Earlier this month, while browsing the internet, I came across a five-sentence article, written in a matter-of-fact manner; almost a run-of-the-mill article. It reported the discovery of a dead man under the bridge in Marsa on a Thursday afternoon. Rereading the article, a particular sentence stood out and drew my attention: the man was found dead in the same spot he had spent countless nights before.
I tried to imagine the isolation felt by this man. The loneliness, the neglect. Day in, day out, under the bridge, alone, cold, probably sick, in pain. The man was identified as Somali. The fact that he was Somali, for me, is no contingent fact, or an extra detail. Not that if the dead homeless man were Maltese, it would in any way be a less serious discovery. But, imagine, you are a refugee or a migrant, trying to build a life for yourself in a country you found yourself in, without the human, cultural and linguistic connection, where you are far removed from the everyday social transactions happening around you.
Whose fault is it he ended up in this situation? His? Ours? Society’s? I’d like to think that, should he have sought them out, this man could have had alternatives. I acknowledge that, perhaps, the onus is not on NGOs who assist the homeless to actively seek out homeless people. But, did this man really have no access to help? Couldn’t he have found someone to help him, to take him to hospital if he was sick, to go to a homeless shelter, to keep him company?
It’s not he who failed. It’s the daily social transactions and social ‘order’ that failed, that became intolerable. This man fell out of the net of social belonging. His life profile had no social currency - he was invisible.
No, not invisible - he was at the margin. His invisible presence serves as a reminder of the violent exclusionary logic that marks the boundary of inside/outside. This man is a reminder of the violent artificiality of borders.
It’s not further strict borders and walls which we should erect, but bridges - like the one under which this man died – to connect with each other and to connect worldviews.
They say there’s power in numbers. Yet the singularity of this story - its irreducibility (like the individuality amid the universal necessity of our deaths) - is powerful. This singular story subverts by bringing to the foreground the logic of the social, the conditions of life, of the livable, and of what counts as a life to be lived.
This sad story is a clear example of how state power - as Michel Foucault reminds us - can determine, willingly or not, who may go on living and who may not; that is, who does not have access to life.
The man died of social causes. And we should be courageous enough to let this sink in, and face up to it
Thus, I would rephrase the article’s sentence referring to the cause of the man’s death: “The man is believed to have died of natural causes.” What I believe is that the man died of social causes. And we should be courageous enough to let this sink in, and face up to it.
It really bothered me that no information was given on this man, no contextual background, except for the fact that he was Somali, homeless, and now dead. I tried to track his name, his story, and his connections. I wanted to know more, and to share this information in an attempt to add more flesh to his story, in an attempt to do him more justice.
A few days later, more information appeared in the media, confirming that this man - Haji - had fallen out of the social net for good. He had a drinking problem, mental health issues, was unemployed, if not unemployable, homeless, and even had brushes with the law.
What is striking and poignant is how Haji’s situation was described as a “typical case” of homelessness and mental health and alcohol problems among migrants. Hersi Haroon - another homeless Somali who lives in a garden in Marsa - attests to this when he said that other migrants live in the same garden as him, and they often encounter other migrants abusing of alcohol.
Any society must resist such cases becoming typical. There should be nothing typical about people trying to make do in a society and, for a variety of reasons - institutional lethargy, individual lack of language or academic skills, social unwillingness to cater for integration of migrants - failing to do so.
On December 10, two days after the discovery of Haji’s body, a sizeable group of human rights NGOs - all doing sterling work in our society - issued a statement to mark International Human Rights Day.
They pointed out that although Haji’s tragic end is shocking, the circumstances that led to it are not unique. They called for state apparata to ensure that migrant well-being is a priority, and that the adequate social and material conditions are in existence for migrants to be able to lead dignified lives.
The statement insisted that the right to live in dignity is a basic human right. With such cases of destitution apparently becoming “typical”, the call for a right to live in dignity is beginning to sound more like a cry of resistance rather than a dictum that state authorities are enforcing.
Few other things can highlight the urgency with which these realities are to be thought about, spoken about, and acted upon.
Kurt Borg is a philosophy PhD candidate and member of the Institute of Utopian Studies.
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