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Sea of bodies: a medical discourse of the refugee crisis in Tears of Salt: A Doctor’s Story
  1. Lava Asaad,
  2. Matthew Spencer
  1. English, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Lava Asaad, English, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, USA; lava.asaad{at}


In the memoir Tears of Salt: A Doctor’s Story, Pietro Bartolo (2018) relates visceral descriptions of illness, injury and death endured by refugees on their journey of escape to the shores of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean. The medical gaze of the doctor/author further complicates the political and philosophical discourse of mass migration, foregrounding and calling into question the myriad ways in which the migrating human body is subjugated to forms of structural violence that render it ungrievable and inhuman. The migrating body, a production of and outcast from nation-states, is destined to make its way to news outlets where its suffering is gazed upon, sympathised with and later forgotten about. The surge of images revealing the realities of migrating bodies afflicted with pain, disease, trauma and sexual assault is illustrative of the asymmetric power of biopolitics at work, in which some bodies are, according to the formulations of Judith Butler and Giorgio Agamben, allowed to die or made killable. This paper will examine issues of illness, death and dying in relation to Bartolo’s accounts of refugees in order to observe what is gained and what is lost in applying a medical gaze to the ‘refugee crisis’. In addition to the memoir, we examine the scholarship of violence against the refugee body, the realities of ignoring their pain and how these exploited bodies are portrayed within a global narrative. This article reconfigures the detachment between the human as a socially constructed centre of subjectivity and the body in pain. The corporeality of illness and death that migrants face positions them in an abject position and distances them farther from the rhetoric of human rights. The ontological being of these individuals in medical discourse rarely goes beyond acknowledging that it is normal and expected for these bodies to be in pain. In what ways can we in the humanities gear the discussion towards the raw physicality of fragmentation, distortion and rejection of refugees and immigrants? What role can such a view play in building an ethic of lasting care for the dispossessed? Our research addresses these questions through our reading of the memoir.

  • human rights
  • medical humanities
  • doctor

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  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.