Facing Complexity: The Migration Crisis and its Antigone

by Katrin Trüstedt

While Trump’s immigration politics makes international headlines almost every day, the disaster of the European immigration policies rarely becomes international news. A recent exception is the case of Captain Carola Rackete, and it is a telling one. With all the potential for a good story, Rackete’s journey is both standing for and at the same time distracting from the actual complex mess of European immigration politics.

NGO rescue boat Captain Carola Rackete was arrested after forcing her way into the port of Lampedusa, in defiance of a ban by Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, bringing 40 migrants and refugees she had rescued from the sea off Libya to the Italian island. The young activist’s two-week standoff with the far-right minister Salvini and Italian authorities is the stuff of political mythmaking. La Capitana – as she is called in the Italian News in provocation of Salvini who likes to be called Il Capitano – gives the European Migration Crisis and the resistance to its exclusionary politics a face. What she has come to stand for is of mythical proportion: On the cover of Der Spiegel, she is featured as “Captain Europe,” and in various other media she has been called a modern-day Antigone. Just as Antigone resisted the command of Kreon, the official sovereign and legal authority, by reference to a higher law, Rackete opposed the directives of Salvini in the name of international maritime law. And just as Antigone’s standing up to Kreon by burying her brother has become the material for an ancient myth, Rackete’s face off with Salvini lends itself for contemporary mythical elevation. Her story evokes a mythological battle between good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, law and counter-law in the political arena of our times. It is the story of an underdog, standing up against overwhelming forces to do the right thing for those who are rightless.

Curiously enough, this is also the story Salvini keeps telling his followers to win their votes. Like all the other strong men from Orbán to Trump and Putin, Salvini presents himself as an underdog, fighting the good fight for all the unheard Italian “people,” against an overwhelming international “elite” that Rackete personifies, as a young German woman actively supporting immigration. What makes such stories persuasive to their supporters is the fact that they offer a world of stable meanings, simple oppositions, and clear-cut causes and effects: a world of naturalized myth that reduces its complexity.

Contrary to the claim that we live in a post-heroic era, it seems that we are very much in need of stories like those of Rackete. We seem to need heroines like her because – well, we have villains. And those villains seem to define the big narratives, so we need to oppose them with counter myths of standing up against them and fighting the fight of good and bad, right and wrong, justice and injustice. But the story of Captain Rackete, as much as it stands for the countless bodies suffering off our radar, also distracts us from the complex situation it embodies. Rackete offers a face for all those who suffer and die unknown and unseen, in Libyan and other refugee camps as well as on the various land and sea routes to Europe, while fleeing unbearable conditions. And yet it is easier to look at her and celebrate her battle than to try to grasp the vast and unknown territory of death and suffering, that we, as Europeans, enable and rather prefer to forget.

In similar ways, Salvini both stands for the hardline immigration policies and at the same time blocks its complexity from our view. He politically affirms shutting out migrant on Europe’s borders in a sovereign gesture of closing the borders, as if we were confronted with a sovereign decision to either give in to or fight our enemy. Giving the exclusionary character of European politics a face, Salvini at the same time mystifies it in terms of a heroic decisiveness that obfuscates the complexity of the exclusionary mechanisms and their causes. Just as it is easier to focus on Rackete than on all those she now has come to stand for, it is much easier to point the finger at Salvini and other anti-immigration strong men than facing the multiple responsibilities of all political actors across Europe in this huge and complex mess. Italy has been left alone by the European Union for way too long to deal with immigration, while most European countries like Germany have outsourced and avoided the issue. It was not least this avoidance by the rest of Europe and the incapability of the EU to create a constructive and unified immigration policy that led to the right-wing victory in Italy and other European countries faced with immigration.

Since the shift to the right, the EU’s tendency to outsource and externalize immigration – already in place for many years now – has only increased. Apart from the dirty deal with Turkey, Europe has entered into deals with the government in Tripoli, effectively funding and expanding a Libyan coast guard, which is little more than a militia at sea tasked with intercepting migrants, while at the same time sharply limiting the ability of N.G.O.s to assist migrants in danger. Rather than rescuing migrants at sea from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, those seized by the Libyan coast guard have mostly been sent to detention facilities of horrendous conditions, as a report from Human Rights Watch documented. Recently, one of those camps in this country torn apart by civil war was attacked in a rebel airstrike, killing at least 50 people. It is this Libyan coast guard and these Libyan camps that the EU relies on for its “border security.”

The particular type of violence that is involved here – externalizing and outsourcing the dealing with immigration, avoiding the topic, and covering up the toll our current policy is taking by removing it from view – is much less obvious and self-evident than all the rhetoric of “building a wall” or of a “Fortress Europe.” Salvini only offers a public face for these policies. This is probably also the reason why Trump’s hardline immigration policies are much more visible: he campaigns on them, as Salvini and other nationalists do, while the rest of Europe prefers to let others like him deal with it. They make for such good villains: Merkel or Macron do not. And while the German government has supported the Captain, and Paris has just awarded her the “Médaille Grand Vermeil de la Ville de Paris,” Germany and France, thus happily featuring the myth of La Capitana against Il Capitano, are highly complicit in the brutal policies of the European Union.

We do need heroines like Carola Rackete. We need them to stand up to these right-wing forces gaining momentum in Europe, to do the job the European Union should be doing, to save people in need as Europe has committed itself to, and to draw attention to the disastrous immigration policies that Europe is producing. We are in dire need of stories like hers, and of the hope and courage these stories personify. And yet, while honoring them, we need at the same time to be aware that they are particular types of myths, uncannily close in their narrative structure to those they are fighting against. The Salvinis, Orbáns, and Trumps of this world shape the narratives with the mythical force of complexity reduction that are hard to counter with, well, complexity. Instead of just entering into the arena the Salvinis of the world have set up, and play the game of personifying good and evil according to their rules, we also need to keep facing the vast complexities that migration and border policing involve, particularly at these messy borders, that have de facto been blurred well into Middle Eastern and Northern African territories.