Governing migration through death in Europe and the US: Identification, burial and the crisis of modern humanism

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Series Details Vol.23, No.3, September 2017, p513-532
Publication Date September 2017
ISSN 1354-0661
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Border deaths have become an established feature of contemporary migratory politics in both Europe and the US. This article examines the similarities and differences in practices of ‘governing migration through death’ across the US–Mexico (Sonoran) and in the EU–North African (Mediterranean) contexts.

Instead of taking a conventional comparative analysis of two distinct sites, the article draws on critical scholarship in the field of border studies in order to examine biopolitical, thanatopolitical and necropolitical dynamics of bordering that cross contexts. It argues that these operations of power converge in both European and US bordering practices, specifically through a form of biophysical violence that operates directly on the biological functions of migrating bodies. The article suggests that the establishment of this violence represents a crisis of modern humanism, which becomes implicated in the toleration of such violence through processes of denial, displacement, rejection and compensation.

By focusing, in particular, on the ways that the treatment of the dead functions as a means of compensating for (yet not redressing) biophysical violence, the article highlights the deficiencies of contemporary practices of identification and burial, and raises questions about the limitations of contestations that emphasise dignity only to perpetuate a hierarchy of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ lives. In so doing, the article concludes by suggesting that contemporary ‘migration crises’ are better understood in terms of the crisis of modern humanism, grounded in Graeco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian traditions, which can no longer deny its implication in practices of governing migration through death.

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