The “Transnational Business of Death” Among Somali Migrants in the Streets of Athens

in Migration and Society
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Anja Simonsen Assistant Professor, University of Copenhagen, Denmark anja.simonsen@anthro.ku.dk

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Abstract

Migrants risk their lives when venturing out on hazardous journeys to escape unbearable situations in their countries of origin. Some, unfortunately, lose their lives en route. When such tragedies happen, a border-crossing social network of brokers, fellow travelers, family members, and friends of the deceased engage in a “transnational business of death” involving exchanges of money, things, information, and rumors. Based on ethnographic fieldwork among Somali women and men from 2013 to 2016, this article explores how the death of one Somali woman was dealt with on a particular street in Athens, Greece. The article argues that an informal economy arises as a reaction to the lack of legal, formal support from the Greek nation-state when it comes to dealing with the deaths of loved ones among undocumented migrants.

The Trade in Death in Contexts of Migration

The year 2015 saw an increase in people without the necessary travel documents seeking protection in Europe from war, poverty, and other insecurities in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia (Keita and Dempster 2020). More than one million people crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe that year, four times as many as the year before (Crawley et al. 2016). As the sheer numbers of people seeking to reach Europe increased, so did the number of those dying while attempting to cross the Mediterranean: approximately 18,000 people without regular documents tragically drowned in the Mediterranean between 2014 and 2018 (Hamlin 2021: 117). In the same period, another 12,000 people whose bodies were never recovered drowned along the same route (Statista 2021). This has led the Mediterranean to become morbidly known as “the Mediterranean Graveyard” (Trew 2021) partly as a result of the “border spectacle” (de Genova 2005) and “border play” (Cuttitta 2014) by the European Union, a reference to the production of criminalized and racialized portrayals of migrants and the policies and practices produced as a result of that.

In this article, I focus on one fatal boating accident, which took place in the beginning of May 2014 as the boat was sailing from Turkey to Greece across the Aegean Sea, an arm of the Mediterranean. The boat capsized, causing the deaths of 22 people. Among those 22 people were interlocutors I had come to know through my fieldwork among Somali women and men migrating without the necessary travel documents, as well as their family members and friends. Riyaan, a Somali woman in her late thirties from the south of Somalia, married and a mother of seven children, with whom I became very close friends, lost her sister Yusra on board this particular shipwreck. Her death is the focus of this article. Death as the last desperate move, so visible and in plain sight, yet so estranged and alienated, made the journey end right there for Riyaan's sister Yusra, and for thousands upon thousands more. The topic of this article is how Riyaan engaged in an informal economy in order to retrieve her sister's body, as she was a part of the large number of irregular migrants in Greece who would not automatically be notified by the state if a family member passed away. Somali migrants1 without regular documents, in other words, react to the lack of legal, formal support to deal with the death of loved ones by engaging in what I have coined “the transnational business of death,” referring to an informal economy centered on identifying and reclaiming the bodies of loved ones (see also Ravnbøl et al. 2023).2 Business is here understood as being about trade, trade relations, and everything these terms may cover in dealing with death in contexts of irregular migration, such as skills, networks, money, information, documents, photos, and rumors, all of which cross national borders (Moeran and Garsten 2012; see also Ravnbøl et al. 2023). Thus, I define “transnational” in light of migrants’ informal trade practices,3 and I argue that mobility must be explored through objects, people, networks, and values crossing national borders (Gregson and Crang 2017; Ravnbøl et al. 2023). Migrants’ informal economy is thus one interrelated aspect of the transnational business of death and the topic of this article.

In migration research, topics surrounding death are often examined in light of the unequal political positions occupied by states and migrants. Its effects are often portrayed in the literature as occurring in a world of global disconnects (Ferguson 2003), where some can travel as tourists in a seamless world, others only as vagabonds on the margins of society (Bauman 1998). The results, in the form of deaths, are portrayed as examples of necropolitics (Mbembe 2003), necroviolence (De León 2015), forms of bare life (Agamben 1998), bare death (Douglas-Jones 2017; Simpson and Douglas-Jones 2017: 14), waste (M'charek 2018), and the deaths of hope (Cattaneo 2018). Achille Mbembe (2003: 16), for example, rightly asks what is “the relationship between politics and death in those systems that can function only in a state of emergency?” Or, as posed by Finn Stepputat (2014: 9), how are we to understand this form of death, not only in its physical sense, but just as much as a political expression of how the living govern the dead? In fact, Mbembe reminds us how unequal power structures continue even in death: “In the case of massacres in particular, lifeless bodies are quickly reduced to the status of simple skeletons” (2003: 35). In sum, research has pointed out that handling dead bodies “relates to deep issues of power” (Stepputat 2014: 5) and that the dead bodies of migrants “are the material evidence of a failed politics” (M'charek 2018: 94).

Where such work has focused on the top-down formal structures of “the border spectacle” (de Genova 2005) practiced by politicians, border agencies, and border guards, the transnational business of death serves to capture the complexity of the various actors involved when women, children, and men tragically lose their lives during irregular migration. Despite the fact that many European state authorities have, to some degree, installed local procedures on how to handle the death of migrants without regular documents (Stepputat 2014: 4), no official protocols on how to deal with migrant deaths exist (Kobelinsky 2019). As a result, scholars have shown how medical forensics in southern Europe attempts to identify dead bodies through DNA to provide answers and peace to remaining family members (Cattaneo 2018; M'charek 2018); how search and rescue operations seek to recover not only the bodies of the survivors but also of the dead in the attempt to recover their identities and their stories, while being criminalized for exactly that by state authorities (Cusumano et al. 2021; Vives 2021); how grassroots organizations, locals, and family members try to gather information that can help identify the people whose lives were lost at sea (Moorehead 2014; Zagaria 2020; Kobelinsky 2020); and how “pop-up” economies (Ravnbøl 2019) result from those deaths, such as that of undertakers at border sites (Perl 2016).

While other researchers have shed light on the importance of care and solidarity during such practices (Agustín and Jørgensen 2018; Berg and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 2018; Oikonomakis 2018), little is known about the informal economies which arise as a reaction to the desperation and the lack of legal support toward co-travelers and family members in retrieving the bodies of their loved ones. Zooming in on the practices conducted by migrants themselves as they seek to identify loved ones, with a focus on the role that rumors play in gathering such information, is an attempt to cover this knowledge gap. Hence, ethnographically, the article contributes by making visible the informal and invisible social practices of the transnational business of death among migrants without regular documents by zooming in on the important role that rumors and transnational social networks take among such migrants. Conceptually, the article proposes the transnational business of death as a framework that encapsulates how the formal, visible governmental structures surrounding death cannot be separated from the invisible social processes put into practice among migrants without regular documents if we want to fully explore the increasing numbers of unaccounted-for deaths occurring at Europe's borders.4

This article starts by describing the street in Athens where (newly) arrived Somali migrants often settle down and spend their time until travelling further, if possible.5 It then goes on to show how Somali migrants without regular documents sell, buy, and exchange know-how, skills, various forms of information including rumors, things, and money in seeking to identify and bury their loved ones. I am particularly interested in how developing experience, know-how, and skills in how to gather information and navigate through rumors and the law transform the uncertainty of rumors, understood as information which circulates outside the smaller group (Harney 2006: 376; Paz 2009: 118–119), into something people can use (Møhl 1997: 65, see also Gluckman 1963; Radcliffe-Brown 1933). The article shows how Riyaan has to balance such rumors and activate various networks in order to successfully take part in the transnational business of death, her success being the ability to identify and bury the body of her sister.

This article is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted among Somali women and men from 2013 to 2016 in Somaliland, Turkey, and Greece for a period of 11 months in total. During this period, I conducted participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and informal conversations in these women's own homes and where they stayed when in transit, in markets, in the streets, and at cafes. In Somaliland, my access to women was rather limited as they spent a lot of time at home, but being en route improved my access. When I arrived in Turkey, a friend introduced me to a group of Somali women. One of them was Riyaan. They put me in contact with other women, and I soon snowballed my way into the life-worlds of women en route from Turkey to Greece and onward. Being a young woman myself, we created a form of trust and closeness with each other, talking and gossiping about men and telling intimate stories of the role we as women occupy in society. Sharing the intense experience of celebrating Ramadan, laughing together, seeing people getting arrested, fearing the right-wing vigilante groups, being sick, and even death created a strong tie in a relatively short amount of time, despite the fact that we were positioned very differently in terms of protection and legal status in Greece. As the friendships grew, so did my own actual participation in the transnational business of death as I came to take part in both economic and informational trade as part of Riyaan's transnational network.

In the following section, I turn to the moment when I arrived at the particular street at the heart of this account, which plays a central role in how death is handled among Somali women and men without regular documents in Greece.

Somaali Istaag (The Street Where Somalis Stand)

It is the beginning of May 2014, and I have just arrived in Athens. It becomes clear that I am living in a wealthy neighborhood surrounded by vintage designer shops, hotshot bars, and restaurants as I leave my apartment and start walking to meet my female friends from Somalia, who have just arrived in Athens from Turkey, despite not having the necessary travel documents. I have received a description along with a rather unclear address directing me toward the “Somaali Istaag” (the street where Somalis stand). The name is a reference to the fact that Somalis across Europe meet, socialize, and do business on particular streets located in the larger capitals of Europe and beyond. Climbing down the hills of Athens, ending on a main road, I pass by beautiful buildings with museums, European authorities, and the embassies of a number of foreign countries. The decline in Athens’ economy is nowhere visible in this upper-class neighborhood. As I get closer to the parliament buildings, I see a big black police bus protected by a grille, with officers standing on the street next to it. As I continue walking, the beautiful buildings and fancy shops grow further and further apart. Instead, I pass boarded up shops. A lot of them have graffiti painted on them in various colors and designs. A young woman is sitting on the street and begging, her legs bare and showing deep wounds.

Precisely this walk turns into a routine for me in the next four months. I soon come to recognize what is also part of the business of the street: women on the corner offering themselves in prostitution, drug users shooting up in the alleyways, and undercover police holding brief meetings just outside the Somaali Istaag before they split up and walk into the area wearing what look like white earphones. This walk illustrates that Athens is a divided city with wealthy areas next to run-down and deprived areas. Such urban architecture is a classic example of what Sassen has framed “a global city,” a place of strategic transnational networks of (in)formal trade and finance (Sassen 1991), which depends on cheap and disposable migrant labor (Sassen 1994; 2005; 2014). In this article, I zoom in on the ways that Somali refugees without regular documents seek to manage their precarious positions and unequal access to formal channels of protection and information in the “global city” of Athens (See Sassen 1991).

On this particular day, I am first greeted by Riyaan, who is suddenly standing in front of me. Riyaan and my other interlocutors have fled from different parts in Somalia, the majority from Somaliland,6 known as the peaceful part of Somalia, but some also from south-central Somalia, which is most often portrayed in the news as conflict-ridden and the home to many members of the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab. The rather bleak history of civil war, which broke out in 1991 when the Somali president and dictator Mohamed Siyad Barré was ousted from power, caused the majority of the outward migration, which is seen even today. Though exact numbers are difficult to obtain, it is estimated that between 500,000 and 1.5 million Somalis have lost their lives since the civil war broke out in 1991 (Norris and Bruton 2011: 1).

Out of a population of approximately 16.8 million people in Somalia,7 over 2.6 million Somalis have become part of the mixed migration flows within the Horn of Africa, living as internally displaced persons or in refugee camps in the neighboring countries of Ethiopia and Kenya (Human Rights Watch 2022). The latter hosts one of the world's largest refugee camps, Dadaab, primarily inhabited by Somalis. Another estimated two million people of Somali descent live as refugees in Europe and North America as part of the diaspora (Kleist and Abdi 2022). Originating from a conflict-ridden country such as Somalia means that visas are more or less impossible to obtain. Thus, Riyaan, along with my other interlocutors, had undertaken a long journey of walking, sailing, confinement in a camp, and for Riyaan herself, imprisonment in their efforts to reach Greece since I had last seen them in Turkey in February 2014.

Meeting here, we greet each other by hugging and asking how each other is doing. Riyaan tells me that “this is Somali Istaag; you can see the Somalis are standing here.” I agree and look across the street. As I do so, a young man waves to me. Riyaan says: “Do you know this man?” To my great surprise it is “Wiilka Nolosha,” a young man whom I knew by his nickname, “the boy of life,” and with whom I spent a considerable amount of time in Turkey. I reply that I do and go directly over to him. After greeting my friend, Riyaan takes me on a tour to greet all the other women I know.

Despite being known as a rough neighborhood with poor residents, Somali Istaag has a life of its own, thriving on the fact that migrants are arriving and leaving all the time. Greeks would rent their houses out on this street informally to a migrant who would rent out mattresses for fellow Somalis to sleep on at night. Tailor shops would sew the most beautiful dresses for Somali migrants, and Somali and Bengali restaurants would pop up serving my interlocutors’ favorite foods. On top of that, small travel agencies, supermarkets, and Internet shops were also located at or near Somaali Istaag. Spending my days among Somalis in Athens, I quickly realized that, if I wanted to learn the latest news of the day, I would have to go to Somaali Istaag. This was where negotiations between Somalis without regular documents and brokers arranging onward travel would take place. However, it was also where the latest information on other peoples’ travels, deaths, fortunes, and misfortunes would be shared. Somali Istaag was at the very center of any sort of business, including what I have coined the transnational business of death.

Did You See Al-Jazeera Last Night?

A few days after my introductory tour at Somali Istaag, I was sitting with Nadifa and Riyaan, along with Riyaan's roommates. Like Riyaan, Nadifa was a Somali woman whom I knew from conducting fieldwork in Turkey. We were in their house when Nadifa asked me: “Did you see Al Jazeera last night?” I replied I had not. She continued, “One boat with a lot of Somalis, Syrians, and Afghans broke up in the sea, so a lot of people died—tahriib [youth migration] is not easy.”

The next day I called Riyaan, who told me she had been crying the whole day. Asked why, she replied that the ship that had sunk might have had her sister on board. She did not know whether her sister was dead or alive, she explained. She wanted to spend the day trying to find out whether her sister had been on the boat. Asking her how she could get hold of such information, she replied that she had called a “Swedish Somali man,” a reference to the fact that he had regular documents of some sort from Sweden. This meant that he had the right to move around freely in Greece, unlike Riyaan. This man knew the police and could freely communicate with them, and he had obtained information that Riyaan's sister was alive. Riyaan explained: “Tomorrow he will go and see himself and talk to Yusra [her sister] and see if it's her. So still I don't know if she is alive or dead,” Riyaan replied. The following day I called Riyaan again to get an update. My first question centered on her sister's wellbeing. Riyaan explained: “My sister is dead, she is not alive.” I offered her my condolences. Riyaan explained that she was not at home, she was walking the streets. She could wait for me to arrive at Somali Istaag, she said, but she wanted to go to the police and ask how she could find out if her sister was still alive. “I just want to go and see,” she explained. However, getting confirmation in order to claim her sister's body required capital. As I was speaking with Riyaan on the phone, she was walking the streets in search of money, as her pockets were empty, she said. Asking Riyaan where she wanted to go, she explained that those who had survived had been brought to a Greek camp with a hospital nearby. I replied by asking her how much this trip would cost? “I don't know, maybe one hundred euros,” she said. I offered to give her the money, as I could not even begin to imagine the pain she felt. “Okay, my sister” Riyaan said.

We finished the call, and I went to meet her. When I arrived at Somali Istaag, Riyaan was sitting there outside a cafe with two other women. I greeted Riyaan and gave her my sympathy, stroking her arm as we sat down. She looked down toward the ground. Her usual smile had left her beautiful face. I asked her how she knew that her sister was dead, since yesterday she did not know whether she had been among the survivors or not. Riyaan explained that a man had a list from the UNHCR with the names of the survivors and said, “so the people on the list are the ones that survived, and then he told me that those who are not on the list, you can work it out for yourself” (meaning that they were dead).

What struck me was the fact that Riyaan and other family members had to navigate informal channels before accessing the formal channels that had the lists and documentation of deaths, such as the international refugee organization, the UNHCR. These formal and informal systems of the trade in information were deeply intertwined with one another, yet only coincidentally, or so it seemed. While the UNHCR had created a list with the names of the survivors, no one would reach out to Riyaan or any other family members in search of their loved ones. The police would not call or show up at her doorstep to deliver the news, as is otherwise the formal procedure when the state is to deliver such tragic news about a citizen. Instead, Riyaan had to actively search the streets for any information she could get that could lead her to a formal confirmation of her sister's destiny.

I, the ethnographer, came to play an active role in her search for confirmation. In many ways, I acted as what Perl has framed “the connecting link” in migration contexts of extreme conditions (Perl 2016: 206). I partook in the transnational business of death by paying the 300 euros Riyaan was searching the streets for in order for her to go and identify the body of what she believed to be her sister. I also engaged myself in the sharing of information and the latest news around the shipwreck and provided emotional support to Riyaan to the best of my ability. I entered this relationship to learn about the death of Riyaan's sister but also to learn about Riyaan, and in so doing I became a part of Riyaan's transnational relations. I came to care for Riyaan and considered her a friend. At the same time, I could leave whenever I wanted to and had legal protection, whereas she could not and did not have legal protection; and yet we still depended on each other, mostly for sympathy and information. Entering the transnational business of death meant, in other words, that I was constantly walking the line “between personal attachment and self-interest” (Perl 2016: 206).

A Fatal Boat Accident

Riyaan explained that, of the twenty-four survivors, only two were women, the rest were men. “Ten women died,” she said. While we were sitting there, a young man came up to Riyaan. She said, “Anja, wait for me here.” He and Riyaan removed themselves from the rest of us to talk. After a few minutes, she returned. Riyaan then went on to tell me that the Greeks were not good. She had just been told what had happened to the boat on the day of the accident: “The Greek boat was following the boat because the Greeks do not want people who are not Greek to enter Greece, they don't like people here, so that's why they died,” Riyaan explained. She showed me with her hands how the Greek boat sailed close to the other boat, making the waves around it surge higher. However, speaking later with one of the survivors from the boat, he told me a rather different story of how the boat capsized. Yahye, a young Somali man, recalled the tragic accident where more than 22 people drowned8 during our very first conversion in a transit house in Athens, Greece:

After being driven to the shore from Istanbul in a big bus, a small boat picks us up, and sails us to a bigger boat, a yacht, which is too big to come close to the shore. We are all put into the yacht. The yacht is divided in two parts, inside and outside. All the women are going inside below deck, and me and some of my friends are sitting on the top level above deck. Inside is dark because if there is light the police will see us. The captains of the boat are taking drugs. They act like crazy. When the boat begins to sail, there is damage inside, and water is entering the boat. Some friends of mine are yelling. The captains answer them: “No problem.” The captains start to set sail. After this, the water is increasing inside, and the boat is filled with water. All the people are shouting “Water is coming in, water is coming in.” The captains are ordering everyone to go inside, below deck, but I do not move. Others do, and when a lot of them go inside the ship below deck, the boat loses its balance and falls to the right side. The water is increasing a lot. I crawl up. The door to the deck below is closed now so no one can enter. Some of my friends went in [below deck], some up. I went up because I know that up is made of fiber and that will not sink. I help one of my friends, who is in big trouble. I help him by taking his hand like this. [Yahye holds out his hand to illustrate]. We were swimming in the water for four hours. Me and eight of my friends are holding on and one three-year old young Syrian. One baby, three years old, his mother and father died. We helped him. We took his hand and said, “Hold here.” Suddenly, we see a big tourist ship, which is crossing our path. We are shouting to the ship, and one of my friends has a big light, a laser. The ship sees us and calls the police because if the big ship came close to us, we would all die, because it would create large waves. The police came after thirty minutes. Three Greek ships came. We are being rescued and then the police captured all the people who did not die.

The point here is not to identify rumors as either “fact” or “fiction” regarding what actually took place that day on the boat, nor to suggest that Greek boats did not chase boats containing migrants in other instances as well: illegal push-backs have been well-documented by NGOs and other institutions (Amnesty International 2014). Rather, I seek to illuminate what navigating such rumors did to my interlocutors when they were in a state of constant uncertainty, and how the skill to do so was a commodity much in demand. The following section explores exactly why this is.

Seeking Information and Navigating Rumors

Rumors were being sought and traded constantly following this particular accident, by Riyaan as well as by others, due to the lack of certainty and any official information. Rumors were all that the relatives of those who drowned had, and they thus played a major role as part of the transnational business of death for several reasons. First, the several incommensurable accounts for why the boat capsized gave meaning to different migrants at different points in time to something that otherwise seemed meaningless. Riyaan and all the other Somalis without regular documents were not expecting an official enquiry by the authorities to explain to them what had happened to their loved ones. As a result, the various explanations as to what had happened were more than just rumors: rather, they exemplified the hardships they felt in Greece, rumors being a way to express their fears and sorrows (Scheper-Hughes 2000: 201–202). Navigating such rumors, I argue, was what kept Riyaan on her feet instead of simply collapsing. In other words, “stories serve as social identifiers, positioning the implied persons—the characters, the narrators, the listeners—in relation to one another. They delineate and interpret the current social landscape” (Møhl 1997: 65). The bits and clues of information that Riyaan had gathered regarding what had happened to the boat on which her sister lost her life spoke to the way she and the majority of other undocumented migrants were socially positioned in Greece as unwanted, hunted, “illegals.” The purpose of partaking in and exchanging rumors was to provide some sort of explanation and logic for very uncertain situations, which is necessary if one wanted to remain sane.

Second, as Scheper-Hughes suggests, referring to Scott's (1985) well-known metaphor, rumors could in some instances be defined as a “weapon of the weak” (see Scheper-Hughes 2000: 201–202), that is, as a form of counter-strategy with which to challenge the larger political structures that try to force immobility on people such as Riyaan and her sister. Riyaan had no legal right to identify her dead sister's body, as she had not obtained formal documents allowing her to stay in Greece. As a counter-strategy to such constraints, Riyaan navigated through the information she obtained from fellow migrants, the UNHCR and Somalis with regular documents in order to work out how to access her sister's dead body without putting herself at risk. Initially, she had intended to go and identify her sister's body on the Greek island where it was being kept. When I asked why Riyaan was not travelling with someone who was in possession of a legal passport to make the passage safer for herself, as she was in Greece without a regular passport, she replied: “The passports here are fake.” This referred to the fact that fake passports were also traded for considerable sums of money in order to allow onward travel for people such as Riyaan. Riyaan did not want to take the chance of being arrested by the police with a fake passport, as it was well-known that being in possession of such a passport was punished harshly in Greek law. Hence, the knowledge of fellow migrants’ experiences developed her skills in what information to follow. However, if Riyaan was to be put at ease by ending the uncertainty of not knowing the destiny of her sister, someone had to identify the dead body, a service which could potentially be traded for a fee. Through informal channels, Riyaan found a man with regular documents who agreed to go to the island to take pictures of those who were still alive there. “There are only two women alive, that is what the UN says, and we believe the UN, they are not lying,” Riyaan said. Hence, her counter-strategy was to reach a formal organization—the United Nations—via her informal social network, as she trusted the UN as a valid source, as well as pictures as sources of documentation. She continued:

. . . because if you go there and say that this is my sister because you know the face, then you have to pay 300 euros to the Greek authorities, so if we go there, and even though we know the person because we know the face, then we will tell a lie because it will make a problem for us, what can we do? “So, you have to pay 300 euros for your dead sister,” I ask? Yes, so what can we do?

Riyaan's experiences of seeking to identify her dead sister's body are paradoxical. The existence of her sister's body when alive had been subject to attempts by European states to repel it through an increase in border controls and the minimization of state-led search and rescue operations. But here she was, and as in most such cases around the world, the state has institutionalized what happens when either citizens or non-citizens transit from life to death (Stepputat 2014: 4). The Greek authorities had installed procedures even in this peculiar state of exception. The normal procedure for identifying the bodies of migrants without regular travel documents is to take a photograph of them. Following this, the body is examined and checked for any marks that can help identify it. Finally, a DNA sample is taken. Although this is the standard procedure, not all bodies are registered, as actual practice does not always comply with the structures of the system. To go and identify a dead family member required a legal document of your own, which Riyaan did not possess. It also required money—300 euros, or even more if one had to involve brokers to obtain legal documents or bring in legal citizens to make the identification, something Riyaan did not have access to at the time either, as she explained above. Hence, in the end, Riyaan realized that she could not afford to pay the man to go and identify the body of what might be her sister, and Riyaan thus had to come up with another strategy.

This did not mean, however, that Riyaan gave up. She continued to develop her skills in navigating within this “industry of death,” one might say, which once again required her to think creatively. This time Riyaan reached out to her brother, who had obtained legal documents in another European country. As a result, her brother, who was a European citizen, came to Greece with the task of identifying his dead sister's body. In early May 2014, Riyaan's brother left for the Greek island on which their sister had lost her life in her attempt to reach it. As I talked with Riyaan two days later, first on the phone and later face to face, she explained that her brother had returned to Athens after identifying their sister.9 Riyaan's brother, who had been living in Europe for many years, interacted with the political landscape in a different way than his sister did when trying to recover the dead body. He could travel freely, being the holder of a legal status and documentation, acknowledged and visible in the system. Thus, he was part of a political and social community of citizens whose bodies could travel freely across borders. It was as this type of actor that he was able to collect his dead sister's body.

On the day of the burial, I called Riyaan around 1 pm, but she was crying so bitterly that I could not understand what she was trying to tell me. The only words I heard was that she was crying because life was difficult. Calling her back in the evening, she explained how they had been at the mosque when I called her. In line with Muslim burial rites, they had washed all the dead bodies of those who had been on-board that particular shipwreck, to remove any impure substances, and dressed them in white while reading parts of the Quran out loud (Meky 2020). When Riyaan's sister's body was ready to depart, they took it to the place allocated to her, which was a cemetery assigned to transnational migrants who had lost their lives trying to cross dangerous political and territorial landscapes. Next to Riyaan's sister were the bodies of those whose corpses had so disintegrated that identification was impossible or those who had no one to identify them. These remote areas thus became the graves for unidentified non-citizens. In Italy, Turkey, and Greece, more than 1,250 unidentified men, women, and children were buried between 2014 and 2016 with a gravestone carrying either their name or a number (Hernandez and Stylianou 2016).

The way in which Riyaan's sister's dead body was placed in the care of the Greek authorities, identified and collected by her family members, and reinterned in the graves of the unknown can at first glance seem to constitute top-down practices performed by the state, since “state and national boundaries follow migrants into the ground” (Sanders 2021: 60) in its attempt to “tie birth and death, name and address” (Edkins 2016: 360). While this is part of the story, I have argued that a focus on top-down state practices leaves out the informal socio-economic practices that such tragic events also create, including when zooming in on the final ownership of the dead body: the burial. Sharing the intimate details of Riyaan's sister's burial in Greece makes visible the transnational business of death among migrants without regular documents. It shows how a tragic death on the Mediterranean Sea put into motion a transnational network of relatives with and without regular documents, Greek authorities at land and potentially at sea, search and rescue operations, the UNHCR, Somali family members in Europe and Somalia, migrants and brokers living in other European countries with regular documents, and undertakers providing the place and knowledge of Islamic burials.

Conclusion

The terrible loss of Riyaan's sister Yusra is a symbol of a recurring tragedy despite the fact that she died nine years ago. People without regular documents continue to die every single day in the Mediterranean Sea in their attempts to reach a more secure life and livelihood (IOM 2020). The accusations presented in this paper, made by both Riyaan and by Amnesty International in 2014, that Greece conducts illegal push-backs risking the lives of migrants, is as pertinent as ever. Last year, a Greek humanitarian organization filed a lawsuit against the Greek state at the European Court of Human Rights accusing them of well-organized and violent push-backs in order to stop the new arrivals of migrants. On top of that, the political environment in Greece toward migrants without regular documents continues to be harsh, making the life on and around Somali Istaag a continuous struggle. While other scholars have provided important attention to such tragedies through a focus on failed politics and top-down approaches to migrants’ deaths, this article has sought to point out and make visible the social spaces also arising during such tragic events, what I have coined transnational businesses of death. The concept is a reference to all the (in)formal, (in)visible transnational processes that take place every single day between migrants without regular documents who lose loved ones during migration trajectories and their peers, transnational family members, brokers, researchers, search and rescue operations, international and grassroots organizations, and nation states (Perl 2016; Zagaria 2020; Kobelinsky 2020). By presenting a transnational business of death, the article has illuminated how we cannot separate visible governmental structures from invisible social processes of migrants, and that what is being traded is not only money. In fact, Riyaan shows throughout the article how one of the most important items being traded is rumors across a transnational network of bodies, people, documents, and borders. Through continuous experiences of navigating in rumors, Riyaan develops her skills on how to evaluate and act upon rumors, such as activating a transnational network in order to reach UNHCR whose information is trusted. In this way, the article has argued that migrants without regular documents, such as Riyaan, depend on understanding, navigating, and acting upon rumors in order to participate in the transnational business of death. In fact, partaking in such business niches is the only option that migrants without regular documents have when wanting to know what has happened to their loved ones and, ultimately, to retrieve the body and bury it according to Islamic custom.

Acknowledgements

The data collected for this article was made possible by funding from FKK (Det Frie Forskningsråd—kultur og kommunikation) for my PhD as part of “The Invisible Lives Project: A Comparative Ethnography of Undocumented Migration, at the Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen. [0602-02588B]”

Notes

1

I use the term migrant as defined by the International Organization for Migration: “Any person who is moving or has moved across an international border or within a state away from his/her habitual place of residence, regardless of (1) the person's legal status; (2) whether the movement is voluntary or involuntary; (3) what the causes for the movement are; or (4) what the length of the stay is.”

2

I have developed the conceptual framework “transnational business of death” inspired by this special issue's overall analytical framework, “transnational street business,” which “serves to grasp both local economic contexts and the agents that move within them—in this case, transnational migrants in the city.” (Ravnbøl et al. 2023: 3).

3

I approach the informal as activities that go beyond state law and practice in being unregulated (Castells and Portes 1989: 1; Hart 1985; Schindler 2014).

4

See the work of Kobelinsky 2019, and Zagaria 2019 who argue that death is fundamentally a social event.

5

The street will not be mentioned by name as a way to protect migrants who still occupy themselves there without regular documents.

6

In 1991 Somaliland, formerly known as Northwest Somalia, declared its independence from the rest of Somalia. The Republic of Somaliland adopted its own constitution and political system and functions today as an independent state, though it is not internationally recognized (Hansen 2006: 9). For literature on the rebuilding of Somaliland and the construction of the state, see Höhne (2006); Hagmann and Höhne (2008); Jhazbhay (2008).

7

United Nations Population Fund. https://www.unfpa.org/data/world-population/SO.

9

Volunteers try to help family members who are searching for missing people who are feared dead. One such project is ‘the missing migrants project’ of the IOM (http://missingmigrants.iom.int/latest-global-figures).

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Contributor Notes

Anja Simonsen is a tenure track Assistant Professor at the Institute for Anthropology, the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and a research affi liate at COMPAS, the University of Oxford. She received her PhD in 2017 exploring the whole migration experience: what Somali women and men fl ee from, what they fl ee through, and what happens when or if they reach Europe. As a post doc doing studies in Italy, Simonsen continued to follow migration practices of young Somalis with a special focus on the experiences of being bio26. Anja Simonsen metrically registered at border sites in Europe. She then received the Carlsberg Foundation's internalization grant and recently began a new project on the criminalization of humanitarian workers on search and rescue operations in Italy. E-mail: anja.simonsen@anthro.ku.dk.

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Migration and Society

Advances in Research

  • Agamben, Giorgio. (1995) 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Amnesty International. 2014. “Greece: Stop unlawful and shameful expulsion of refugees and migration.” Press release, 29 April 2014. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2014/04/greece-stop-unlawful-and-shameful-expulsion-refugees-and-migrants/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Agustín, Óscar García, and Martin Bak Jørgensen. 2018. Solidarity and the “Refugee Crisis” in Europe. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bauman, Zygmunt. 1998. “On Glocalization: Or Globalization for some, Localization for some Others.Thesis Eleven 54 (1): 3749.

  • Berg, Mette Louise, and Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh. 2018. “Introduction to the Issue: Encountering Hospitality and Hostility.” Migration and Society 1 (1).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Castells, Manuel and Alejandro Portes. 1989. “World Underneath: The Origins, Dynamics and Effects of the Informal Economy.” In The Informal Economy, ed. A. Portes, M. Castells, and L. A. Benton, 1137. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cattaneo, Cristina. 2018. Namen statt Nummern: Auf der Suche nach den Opfern des Mittelmeers. Zürich: Rotpunktverlag.

  • Cuttitta, Paolo. 2014. “‘Borderizing’ the island setting and narratives of the Lampedusa ‘border play’.ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 13 (2): 196219. https://acme-journal.org/index.php/acme/article/view/1004

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cusumano, Eugenio, and Matteo Villa. 2021. “From ‘Angels’ to ‘Vice Smugglers’: The Criminalization of Sea Rescue NGOs in Italy.Eur J Crim Policy Res 27: 2340. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10610-020-09464-1.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Crawley, Heaven, Franck Düvell, Katharine Jones, Simon McMahon, and Nando Sigona. 2016. Destination Europe? Understanding the Dynamics and Drivers of Mediterranean Migration in 2015, MEDMIG Final Report. https://www.compas.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/PR-2016-MEDMIG_Destination_Europe.pdf

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • De Genova, Nicholas. 2005. Working the boundaries: Race, space, and “illegality” in Mexican Chicago. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • De León, Jason. 2015. The Land of the Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Douglas-Jones, Rachel. 2017. “Silent Mentors: Donation, education and bodies in Taiwan.Medicine Anthropology Theory 4 (4): 6998. https://doi.org/10.17157/mat.4.4.454

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Edkins, Jennifer. 2016. “Missing Migrants and the Politics of Naming: Names without Bodies, Bodies without Names.” Special Issue: Borders and the Politics of Mourning. Social Research 83 (3): 359389.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ferguson, James. 2003. “Global Disconnect: Abjection and the Aftermath of Modernism.” In The Anthropology of Globalization: A Reader, ed. Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo, 136153. Malden MA: Blackwell.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gluckman, Max. 1963. “Gossip and Scandal.Current Anthropology 4 (3): 307316.

  • Gregson, Nicky and Mike Crang. 2017. “Illicit economies: Customary illegality, moral economies and circulation.Royal Geographical Society 42: 206219. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12158.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hamlin, Rebecca. 2021. Crossing: How We Label and React to People on the Move. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Harney, Nicholas D. 2006. “Rumour, migrants, and the informal economies of Naples, Italy.Interna- tional Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 26 (9/10): 374384. https://doi.org/10.1108/1443330610690523.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hart, Keith. 1985. “The Informal Economy.The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 10 (2): 5458.

  • Hernandez, Vladimir and Nassos Stylianou. 2016. “Buried without a name. The untold story of Europe's drowned migrants.” BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-91f3683c-5e3c-4a2e-92eb-7d7f6a024c02

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Human Rights Watch. 2022. “World Report 2022.” https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2022/country-chapters/Somalia (accessed 26 October 2022).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • IOM. 2020. “Shipwreck Off Coast of Libya Pushes Migrant Deaths on the Mediterranean Past 20,000 Mark.International Organization for Migration, 5 March. https://www.iom.int/news/shipwreck-coast-libya-pushes-migrant-deaths-mediterranean-past-20000-mark.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Keita, Sekou and Helen Dempster. 2020. “Five years later, one million refugees are thriving in Germany.Center for Global Development, 4 December. https://www.cgdev.org/blog/five-years-later-one-million-refugees-are-thriving-germany.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kleist, Nauja and Masud S. I. Abdi. 2022. “Global Connections: Somali Diaspora Practices and their Effects.” Rift Valley Institute. https://reliefweb.int/report/somalia/global-connections-somali-diaspora-practices-and-their-effects (accessed 26 October 2022).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kobelinsky, Carolina. 2019. “The traces of the dead: Managing dead and missing migrants at the Spanish- Moroccan border.Critique International 83 (2): 2139.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kobelinsky, Carolina. 2020. “Who Cares About Ouacil? The Postmortem Itinerary of a Young Border Crosser.American Behavioral Scientist 64 (4): 525539. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764219882993

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mbembe, Achille. 2003. “Necropolitics.Public Culture 15 (1): 1140. https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-15-1-11

  • M'charek, Amade. 2018. “‘Dead-Bodies-at-the-Border’: Distributed Evidence and Emerging Forensic Infrastructure for Identification.” In Bodies as Evidence: Security, Knowledge, and Power, ed. Mark Maguire, Ursula Rao, and Nils Zurawski, 89109. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Meky, Shounaz. 2020. “Umrah and Hajj explained: Your simple guide to Islam's pilgrimages.” Alarabiya News, 27 February, updated 20 May. https://english.alarabiya.net/2014/10/03/Hajj-explained-your-simple-guide-to-Islam-s-annual-pilgrimage-

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Moeran, Brian and Christina Garsten. 2012. “What's in a name? Editors’ Introduction.Journal of Business Anthropology 1(1): 119. https://doi.org/10.22439/jba.v1i1.3545

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Moorehead, Caroline. 2014. “Missing in the Mediterranean.” The Economist. https://www.economist.com/1843/2015/04/20/missing-in-the-mediterranean (accessed 18 October 2022).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Møhl, Perle. 1997. Village Voices: Coexistence and Communication in a Rural Community in Central France. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Norris, John and Bronwyn Bruton. 2011. “Twenty Years of Collapse and Counting: The Cost of Failure in Somalia,” Joint Report, Center for American Progress and One Earth Future Foundation. https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/issues/2011/09/pdf/somalia.pdf (accessed 20 October 2022).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Oikonomakis, Leonidas. 2018. “Solidarity in transition: The case of Greece,” in Solidarity mobilizations in the ‘refugee crisis’: Contentious moves, ed. Donatella Della Porta, 6598. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Paz, Alejandro. 2009. “The circulation of Chisme and Rumor: Gossip, Evidentiality, and Authority in the Perspective of Latino Labor Migrants in Israel.Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 19 (1): 117143. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1395.2009.01022.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Perl, Gerhild. 2016. “Uncertain Belongings: Absent Mourning, Burial, and Postmortem Repatriations at the External Border of the EU in Spain.Journal of Intercultural Studies 37:2: 195209. https://doi.org/10.1080/07256868.2016.1141758.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred Reginald. 1933. “Social Sanctions.Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 53134, New York: Macmillan.

  • Ravnbøl, Camilla Ida. 2019. “Patchwork Economies in Europe: Economic Strategies Among Homeless Romanian Roma in Copenhagen.” In Constructing Roma Migrants: European Narratives and Local Governance, ed. T. Magazzini and S. Piemontese, 209226. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ravnbøl, Camilla Ida, Trine Mygind Korsby, and Anja Simonsen. 2023. “Transnational Street Business: Migrants in the Informal Urban Economy.Migration and Society 6: 115.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sanders, Mija. 2021. “Death on the Aegean Borderland.Mashriq & Mahjar: Journal of Middle East and North African Migration Studies 8 (2): 6092.

    • Search Google Scholar
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