The small island of Sicily is currently being flooded with 2000 migrants each day. Being termed “the new Lesbos” by both the authorities and its people,[i] members of the Sicilian public are trying desperately to raise awareness of this issue and keep it in the eye of the media. I happened upon one of these efforts when visiting the Sicilian capital Palermo in August.
Within a nunnery’s walls in Palermo lies an exhibition, trying to give refugees back their identity through visual art. Upon entering the first hall you are met with a spacious open room with 60 canvases covering the walls. These paintings are covered with what appear at a distance to be dark and faded circles. However, on closer inspection, individual faces appear out of these shapes, each different and unique. Each was assigned a number, representing the coordinates at which this specific individual had drowned. This work was a representation of the 1996 disaster of Porto Palo in which a fishing boat, carrying more than 300 South Asian migrants, sank off the coast of Sicily, killing 283 people.
The next room consisted of a series of planks hung from the ceiling, all at different angles, to create the illusion of a stormy sea. Draped on one was a body made of metal, dark and seemingly lifeless. This silent setting was very humbling as you got a sense of just how vulnerable these people are, when making this desperate and life-threatening journey. Through the absence of other objects the artist conveyed how everything is left behind. These people cannot bring anything but their families, and if they survive the journey, arrive with nothing.
In the last exhibition room, a huge number of rubber rings, painted black and hanging from the ceiling, arched down to sweep close to the floor before travelling up again; imitating the movement of the sea. Amongst this sea of black there was one singular white ring, representing the only person to survive this particular crossing in an attempt to reach Sicily. Journalist, Valentina Di Miceli wrote that in this piece, “the big black life buoy of the Orizonti 2017 installation concludes the path, it ends the escape with the intrusion of a white life preserver that leaves open a possibility for it to give fair value to the life of every single man”[ii]. The artist himself wrote, “We are human beings above all…this shows my works, they want to sensitize, punch in the stomach to the observer to make the tragicity of these events alive on the skin. I did not want to add any explanation because it removes the possibility for the public to freely enjoy a work. My communication is direct, the materials and the works speak for themselves”[iii].
The ‘Refugee Crisis’ is by no means new news to us. Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, the flow of migrants to Europe has dramatically increased, with 1,321,560 EU claims in 2015[iv]. Some of us see the impact of this more than others, but living in Britain we do not see first hand the initial arrivals and horrific conditions and even deaths faced by the Sicilian authorities everyday.
The crisis has recently fallen off the news somewhat, not because the situation is getting any better, but because other issues deemed ‘more important’ have taken over the front pages. I think it’s very easy in the busy lives we lead to forget that things like this are happening all the time, right now, all over the world. We have moments where a shocking story or image breaks the news, such as the photograph of the young boy drowned on the Turkish coast. For a few months it was all anyone could talk about, pressure was put on the government to take more refugees, do more to help, stop airstrikes on innocent people. But things carried on as they were and after a few months we found something else to occupy our minds.
This ‘media buzz’ is something we see time and time again in modern-day life. When big news hits it is everywhere- social media has given everyone the access and opportunity to voice their opinions and campaign on a vast scale. Ultimately, it is the effort of the individual that will make the biggest impact for these people. I am by no means offering a solution to this problem; I believe it is impossible to find an answer that will benefit everyone. What we must question, however, is how far we can prevent this from happening. One question, which should be raised again and again until it is answered, is why America is not taking in more humanitarian refugees. America is the one of the biggest and richest countries in the world and yet our government does not have the guts to question and challenge Trump’s unreasonable and idiotic immigration policies.
Patrick Kingsley, a journalist for the Guardian, witnessed first hand an attempted rescue of a sinking ship filled with migrants. “I cannot describe what happened in the last minutes. The boat was quickly deflating, and it was taking on water. Somehow, those from MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) managed to save them. The chaos was total. A true situation between life and death. Bodies that are forcibly brought from one boat to another. A child who vomits, another who screams for his parents”[v]. This is a scene that is happening everywhere, all the time, even right now. If we do not change the way we are doing things, the situation will get worse. A national effort needs to be made. A sacrifice on our part should be taken, if it means hundreds of thousands of innocent lives could be saved. This is not a problem that will go away if it is ignored. It is time for governments across the world to stand up, organize themselves properly, and do something selfless.
[ii] Endless Migration, ‘Giornale di Sicilia’, Valentina di Meceli, 19th July 2017.
[v] Endless Migration