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Fig. 1 Standing man of Taksim Square, performance.

Mediterranean Emergency: Design Against Disasters (DAD!)

Social, political and economic turmoil appear to be an on-going agony for the Mediterranean region, ever since, perhaps, the emergence of “Mare Nostrum” in Roman times. The issues we face today have always been present. However they have come to the surface differently in recent years and demand urgent responses in accordance with their new characteristics.

We know that limited economic growth and unequal distribution of wealth are some of the reasons causing migration today, in addition to inadequate access to basic services and fundamental rights, which make people “vulnerable to extortion, violence, discrimination and marginalization”. As stated in Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s message:

Almost half of migrants are women; 1 in 10 is under the age of 15; 40 per cent live in developing countries. Poor and low-skilled migrants face the highest barriers to social mobility. The United Nations is acting to safeguard the rights of migrants, lower the social and economic costs of migration, and promote policies that maximize the benefits of mobility. Migrants should not be forced to risk lives and dignity seeking better lives.

Each year thousands of illegal migrants die in the Mediterranean, some under the wild waves of the cold sea, some in the hidden compartments of smugglers’ trucks and some God knows where…We will never forget the Lampedusa boat disaster, which claimed hundreds of emigrants’ lives last year in Italy.

A design response is vital in helping to find a solution to this humanitarian crisis.

The problem of Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war in their country is another issue requiring an immediate answer. Millions of people live in tents, temporary shelters and container houses in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, for how long no one knows.

A design response is essential to raise the quality of these people’s lives.

The problems are complicated, social conditions are complex, and situations are chaotic in many Mediterranean states. Social unrest against long surviving regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria etc., was initially welcome by the West. The images of anti-governmental protests were presented to the global public as if these movements could be the beginning of a new era and even maybe the beginning of participatory democracy in these countries. However, the expectations of this so-called Arab Spring have faded quickly in this respect. At a glance, protests began with people’s demands for democratic rights. Nevertheless, while protestors were critical of the status quo, their demands were vaguely articulated and showed little unity of purpose as to what should replace it. This resulted in power vacuums following the fall of the various regimes, which various factions and extremist groups have sought to exploit. Al Qaeda increased their presence in Syria and Iraq and the ‘Arab Spring’ ricocheted off the Mediterranean glass ceiling.

A design response is crucial to define and defend universal values valid for all.

Each country has its own particularities and civil unrest in the Mediterranean reflects these differences clearly: what happened in Egypt or Tunisia cannot be comparable with that of Syria. Therefore an analytical and critical approach with substantial local knowledge is imperative to obtain a realistic understanding of social turbulence being experienced in these particular countries. For example, the Turkish state’s distinctive reaction to the Gezi Park or Taksim Square Protests in 2013 needs to be underlined.[1]

Unlike many other protests, participants’ creative reactions made a significant mark on the Taksim Square demonstrations. During and after the events, participants and contributors produced art works, composed and made music, performed dance, shot art pictures, made documentary films, wrote books, designed posters and objects and so on. Innovative performances such as the “standing man of Taksim Square” [Fig. 1] and a great sense of humour have burgeoned through slogans, jokes, and graphic works and so on. For instance gas masks became a symbol of the protests and were widely used in every circumstance and in all media [Fig. 2, 3, 4]. For instance, when Izmir Mediterranean Academy produced a series of posters to celebrate the World Industrial Design Day on 29 June 2013, the mask was used for one of the posters to indicate that it is an object of design, while at the same time making an implicit reference to the Gezi Park resistance [Fig. 5]. Design was an inseparable tool of communication in Taksim Square with which protestors gained public sympathy and conveyed their messages more efficiently.

No doubt, the Mediterranean Emergency requires an urgent design response for all kinds of disaster, including natural ones such as flood, tsunami or earthquake. The list may extend easily. We are aware that some of these listed are not specific to the Mediterranean but applicable in other cases and areas too. However, when priorities are concerned, the current problems of the Mediterranean, such as immigration and refugees cannot be postponed and must be resolved quickly. Design has limited direct power to effect change yet nevertheless can help alleviate victims’ suffering as well as accelerate a political and social solution to problems. Therefore, a call for design response concerning the Mediterranean Emergency is not a fantasy but a must.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
About the author(s):

Archıtect, Professor and Vice Rector at Yaşar University in Izmir, Turkey

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