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Counting the Dead on World Refugee Day

Two shoes lie next to the sea on the island of Lesbos, Greece

This blog is written by Helen HintjensAssistant Professor in Development and Social Justice at the International Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands.

Helen is a member of the Cov19: Chronicles from the Margins project, a joint collaboration between 9 partner NGOS and institutions, including The Open University and the International Institute of Social Studies.

Photo credit: Stefanie Eisenschenk

Sunday 20th June marked UN World Refugee Day and the end of Refugee Week 2021. Today on the Scheveningen beach, 1 Zwarte Pad, near The Hague, the organization ‘Migrant’ organized a special event, Counting the Dead. We were asked to stick to COVID rules, most of us seated, deep in thought. In the sand, more than 7000 markers buried, some with names, most ‘unnamed’, representing the dead. Most migrants who died around and inside Europe did so anonymously, and often they are buried unidentified. Some quoted lines float across the sand. The death of one is a tragedy, the death of a million a statistic, says one woman. Although Joseph Stalin is thought to have said this, his biographers dispute it. I always thought it was Goebbels.

A Long History

A friend tells me they read out names of migrants who died in Mexico. And after each name came the reply from someone, in the crowd: “Presente!” It is sad, haunting and beautiful. It seems this tradition started during the Spanish civil war when names of dead partisans would be read out.

I meet one man who should be famous, the very modest founder of the United list. His organisation started the list that today has counted migrants’ and refugees’ deaths across and around Europe. United’s amazing list has been kept up, with widening cooperation, since deaths were first recorded along the German-Polish border, in 1993. Today across Europe and the world, on 20 June 2021 refugees’ lives are celebrated. Today, the list has reached “44 764 documented deaths of refugees and migrants due to the restrictive policies of ‘Fortress Europe’”. The list includes drownings at sea, deaths in lorries, those who froze or starved to death on the way, who died in detention, were killed after deportation, or jumped to their death rather than be deported.

The oldest person whose name was read out, was Djamila, a Serbian woman of 80. She died on 8 January 2019 after leaving Reims hospital with a prescription and moving back to her tent.  The youngest was Artin, just 15 months. After 7 months his body washed up on the shore of Norway. His family, Iranian Kurds, had been trying to get from France to Fortress UK. In Tunisia, fishermen struggle to give the dead a decent burial.  Bodies wash up almost daily, and most remain unnamed and uncounted.  Bodies that are disposable, like blue COVID masks. We sanitise our hands, but more people are dying, not only from COVID, but also from trying to reach Europe. A huge sailboat drifts past on the North Sea, and reminds me of European crimes, of slavery, of colonialism. Nothing is as romantic as it appears from a distance. This beach is covered in 7000 stakes.

Missing. Missing. Missing. But they Exist. 

In among the tragedy and the rows and rows of cemetery-like wooden stakes implanted in the sand, some humour, a little relief, some tears and some wisdom. Laughter comes bubbling up in me when a young Syrian poet describes Dutch people, sitting on the sofa they bought from IKEA, drinking lemon tea and watching a ‘National Geographic’ wildlife program on TV, watching animals ducking and diving, crossing rivers and seeking safety as they cross deserts, run from predators or hide in long grass. He asks the Dutch couple to please switch off their TV, invite him into their house to sit on their IKEA sofa instead, share a lemon tea with him. He will tell them about how he ducked and dived, ran and hid, crossing the desert and the sea to seek safety, although he is a human being.  Some tears. One young man cannot continue reading out the names of the nameless, and how they all died, children included. He leaves in tears. Some wisdom too. Another man stops reading out the names, or unknowns, and details of how they died. Instead, he gestures at the expanse of crosses and says “They have no names. Missing, missing, missing, but they exist. That is enough”. He continues: “You are only dead when you are forgotten. The 44,000 are still alive, they are here today. They have not gone away. They are here among us on this beach”.  Later someone adds in the same spirit: “You are only human if you believe everyone is human”.  

So if the dead were not really dead, then they could be right on this beach with us? This was the most encouraging thing we heard all afternoon. If the dead were here, on the beach, alongside us, then this entire event was not in vain. This is a powerful reminder of the importance of remembering the dead, by seeing them before us, like the stakes on the beach, as if they were alive. A powerful poem by Birago Diop, sung by Sweet Honey in the Rocks as accapello, comes to my mind:


Listen more often to things than to beings
Listen more often to things than to beings
Tis’ the ancestors’ breath
When the fire’s voice is heard
Tis’ the ancestor’s breath
In the voice of the waters
Ah  --  wsh    Ah --  wsh
Those who have died have never, never left
The dead are not under the earth
They are in the rustling trees
They are in the groaning woods
They are in the crying grass
They are in the moaning rocks
The dead are not under the earth
Listen more often to things than to beings (chorus repeats)
Those who have died have never, never left
The dead have a pact with the living
They are in the woman’s breast
They are in the wailing child
They are with us in our homes
They are with us in this crowd
The dead have a pact with the living
Listen more often to things than to beings (chorus repeats).

Poem by Birago Diop 

I wonder, does that work when the dead drown at sea and are unidentified? When their deaths serve to satisfy abstract demands of Parliamentarians for ‘secure’ borders? Our European borders which are now more like war zones than at any time since 1945. These 44,000 deaths are not the fault of the dead, they are Europe’s responsibility.

You can read other publications like this in the Cov19: Chronicles from the Margins blog

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