Over the years, with a steady progression of postcolonial sensitivity, we have all been exposed to illustrations and images from colonial times that often make us want to close our eyes. We see images of Indigenous people in zoo cages and museums, we see tiny dark-skinned children being used by European colonisers as bait for alligator hunting, and we see photographs of African Americans being lynched in a festival-like setting. Gruesome as they are, these images provide the all-important context for the inequalities we encounter in the world today. While these images make our innards churn, we take comfort in the knowledge that they now belong to a distant past – a colonial past that we have left two or three generations behind to usher in an age of global democracy.
While scrolling through social media platforms – which have been an important medium for the propagation of these historical colonial images – I recently stumbled upon visuals of dozens of unconscious African men, stacked one upon another with uniformed gun and baton armed officers standing around them. From this stack of people, some were consciously moving, some unconsciously convulsing, almost all were bleeding and quite a few were silent and motionless. From the visuals, it was difficult to tell the dead apart from the dying.
When I first saw them, I imagined these visuals also belonged to that distant colonial past. After a while, when the same visuals kept repeatedly appearing on my feed did I come to realise that these images were not from some history book but very recent news. The monstrous past that we so often and so proudly dissociate ourselves from did not seem so distant all of a sudden.
In the social media age, visuals are the first source of information. Very often, a photograph or a video is the first thing we see related to an event being reported to us. After that come the details and the story behind those visuals. In events of violence, gut-wrenching pictures and videos are circulated first, inviting emotional responses and hot takes from the viewers. Other details follow providing a background or foreground to the images earlier received and with that, the emotions are brought under control.
A lot of times, the information that follows the visuals and bestows it with structure tends to have a calming and healing effect. But in certain other cases, the gruesome imagery becomes even more scarring when the story behind them is revealed. The bleeding, shivering and dying stack of African people described above were actually refugees trying to make the grand escape from Africa to Europe.
The visuals described earlier came to the fore on the June 24 as hundreds of migrants (2,000, as per the Spanish government) attempted to cross the Morocco-Spain border in the North African city of Melilla. The attempted cross-over was intervened by Moroccan police and gendarmes that have been assigned the role of gatekeepers at Europe’s doors. The migrants, majority of whom are Sudanese nationals, were charged at, assaulted, dragged and piled up by the Moroccan forces that have a long history of Human rights violations against refugees. The official statements maintained that a ‘scuffle’ started when the migrants tried to violently force their way across the border and that the police and gendarmes acted only in self-defence when they came under attack. This supposed act of self defense killed 37 people and injured more than a hundred.
When asked about the incident at Melilla, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez lauded the actions of the security forces at the border and called it an extraordinary effort in the fight against irregular migration. Sánchez also attributed the attempts at illegal border crossing to human trafficking mafias. Ironically enough, Spain has welcomed around 110,000 refugees from Ukraine since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war. Sánchez personally visited the camps where the Ukrainian refugees were lodged and gave them assurances of both protection and opportunities. Also, almost half of the refugees from Ukraine have already received temporary protected status from the Spanish government.
This obvious duality in the border policy of the same government makes one wonder; would the same treatment have been met out if the refugees attempting to cross the Melilla on the June 24 weren’t Sudanese nationals but blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white people from Ukraine or any other European country?
It would have been easier to dismiss the Melilla incident as a case of racist discrimination had Europe not provided other similar examples in the very recent past. In April, hundreds of Afghan families were evicted from government accommodations in Germany to ‘create space’ for incoming refugees from Ukraine. In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who likes to host parties during COVID-19 lockdowns and compare burqa clad Muslim women to letterboxes, is engaged in a legal battle where his government is trying to deport ‘illegal’ refugees to Rwanda.
The word ‘illegal’ being key here as it mostly refers to African and Asian refugees. As far as Ukrainian refugees are concerned, Britain has already handed out 130,000 visas. And how can we forget that it hasn’t been long since the Asian and African students were assaulted at the Poland and Romania borders while trying to flee the on-going war in Ukraine.
So how do we demarcate the imagery of the colonial past from that of the post-colonial present? What difference does formal decolonisation make if people of formerly colonised nations still suffer in the manner they did a century back? If there is one thing that the examples laid out here tell us, it is this. Not only does the Melilla massacre have racist undertones, but it also reeks of a coloniality that stubbornly continues to be prevalent in our world.
A question that reiterates itself after every Melilla-like incident is this: when does colonialism really end? Can we claim the end of colonialism while racism persists? Does colonialism end when people with darker skin are not discriminated against while trying to flee war? Or does it end when there are no more wars for them to run away from? If you ask me, colonialism persists as long as invisible lines and visible fences separate the imposed wretchedness of Africa from the appropriated affluence of Europe.
Bilal Ahmad Tantray is a PhD scholar Shiv Nadar University and an alumni of Jamia Millia Islamia.
Featured image: The border fence between Morocco and Spain’s north African enclave Melilla