The Sea and the Sea

Do Migrants’ Lives Matter Less Than Tourists’?

KONSTANTINA ZANOU [Columbia University]

Even as I write, people from local communities on Chios and Lesvos (Greece’s eastern Aegean isles) are flocking to their coasts to impede the growing number of refugees arriving on their islands in the last few days, following Turkey’s abrupt decision (29 February 2020) to open its borders to thousands of refugees desperate to reach Europe. One video shows some of them standing on the shoreline, in front of a small inflatable dinghy carrying people in great distress—men, women (some pregnant) and children—shouting to them that they should go back where they came from. One woman, furious, suggests sinking the boat on the spot.[1] True, under the burden of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ and especially since the EU-Turkey deal in March 2016 to curb migratory flows, local communities on these islands have been tested by the establishment of a number of ill-equipped detention centers and by the deterioration of their own living conditions and of the living conditions of those seeking asylum there. However, xenophobia and racism have never stopped being part of the story. Hatred and fear have been fueled also by the European media’s and governments’ spreading of the myth of an invasion by ‘hordes of illegals’ and by the violence caused by security-focused migration policies. As if this were not enough, the exceptional measures regarding cross-border movements adopted by many countries to combat the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in the closure of avenues to asylum and in the forcible return of so many vulnerable people to situations of danger.[2] The recent refusal by the Cypriot authorities to allow a fishing boat carrying 175 Syrian refugees (69 of whom were children) to enter the country ‘as part of the protection measures due to the spread of coronavirus (Covid-19)’ is a case in point.[3] 

These policies of ‘fortress Europe’ have been further testing the refugees—men, women and children who have already endured unimaginable suffering and distress. They come from countries torn apart by civil war or unrest: Syria, Libya, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, but also from as far as Eritrea or Bangladesh. Many have been in Turkey or Libya for years waiting to cross over to Europe. It is not only war that these people seek refuge from; it is also economic hardship. Climate change and global heating—declared by the United Nations Human Rights Council to be the greatest global threat to human rights—are also to blame for increased hunger, migration and conflict.[4] In this part of the world more specifically, the desperate conditions that have engulfed much of Africa and the Middle East have also disrupted the traditional routes connecting in earlier periods the Muslims of the southern and eastern shores of the sea to vast hinterlands and to points further east (such as India), transforming the Mediterranean into the only escape route.[5] Thus, the inland sea, a space which had little or no significance in the geographical imagination of the Arab populations of North Africa throughout most of their history, has now become central to it.[6] 

It is therefore impossible to ignore the twenty-first-century tragedy that has been unfolding in the Mediterranean. The number of refugees to have lost their lives in the attempt to cross the sea is simply extraordinary. Since 2015 some 2 million people have attempted the crossing to Europe from either Turkey or North Africa. Of this number some 20,000 have perished in the course of the journey.[7] In view of these terrifying statistics, the 2013 declaration of the then Prime Minister of Malta—following a huge migrant shipwreck off Sicily—that the Mediterranean is being transformed into a ‘cemetery’, sounds like Cassandra’s words.[8] 

Despite all the attention paid by journalists, politicians, activists and—within academia—by anthropologists, legal experts and political scientists to the current humanitarian crisis, very little has been done to connect current phenomena to what was happening in this region in the past. Few have situated this in a long-term historical perspective which, in my view, can offer interesting and critical insights to guide us in these troublesome times.

The author’s Cypriot grandmother, Efrosyni Karoula, who was also a refugee.
The author’s Cypriot grandmother, Efrosyni Karoula, who was also a refugee.

Mediterranean Mobilities in History

We need to locate the current ‘refugee crisis’ within a broader historical framework. The current phenomenon, in which (mostly) Muslim refugees have been crossing from the southern and eastern to the northern shores of the inland sea, is but the latest version of a very ancient Mediterranean dynamic: this sea is a frontier but one that ‘has been routinely crossed by all sides’.[9] One scholar wrote that ‘when the first ships slipped out of the river estuaries and set sail for the open sea, some eight or nine thousand years ago, the true history of the Mediterranean began’.[10] That history is indeed marked by constant movement: expulsion, exile, migration, sea trade, corsairs, captives, slaves, fleeing peasants, missionaries, ports, the exchange of goods and ideas.[11] And all these journeys were  perilous. The story of Odysseus’ wanderings aboard ship across the Mediterranean (composed in c800 BCE) vividly reflects how the early Greeks saw the sea voyage as a death-defying adventure beset by dangers natural and supernatural, whereas the epic and tortuous voyage of Aeneas from Troy to Latium via Carthage (29-19 BCE) captures the Roman view of the sea as a frightening place of peril and mortal danger. 

If it is true that ‘population movements constitute the bedrock of Mediterranean history’, it is also true that there are certain differences between the past and the present.[12] The first has to do with our imagining of political frontiers. Whereas the history of the Mediterranean is characterized by mobility, by the very motion of bodies themselves, our modern conception of the world is characterized by immobility, by the idea that political frontiers are fixed, impenetrable and defensible. The association of migration with the territorial state is a fairly recent phenomenon and it dates from the nineteenth century, from the creation of modern states and the expansion of their regulatory reach. State frontiers and control processes had already appeared in the seventeenth century, but they only assumed a major political significance in the course of the nineteenth.[13] While humanity has always been on the move, this is the first time in history that the movement of bodies would seem to pose so very great a threat to social and political stability (a tendency which would seem only  to be exacerbated by the spread of COVID-19). In reality, of course, migration and refugeehood are phenomena situated not against, but at the very core of the shaping of the modern state, associated as they became—especially during the two World Wars—with the emergence of a new technologization of governmental power which triggered structural transformations (creation of social security systems, public health, refugee/concentrative camps, etc.).[14]

The second difference between present and past Mediterranean mobilities concerns the direction of movement. If immigration to Europe has been the rule since roughly the 1960s, the opposite was true in earlier periods. Suppose we consider the nineteenth century. The transformation of North Africa from ‘Barbary’ into a place where one ‘could make it’ led, during the period from the Napoleonic era to the Second World War, tens of thousands of people to cross the sea from North to South and from West to East, towards Africa and the Levant. Many ‘undocumented’ southern European labor migrants to North Africa and the Near East arrived there in small sailing vessels or fishing boats, in the exact same way that we see refugees arriving today on Lesvos or Lampedusa.[15] What is more, the nineteenth century was also the century of the Atlantic. To mention only  the Italians: between 1880 and 1920 (when the United States imposed immigration quotas), Italians led one of the greatest migrations in history, with approximately 6 million people crossing the ocean to seek a better life in the United States, Canada, Brazil and Argentina. The growth of transoceanic migration meant also increasing exploitation by shipping companies. Until a law of 1901 improved conditions by establishing a minimum space requirement per person, laying down rules of hygiene and requiring the hiring of a medical  officer, shipowners profited by transporting emigrants on ships that had been built for quite other purposes. They even opted to use a fleet of old steamers that were called ‘wrecks of the sea’. In 1899, on a steamship headed towards Brazil, there were 27 deaths caused by asphyxiation. In another case, 34 victims died of starvation or diseases that developed on board as a result of poor hygiene.[16] We tend to forget that it was mostly Europeans dying in the middle of the sea just one century ago (the dark business of the slave trade aside, of course). 

Finally, what distinguishes past from present migrations are also the numbers. Since the 1850s, a revolution in transport—which dramatically lowered traveling times and costs—made movement within the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic easier and more accessible to ever greater numbers. Indeed, if there is one thing that has changed since the mid-nineteenth century it is surely the nature and scale of migration. Whereas before migrants had tended in the main to be itinerant traders, workers, sailors and soldiers, since the 1850s emigration to the large Mediterranean cities and to the Americas became a mass phenomenon: some historians have calculated that in the nineteenth century alone roughly one third of the entire population of Europe was on the move.[17]

Javier Bauluz’s  "Death at the Gates of Paradise”
Javier Bauluz’s "Death at the Gates of Paradise”

The Discovery of the Seaside

The current focus on the Mediterranean as a place of danger (to migrants) and a source of ‘threat’ (to EU states) tells only part of the story. At the same time, the sea is experienced also as a place of pleasure (to travelers) and a source of financial profit (to coastal states).

The tourist industry has indeed changed the face and the fate of the Mediterranean. Let us recall the image of the Mediterranean coastline before the mid-twentieth century. Owing to the fear of piracy, there were few settlements along the shore and the major communities and cities were located inland. A barren and destitute terrain, the coastline was devoid of civil life. As for the islands, these were seen as remote, primitive and stony lands ‘of starvation and thirst’—as a Venetian official observed when he visited the Aegean islands in 1504.[18] From antiquity up until the fall of the great dictatorships of the twentieth century, islands were most commonly used for just two purposes: first, as places of confinement and health control (lazarettos) and, second, as places of detention and exile. In contrast to our image of scantily clothed tourists, Mediterranean islanders in the past were fully covered, even during the summer. The image of the Mediterranean woman in mourning, dressed in black from head to toe was a common feature in literature and art (consider the figures in Francisco Goya, for example, or those in Federico García Lorca). What is more, for centuries people in the Mediterranean did not enjoy swimming, or even going to the beach for that matter. My grandparents, for instance, born and raised on the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, never entered the water, nor did they know how to swim. Their only connection to the sea was when my grandfather took his flock once a year to bathe in the salty waters (a treatment that would make their wool fluffier).

The emergence since the 1950s of the summer holidays culture, the changing attitudes toward the human—and especially the female—body, and the explosion of mass tourism which has mostly taken the form of seaside vacations, transformed the Mediterranean from a place of danger into a place of leisure. From being regarded as sites of suffering and exile, the Mediterranean islands are now advertised as utopias of relaxation and pleasure. The seashore, for centuries an arid, unwelcoming and empty terrain, has been rapidly transformed into a succession of crowded beaches, hotels and resorts. Instead of concealed and covered bodies, there is an untrammeled celebration of the naked body. The ‘Mediterranean phantasy’ promises immersion in an unspoiled world, far removed from the urban rush and the western, industrialized way of life.[19] Never before have so many people gathered along the Mediterranean coasts—not as wretched refugees but as carefree tourists.


The Sea and the Sea

The current humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Mediterranean reminds us, however, that the sea never stopped being also an imagined source of danger and fear. Mediterranean islands revert at times to their previous, centuries-old functions. The current debate over transforming some Aegean rocky islets into sea-bounded refugee camps is a case in point.[20] As is the recent lockdown due to the spread of COVID-19 and the transformation of entire island states into places of quarantine and isolation. 

How do we put together, then, and make sense of these two Mediterraneans? Can the ‘sea of pleasure’ and the ‘sea of death’ coexist? How can we ever again plunge idly into the waves of the blue Mediterranean Sea without thinking of a child floundering, as he or she tries in vain to reach an unwelcoming shore? 

In his masterful 2009 novel The City and the City, China Miéville depicts a world of two cities occupying the same physical space. Even if the inhabitants of one city are able to vaguely discern the inhabitants of the other, they are strictly forbidden to do so. So, they have learned to ‘unsee’. The two cities have different airports, international dialing codes, internet links. Cars navigate instinctively around one another; police officers cooperate but are not allowed to stop or investigate crimes committed in the other city. 

It seems to me that this is the way the two Mediterraneans work. They may occupy, physically, the same space, but they hardly coexist. The Sea and the Sea are invisible to each other. 


1. (accessed 8 March 2020).

2. (accessed 23 March 2020).

3. (accessed 23 March 2020).

4. (accessed 8 March 2020).

5.  Molly Greene, ‘The Mediterranean Sea’, in David Armitage, Alison Bashford and Sujit Sivasundaram (eds), Oceanic Histories, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), p. 152.

6.  Nabil Matar, ‘The “Mediterranean” through Arab Eyes in the Early Modern Period: From Rūmī to the “White In-Between Sea”’, in Judith E. Tucker (ed.), The Making of the Modern Mediterranean: Views from the South, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2019), pp. 16-35.

7. (accessed 4 March 2020).

8. (accessed 8 March 2020).

9. Greene, ‘The Mediterranean Sea’, p. 134.

10.  Oliver Rackham, ‘The Physical Setting’, in David Abulafia (ed.), The Mediterranean in History, (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003), p. 62.

11.  For an overview see Maurizio Isabella and Konstantina Zanou (eds), Mediterranean Diasporas: Politics and Ideas in the long nineteenth century, (London: Bloomsbury, 2015); David Abulafia, The Great Sea, A Human History of the Mediterranean, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

12.  Julia Clancy-Smith, ‘Mediterranean Historical Migrations: An Overview’, in Dirk Hoerder and Donna Gabaccia (eds), Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration, (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, c2013), p. 1.

13. Claudia Moatti (ed.), La mobilité des personnes en Méditerranée de l'Antiquité à l'époque moderne: procédures de contrôle et documents d'identifications, (Rome: École Française de Rome, 2004), pp. 6-7; Silvia Salvatici (ed.), Confini. Costruzioni, Attraversamenti, Rappresentazioni, (Catanzaro: Rubbettino, 2005). 

14. Emilia Salvanou, 'Migration and the Shaping of Transcultural Memory at the Margins of Europe’, Europe Now (April 4, 2017); Peter Gatrell, ‘Refugees—What’s wrong with History?’, Journal of Refugee Studies 30/2 (June 2017), pp. 170–189. 

15.  Julia Clancy-Smith, Mediterraneans: North Africa and Europe in an Age of Migration, c. 1800-1900, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010).

16.  Maddalena Tirabassi, ‘Why Italians Left Italy’, in William J. Connell and Stanislao G. Pugliese (eds), The Routledge History of Italian Americans, (New York: Routledge, 2018), pp. 117-131. 

17.  Jan Lucassen and Leo Lucassen, ‘The Mobility Transition Revisited, 1500–1900: What the Case of Europe Can Offer to Global History’, Journal of Global History 4 (2009), p. 81; Dirk Hoerder, Cultures in Contact: World Migrations in the Second Millennium, (Durham-London: Duke University Press, 2002).

18.  Quoted in Antonis Liakos, ‘The Mediterranean and the Body, or What Happened to the Braudelian Mediterranean after Braudel?’ (unpublished paper presented at the XV Biennial Conference of Australasian Association for European History, 2005, and at CAS, Sofia).

19.  Alain Corbin, The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside in the Western World, 1750-1840, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994); Franco Cassano, Southern Thought and Other Essays on the Mediterranean, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).

20. (accessed 8 March 2020).

ΧΡΟΝΟΣ #71, 14 July 2020

* A version of this article is forthcoming in German on Zeitschrift für Ideengeschichte

Konstantina Zanou 
Assistant Professor of Italian, specializing in Mediterranean Studies
Director of Undergraduate Studies
Department of Italian, Columbia University
"Transnational Patriotism in the Mediterranean, 1800-1850: Stammering the Nation” 
2019 Edmund Keeley Book Prize in Modern Greek History (MGSA)
2019 Marraro Prize in Italian History (SIHS)
Η Κωνσταντίνα Ζάνου διδάσκει Ιταλική και Μεσογειακή Ιστορία στο Πανεπιστήμιο Columbia της Νέας Υόρκης. Είναι η συγγραφέας του πολυβραβευμένου “Transnational Patriotism in the Mediterranean, 1800-1850: Stammering the Nation" (Oxford University Press 2018) και συνεπιμελήτρια του "Mediterranean Diasporas: Politics and Ideas in the long nineteenth century” (Bloomsbury 2015).

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