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Border Hauntology: Ghosts, Border Regimes, and the Prison-House of Necropolitics in Mati Diop’s Atlantics

Nabil Ferdaoussi, Doctoral Research Fellow at HUMA-Institute for Humanities in Africa, University of Cape Town

Maritime routes to Europe have morphed into unfathomable graveyards of African migrants. Since 2014, IOM’s Missing Migrants Project has recorded more than 40,000 deaths and disappearances in migratory routes worldwide (Sanchez et al., 2021). In 2021, more than 1,100 are reported to have died or gone missing in the West African Route in their way to the Canary Islands (UNCHR, 2022). However, the accuracy of such reports is called into question because so many dead and missing migrants remain off-record. Explanations for this inaccuracy in border death data vary considerably, reflecting a systemic avoidance to systematizing and quantifying border death data by the EU and Member States (Last, 2018).

Coupled with this issue of border death data inaccuracy is the absence of policy mechanisms and deflection of responsibility by state agencies for managing dead bodies of migrants at the EU’s externalized borders. This entrenched policy of ‘blame avoidance’ (Kovras and Robins, 2016a) regulating the management of dead and missing migrants at the EU’s externalized borders is the direct result of a ‘policy vacuum,’ defined as a “lack of cooperation among different state agencies and the absence of standard operating procedures” to trace, search, identify, bury and repatriate dead bodies of migrants and notify their families (Kovras and Robins, 2016b: 4). As a complex and challenging humanitarian conundrum, border death management has been allocated only a modicum of resources, compared to the massive logistical, legal and financial resources mobilized to contain and deter living migrants (Kovras and Robins, 2016a). This logic of securitization perceives living migrants as a threat to national security (Karyotis, 2012), subjecting their mobility to more surveillance and EU policy debates— unlike dead migrants whose loss is considered as mere accident, rather than a byproduct of stringent migration policies. A copious body of literature explores how border death has prompted new policy objectives to put paid to the loss of life, variously phrased in policy reports as ‘saving lives’, ‘reducing’, or ‘preventing deaths’. This repertoire of humanitarian objectives is used to rationalize border control and crime prevention through dismantling organized networks of criminals and smugglers (Last, 2018).

Information campaigns sensitizing potential migrants to the danger of sea-crossing through images and fiction films have been inscribed into these policy objectives as a way to prevent border death. Charles Heller drew a comparison between the use of a ‘media dispositif’ of suffering and death by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in its information campaigns and colonial educational cinema (Heller, 2014). Such visual regimes of (im)mobility frame a spectacle of border enforcement by linking illegalized sea-crossings with eventual distress and drowning (De Genova, 2013). Critical cinematic productions reframing this spectacle of border death and violence are not short in supply notwithstanding (Hanna and Sheehan, 2018).


This paper explores the subversive potentialities of border cinema in reframing the spectacle of border death beyond and above the hackneyed policy debates and humanitarian borderwork. By analyzing Mati Diop’s debut feature film Atlantics (2019) using the spectral metaphor, I explore the conceptual viability of spectrality, or the spectral turn, and its untapped subversive potential for the study of border death. A key question which the conceptual framework I advance – border hauntology – seeks to answer is how can a deconstruction of ontological borders—between death and life, visibility and invisibility, time and space—methodologically inform a deconstruction of the EU’s deadly borders? In so doing, I first map out the various epistemological turns that informed the field of critical border studies, then show the conceptual viability of the spectral turn for the field. Second, by moving beyond the myopic conceptual frameworks that foreclose possibility of resistance and agency in their investigation of border death, I advance the concept of border hauntology as an alternative framework in my analysis of Mati Diop’s film Atlantics. Third, drawing on the spectral metaphor, I explore the authority of dead, revealing the way the dead and unburied bodies are figures of agency and may exert political influence.

Border Hauntology: Bringing Ghosts into Critical Border Studies

As search, rescue and disembarkation efforts are intentionally curtailed, families of dead migrants and NGO members go to great pains to recover and identify bodies of lost migrants (Stierl, 2016). Family members and borderland activists alike are haunted by this ghostly violence of lethal border regimes striating Euro-African borders. Yayi Bayam Diouf, a Senegalese woman interviewed by Aida Alami, is haunted by the loss of her 26-year-old son, Alioune, who set sail off Mauritania in 2006 along with 80 nationals from the impoverished suburbs of Dakar towards the Canary Islands. In the Wolof local language, this maritime route – or better, maritime frontier – is called ‘Barsa wala Barsakh’, meaning ‘Barcelona or die’. Traumatized by the loss of her son, Ms. Diouf quit her office job to adopt a nautical lifestyle that would allow her to reminisce about her lost son. “I wish I had at least seen his body,” Ms. Diouf said. “Sometimes I wonder if he really died. One day, I was out in the sea fishing and I really thought I saw him pass by. It hurts a lot. It’s very hard to talk about him” (emphasis added). 

In another piece published by The New York Times, Boubacar Wann Diallo, a Guinean migrant activist working with Alarm Phone in Morocco, revealed that he “could not sleep at night without leaving a light on”, as “he was haunted by the phone calls he received all too often from desperate women and children screaming as they were swallowed by the sea during storms and shipwrecks” (emphasis added). What emerges from these border death stories is not a mere personal trauma or a voodoolike supernaturalism, much less a belief in the actual return of the dead. Rather, it furnishes us with a conceptual reflection on haunting as a deconstructive instrument capable of unveiling the ghostly underbelly of the EU’s migration policies. This deconstructive force transpires in the capacity of haunting to blur the divisive lines between life and death, presence and absence, visibility and invisibility, reality and fiction. Collapsing such ontological borders, these stories about haunting reassert what Jacques Derrida’s called hauntology, a conceptual neologism he coined to supersede ontology (Derrida, 1994).

The conceptual framework sketched out in this paper builds on and contributes to a series of epistemological turns that punctuate critical border studies. For African border scholars, spatiality has been politically salient for decolonizing African borders and vilifying the imperial partitioning of the continent (P. Vanyoro, 2019; Nyamnjoh, 2015). The ‘temporal turn’ has shifted the focus to the insomniac realities of waiting at the border, legal temporalities of asylum and visa, as well as contingent temporalities that include disrupted plans and journeys (P. Vanyoro, 2019; Khosravi, 2017; 2021; M. Jacobson et al, 2020). The field underwent a paradigm shift as early as the 2000s, as it moved to overcome the fixity and territoriality of borders in favor of a ‘processual approach’ that attends to bordering practices of containment and exclusion (Gazzotti, 2021).


While this flurry of epistemological turns enriches our conception of the spatiotemporal realities that shape border violence, their ‘ontological trap’ precludes possibilities to investigate postmortem violence. Michel Foucault’s biopolitics, Gorgio Agamben’s bare life and Achille Mbembe’s necropolitics have served as theoretical touchstones for border scholars interested in border death and violence. Agamben considers the political refugee as a perfect exemplar of bare life, understood as what remains after human existence is stripped of all social and political rights under the heavy juggernaut of sovereign power (Agamben, 1998). Mbembe explains how the ultimate expression of power resides in the power to dictate who must live and who must die (Mbembe, 2003), as the postcolony creates death-worlds for its subjects (Mbembe, 2001). Such a conceptual framework has repeatedly been adduced to examine how racialized migrants from the Global South are caught up in the necropolitical gridlocks of border violence and death (De León, 2015).


My interest in the spectral turn derives from its capacity to go beyond and above such ontological borders of time and space, past and present, life and death that are peculiar to border violence, thus moving away from the stale debates of necropolitics that foreclose new horizons of resistance and agency. With its forceful deconstruction of ontological borders, the ghostly paradigm opens up new possibilities of resistance and agency that are often missing in border violence research. Esther Peeren notes that, “Any contemporary project dealing with ghosts, especially figurative ones, has to situate itself in relation to the so-called spectral turn” (2014, p.9). Taking my cue from this ‘spectral turn’, I seek to test the conceptual viability of ghosts and haunting against the backdrop of what has been dubbed by Nicholas De Genova ‘border spectacle’. What is meant by the latter is the entire visual gamut that frames public opinion about the (im)mobility of racialized and otherized migrants (Mazzara, 2019; Loughnan, 2020).

The spectral metaphor is so powerful in that it transcends such rigid dichotomies. Derrida writes that the “spectre exceeds ontological oppositions between absence and presence, visible and invisible, living and dead” (2002, p.25). In this way, this study examines the methodological viability of ghosts and haunting by extrapolating it to the field of border studies, thus recasting the scholarly focus from border ontology to border hauntology.


I use border hauntology as a forensic tool to invoke the persistence and the resounding echoes of past injustices of border regimes into the present, thus bringing under critical scrutiny the present absence, the hyper-visible invisibility of the ghostly, ungrievable and racialized migrants. In principle, it proposes a radical mode of knowledge production about the ghostly register of modern border regimes, about the haunting effects of those lost, dead, or ontologically invisible. By transcending the visible/invisible divide, border hauntology contests what W. J.T Mitchell terms “the regime of the visual,” which is mobilized to normalize the ghostly necropolitics of bordering institutions (1994, p.13). Indeed, such visual representations have always been central to the formation and maintenance of border regimes through a coalescence of migration, law and iconography (Mazzara, 2019).


As a conceptual framework, visuality here operates exclusively within the discursive limits of the visible and the sayable, requiring merely a rearrangement of the relation between the visualizer/the visualized and visuality/countervisuality (Mirzoeff, 2011). It explores only one form of invisibility, thus giving short shrift to other forms of invisibility which I aim to explore in this study. This ‘visual trap’ precludes the possibility of exploring the political salience of that which is a-visual or quasi-visual— the present absence of the ghost and the living dead. Derrida distinguishes between the visible in-visible and absolute invisibility. The former refers to something that is physically concealed from view but can be rendered visible were it exposed in the open. Derrida cites the example of internal organs as part of this order of invisibility. Absolute invisibility is twofold: the first one spans things which “fall(s) outside the register of sight” (qtd in. Pereen, 2015, p. 35). The other dimension of this invisibility explores the agency of the present absence or quasi-visuality of the specter:

The spirit in the sense of the ghost in general, is doubtless a supernatural and paradoxical phenomenality, the furtive and ungraspable visibility of the invisible, or an invisibility of a visible (1994, p. 7).

The spectral agency of the ghost here lies in its flexible capacity to oscillate between visibility and invisibility, confounding the distribution of the sensible with its ability to see without being seen.


This applies notably to unwanted migrants who remain hidden from border patrols, but also who fall outside the purview of social visibility, or what Judith Butler envisions as figures apprehended as living but not recognized as lives (2009, p.8). In this sense, I consider the ontological realm of apprehension as a quintessential form of ghostliness, since the ungrievable lives it reproduces are living dead. Running counter to Derrida’s conception of the ghost as a figure of agency, apprehension conjures up the ghost as a figure of exploitation and precariousness.


These two orders of ghostliness are both central to the notion of border hauntology. It signifies a generalized condition of precariousness and ghostliness induced by bordering practices, while it also seeks to unpack ontological borders of the visible and the invisible. Bordering institutions inflict ghostly violence on marginalized and racialized migrants and, in turn, this violence causes something of a metamorphosis by which migrants are reproduced as living dead. On the other side of the spectrum, these ghostly figures—be they specters of dead migrants or living migrants whose invisibility amounts to ghostliness—haunt necropolitical regimes of separation and demand historical justice. In what follows, I examine the conceptual viability of the ghost metaphor in the film Atlantics, putting into display the ghostly violence that the postcolony and bordering institutions inflict on marginalized and racialized subjects. I also look at haunting and being haunted as complex, interchangeable forms of subversion and subservience.

Beyond Life and Death: Escaping the Prison-House of Necropolitics in Atlantics Atlantique (Atlantics) won the Grand Prix at Cannes Film Festival in 2019, making Mati Diop the first black female filmmaker to win that prestigious competition in its 72-year history (Independent, 2019). Set in the squalid suburbs of Dakar in Senegal, the film recounts the story of a young woman, Ada, who loves Souleiman, a construction worker, but is betrothed to an affluent businessman named Omar.


The film opens with a tongue-in-cheek juxtaposition: a mammoth tower overlooking the Atlantic Sea is built by a state-run company that curtailed Souleiman and his friends of three months’ wages. Enamored of each other, Ada and Souleiman arranged their moonlight tryst by the seaside, but by the time Ada managed to sneak out of her room window Soulaiman had already set sail in a rickety boat towards the Spanish Archipelago. Ada’s indomitable affection for Souleiman blinds her to the luxurious lifestyle of Omar, despite being persuaded by her friends to brush off Souleiman. Her much-coveted nuptial bed was, out of nowhere, set ablaze—leaving her suspected of scheming arson along with Souleiman.


The diegetic texture of the film is skillfully woven with colorful threads of mystery, metaphor, and voodoo-like supernaturalism. As forensic investigations are carried out to detect the main culprit behind the attempted arson, the film sways intermittently to scenes where a handful of roaming ghosts wreak havoc on the streets at night. We are not immediately told what these roving specters are, until we see them hold a conversation with Andi— presumably the director of the company in charge of the tower construction project— to reclaim their protracted wages. It is only with hindsight, when one ghost relates their drowning at sea to Ada in the bar, that we realize that the ghosts that haunt the director include the dead body of Souleiman.

One may initially presume that the film is a love story. However, the film is a ghost story, dealing with both literal and figurative ghosts. The top line of the film cover reads, ‘Every love story is a ghost story’. In a Muslim majority country like Senegal, Ada and Souleiman can only meet in hiding, since their social milieu disparages their love affair. The couple is thus pushed into the underground of social invisibility, recasting them as ghostly figures. The couple’s first date did not take place in a restaurant or bar, but in a derelict building by the seaside. Derelict buildings are haunted places, ones that are the usual habitat of ghosts. Not only literal ghosts, but also ghostly subjects—such as homeless migrants who inhabit and take shelter in abandoned houses. However, no sooner had they entered the unoccupied building than a passerby disrupted their tryst and chased them out. Ada, swaying between a furtive love affair with Souleiman and an imminent marriage with Omar, transgresses the boundaries between visibility and invisibility, between tradition and modernity The opening scene of the film shows Souleiman and his friends as ghostly figures of capitalist exploitation. The scene is a caustic critique of Senegalese leaders’ dream of building a $2 billion futuristic city less than 20 miles outside Dakar by 2035. The construction project of the tower in the film alludes to the country’s development projects. The French-Senegalese filmmaker vilifies its bloodsucking mode of labour exploitation. In response to Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, Antonio Negri suggests that “the ‘specters of Marx’ are therefore, in some way, the specters of capital” (2008, p. 6) He argues that the ghostly violence of capitalist production is a bloodless movement that “vampirizes all of the worker’s labor and, transforming itself into surplus value, becomes capital (ibid., p.7).” Diop’s critique of these spurious development promises is even more trenchant with its visual insertion in the background of the scene. A poster in the foreman’s office reads ‘Muejiza Tower’, apparently referring to the futuristic tower in Diaminiado Lake city in Dakar, which is set to be part of Senegal’s development project. The poster may escape the sight of the audience, but its visual politics is as important as the complaints of the unpaid laborers.

In this scene, we are confronted with visuality and countervisuality. The poster in the scene represents the former, while the visual realism of the film, along with its aesthetic rearrangements of the social life in Dakar, represents the latter. The film successfully redistributes the sensible of developmentalism in the postcolony, unveiling the ghostly terror and exploitation it inflicts on its subjects. I find Mbembe’s re-conceptualization of the relationship between the ghostly terror of the postcolony and the Lacanian mirror effects of immediate relevance to Diop’s filmic engagement in the context of Senegal. The poster of the ‘Muejiza Tower’ in the foreman’s office is not a mere reflection of developmentalism. The spectralizing exploitation of laborers belies all the semantic connotations of grandeur and progress that the Arabic word Muejiza (Wonder) carries. The scene is refracted by the ghostly narratives of labor exploitation that the visual content of the poster seeks to render invisible. This specular (mirror) property of the film is juxtaposed in the scene with the spectral violence of capitalist exploitation in postcolonial Senegal. This specular subversion is conceptualized by Jean-Pierre Vernant, whose understanding of the mirror is deployed by Mbembe to unmask the relation between the specular and the spectral (qtd. in Mbembe, 2003). It likewise surfaces the present absence of unemployed and unpaid laborers who are vamparized by such developmental projects and promises, whose unpaid labor translate into a form of modern slavery.


Nowhere is this ghostly exploitation more pronounced in the film than in the complaints of the so-called ‘free laborers’. After three months of wage protraction, workers could not afford to hear the placating words of the foreman. One laborer says, “You know, just keep that money with you. But remember that our families reckon on us.” “I have a huge debt to pay that I wait until it’s dark to go home,” Souleiman intervened. The debt here foreshadows the sum paid to the smuggler who will later facilitate their macabre crossing through the ‘Barcelona or Die’ route which claimed the life of Ms. Diouf’s son a few years earlier. The fact that Souleiman waits until it’s dark to go home should not escape our attention. The indebted Souleiman is a ghostly figure who remains hidden to escape the daily haunting sight of his lender.

With no prospect of attaining his unpaid threemonth wage, Souleiman’s decision to take a debt— obviously to pay the smuggler—is a quintessential form of exchanging death for life, by constantly being vigilant to escape the wrath of the debtor and, second, by embarking on the death boat for a better life in Spain. In reality, many returnee migrants in West Africa are subject to daily threats from their debtors. According to a recent study by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 68% of returnee migrants are affected by debt in six West African countries, including Senegal. 8% of indebted returnees have been assaulted by their creditors. A Malian participant in the survey reported that “a gunshot administered by his lender” dismembered his right leg (IOM, 2021). Souleiman’s efforts to work to pay back his lender should thus be understood as an attempt to stave off dismemberment and death at the hands of his lender. Taking debt has already impelled Souleiman to exchange his life—or future in Spain—with a body part or, at worst, his death. His efforts to work and pay back his creditor epitomizes what Achille Mbembe fittingly phrased ‘work for life’, which he defines as “the ability to dissociate oneself from one’s own body.” As such, as a prerequisite for taking the debt, Souleiman dissociated himself from his own body, or at least part of it to stay alive.


As I mentioned earlier, Souleiman’s, as well as his friends’, decision to cross the treacherous Atlantic Sea for a better life in Europe is already an exchange with death. However, the tragic drowning of Souleiman and his friends adds a twist to the ghost metaphor in the film. We are no longer confronted with living beings who, in suffering social invisibility in the death-world of postcolonial and post-industrial Senegal, lose control of their own life. The film conjures up the literal ghosts of the dead bodies of Souleiman and his friends. They are ghosts who equally lose control of their own death. As living dead and dead-livings, these ‘things’ as Derrida calls them represent two forms of spectrality. What the film achieves, then, is nullifying the registers of life and death, considering the two as modes of being in the world, not properties that one possesses as such.

Border Death and the Haunting Authority of the Dead

Mati Diop’s Atlantics does not exclusively deal with the socio-economic malaise of postcolonial Senegal. It establishes itself as a critique of the EU’s deadly border regimes as well. The film denounces the ghostly architecture of border regimes through its haunting countervisuality. It takes haunting as a politicized subject to subvert deadly migration policies of the EU, on the one hand, and the ghostly violence of postcolonial Senegal on the other. In deploying literal ghosts in the film, Diop engages with ethical quandaries linked to border death, burial disappearance, identification of dead bodies and search and rescue operations, most of which are hitherto not given due attention in policy debates. As such, by piercing into the postmortem repercussions of bordering practices, the film moves away from the current preoccupation of migration and humanitarian policies with ‘the life of the living being’ to the ghostly realm of the dead.


As figures of return, the ghosts in the film bring into sharp focus the unsavory underbelly of migration policies, resurfacing past injustices of border death that remain hidden from public view. We are not allowed a direct visual experience of what actually happened to Souleiman and his friends at sea. Yet, the odyssey of their boat distress and eventual drowning was recounted by a female ghost to Ada in the bar. The bleached eyes of the dead bodies also indicate that these are not just any type of ghosts, but ‘nautical ghosts’ of people who exchanged their lives with death. The female ghost with Ada notes how ‘everyone was shouting desperately’ as the boat was sinking. This scene is particularly reminiscent of the life stories of women and children who, desperately shouting for rescue through the hotline of Alarm Phone, haunted the activist Babacar Dallio. We, as the audience, are similarly haunted by the harrowing drowning of Souleiman and his friends. Their return into the world of the living augurs bad and “registers the harm inflicted or the loss sustained by a social violence done in the past or in the present” (Gordon, 1994, p. xvi). As a subversive visual technique, haunting redistribute the sensible of the border spectacle and makes an urgent plea for what Avery Gordon calls, “something-to-be-done” against the deadly migration policies of the EU (ibid., p.xvii).

The deconstructive force of haunting rests in its potential to collapse the borders between the real and the fictional, the visible and the invisible, presence and absence. The way the filmmaker conceptualized the present absence of Senegalese youth, their ghostliness and the deadly regimes of separation enacts a sharp move from ontology to hauntology. The film engages with a hauntology of borders, which should not, all the same, be limited to the study of haunting repercussions of border institutions like the EU as such. What can one glean from such an analysis is that hauntology is a deconstruction of ontological borders that the filmmaker redraws in her conception of the death-in-life, present absence, visible invisibility of Senegalese youth.


Indeed, through its plain views and its deployment of first-time actors, the film collapses the borders between the real and fictional as well. The haunting cadavers of dead migrants suddenly run amok in the streets, wreaking vengeful havoc on the properties of Andy, the owner of the Muejiza Tower project. At one moment, the police break into the scene to restore public order and arrest the ghostly rioters. They arrest one female ghost and locked her up in the car. However, when they open the car in the morning, the policemen are puzzled at the disappearance of the dead body of the female ghost.

The spectral agency here manifests itself in the ability to riot and escape the interpellation of local authorities. This incarnates the ability of the dead bodies to escape “the grip of power and projection in ways that are less readily available to the living” (Balkan, 2019, p.1126). Lost in the bottomless Atlantic Sea and not honored with dignified burials, the cadavers of dead migrants return to rebel against the very forms of dehumanization and domination that pushed them to the edge of necropolitical ungrievability.


The ghosts in the film threaten the corrupt project owner who was behind the protraction of their wage payments, asking him to come to the cemetery with their money. After checking the sum of money Andi brought, the ghosts ordered him to dig out graves for their burial. At this junction, the authority of the dead body is, as Mbembe notes, both “spectral and palpable” (2003, p.20). The hyper-visibility of the corpses confers authority upon the dead migrants, thus posing a constant threat to the vampirizing exploitation of postcolonial Senegal, while at the same haunting the postpanoptic border regimes that structure their death in the Atlantic Sea. This spectral agency, however, is not exclusively conferred upon the dead. Its incarnation is extended to encompass the living and inanimate objects. The interface of Ada and the turbulent sea that dominates the final scenes of the film firmly enacts this ghostly agency. Erected at the utmost edge of the Atlantic, the tower stands in allegorically as a colossal gravestone for the as yet unburied migrants and their ancestors. 5 In this way, the rich poetics, or rather necropoetics, of the film makes it difficult to reduce the tower to a synecdoche for labor exploitation. It stands in as a token of commemoration all the same. The final scene featuring Ada barely brought finality to the film. In fact, it is a quintessential form of disjointed temporality that exemplifies Derrida’s spectral agency. Ada states, “Last night was with me to remind me of who I am and show me who I will become. Ada, to whom the future belongs.” This temporal disjuncture invoked by Ada is reminiscent of the ghost as a figure of returned(revenant)—of the dead who passed away—and haunting as a possibility of imminent reappearance(arrivant). The conceptual viability of spectrality for critical border studies lies thus in its capacity to call attention to things that are lost or gone missing under the duress of social and historical practices of marginalization.

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