In Tunisia and other North African countries, those who make the journey are known as harraga, or “burners,” because when they reach the other side, they have been known to set their identifying documents alight so that European authorities cannot know who they are nor where to deport them to. An entire body of music exists about the harga, the crossing. The songs revolve around recurring themes: the desire to leave; the dangers of the crossing; the suffering of the exiled and the family left behind; the acceptance of divine will. Those on the boats seeking to calm their nerves in rough waters sometimes sing the songs together. Ghali eventually wrote one himself.
One summer vacation, when he was 16, Ghali arrived from Italy and began talking up life in Milan to his Tunisian cousin. Shortly after that, the cousin, only a few years older than Ghali, disappeared. The family looked for him for hours. He finally returned late at night, covered in engine grease. He had been caught trying to stow away on a boat to Italy.
For years, Ghali carried guilt that his youthful boasting could have cost his cousin his life. He wrote the words to the song “Mamma” based on the experience. In the video, a young Tunisian in an Italian national soccer team jacket plans to take off in the middle of the night. Ghali sings:
He looks at me, my Nike Airs, and thinks that
It’s easy to make cash but he doesn’t know it’s not like that
And he will end up like the others doing wesh wesh, bang bang
But Ghali knows he won’t convince him, because Ghali knows that had he too been born in Tunisia, he would make the same choice to leave. He instead addresses the sea:
Sea o sea, don’t become rough
Please, take him to safety
Sea o sea, please don’t become rough or I’ll drown
Make sure he arrives, take him safely to shore
If Ghali was acutely aware of the crossings and drownings, that generally wasn’t the case for Italians, let alone Europeans in countries farther from the Mediterranean. But then the crossings, which include refugees fleeing war and persecution as well as economic migrants, more than tripled in 2014, partly because of the Arab Spring. The large influxes caught Europe off guard, as if it had forgotten that many of these countries were just across the Mediterranean. Eventually, the sea would become both a political battleground and a graveyard. Since 2014, more than 27,000 people have died or gone missing attempting to cross, in large part because Europe has seen the Mediterranean as a border to be enforced, not a search-and-rescue zone to be actively patrolled, a vacuum that ships like the Mare Jonio try to fill.
To pre-empt the arrivals, the European Union has focused on stopping departures from the jumping-off points, essentially turning off the faucet, while the pipeline remains. To do so, it has effectively outsourced some of its border enforcement to countries with much less stringent human rights standards on the other side of the sea. The E.U. pioneered this approach following the 2015 migrant crisis, when nearly a million people — roughly 80 percent of them fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq — arrived in Europe by sea. Most had departed from Turkey, but after a 2016 deal with the E.U. for six billion euros, Turkey stopped people from leaving its shores in large numbers. (The deal also simultaneously strengthened the hand — domestically and internationally — of Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.)
The following year, Italy signed an E.U.-sponsored deal with Libya, its former colony, to reduce sea crossings originating there. Human rights groups continue to denounce the deal, having documented the use of murder, enforced disappearance, torture, enslavement, sexual violence and other acts committed by the Libyans against people who sought to make the crossing to Italy.