Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland

Drowning at sea, washed up bodies, body bags and coffins: The new normal

by Teresa Piacentini


The new normal. A popular expression that captures the following: a previously unfamiliar or atypical situation that has become standard, usual, or expected. This is how I see the present humanitarian crisis unravelling in Europe. Images of washed up bodies, of overcrowded dinghies, of endless lines of people marching, of razor wire fences, of people sleeping on the ground, of limited belongings in plastic bags grasped tightly by desperate hands, of people making the victory sign as they land on dry land, in shock that they have made it. There are also images of coffins and body bags, of burst life jackets and dinghies, of unmarked graves on Lesbos, no names, often just a number. This has become the new normal.

The geyser of empathy that erupted with the tragic images of Aylan Kurdi on the island of Kos on 2 September 2015 was in many respects what we might call a game changer. It seemed that there was a sudden change not only in how the general public engaged with the humanitarian crisis but also in the way in which empathy was used as a justification for this groundswell of compassion. The image was so compelling because he looked as though he was sleeping, in that position so common in young children as they lie in their cots. This could be our child we all said. His and his brother Galip’s tragic life cut short. It is true that every now and then, there is an image that breaks through the noise, and pierces our hearts. It has been said that these devastating photos changed history. This image made us stop in our tracks and think.


Life jackets on the beach by Ann Wuyts. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Life jackets on the beach by Ann Wuyts. Licensed under CC BY 2.0


Over the years there have been hundreds of images of dead bodies washed upon shores. As a teacher I recall almost ten years ago preparing material from the British Red Cross for a Globalisation and Migration course. I used a series of photographs that has been taken on a tourist beach on the south of the island of Tenerife, which over recent years has been a destination for people smugglers. Then, as we are seeing now, hopeful men and women paid large sums of money to smugglers, were crowded into open boats designed for local fishing in coastal waters. They set off with little protection from the sun or adverse weather, facing a journey on open seas of at least 600 miles. They expected to be at sea for days. Some were caught by police or coastguards and returned, perhaps to try again later. Then, as now, the boats have never been fit for purpose, they have always been overcrowded and many have died, unable to cope with the dehydration, hunger and exposure of the journey or drowned. Their bodies washing up on the beaches. The Red Cross images showed locals providing water, towels, blankets, comfort to those who made it. In 2006, British Red Cross estimated that an estimated 31,000 migrants arrived in the Canaries during 2006. Many hundreds died and like Aylan and Galip Kurdi their bodies also washed up on beaches, sometimes in full view of holidaymakers, some of whom continued their sunbathing. Back then; this was becoming the new normal.

Going further back to 2003, Les Back, a sociologist at Goldsmiths wrote a piece entitled ‘Falling from the Sky’, examining the human costs of immigration policy through recovering the stories of the desperate stowaways who are literally falling out of the skies over London. By then, he noted that some 3,000 people had died trying to gain entry to Europe. In 2003, he, like many other commentators, forewarned of new borderlands and pariahs. He spoke of the routine reference point in the media of refugees as ‘beggars’, and their alleged involvement in ‘violent crime’. This way of speaking about people desperate to begin a life elsewhere had already become the new normal back in 2003.

Fast forward to 2015: we are seeing razor wire fences and new physical walls erected, Fortress Europe coming to life before our very eyes. These images of borders and walls have also become a new normal in Europe, as is the journey being made every day by hundreds of thousands of people seeking a better life. To give us some perspective compared with the 2003 and 2006 figures above, Germany expects over 1 million people in 2015 alone. And yet, as suggested in the Washington Post on 1 October, the world is already losing interest in the refugee crisis. The surge of interest in early September had already waned quite dramatically by early October. This is despite the fact that people are still drowning every day, men, women and children as young as babies. Their bodies are still being washed up on Greek and Turkish shores. Men and women are still dying in the Channel Tunnel. They are still suffocating in trucks. They are still falling from the sky.

And now to 2016: statistics tell us that from January to March 2016, approximately 531 children, men and women have died crossing the Mediterranean; that on average two children drown every day trying to reach safety in Europe. More images appear daily of the humanitarian crisis unfolding across Europe: a woman washing a new born, holding the baby outside a tent sinking into the mire alongside any hope in the Idomeni refugee camp; the swamps of Grande Synthe, the bulldozing of Calais; refugees being teargassed in Macedonia and Hungary; illegal pushbacks at sea all part of the EU-Turkey deal aimed at ‘stemming the flow’ of people. It is hard to tell what this means for public support of refugees: undoubtedly there has been a change in how the general public ‘sees’ refugees: thousands marched in support of refugees on 129 March 2016 across the UK. However, what is less clear is the public support for people already here, trapped in the UK asylum system. The same groundswell of support and calls for compassion has not been part of any broad UK narrative about asylum in the UK, and nothing indicates that is likely to change. As public and media attention has been focused on what is happening in France, Germany, Macedonia, Hungary, Greece, Turkey, Syria, the New immigration Bill inches its way to becoming an Act of Parliament.

Last semester, one of my students asked me how we maintain public interest in supporting the plight of these many thousands of people, whilst avoiding becoming desensitised when we feel overwhelmed by traumatic and harrowing visuals and stories? How do we fight compassion fatigue and navigate the ethical question about using images of dead children to raise public awareness? How do we maintain pressure on our political leaders to act? How do we stop this becoming our new normal? My answer was that it has already become our new normal. Rather let’s change the question: if this is our new normal how are we going to survive it? This unprecedented movement of people is not going to stop, they will keep coming and they should keep coming, they need safety. The question is not about whether Europe can make it, but under what conditions will Europe make it. These conditions have to be ones of humanity and compassion. So we need to keep putting our political leaders under pressure, through lobbying, petitions, through social media, through getting involved. We need to challenge dehumanising language of those very same leaders, but also the language of the media and in our everyday interactions. We need to keep our personal interest in what is happening; we need to find out what is happening locally and where we can channel our support. This has to become our new normal.


Teresa Piacentini is a Sociologist at Glasgow University. Her research interests lie in the broad field of migration studies, covering the various aspects of social, cultural and political life affecting migrants’ experiences of ‘settlement’, integration and belonging.


A version of this article was published on the Glasgow Sociology blog on the 3 November 2015.


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This entry was posted on March 25, 2016 by in Comment and tagged , , , , , , , , .