The European Union desperately tries to keep migrants from the Global South “out” through the securitization and militarization of its borders, yet migrants continue to pursue increasingly dangerous sea-routes.

The EU’s response to the so-called “migration crisis” has involved lethal policies that strategically funnel migrants through the most perilous and deadly routes to Europe possible —similar to the “prevention through deterrence” policy employed by the United States at the US-Mexico border.

Media attention on this issue peaked in 2015 and 2016, at the highest point of the Syrian exodus, as people escaped violence and conflict. Although the world’s attention has now subsided, the Mediterranean today remains a highly trafficked passage for migrants and asylum seekers. In 2019 alone, more than 1,300 fatalities were recorded in the Mediterranean by the International Organization for Migration.

Border crossing produces its own assemblages, resulting in distinctive materialities. This exhibit presents a range of objects from Mediterranean border crossings that were collected on the Greek island of Lesvos, providing direct and tangible connections to the realities of these journeys.

Video: © Yannis Hamilakis, 5 July 2017

Filmed at Skala Sykamias, North Lesvos, one of the most important landing sites for migrants crossing by sea from Turkey to Greece, and thus to the European Union. Rubber boats like this, loaded well above capacity, are used regularly for the crossing. They are often piloted by migrants themselves who cannot afford to pay smugglers for the crossing. Around 700 boats have crossed to Lesvos in 2019 alone, and many more have been stopped by border guards. Skala is a picturesque village which features prominently in Greek literature, and more recently it has become the epicenter of migrant support initiatives and solidarity ventures.

Lifevest Cemetery: From Landing Site to Landfill

Photo of the Lifevest Cemetery in Greece.

The “Lifevest Cemetery” is a monumental and multivalent dumping site located near the town of Molyvos that preserves the remnants of border crossing. In an attempt to “clean” the touristic beaches that have served as landing sites for hundreds of thousands of migrants arriving on the island, volunteers and municipal authorities have dumped massive amounts of objects and materials at this landfill.

However, attempts to remove material traces of migration and keep them out of sight seem to have had the reverse effect: This image of visitors taking photographs demonstrates how the “Lifevest Cemetery” became an attractive site, almost a heritage space for tourists, locals, artists, scholars, and humanitarian organizations.

Photograph: © Yannis Hamilakis, 11 July 2017

Photo of live vests, including kiddie floats and emergency inflatables.

Life Vests

These life vests were excavated by Yannis Hamilakis, Darcy Hackley and Miriam Rothenberg, in July 2017 from the “Lifevest Cemetery”, a dumping site near the town of Molyvos in Lesvos.

The “Lifevest Cemetery” has become a potent symbol of mass migration. Some of the life vests are personalized, like the grey vest inscribed in Arabic and English with the name “Maki”. Some come from decommissioned ships in Morocco or airlines in Turkey. Most of them are imitations of well-known brands, of questionable buoyancy, manufactured in back street workshops in Turkey to meet the demand. All were worn by people making the life-threatening journey across the sea, some of whom may not have survived the crossing.

Inner Tubes and Flotation Devices

Photo of inner tubes on display "floating" above the exhibit.

In addition to the life jackets that have come to symbolize mass migration across the Mediterranean, migrants frequently use flotation rings and inner tubes to make it through the perilous sea passage. The rubber inner tubes of car and motorcycle tires are of different sizes, suggesting use by both children and adults. These inflatables are prone to air leaks; indeed, some of these tubes are visibly torn and repaired. The children’s flotation devices are even flimsier, as they are produced for leisure swimming, not for use as life-saving equipment.

Collected at the “Lifevest Cemetery” by Yannis Hamilakis, Darcy Hackley and Miriam Rothenberg in July 2017, and at a landing site near the Mytilini Airport by Yannis Hamilakis in August 2019.

Photo of objects displayed in a case in the exhibit (objects to follow).

The Body

These objects were excavated in 2017 from the “Lifevest Cemetery” in Lesvos, by Yannis Hamilakis, Darcy Hackley, and Miriam Rothenberg. Collectively, they speak of the diversity of border assemblages, making at the same time visible and tangible the interwoven stories, fates, and aspirations of the people who brought them to the border.

Medical gloves from American Airlines.
Courtesy of Yannis Hamilakis

Medical gloves from an American Airlines plane, perhaps used by volunteers working with migrants. It is unclear under which circumstances these gloves arrived in Lesvos; nonetheless, they evoke the sterilized processing practices employed by border security personnel who are trained by national and international institutions to approach migrant bodies and possessions as contaminants.

Toothpaste manufactured in Iran.
Courtesy of Yannis Hamilakis

Toothpaste manufactured in Iran and brought to Lesvos. Hygiene products, seemingly insignificant and quotidian, are often amongst the few belongings people choose to bring with them.

Small foil package containing flu tablets.
Courtesy of Yannis Hamilakis

Faced with this small foil package containing flu tablets from Iraq, we can imagine that someone who was sick decided to pack this medication amongst the very few belongings carried on the long journey across the border, and indeed used all but one tablet.

Bottle of "Stress B" pills.
Courtesy of Yannis Hamilakis

This medication bottle of “Stress B” pills produced in British Columbia, Canada reveals the complex itineraries of the objects that make up border assemblages. This bottle may have belonged to a Canadian volunteer on the island. Especially since 2015, hundreds or thousands of people from around the world traveled to Lesvos to volunteer in migrant support organizations. Their work, especially at landing sites, was and is extremely stressful. 

Small baby bottle with cartoon hippo.
Courtesy of Yannis Hamilakis

This bottle made by an Iraqi company is an object of care that still preserves traces of milk. Despite xenophobic portrayals of border crossings as mass invasions to be feared and prevented, this object reminds us that migrants are children, women, men and entire families who often have no other option but to leave their homes or host countries, faced with enduring conditions of colonial displacement, violence, and hardship.

Photo of metallic emergency blanket hung in the exhibit.

This emergency blanket, made of thin layers of heat-reflective plastic and aluminum film, was collected by Yannis Hamilakis, Darcy Hackley, and Miriam Rothenberg at the “Lifevest Cemetery” in Lesvos, Greece on 10 July 2017.

In the context of emergency care, these blankets are designed to reduce heat loss in a person’s body, but they offer limited protection. Migrants who cross the Mediterranean are offered such blankets by volunteers and solidarity groups as part of first aid. Along with life vests, emergency blankets have become iconic objects in the Mediterranean border crossing, featuring in art projects and installations. Two corners of this blanket are tied together in a tight knot, showing that the blanket once rested on someone’s shoulders.

Courtesy of Yannis Hamilakis