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Alexandra Délano Alonso and Benjamin Nienass, Guest Editors
Arien Mack, Journal Editor

Contributors to this special issue explore a "politics of loss" at the border, revealing the political potential of public grief.

The rise in the number of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe is the latest in a series of “crises” related to the movement of people that have captured the world’s attention. In the past two decades, hundreds of people have died every year in their attempts to cross borders, from the US-Mexico border, to the Mediterranean and beyond. This introduction proposes to look at the political force of public grief in the context of these border deaths and raises questions about the potential impact and limitations of a ‘politics of mourning.’


Despite the many available revisions of what grief means, the great degree to which it makes us up, how it constitutes our life and links us with others, including strangers, a conventional quadripartite dogma has persistently sustained its standing both in pertinent literature and in public discussions of phenomena of grief: 1) that we grieve only our own losses; 2) that grief works to end itself as quickly as possible; 3) the point is to emerge from grief unharmed; and 4) these goals may be met through forgetting the dead. It cannot be claimed that a clear idea has emerged about how grief that is not set off solely by our own losses can “function” globally such that it is politically sensitized or politically sensitizes us. But it can hardly be denied that there is considerable evidence for the existence of a grief that flouts the classical doctrine of these theories.

The language of humanitarianism has played a central role in political and media debates about undocumented migrants/refugees crossing into Europe and North America over the last few years. This essay argues that humanitarianism at the border is not good enough, often producing more harm than good; in particular, the article discusses the limits of central principles and practices of humanitarianism, including the search for innocence, the limits of emergency, and the inadequacies of compassion. The underlying goal of the essay is to make space for new affective and political grammars in response to suffering, injustice and death.


The paper begins by sketching the geopolitical, criminal, and sovereign-humanitarian dimensions of Mediterranean migrations, accounting for the seeming inevitability of loss of life at sea. Drawing on recent practices in coastal locations in Italy and Libya, I conceptualize the emergence of a trans-local Mediterranean citizenship that may question sovereign boundaries of responsibility and belonging.

By taking the 2014 US Customs and Border Protection 'Dangers Campaign' as an exemplar of what we see as an emerging new form of border control management, we argue that the sovereign state is re-branding the politics of migration under the guise of a humanitarian imperative. Three intertwined phenomena allow for this humanitarian and moralistic shift: first, a strategic designation and staging of a state of nature; second, an emphasis and utilization of the materiality of death; and third, the de-branding of state sovereignty so as to employ neoliberal market mechanisms as means to depoliticize its strategy for migration control.


Contemporary border regimes are confronting us with a double question: Can one give an account of oneself and narrate one’s story, even if things are taking place do not make stories possible in language? Can we possibly think of a politics of memory that is neither bound to given places nor to language, but that rather displaces conventional realms of memory? In the context of this double question, my paper is going to trace a few thoughts on a transitional space of memory that has recently emerged on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa.

The essay asks what naming a body does, politically. It begins by examining practices of memory when people are missing after wars, terrorist attacks, or disappearances: when we have names without bodies. It then turns to cases of migrant bodies: bodies displaced from their established location, without documentation or recognition by governments. When those who are already missing in this way meet their deaths, they become unidentified decedents or bodies without names: undocumented dead who are doubly disappeared. The responses to these bodies reveal a tension between the care and concern they arouse and the exclusionary politics they reflect.

Ciudad Juárez has experienced several years of extreme violence caused, in part, by political, social, and economic conditions in the city. Many victims of violence are seen as “ungrievable” because of their presumed participation in violent criminal activities. The practice of public memorialization is a form of political speech that commemorates victims while also making a claim about the conditions that contributed to their deaths in hopes of rehabilitating them as “grievable lives.” Three types of memorials analyzed here, graffiti, the Villas de Salvárcar memorial, and the Embroidering for Peace project, have had different degrees of success in accomplishing these goals.


Between 200 and 500 people have died every year along the United States-Mexico border since the late-1990s. The void of responsibility for migrant deaths is exemplified by the lack of care for and visibility of these bodies during the processes of recovery, identification, and burial. Many of the bodies, mostly those unidentified, are buried in cemeteries, potter’s fields, or even private ranches near the United States-Mexico border, often far removed from the public eye and with limited possibilities for identification by their relatives. Activists and migrant rights organizations try to fill the voids and pressure for state accountability by politicizing the remains of the dead migrants, and by challenging the boundaries of grievability. Interventions like these can be understood as a disturbance of a consensus, a politics of dissensus in Jacques Rancière’s sense.

In 2015, an artistic initiative brought the bodies of dead refugees from the border of ‘Europe’ to be buried in Berlin. This article analyses ‘The Dead Are Coming’ and examines its politics and aesthetics of mourning strangers within a context in which imaginaries of kinship define public responses to suffering and death. The campaign blurred the distinctions between life and death, kin and stranger, art and politics, to problematize the differential distribution of grievability and established practices of human rights work. And yet, the initiative problematically replicates a fantasy of kinship in the form of a vulnerable humanity.


This paper recovers a vignette of a type of citizenship formed around the duties of relatives of disappeared persons in Mexico. It focuses on the men, women and children from Mexico and other countries who have disappeared and are possibly dead, waiting to be found in mortuaries and clandestine mass graves that are yet to be identified.

In 2009, Mercedes Doretti established the Border Project in response to the large number of cases of disappeared migrants along the migrant trail from Central America to the United States. The realization that there was very limited collaboration between prosecutors’ offices and medical examiners’ offices within Mexico as well as with bordering countries resulted in the idea of creating a regional forensic system for missing migrants that would include Central American countries, Mexico, and the United States, and provide services related to identification for the families of the missing, a project that Doretti has been spearheading. In this interview, Doretti addresses the role of forensics in processes of mourning, the difficult question of the rights of the dead, and the ethical and political aspects of work of locating and identifying the missing and the dead.


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