Earlier this month, the Collaborative Doctoral Program in Global Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health teamed up with the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to present a screening of Gianfranco Rosi’s award-winning film Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare) at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The documentary was filmed on the Italian island of Lampedusa, and alternated between telling the stories of a young, carefree boy named Samuele, and the struggles of incoming migrants from across the sea.
The documentary was artfully filmed and thoughtfully directed, and represented a highly Italian perspective on the current and pressing issue of irregular arrivals in Europe. Most striking was the careful separation of the lives of most of the Europeans in the film from that of the migrants. Never once does the young Samuele encounter the migrants – even as he spends time by the sea or goes out wandering the woods at night. In turn, the migrants are pictured either in the open sea, the subject of a rescue operation, or on land, surrounded by walls and fences, often at night or in the darkness.
The film offers a window into each of two highly separate worlds which exist simultaneously in the same physical space, connected at only a few discrete points: the doctor who serves both Samuele and a pregnant woman who came to Lampedusa by boat; a radio broadcaster who mentions in passing the discovery of corpses on the shore. More questions are raised than answered, and the scope of the film is rather narrow, magnifying events at a particular place at a particular time, without explicitly connecting the audience to broader global issues.
The screening was followed by a panel talk featuring the following three notable voices on migration and refugee issues, moderated by Dr. Lisa Forman, the Director of the Comparative Program on Health and Society at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Lupina Assistant Professor in global health and human rights at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
Dr. Alison Mountz is a Geography professor at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is also the Canada Research Chair in Global Migration. Her research is focused on migration, asylum, and detention on islands, and she has published works on human smuggling and border enforcement.
Dr. Meb Rashhid is the medical director and a co-founder of Women’s College Hospital’s Crossroads Clinic for Refugees and a recent winner of the Ontario Medical Association Presidential Award in recognition of his long-term dedication to humanitarian service in the community. The Crossroads Clinic was founded in 2011 and provides primary health care services to refugees during their first two years in Canada. So far, the clinic has reached over 2,000 patients.
Professor Jennifer Hyndman is the director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University, where she conducts research on conflict displacement and asylum, humanitarian emergencies, and Canada’s system of refugee resettlement. Her recent work relates to the nexus of conflict and natural disaster following the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and humanitarian responses. She also collaborates on the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees program, which aims to provide students living in Kenyan refugee camps with post-secondary learning opportunities.
The three experts held an informal yet informative discussion on the complexities of providing for the health of people facing displacement or seeking asylum from conflict.
Dr. Alison Mountz opened with a brief overview of the history of the island of Lampedusa, which was a place of transit before the migrant crisis transformed it into a place of exclusion. Islands like Lampedusa, per Dr. Mountz, lie at the centre of the humanitarian and border enforcement nexus. This was clear in the film, where migrants were first rescued from drowning, starvation, and dehydration, then subsequently isolated from the general population of Lampedusa. The Italian island in the film can be seen as a synecdoche for the global governance of migration: an ebb and flow of people moving from place to place, often from detention centre to detention centre, looking for a safe harbour.
But what happens once they get there? What might they bring with them? Dr. Meb Rashid shared some of the insights he gained through his work at the Crossroads Clinic. Notable was his emphasis on the relative health of the asylum seekers who do arrive in Canada. According to Dr. Rashid, the people who manage to make it here are in fairly good physical condition: the journey is so long that physical wartime injuries have time to heal, and so dangerous that anyone in need of extensive, complicated care would not survive the trip. While Dr. Rashid notices some infectious disease amongst the newcomers, the most extensive burden seemed to be from the psychological consequences of war and violence. This includes post-traumatic stress disorder, which may find its roots in wartime trauma and be exacerbated by subsequent violations, including immigration detention.
Jennifer Hyndman in turn spoke about the issue of humanizing refugees and migrants more generally. In the film, no migrants are named, and while the audience is permitted to witness their agony, little is done to foster a sense of connection with those suffering. We who live in relative comfort in host countries are in a position to forget that the nameless masses pictures in Fire at Sea and unflatteringly typed in news media are comprised of individuals. Individuals our states have agreed are subjects of human rights. The struggle of border officials against irregular arrivals of migrants is one scenario in which such rights – the right to life in particular – come face to face with state sovereignty. The defense of borders so becomes an exercise in sovereignty. By that logic, Hyndman implies that government generosity too is such an exercise, with government leadership having impact on both civil society and public opinion.
The emphasis on the humanity of migrants was a common thread across the discussion. How best can the story of refugees be told? Why isn’t more literature published on how well refugees do in countries where they are given adequate supports? Why have so many chosen to frame migrants as either a wave of vulnerable dependents or alternately an insidious threat to the cultural and economic well-being of the host country? The answers to these questions are not necessarily straightforward, but what became clear after the film and the discussion that followed is that many current narratives do not do justice to asylum-seekers, and that a more widespread recognition of the humanity of migrants – solidarity even – might be allowed to flourish where refugees themselves are given the opportunity to tell their stories on their own terms.