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An image of backpacks hanging on a wall was shared in social media posts claiming to show “bags of Africans who died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea” at an Italian museum on the island of Lampedusa. The posts raise concerns about the risks associated with illegal migration, but the accompanying image was taken at a U.S. exhibit of objects found at the country’s border with Mexico.
The claim was widely shared in mid-December on social media pages promoting local content in Africa, according to social media monitoring tool CrowdTangle. We have archived some of the articles here, here and here in English, as well as here and here in French.
AFP debunked a similar statement in French here.
The photo shows hundreds of bags tied to a wall. “African bags in Italy have stories (sic),” the caption of one of the posts shared with the image in Nigeria read.
“There is a museum on the island of Lampedusa in Italy where bags of Africans who died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea are collected and displayed (sic).”
Nearly 2,000 people have shared the claim on Facebook since it was published on December 13, 2021.
Many netizens in the comments section of the post expressed disappointment at the attitude of African leaders and the horror involved in the exposure of the bags, which are believed to belong to Africans who died trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.
Death in the Mediterranean
CrowdTangle data shows that the claim is highly appealing to African online users who empathize with the plight of people fleeing the continent for Europe by boat.
The Italian island of Lampedusa, where undocumented migrants from the Sahara Desert in Libya or Tunisia often arrive after a perilous sea crossing, is located just 140 kilometers from the Tunisian coast.
At least 614 people have so far drowned in the Mediterranean this year as they attempted to cross its waters, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Their remains were mostly found on land in coastal areas of Africa and Europe, including Lampedusa.
Image unrelated to the Italian museum
InfoMigrants, a European Union-funded migration media outlet, reported that artefacts recovered from migrants were displayed in a museum in Lampedusa in “tribute to these people, who risk their lives in search of safety and better opportunities “.
However, the image circulating on social networks has nothing to do with the Lampedusa museum. In fact, it was taken to the United States and the backpacks were collected from people trying to cross the Sonoran Desert to southern Arizona.
The “State of exception” exhibition
A reverse image search led to this 2018 online report titled “The Human Condition Through The Arts and Humanities”. It included a section on the “State of Exception” exhibit where hundreds of backpacks collected along the US-Mexico border were artistically displayed on a wall.
The collection was part of a one-year research project titled “An Exhibition of the Undocumented Migration Project”.
We searched for the title of the exhibit on Google and found the same image on the website of the Institute of Humanities at the University of Michigan in the United States.
“The original exhibition of State of Exception, a collaborative project between Richard Barnes, myself Amanda Krugliak and Jason De Leon premiered in January 2013 until March 15, 2013,” Amanda Krugliak told AFP, curator of arts at the institute.
The work was then featured in the New York Times Magazine in 2013 and won the Latinx Spirit Award at ArtPrize 2015.
The project was presented at the Parsons School of Design in New York in February 2017, Stephanie Harrell, spokesperson for the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan, told AFP Fact Check on December 13, 2021 .
By accessing the photo’s metadata using the InVID WeVerify tool, AFP Fact Check confirmed that the image was originally taken on February 2, 2017, the same day the live broadcast of the Parsons School of Design on Facebook showing the stacked bags.
“The image that circulates in the erroneous article is from the Parsons exhibition in New York and a photograph by Richard Barnes,” Krugliak revealed.
Further, Harrell dismissed social media posts linking the bags to Italy and explained that “the backpacks represent migrants entering the United States from Mexico.”
Migration along the US-Mexico border
The border between Mexico and the United States is one of the main migratory routes in the world for migrants from Central and South America, as well as from Haiti, who flee their country in search of a better life. .
The influx of illegal migrants to the United States peaked in the 12 months leading up to September 2021, when 1.7 million undocumented travelers attempted to reach the United States.
In addition, more than 200,000 migrants were apprehended in July for attempting to migrate illegally to the United States via Mexico – an “unprecedented” number, according to US Minister of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas.
“We are facing an unprecedented number of migrants between the entry points on our southern border,” Mayorkas said at the time.