Death on the Aegean Borderland


  • Mija Sanders Independent Scholar



Syrian refugees, Necropolitics, Turkey, borderlands, Migration, Death, Aegean


In this article, I seek to change our understanding of necropolitics with regard to how host states and refugees themselves deal with their dead. Through technocratic practices for the former, and biophysical violence for the latter, I provide a reading of existing practices of processing the dead in which state and national boundaries follow migrants into the ground. I explore the necropolitics of displacement in order to understand Syrian affective experiences of shock, or sadma, under borderland policies, Turkish governance, and practices of intimate sovereignty in refugee deaths. Death for Syrian refugees on Turkey’s borderlands is the culmination of a series of transnational and local governance practices. It is also part of the material landscape of refugee displacement and of the Turkish government’s care sector—the processing of bodies and the conducting of funerary services. These services are meant to respond respectfully to frequent migrant deaths, despite the Turkish government’s warnings about the dangers of crossing the Aegean through human smuggling and the enhanced policing of the Aegean borderland meant to deter irregular crossings. For Syrians, however, police conduct on the Aegean borderland and the government’s management of memorials are contentious issues that enhance their sense of the necropolitical practices of governance and experiences of them as sadma. This work seeks to change our understanding of necropolitics with regard to how host states and refugees themselves deal with their dead, through twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork with Syrian refugees in Izmir, Turkey in 2017–2018.

Author Biography

Mija Sanders, Independent Scholar

Dr. Sanders is a PhD graduate of the School of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona. Her 2020 dissertation is titled "Politics of Care and Reverberations of Trauma: Syrian Refugees in Izmir, Turkey." Her dissertation explores a broad framework of international, national, and local institutions including care and assistance sectors (health care and humanitarian aid), the labor market, and urban settlement that are part of the interface between Syrians and the Turkish state. It connects Syrian affects and emotions to the institutions that regulate their everyday lives through multiple interventions. Currently Dr. Sanders is working on a book based on her dissertation.


Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Balkan, Osman. “Between Civil Society and the State: Bureaucratic Competence and Cultural Mediation Among Muslim Undertakers in Berlin.” Journal of Intercultural Studies, 37, no. 2 (2015): 147–61.

Balkan, Osman. “Burial and Belonging.” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 15, no. 1 (2016): 120–34.

Balkan, Osman. “Until Death Do Us Depart: The Necropolitical Work of Turkish Funeral Funds in Germany.” In Muslims in the UK and Europe. Ed. Yasir Suleiman. Cambridge: Center of Islamic Studies, 2015.

Barnard, Anne and Karam Shouma. “Image of Drowned Syrian, Aylan Kurdi, 3, Brings Migrant Crisis into Focus.” New York Times. 3 September 2015.

Boltanski, Luc. Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics. Trans. Graham D. Burchell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Butler, Judith. “Precarious Life, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Cohabitation.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 26, no. 2 (2012): 134–51.

“Cemetery Information System” (Mezarlik Bilgi Sistemi) of the Izmir, Turkey municipality. Accessed 25 July 2021.

Chouliaraki, Lilie. The Spectatorship of Suffering. London: Sage Publications, 2006.

Cifor, Marika and Anne J. Gillian. “Affect and the Archive, Archives and Their Affects: An Introduction to the Special Issue.” Arch Sci 16 (2016): 1–6.

Cusumano, Eugenio. “Emptying the Sea with a Spoon? Non-Governmental Providers of Migrants Search and Rescue in the Mediterranean,” Marine Policy 75 (2017): 91–98.

Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Denton, Bryan. “Constant Tide of Migrants at Sea and at Turkish Cemetery.” New York Times. 14 February 2017.

“Doğançay Cemetery is Growing.” Izmir Municipality website. 13 December 2012.

Emniyet Genel Müdürlüğü (Turkish National Police). “Belirsiz Ceset (Unidentified Bodies).” Accessed 16 December 2018.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

Foucault, Michel. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth (Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984, Vol. 1). New York: New Press, 1997.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Foucault, Michel. Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the College de France, 1975–76. Edited by Mauro Vertani, Alessandro Fontana and François Ewald. New York: Picador, 2003.

Green, Sarah. “Absent Details: the transnational lives of undocumented dead bodies in the Aegean.” In The Refugee and Migrant Issue: Readings and Studies of Borders Athens: Papazisi. Ed. Sevasti Trubeta (2012).

Hudson, Leila. “The Refugee’s Passage: Liminality, Gendered Habits, the Emergence of Difference in Flight.” In Women and Borders: Refugees, Migrants and Communities. Ed. Seema Shekhawat and Emmanuela C. Del Re. London: I.B. Tauris, 2018.

Hudson, Leila. “Syrian Refugees in Europe: Migration Dynamics and Political Challenges.” New England Journal of Public Policy 30, no. 2 (2018).

Hurtas, Sibel. “Nameless Graves Leave Grim Reminders of Refugee Plight on Turkey’s Coasts.” Al-Monitor. 22 July 2016.

Ibrahim, Yasmin “The Unsacred and the Spectacularized: Alan Kurdi and the Migrant Body.” Social Media + Society (October 2018).

Iğsız, Aslı. Humanism in Ruins: Entangled Legacies of the Greek-Turkish Population Exchange. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018.

Kingsley, Patrick. “The Death of Alan Kurdi: One Year on, Compassion Towards Refugees Fades.” The Guardian. 2 September 2016.

Kovras, Iosif and Simon Robins. “Death as the Border: Managing Missing Migrants and Unidentified Bodies at the EU's Mediterranean Frontier.” Political Geography 55 (2016): 40–49.

Mackreath, Helen. “The Border We All Cross.” Harpers. 9 October 2019.

Mbembe, Achille. Necropolitics. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.

Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics,” Public Culture 15, no. 1 (Winter 2003): 11–40.

“Migrant Crisis: Eight Children Die as Boat Sinks off Turkey.” BBC. 12 January 2020.

Montenegro, Marisela Joan Pujol, and Silvia Posocco. “Bordering, Exclusions and Necropolitics.” Qualitative Research Journal 17, no. 3 (2017): 142–54.

Nawa, Fariba. “DNA Might Help Him Identify His Family but He Can’t Find a Way to Give a Sample.” PRI. 21 August 2017.

Papailias, Penelope. “(Un)seeing Dead Refugee Bodies: Mourning Memes, Spectropolitics, and the Haunting of Europe.” Media, Culture, and Society 41, no. 8 (2018): 1048–68.

Posocco, Silvia. “Life, Death and Ethnography.” Qualitative Research Journal 3 (August 2017): 177–187.

Puar, Jasbir. The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

Rizbi, Sajjad. “A Muslim’s Perspective on the Good Death, Resurrection, and Human Destiny.” In Death, Resurrection, and Human Destiny: Christian and Muslim Perspectives, ed. David Marshall and Lucinda Mosher. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2014.

Şen, Banu. “Cemetery of the Nameless Established in Turkey’s West for Syrians who Died En Route to Greece.” Hurriyet Daily News. 27 April 2017.

Squire, Vicki. “Governing Migration through Death in Europe and the US: Identification, Burial and the Crisis of Modern Humanism.” European Journal of International Relations 23, no. 3 (2016).

Squire, Vicki. Post/Humanitarian Border Politics between Mexico and the U.S.: People, Places, Things. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015.

Tagaris, Karolina. “Unknown Dead Fill Lesbos Cemetery for Refugees Drowned at Sea.” Reuters. 14 February 2016,

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Operational Data Portal: Refugee Situations.” Accessed 15 July 2021.

“UNHCR: 2262 Migrants Drowned or Missing in Mediterranean in 2018.” The Libya Observer. 5 January 2019.

UNHCR Global Focus. “Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan for Europe-2016.” Accessed 23 July 2021.

Verdery, Katherine. The Political Lives of Dead Bodies. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Williams, Kira and Alison Mountz. “Between Enforcement and Precarity: Externalization and Migrant Deaths at Sea.” International Migration 56, no. 5 (2018): 74–89.

Wittman, Laura. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Modern Mourning, and the Reinvention of the Mystical Body. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

Yeginsu, Ceylan. “Constant Tide of Migrants at Sea, and at Turkish Cemetery.” New York Times, 13 February 2016.

Zengin, Aslı. “The Afterlife of Gender: Sovereignty, Intimacy, and Muslim Funerals of Transgender People in Turkey.” Cultural Anthropology 34, no. 1 (2019): 78–102.



2021-08-03 — Updated on 2021-08-03