protocol, inadequacy of resources, and lack of staff motivation result in low numbers of bodies identified (Laakkonen 2022, 4-5). These low numbers directly emerge from the collective European indifference toward migrants’ tragic fates (Basaran 2015). Non-identification adds onto the violence perpetrated toward migrants by extending it beyond death (Laakkonen 2022, 6). Migrant disappearability both produces and results from the intentional European dismissal of legal and moral obligations toward migrants.

Migrant disappearability reveals the ways that (supra)national European institutions exercise their sovereignty in the Mediterranean Sea through the “Governance of transition from life to death, and, indeed, in the governance of dead bodies” (Laakkonen 2022, 6; Stepputat 2016). Disappearability shapes multiple subjectivities embodied in the migrant as the figure of the “Disappearable human being” (Laakkonen 2022, 2). This disappearable subject results from historical colonial legacies and distinct class dynamics. It relies on the colonial notion that some racialized and Muslim populations are not welcomed within the European project and should not be physically present on the European territory (Glissant 1989; Danewid 2017). Hence, disappearability is a particular form of violence and precariousness that is imposed on racialized and undocumented individuals. It renders their deaths invisible and normal (Dziuban and Dead 2023, 248). National and supranational European necropolitical border strategies deliberately produce and inflict migrant disappearability. They subject racialized populations to constant danger and precariousness through violent border enforcement practices in an attempt to deter them from coming to Europe (Diminescu 2008; Topak 2014; Ulusoy et al. 2019; Presti 2020, 2). They force migrants to undertake increasingly dangerous routes and make the journey toward Europe extremely risky and unappealing (Andersson 2017). Disappearability arises from non-European migrants’ disposability, produced by the clandestinity imposed on them, coupled with European strategies of abandonment and neglect (Laakkonen 2022, 5). Migrant disappearability in the Mediterranean therefore relies on similar colonial border policing strategies as migrant death. It depends on the production of the sea as a state of exception in which migrants no longer hold human rights (Agamben 1998; Laakkonen 2022; Newns 2023). Disappearability emerges from the formation of the sea as a hybrid border and the European border regime’s necropolitical use of the Mediterranean Sea’s agency and ecological properties (Heller and Pezzani 2014; Stierl 2021). 


European immigration narratives have shifted in the past 15 years, as renewed humanitarian and securitizing approaches result in the intermixing of care and control at the border zones. The rhetoric of an urgent humanitarian crisis used to describe immigration coming toward Europe justifies the implementation of harsher migration policies and practices of border securitization. This narrative’s goal is to deter migrants from attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea by rendering the passage as dangerous and lethal as possible. Indeed, European immigration authorities no longer prioritize rescuing migrants stranded in the Mediterranean and opt to deter them instead because the non-refoulement principle and the Dublin Regulation obligate European states to host arrivals seeking asylum until their applications have been processed. 

The European border regime of deterrence heavily relies on the Mediterranean Sea and its natural properties as mediating forces of structural violence. This border regime renders the sea a state of exception, as European national and supranational institutions exercise their sovereign power to strip migrants of their most basic rights, render them invisible, abandon them at sea, and eventually expose them to death. This use of sovereign power emerges from past and present colonial projects and determines whose life is disposable through processes of racialization and illegalization—and therefore of invisibilization. Hence, the Mediterranean Sea plays an important role in the European necropolitical border zone. European nations and the EU rely on its geographical and ecological properties to kill migrants, while producing these deaths as accidental and inevitable due to the waters’ untameable nature. Furthermore, the Mediterranean also produces migrants’ disappearability, through which Europe carries out processes of invisibilization, abandonment, and neglect beyond death. The sea, its natural properties, and its biological processes conceal deaths and erode bodies, making them harder to identify by already indifferent human actors. Consequently, disappearability nurtures European necropolitical strategies of border securitization and deterrence.

The complex socio-political dynamics which inform and shape European border zones must be apprehended through a broader framework which recognizes the epistemological and material dialectic between humans and more-than-humans. This framework understands the Mediterranean Sea as a wet ontology that is not only fluid but also possesses a certain degree of intentionality in its effects. It apprehends the Mediterranean as a hybrid border shaped by complex interactions between human actors and more-than-humans, in which violence circulates. Hence, the sea is an actant of European institutional border violence and a fluid archive of this violence. The Mediterranean’s natural properties unpredictably and partially reveal European structural violence as migrants’ bodies or lost belongings resurface and wash ashore. The sea is also a witness of this violence that can be interrogated through the use of technology and oceanographic analyses. It becomes a forensic archival resource that remembers migrants’ deaths and testifies to the European necropolitical border regime. 

This article has limitations. It does not provide an extensive ethnographic research that relies on first-hand accounts of migrants’ and border patrols’ experiences across the Mediterranean border zone, as well as of oceanographers' expertise. This article would gain from such important and valuable personal and professional insights to fully analyze the production of the Mediterranean hybrid border. Moreover, this article presents the general necropolitical trends in European border policies in the Mediterranean Sea. However, each European nation has its own historical and sociopolitical context and consequently apprehends immigration in potentially differing ways. Future research should narrow their focus on specific European countries to grasp the specificities of each country’s immigration policies, role and responsibility in the European necropolitical border regime.

As a mediator, an actant, a forensic archive, and a witness, the Mediterranean Sea reveals the extreme violence perpetrated by the European border regime against non-European migrants. This article exposes how the EU and European states instrumentalize the Mediterranean’s natural environment to conceal their colonial and necropolitical politics. It uncovers the legal and moral responsibility of European authorities in the deaths and disappearances of thousands of human beings at their borders each year. Above all, it takes a decolonial stance and encourages policymakers, national governments, international institutions, and informal actors to apprehend the Mediterranean Sea as an actant inscribed in a more-than-human environment. If the sea can be instrumentalized for migrant death and disposability, it can also be a collaborator for implementing a new, non-necropolitical border regime at the Mediterranean border zone.

*This article was edited by Ariel Munczek Edelman (Princeton University) and Nika Noorishad (San Francisco State University).

About the Author

Bertille Headshot

Bertille Motte is a masters student at the Geneva Graduate Institute, where she studies anthropology and sociology. She focuses on migration issues through decolonial, queer and feminist approaches. She would like to thank her JPIA editors - Ariel and Nika - for their continued support and insightful suggestions. She can be reached at [email protected] and on LinkedIn

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