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And Yet It is Round!

Untimely thoughts on Europe, Migration, and the State

Untimely thoughts on Europe, Migration, and the State

As I do every year, I have spent most of this summer on the Italian coast, in the region around the Gulf of Poets. This summer, as soon as I put my head underwater, I am struck by the beauty of the sea: the water is so blue that, at times, it turns violet; there are fish everywhere, sea urchins, sea stars, and seaweeds of such amazing sparkling colors as I have never seen in the region. People around me speak of a “tropicalization of the Mediterranean.”

But I have also never seen so many African immigrants and so much systemic racism in that region: most of the time, the locals simply ignore the immigrant presence, and, when they do not, they address them with the colloquial tu — which, in Italian, you would use only with kids; never with an adult you did not know. This is just one among the many ways of underscoring that they are perceived as belonging to an inferior type: the eternal infancy of those who are considered less than human. People call this “the Africanization of our country.” For more than a month, I swim during the day and talk to people at night, and I wonder why the diversity that they celebrate under the water has to become the ugliness they despise outside of it.

At the same time, the news constantly reminds us of the so-called “emergenza migranti” (migrant emergency). As happens every summer, when quick rubber-boat rides become easier to access, migration from the North African coast intensifies; the symbol of this phenomenon has become Lampedusa, a Sicilian island once famous for its beauty and now for its always too small and contested immigrant detention center. Today, Lampedusa is multiplying in Europe, as similar problems are being faced in other places along its borders — Ventimiglia, Calais, Kos — not to mention the Hungarian border, where 21 million euros are currently being spent on the construction of a yet another wall, this time to block migration from Serbia.

In an online discussion of an article on the construction of this wall, a comment written on July 18, 2015 naively observes: “In 1956 the Hungarians themselves were those who tried to escape: was there not already a wall?” The remark is rebuked by another one observing that the number of migrants has increased so significantly in the past few years that the construction of a wall is more than justified. “But who wants to go to Hungary? You do not understand that migrants go where there is food and work, not where you have a lot of sex,” replied a no-better-qualified “extracomunitario italiano” — that is, an Italian who comes from outside of the EU (but the content and tone of the comment made me suspect that there was nothing “extra-communitarian” in the person who wrote it). Somebody else adds that people do not stay in Hungary, since they prefer to migrate towards north European countries, but the discussion seems to be easily closed by those who remember the Dublin convention, according to which refugees must be deported back to the first EU country they entered in order to request asylum.

This also explains why Italy and Greece are experiencing such a crisis, since they are the major entry-point in Europe: the news emphasizes not only the 62,000 and the 63,000 migrants that reached the former and the latter respectively between January and June, 2015, but also all the migrants that were sent back to those two countries, thereby enhancing the impression of an emergency and of being left alone to face it. Whether this perception is justified and whether a more equitable share between European countries could have had a different outcome is another issue. But perception matters: in the extraordinary heat of mid-July, Treviso’s angry homeowners set fire to mattresses and flat-screen TVs from migrants’ homes after local authorities moved few more than a hundred (and I underline a hundred) into their neighborhood, while in Rome the neofascists of Casapound hurled stones and water bottles at a bus carrying refugees.

But neofascists are not the only ones who have taken to the streets: all sorts of people are doing so, except, I say to myself, those who actually should. As the news of the Treviso events reach me, I talk to people around in what is supposed to be one of Italy’s leftist regions and ask why the left is leaving the square to the right on such a crucial issue. Why are they doing nothing? Where is the internationalism that in my mind should accompany socialism? On a very hot July evening, I sit outside and chat with a neighbor living in Carrara, a small town known for its marble quarries and for its syndicalist tradition. She is a woman in her sixties, belonging to the now nearly extinct political species of Italian “catto-communist,” that is, those left-wing Catholics who really thought they could combine Christ and Marx. I ask her why the left is so conspicuously absent these days. She replies that people are exasperated by the situation and, looking at me with a gaze in search of complicity, adds, “Those mothers are worried for their children.” She knows I am a mother myself, but I am not sure where she was going, so I ask her to clarify. She replied, “Children are scared.” In particular, she tells me the story of a mother who was protesting because her child had not been able to sleep for days after seeing an “uomo nero” (black man) at their door. I tell her that this is racist. She replies that children are very impressionable.

I am puzzled by her attitude, and I keep thinking about the “uomo nero.” And I remember an Italian “ninna nanna” (lullaby) that my mother (another catto-communist) used to sing me:

Ninna nanna, ninna oh
questo bimbo a chi lo do’?
lo daro’ alla befana
che lo tiene una settimana
lo daro’ all’uomo nero
che lo tiene un anno intero

Lullaby, lullaby
to whom will I give this child of mine?
I will give him to the witch
who will keep him for a week,
I will give him to the black man
who will keep him for a whole year

Maybe this is the reason why that kid could not sleep: maybe his mother has also been singing the very same lullaby. Children can be more or less impressionable, but no children want to be taken away from their mothers for a year.

As I leave the country in mid-August, the supposed migrant crisis is still making front-page news and the debate is getting more and more heated. On August 10, none other than the Pope himself labeled the rejection of migrants an illegitimate act: while addressing youths, he said that a situation where desperate migrants are bounced from country to country, seeking shelter, is “an unresolved conflict … and this is war; this is violence; it’s called murder.” The word “murder” runs wildly in people’s minds, and the Pope is attacked from multiple sides.

As I drive out of the country, images of the clashes in Kos between exasperated migrants and the police are on my mind. When migrants are forced into detention centers, from which they have no right to exit and which are all too often unfit to welcome their number, the situation can quite easily become tense. But why are they forced there in the first place? Those in Kos were mainly Syrian asylum seekers, escaping a war-torn region, but what about other migrants? Why do they migrate?

This is the question to which I keep returning for the entire summer. The doxa that justifies current European policies claims that asylum seekers are one thing, but migrants are another: the former should be welcomed; the latter must be sent back because clandestine immigration is a crime. Matteo Renzi, Italian Prime Minister, in an article devoted to the self-celebration of Italian “angels of the sea” that have been rescuing (some) migrants from predictable shipwrecks, aptly summarized the current situation: “While lives are being saved, we also know that there isn’t enough room for everyone.” I wonder “where” exactly that lack of space is located: in Italy? In Europe? Or perhaps even on Earth? And how do we distinguish between those who migrate because they want better living conditions for legitimate reasons and those who are looking for better living conditions for illegitimate ones? Are they not both, in the end, just people, bodies migrating in search of a better life? And is there such a big difference between those who flee war and those who flee starvation?

In his defense of a cosmopolitan right to hospitality, Immanuel Kant observed once that people cannot disperse infinitely over the round earth. As a consequence, so he argued, Earth belongs to the whole of humanity, which, in turn, justifies the right that human beings have to move around and to be welcomed regardless of where they end up migrating. Kant liked to present his views in terms of transcendental justification and universal rights, and he certainly was not an anti-racist militant. But even if one moves on more mundane and empirical grounds, it is not difficult to remember that people have always been moving, always mobile: not only nomadic tribes, but individuals and groups of all sorts have constantly moved from one place to another. Why, and when, did it become possible to prosecute this as a crime?

It was not until the invention of the nation-state system that this shift occurred. And what is most striking is that we tend to forget that the nation-state is a relatively recent historical phenomenon. Even though the modern state made its appearance in early modern Europe, the organization of the entire globe into a homogeneous space, filled up by states, is a relatively recent development. Before then, humanity lived mainly under empires, the boundaries of which were much more flexible and porous than those of modern states. It may be worth remembering here that the idea of the state — that is, of a political community defined by its firm dominion within a territory and by its claim to sovereignty within clear-cut boundaries — is not only a typically modern invention but, moreover, one that remained a primarily European experience for a relatively long time. Only with the nineteenth century did this idea start to proliferate elsewhere and only with the post-1945 decolonization did it become a universal model, the unquestioned default option of political organization.

But despite its relatively short history, the idea as well as the institution of the state has so deeply entered into our consciousness that we can hardly think (and imagine) in different terms. Galileo Galilei faced a similar problem when trying to argue against the long-held belief that the earth is at the center of the universe. But even when he was forced to repent for holding such an untimely view of the universe, he is famously reported to have said: “And yet it moves!”

We live in a context where it seems impossible to make the argument that people should be allowed to circulate freely on Earth because this planet belongs all those who inhabit it. Yet, some people do believe this. Examples include current campaigns for the abolition of the crime of clandestine immigration. If that were not a crime, there would be no need for detention centers, no clashes between migrants and police because of exasperated living conditions, no human traffickers abusing migrants and raping women, and possibly also less racism. People could simply go where they wanted to go, as they have been doing since that animal called homo sapiens first appeared on Earth. I know that not many people are ready to share this view, but I cannot help repeating to myself: “And yet it is round!”

Chiara Bottici

  • ASpinoza

    Hi Chiara. I enjoyed your article, and thought I’d respond, as I’ve been closely following the refugee crisis (Al Jazeera wrote a fantastic article as to why they refuse to use the term migrant, http://www.aljazeera.com/blogs/editors-blog/2015/08/al-jazeera-mediterranean-migrants-150820082226309.html), as well as doing a lot of research into international refugee law and practices based on UN law. Basically, aside from the legality of movement inherent in this system, I think there are 3 main factors at play in the European reaction to the refugee situation:

    1. The continued systematic racism built into the modern Euro-American nation state. The power–both unconciously and conciously–that racism continues to hold in the developed, and even developing world, cannot be overstated.

    2. The misrepresentation of the situation in the media. As the Al Jazeera article, as well as many others by them, have repeatability demonstrated, most of the refugees are fleeing conflict of some kind. The problem is that, aside from the Syrian refugees, much of that conflict is highly localized and does not fall under the rubric of international law regarding refugees. They are, therefore, misconstrued as “financial migrants.” But, as you point out, this should not matter. What is the difference between fleeing conflict or fleeing starvation? But because of this legal ambiguity, politicians and the media have misrepresented the refugees in order to play to the racism and xenophobia within developed countries, similarly to how they do so here in America regarding the refugees coming from Central and South America.

    3. Finally, this refugee crisis has made painfully bare the failings of Neo-Liberal enterprises. It’s sheer magnitude has destroyed any idea of the effectiveness of the Capitalist charity system; the flood of destitute people has brought the oppression created by Neo-Capitalism from “over there,” where it is out of sight and out of mind, to the backyards of those who espose liberal ideals but at the same time benefit from the oppression of others; and the conflicts from which these refugees flee has shown the ultimate result of the political methods that developed nations have used in these contries, namely Neo-colonialism and destabilization. People can no longer ignore the effect their lifestyles and methods have wrought on the developing world. This final factor, more than any other, I think plays a large role in the ambivalence of the left regarding their reaction to this crisis.

    • Chiara Bottici

      thank you very much for the rich and detailed comment. although i understand the arguments in favor of not using the term “migrant”, i would actually keep using it for a reason that you seem to agree with ( but i am not sure, so i will state it explicitly). by separating “innocent refugees” (who deserve our compassion and our humanitarian intervention) from the “evil economic migrants”, ( who are criminals guilty of clandestine immigration) EU countries have all too often managed to deny their help to both of them. just to give you an example, in 2014 spain granted the status of refugee to 15 people: no kidding, really 15 people! but secondly, and here we move to the more general ground, i do not think that the whole issue should be put in terms of our duty to help, but rather of their right to do. why people are currently denied the right to do what the HOMO SAPIENS has always been doing since its appearance on earth? i think that is the question we should begin with.

      • ASpinoza

        I completely agree, but I think there is still a necessity for the term “refugee.” My thoughts on this are still on half-formed, so please bare with me.

        The point of the conflation of the “evil economic migrant” and the “innocent refugee” is actually why I am I wary of discarding the term “refugee.”

        I completely agree that the starting point should be the question of “why are people denied the right to relocate, as they always.” But in order to properly address not only this question, to a solution as well, I think the term “refugee” needs to be redesignated along class lines.

        It seems to me that a affluent individual relocating under violent circumstances is entirely different from a working-class or poor individual relocating under any circumstances, in that the former does not lack the material requirements to do so. And I think, continuing in the lines of the right to relocation, that those lacking the means to do so have a right to those means.

        This designation, I believe, works to inform the question of why these people are denied access to their right to travel. The question of their economic class, which I think is very closely tied to the question of their race regarding the reaction of people to them, then comes into consideration when we ask why it is that they are denied their right to relocation.

        • Chiara Bottici

          i agree that class is an important element, but as far as i understand, migrants are not on the lowest class spectrum, as they possess, at least, the means to pay for their travel. but this should not be in my view an argument for rejecting them. in any event, it seems to me very difficult, if not impossible, to institutionalize categorization of class belonging without incurring into further forms of discrimination

  • Alfredo Lepore

    Hello Chiara , I’m inclined to think your writing here is just an academic provocation,
    or let’s say some homework hints for your students.

    • Chiara Bottici

      no, it is neither academic nor simply a provocation: if anything, it is an invitation to do what Arendt called “thinking without a banister”.

  • Murray Reiss

    Chiara, I love how you’ve reformulated this — the right of people to move freely anywhere on the Earth (and would this also remove the need for human traffickers [what a term]?) I’d never thought of it like that and now I can’t stop thinking in these terms and it makes me realize yet again that we live where we do, those of us who have not left our countries of birth, by the sheer accident of that birth, not through any hard-earned merit of our own. It transforms teh nation-state into a commons that cannot reasonably be denied anyone.

    • Chiara Bottici

      thanks! you made my day. if i really managed to make at least somebody consider possibilities that they had not thought about before, i can consider this little piece of writing a great achievement

  • Chiara, thanks for the good insight from within Italy. I wonder, though, if you are taking for granted the notion that immigration woes began with the nation state. I think pre-modern history is full of examples where an existing group of people resisted the influx of outsiders and how they would shake up the local culture and economy, for better or worse. Xenophobia is sometimes rooted in bigotry and/or nationalism, and sometimes not. A friend and I were discussing your article and thought that it might be more accurate to say that nationalism (as any large institution) simply makes a social group less nimble to handle demographic change. Or perhaps, that it commonly contributes to xenophobia, rather than plants the seed of it. Just my perception, anyway. I’m also very much opposed to nationalism, but I think it is being made into a scapegoat a little bit in your last few paragraphs. Great article overall, though, thank you.

    • Chiara Bottici

      thanks anthony for your comment. it is certainly true that xenophobia was not born with the nation state, neither have political boundaries, since different forms of political comminities have historically existed and shown a varieties of ways of dealing with them: but what is different with the sovereign state SYSTEM is the universalization of the INSIDE/OUTSIDE distinction (there is currently no empty space left on earth!), the systematic policing of boundaries, which also inevitably results in a form of racism that is structurally different from that of the past.

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