Europa Dreaming: Using visual journalism to question the European Dream


By Matteo Moretti

Europa Dreaming started in 2013, after a series of headlines reported that hundreds of migrants had been intercepted  by the Austrian police at the Brenner Pass (very close to our city, Bolzano). De-spite laws restricting movement, a daily arrival of about 50 – 100 migrants were known to cross the border from the south of Italy, so we decided to create a project that would reveal the real situation - not the one told according to the law, not the one according to the local press. This phenomenon motivated myself and a fellow journalist, Massimiliano Boschi, to design a project that would reveal the unsustainability of the actual migrants recieved and Europe’s restrictive asylum policies. Then, as the migrant crisis increased and we witnessed more dramatic moments across the continent, we were forced to reflect more deeply on our own project. As a result, we decided to tell the local stories of the Brenner crossings and European migration law with an eye to the question: “is this the Europe we dreamt of?”

Europa Dreaming opens with a reflection on the European dream, asking what happens when it meets the migrants dream: is this the Europe they dreamt of? Probably not.


The idea of using the dream metaphor was born months ago, inpired by a picture of the Syrian refugees that were blocked in Hungary as they decided to start a spontaneous march in order to reach Germany. The march was led by a man waving an European flag. The image really touched me - it made me realise how much migrants believe in Europe and in the European Dream, more so than many Europeans. We take for granted something that for others is a real dream.


We decided to use this dream metaphor and show how it has become a “broken dream”. For one, in the last parts of 2015, the European Parliament extensively discussed Greece and the European economic parameter; yet, it failed to draw the same level of attention to Hungary and its regard for the human rights of migrants.


One of the aims of our project was to reflect on the European Union’s united economic front, and its failure to apply a similar approach towards social issues. For instance, one of Europe’s biggest weaknesses, in my opinion, is the absence of a shared asylum policy. To illustrate this, we visualized the European countries’ maximum processing times, highlighting the dramatic differences from country to country.

The Schengen acquis (the system created by the Schengen agreement and the Dublin regulation) has created a system that is not sustainable and passes the buck of border control and political asylum management to the mediterranean countries (the probability of migrants arriving from the north is very remote). The consquences of its inadequacy is plain for all, and this is demonstrated by the European Union itself, that in 1995, the year of the Schengen agreement, it financed the first two walls (Ceuta and Melilla) in order to protect Spain from North African migrant entrances.

Connecting the dots over the last 20 years of the Schengen agreement

We decided to inspect the possible benefits of the Schengen agreement, or at least how migration has changed in the past 20 years thanks to Schengen, in order to check its efficacy. We visualized this issue by pairing two journal articles - both about the border between Italy and France (Ventimiglia), both about a small tent city made by the migrants blocked there, both about police actions to dismantle it. The only difference between these articles was that one article occured in 1995 and the other one in 2015.



From this visualization, it seems that not much has changed. This finding was also demonstrated through quotes from Alexander Langer, a European politician whose statements in the wake of the 1995 Ventimiglia migrants block are mirrored by many other European politicans today.


Connecting the dots over the last 100 years of the Brenner Pass

Another important analysis we conducted was a comparison of the last European migrant crisis at the Brenner. Indeed, since its creation in 1919, the Brenner Pass has witnessed millions of people passing through it, from deported prisoners of WWII to the consequent refugees, the Italian temporary workers from Germany (Gastarbeiter) and the ex-Jugoslavian refugees. From our analysis, it looked like millions of people passed when the Brenner was a border and now, since we removed it, it seems that the estimate of 25.000 passages were enough to force the Austrian government to restore their border checks (25000 is the estimate of refugees assisted by the South Tyrollean Province structures at the Brenner border (Source: “Ripartizione Politiche Sociali della Provincia autonoma dell'Alto Adige”).


The qualitative data

In our research on “visual journalism”, as we usually call it, we work with interdisciplinary teams, made up of designers, journalists, and also anthropologists and thematic experts. We are strongly convinced that data are just a part of the story, especially when we write on social issues, where people are at the center of the discussion. For this reason, we tried to depict the individual stories of migrants that cross the Brenner - what they think and what they bring with them - by collecting a series of interviews and photos, thanks to the work of the anthropologist Monika Weissensteiner, the ethno-archeologist Luca Pisoni and the photographer Claudia Corrent. Their interviews revealed incredible stories that belong to the common narrative of thousands of migrants: the desert crossed by foot, the friends who died during the path, the Libyan violence, imprisonment, theft, the risk of dying on the boat, and finally the landing in Europe. For obvious security reasons, we decided not to shoot their faces on the videos, a decision which also let visitors focus more on the overarching story and less on the individual. For the same reason, we decided to place subtitles in the center of the screen too.

Then we asked migrants what objects protected them during their travel. The most disparate things were shown in the front of the camera - mobile phones with friends photos, sacred images, crucifixes, and tattoos, which were the most touching things, in my opinion. Even in our culture, tattoos have an aesthetic and memory value, which can never fully disappear. One migrant, for instance, was tattooed with a sacred symbol by his mother, in order to be protected during the travel. His tattoo has a triple value: sacred protection, memory of hismother and its impossibility for these to be robbed. Many migrants were robbed of everything, even religious symbols such as the crucifix or other sacred images during the crossing of the Libya. For many, the body is the last barrier.

The quantitative data

Statistical data on the migrant crisis can be very biased. For example,the clarification at the bottom of the Frontex news site, where they state that “[…] a large number of the people who were counted when they arrived in Greece were again counted when entering the EU for the second time through Hungary or Croatia” tells a lot about the affordance of data on refugees in Europe. For that reason, we relied only on landings data from UNHCR and the first instance asylum application presented in 2015 Eurostat data. This data helps to demonstrate how migrants moved across borders. More than a million of migrants landed in Europe, of these only 862,138 arrived in Greece and only 11,370 first instance asylum applications were recorded in Greece. Even if it is not possible to demonstrate exactly how the migrants moved in Europe, it is possible to compare this data and discover that Germany,  Sweden, Belgium, Hungary, and Italy received most of the applications. Due to the lack of a shared communitarian Asylum policy, many migrants feel forced  to move to northern Europe, in search of better asylum conditions and to reconnect with their relatives who have already settled there.

Grand finale

Throughout the project, Massimiliano Boschi collected a large number of pictures and front pages on all the migrations occuring in Europe. Using these,  we decided to edit a “trailer” of the whole project that tries to resume the last twenty years of the Schengen agreement through an archive of  images, front pages, and the real voice of Alexander Langer during the 1995 intervention in Ventimiglia. This seven minutes video is perhaps the most touching part of our project, where we demonstrate how much the A.Langer thought is still prevalent and how little has changed since the Berlin wall was dismantled in 1989 - the last supposed wall of Europe.

About the author

unnamed.pngMatteo Moretti grew up and worked for years in the web and motion design industry at Erazero, an MTV Italy cross-media partner. After years working in the web and motion design industry, and after years of research on data visualization and generative design, Matteo Moretti started his academic career as a lecturer and then as a researcher at the Faculty of Design and Arts at the Free University of Bolzano. Since 2012, he has conducted research on visual journalism, and he co-founded the platform http://visualjournalism.unibz.it/ where he collects his students' works. People's Republic of Bolzano is his first visual journalism project, awarded with the Data Journalism Award 2015 and the European Design Award 2016. Europa dreaming is his most recent project, a reflection and analysis on the European dream and the migrant crisis. Presently, he combines research and teaching with his professional design activity.