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!”