One Million Newcomers, Wavering Europe: Between “Shooting Blacks” and “Refugees Welcome”

By Maurizio Albahari

“Avoid shooting Blacks: we will be remembered.” West African farmworkers sprayed such disquieting graffiti on a discolored wall of the small town of Rosarno, Italy in January 2010. There, and throughout agricultural fields in southern Italy, seasonal workers (citrus pickers, in this case) have long been subjected to excruciating exploitation. What was relatively new that January was that they mobilized publicly. They overturned some dumpsters, disrupted traffic, and marched toward the villa of a local Mafioso, to demand their long-overdue pay. Some were shot at and seriously injured. They had left behind human-rights abuses (many had lodged asylum applications in Italy) and survived the perils of transcontinental crossing, only to be targeted by violence and intimidation. Local criminals thought the migrants would submissively leave town, as many uncompromising citizens routinely do. Instead, the civic duty to resist organized crime was carried out by those who, unable to avail themselves of state and labor union protection, are often stigmatized as at the margins of society. These migrant workers challenged entrenched practices of acquiescent citizenship, and made visible the structural intersections of price fixing, informal labor recruiting, and organized crime. In other words, the farmworkers’ conspicuous mobilization contravened the entrenched strictures of omertà (code of silence), and spoke out also on behalf of quietly resigned residents of Rosarno. Eventually, most of the farmworkers were forced to leave town that season, either individually or on police buses, ostensibly to safeguard their own personal safety. A small but vocal minority of locals succeeded in its show of force, following certain economic and environmental contingencies that made partly superfluous even migrants’ flexible, cheap, and ultimately disposable labor.

Such dramatic events point to emerging practices of mobilization and active citizenship that escape both the confines of recognized, state-granted citizenship, and the structures of traditional social movements. Analytically, in linking migrants’ collective action to larger social movements it is helpful to borrow the concept of “insurgent citizenship” articulated by anthropologist James Holston (2009). In this sense, citizenship is understood as a “global category of conflict” (245) actively confronting entrenched inequality among citizens and between citizens and non-citizens. Politically, it is worth asking whether polities should foster citizens’ integration into larger practices of critical citizenship, rather than merely immigrants’ socio-economic and cultural integration into the (sometimes conniving) mainstream. More generally, what are some of the practices and processes that can bring together minorities and majorities on equal terms, in the pursuit of democratically-shared objectives?

In Europe, the urgency of such questions is augmented by the unprecedented number of migrant and refugee arrivals by sea during 2015: at least one million people. I deal extensively with relevant dynamics of maritime migration and death, sovereignty, and human rights elsewhere. In these pages I want to draw attention to the implications of European citizens’ mobilization in receiving some of these new arrivals.

Adding to the Mediterranean chronicle of refugee death, the humanitarian “crisis” on European soil, during the second half of 2015, unfolded in a succession of settings: tiny Greek islands; fenced, mined, and muddy buffer zones at border posts (including between Greece and Turkey, Bulgaria and Turkey, Macedonia and Greece, Serbia and Macedonia, Hungary and Serbia, Hungary and Croatia, Slovenia and Croatia, and Austria and Slovenia); the motorway between Hungary and Austria; railway stations throughout these countries, as well as in Italy and Germany. And yet, each one of these sites of crisis constituted also a site of conspicuous mobilization, and an opportunity for citizens to critically assess smugglers’ responsibilities, immigration and refugee policies, international relations, and migrants’ motives.

Thousands of individual citizens, in addition to coordinated volunteers and NGOs, have gone to the docks, the railway stations, and the improvised shelters to offer material comfort, translations, and a more humane welcome to distressed newcomers. This is not unprecedented. On the one hand, I have listened to many people describing the substantial work of non-state actors toward the reception of migrants and refugees, since the 1990s, as a series of “missed opportunities.” In other words, citizens’ individual and collective mobilization, working with and for newly-arrived migrants, has not and will not necessarily result in policy reform (although in Italy it has facilitated the partial demise of massive migrant detention). On the other hand, it is always important to ask: what can one discern in such a mobilization, when using an ethnographic lens? Is there something eminently political, albeit not necessarily policy-oriented or institutionalized, which persists after bursts of short-lived moral empathy toward refugees?

Rather than discussing more “activist” long-term initiatives, such as the “No Border camps” bringing together a transnational assemblage of migrants, activists, and other concerned citizens (e.g., in Calais, or in Ventimiglia on the Italian coast in the vicinity of the French border), I want to sketch the implications of everyday and daily engagements. In particular, there are citizens who are literally opening their homes to refugees. The most widely-known platform facilitating flat-sharing is “Flüchtlinge Willkommen” (Refugees Welcome). First developed in Germany in November 2014, it now offers its logistical support to citizens, local institutions, refugees, and refugee organizations also in Austria, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland. At the end of 2015 the initiative had matched 471 refugees to shared flats. Similarly, in Italy the Catholic social services and relief organization “Caritas” has instituted the “rifugiato a casa mia” project (a refugee in my home), making available around 1,000 places among Italian families, parishes, and religious structures. Critics may point to the relatively low numbers of citizens who are opening their homes through these and similar programs. Others may exaggerate the symbolic impact of these initiatives. More pragmatically, analysis at the ethnographic level allows one to inquire into citizens’ motivations; to assess the substantial savings in public spending vis-à-vis refugees’ centralized reception in camps, shelters, or trailers; to assess refugees’ acquisition of social and cultural capital, and so forth. Camps and centralized reception facilities have already proven conducive to human rights abuse, skyrocketing public spending, lack of administrative transparency, resentment by locals, and lack of meaningful opportunities for migrants. In this scenario, and as public opinions are volatilely split over immigration and refugee issues, ordinary civic practices such as flat-sharing, occurring even in disadvantaged urban peripheries, acquire the value of propositional contestation: they demonstrate that there are more just and feasible alternatives to refugee mass encampment and marginalization.

From their intimate living quarters, and from the public square constituted by docks, motorways, border posts, and railway stations, citizens are demonstrating that they do not resign themselves to their role as gatekeepers, bystanders, or mourners of migrants lost at sea. They are clarifying that chants and policies calling for refugees “to go back home” are not effected in their name and on their behalf. To borrow sociologist Asef Bayat’s conceptualization of “nonmovements,” what we see is a multiplicity of noncollective, ordinary actors who by participating in “fragmented but similar activities” may trigger social change, “even though these practices are rarely guided by an ideology or recognizable leadership and organizations” (15). At the very least, these actors are creating and inhabiting practices of local engagement and transnational solidarity worthy of further investigation.

It is to be hoped that such civic approaches to the challenges of immigration will be met by more substantial institutional and bureaucratic support, even (indeed, especially so) under the threat of terrorism. Racism, profiling, and discrimination can be sanctioned or tolerated; integration funds can be more effectively allocated or cut; active citizenship can be fostered or discouraged.

Both empirically and normatively, it continues to be important to explore the varied constraints transforming persons into entities deprived of a plausible, realistic political voice—entities including the passive, “desperate victim” at one extreme, and the “nativist xenophobe” at the other. Migrant victims and local xenophobes are certainly a reality. Accordingly, social scientists continue to study the discourses, power hierarchies, and unequal distribution of rights that engender structural violence and nativism, as well as the varied forms of insurgent citizenship, activism, and nonmovements that challenge a most harrowing state of affairs.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Immigrants and Refugees

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