In early 2014, the artist Anton Christian placed a shattered wooden boat in front of the impressive baroque Cathedral of St. Jakob in the heart of the Austrian city of Innsbruck. Christian had found the boat on the shores of the Adriatic Sea and brought it to Innsbruck to evoke images of Lampedusa, the Italian island that has become the symbol of the refugee crisis. After the boat was partially destroyed by vandals, the artist decided to keep the damaged object in front of the cathedral, supplemented by a marker that explained the attack. The installation no longer solely memorialized the lives lost in the Mediterranean but now also represented the intentional efforts to divert, refuse, and organize questions of responsibility by those in whose name Europe’s southern borders had been made ever more impermeable.

While this intervention brought the European border and its effects closer to the land-locked continental center, six months later the German artistic initiative Center for Political Beauty (ZPS) used the inverse strategy, moving crosses commemorating the victims of Eastern Germany’s closed border regime (“Mauertote”) from Berlin to European Union (EU) border regions, including the Spanish enclave Melilla and Bulgaria. This action broached the question of responsibility by suggesting that the victims of the German Democratic Republic’s border regime — and even their commemorative symbols — were evidently deemed more “grievable” than those directly affected by current European border enforcement practices.

Whereas actions like Christian’s in 2014 were still aimed at communicating the full extent of the human costs to those indifferent to the issue, by now, in mid-2016, pictures of dead migrant bodies and body bags in morgues have become ubiquitous and the UNHCR has called migrant deaths at sea “the new normal”. Consequently, much of the circulating imagery depicting the crisis has arguably lost its initial shock value. Moreover, mourning for the lives lost at the border is often focused on the immediate distress rather than on interventions that anticipate and potentially prevent a similar fate for others in the future.

The rise in the number of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe is the latest in a series of so-called “crises” related to the movement of people that have captured the world’s attention. While this has created a justified sense of urgency, in the past two decades hundreds of people died every year in their attempts to cross borders: in Central America, Mexico, the United States, and Canada; in the Andaman Sea; in the vast waters surrounding Australia and many other places. From the “border crisis” of Mexican migration to the United States in the 1990s and early 2000s to the “humanitarian crisis” of Central American children entering the US in the summer of 2014 to the current European “migration crisis” or “refugee crisis,” the emphasis is often placed on the number of migrants “flooding” into the United States or Europe rather than on the consequences of border policies that contribute to creating dangerous routes and smuggling networks, or on the denial of a global responsibility to accommodate those fleeing violence or dire economic conditions. The actual crisis is not simply in the numbers but rather, as Didier Fassin argues[1], in the gradual retreat of European countries (and we would add: most countries in the global north) from the commitments made in the Geneva Convention of 1951 and other international treaties related to the protection of human rights and, in particular, of refugees and asylum seekers.

A number of alternatives have been put forward. Suggestions have included focusing on labor needs that can be matched with refugees’ skills and capabilities; allowing refugees to move freely to asylum accepting countries; and supporting paths to integration. Additionally, the refugee regime itself and the conceptual and legal distinctions on which it is based need to be adapted to the realities of today’s internal and international forms of displacement. Just this week, President Obama suggested that some of these alternatives deserved serious consideration by convening a special summit at the United Nations, calling the crisis “a test of our common humanity.”

However, this week also saw Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s call for asylum seekers to be rounded up and deported “to an island somewhere in North Africa” controlled by armed security forces supplied by the EU. And while other European leaders occasionally respond to Orban’s ideas dismissively, the tendency seems clear: Instead of addressing this crisis of governance by focusing on efforts to strengthen legal channels for protection and family reunification or equitable resettlements, the general response has focused mostly on stricter border controls, the deployment of military aid to intervene in the conflicts that are pushing migrants to leave, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, a proliferation of encampments as a long-term solution for refugees, and other restrictions to deter migrants from settling temporarily or permanently.

In the meantime, thousands of migrant deaths around the world remain unnamed, invisible, and ungrievable. Their bodies await identification by family members for days or weeks. Families compare the wait to “a form of torture where they are caught between hope and despair.” If identification remains unsuccessful — a common occurrence given the lack of documentation and the difficulties of communicating with family members in war-torn countries — their DNA is recorded in a database and they are buried in “the hinterland” of border town cemeteries. According to the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project, more than 15,000 migrants died or disappeared between 2014 and August of 2016 (70 percent of them in the Mediterranean, 13 percent in Southeast Asia and 6 percent in North America).

As seen in the examples above, activists and artists have been engaged in staging actions to generate empathy, change policies, or assign state responsibility for these deaths. In Europe, people have marched on the streets, artists have created temporary and permanent memorials (such as the recently finished underwater sculpture commemorating the deaths in Lampedusa), professional soccer players have interrupted games to draw attention to those who have perished at sea, and groups like the ZPS have raised money to give migrants a proper burial. In the US, activist efforts have ranged from artistic interventions at the border wall, to funerary marches, to collective visits to the cemeteries where many of the unidentified bodies recovered at the US-Mexico border are buried. They are attempts to create a forum where migrants’ lives can be recognized and where responsibility for these deaths can be assigned. These efforts gain a specific relevance in the face of a void of responsibility that increasingly reveals its intentionality. In the European context, the German sociologist Ludgar Pries has consequently referred to the web of legal ambiguity and displaced accountability in Europe’s border regime as “organized irresponsibility.”[2]

Each of these interventions operates in a specific political context. While the question of the state’s (and its citizens’) responsibility is at stake in all of them, the European case addresses the different allocations of responsibility among the states of the European Union. However, they also represent issues emerging from a broader trend in migration regimes: the securitization of immigration and the militarization of borders. Increasingly, the human costs of the practices linked to border enforcement—what Maurizio Albahari has referred to as “crimes of peace”[3] and Raymond Michalowski as a “transnational social injury”[4]—have raised the question of how and when our grief for strangers can gain actual political force.

In her discussion of Antigone, political theorist Bonnie Honig observed that “mourning practices postulate certain forms of collective life and so how we mourn is a deeply political issue.”[5] The Social Research special issue “Borders and The Politics of Mourning”, guest edited by Alexandra Délano Alonso and Benjamin Nienass, starts from a similar premise. The contributing authors — Burkhard Liebsch, Miriam Ticktin, Marina Kaneti and Mariana Prandini Assis, Jenny Edkins, Maurizio Albahari, Andreas Oberprantacher, Alexandra Délano Alonso and Benjamin Nienass, Corrie Boudreaux, Erdem Evren and Alice von Bieberstein, Arely Cruz-Santiago and Ernesto Schwartz-Marin, and Mercedes Doretti, co-founder of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (and recipient of The New School honorary degree in 2016) — are interested in the moments when grief transforms into a public demand; how mourning changes the boundaries of the visible and sayable; and whether our exposure to loss can serve as a new “basis of community,” as Judith Butler proposed.[6] In particular, they are concerned with communities of grief that do not follow a clear-cut territorial logic. The aesthetic and political interventions examined in this issue often employ established rituals and symbols of mourning (crosses, funerals, and memorials). Yet they also show us that collective mourning does not simply reproduce the cohesion of established groups but can also create openings to reflect on a shared vulnerability and different distributions of vulnerability across borders, as Butler suggested.

Through different methodological and theoretical approaches that reveal the political potential of public grief, the articles also open up more critical avenues to approach the politics of mourning: When does collective mourning turn into self-serving sentimentality? When, if ever, does mourning actually amount to tangible effects on policy? When does the visualization of the suffering at the border turn into a spectacle that in actuality helps the state to deter future border crossers? When is mourning simply a coping strategy for the “tragedy” of lost lives at the border that has no direct ethical or political implications for the mourner? And is compassion always a good guide for political mobilization? By engaging with these questions, the articles in this special issue critically probe a “politics of loss” at the border for its potential to generate alternative analytical angles to approach ongoing migration “crises.”  We hope they thereby also contribute to enlarging our political repertoire in addressing an increasingly complex and urgent issue that demands an immediate response and a long-term vision.

On October 6, the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, together with the Center for Public Scholarship, the Global Studies program and the Janey Program for Latin American Studies, will host a launch event to mark the publication of this special issue. The event will begin at 4pm with a panel discussion with authors Maurizio Albahari, Alexandra Délano, Jenny Edkins, Burkhard Liebsch and Benjamin Nienass, followed by comments from Banu Bargu and Anne McNevin. Judith Butler will give the keynote address entitled “Grievability and Resistance” at 6pm, with an introduction by Chiara Bottici. The event is free and open to the public. Please RSVP here.

*This article is an adapted version of the introduction of the special issue, “Borders and the Politics of Mourning,” Social Research: An International Quarterly (Summer 2016)


[1] Fassin, Didier. 2015. “La economía moral del asilo. Reflexiones críticas sobre la «crisis de los refugiados de 2015 en Europa.” Revista de Dialectología y Tradiciones Populares 70 (2) julio–diciembre:. 331–336.

[2] Pries, Ludger. 2015. Es geht nur europäisch: Chancen und Herausforderungen für das Einwanderungsland Deutschland. Neue Gesellschaft, Frankfurter Hefte, 62: 4–10.

[3] Albahari, Maurizio. 2015. Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migrations at the World’s Deadliest Border. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[4] Michalowski, Raymond. 2007. ”Border Militarization and Migrant Suffering: A Case of Transnational Social Injury.” Social Justice 34 (2):. 62–76.

[5] Honig, Bonnie. 2009. “Antigone’s Laments, Creon’s Grief: Mourning, Membership, and the Politics of Exception.” Political Theory 37 (1): 10.

[6] Butler, Judith. 2003. ”Violence, Mourning, Politics.” Studies in Gender and Sexuality 4 (1): 9–37.