On Saturday night, the studios at France2 were filled with a celebrating audience chanting the name of a child refugee, who wasn’t even there.
In May, in Lisbon, a French couple will be telling the story of the people who flee from conflict over the sea, on a stage that celebrates the sea, in a Contest that will be full of maritime allusions. How did we get here?
The Sea And The Song Contest
Let us start with the refugees. When the multidimensional conflicts in Libya and Syria and Iraq took hold in the 2010s, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes. One of the terrifying routes that displaced people continue to take to escape war is to climb into unsafe, unseaworthy boats and cross the Mediterranean. Every year, thousands die attempting to make the crossing. Even in the best case, where you make the crossing and come out alive, you are fleeing a home that no longer exists and throwing yourself upon the mercy of a Europe that is finding it hard to show the appropriate humanity to the traumatised arrivals.
This is a story about hope and mercy, then.
All sorts of people make the Mediterranean crossing – the old, the young, people in immediate danger, people who can’t take the destruction of their communities any more – people who feel like whatever they’re running to, it must be better than what they’re running from.
In March 2017, one of the people who made the Mediterranean crossing was Taiwo. She was eight and a half months pregnant when she boarded the unsafe vessel that would take her away from Libya. During the voyage, something went wrong and the MSF and SOS Mediteranee vessel Aquarius came to the refugee boat’s aid. On the rescue ship on the way back to Italy, Taiwo realised she was in premature labour. According to SOS Méditeranée, the labour went well and Mercy became the fourth child to have been born on the rescue ship. And here are Taiwo and Mercy, full of hope.
— MSF Sea (@MSF_Sea) March 21, 2017
Mercy And The Song Contest
Why bring this story to the Eurovision Song Contest? Why not? In fact, it was inevitable that the story of the tragedy on the seas would reach the Eurovision stage. We started back in 2016, when the Stockholm hosting team used the interval of Semi Final 1 to showcase a piece of contemporary dance which enacted the story of the flight of a group of refugees.
‘The Grey People’ began their performance coated in the thick grey dust of conflict, recalling the striking news images of people being pulled out of the rubble of shelled neighbourhoods in Aleppo, but at the end of their routine where they reached the relative safety of Europe, they were able to wash off the dust. The most striking moment was the very end, where the dancers came into the audience and invited us to raise our hands with them in recognition and solidarity.
In 2017, Salvador Sobral attempted to use his platform at the contest to remind Europe of the daily struggle of refugees to reach safety and be treated humanely when they reach it. His SOS Refugees sweater was a striking visual statement, and led to him speaking in support of refugees in his Semi Final 1 post-qualification press conference. The strong request of the EBU that he stop wearing the sweater, and stop talking about human rights seemed to go against the overall sense of celebration of humanity and togetherness that we experience at Eurovision.
So in 2018, when the news landscape has deteriorated to the point that thousands have already perished in the sea this year without generating more than a murmur on our news, it seems important to remind Europe of the individual human beings that we could be caring for. It’s in this spirit that Madame Monsieur are telling the story of Mercy. They are smuggling one of the most important stories of our times into the world’s biggest entertainment show.
Messages And The Song Contest
But there are still so many questions. How effective is their message? How many people will even notice the lyrics? What does it mean that a white European woman is telling the story of a black refugee child in the first person? Would Mercy be more effective when sung by someone who has experienced the trauma of being displaced from their home? Is it better that we are talking about this story at all, or would it be better if we were listening to refugees themselves?
Luckily, we’ve got months to debate and explore the themes of Mercy in the run-up to Lisbon. It’s the biggest story of our time. It’s what we should be talking about, as an international community of people in favour of togetherness and progress, and I look forward to working through these layers of questions and themes with you all the way to May.