Migrant and Refugee Crisis in Europe

Social Justice: Moving Past Tolerance

Diversity Week

Nov 1, 2016: Immigration Day

MAC Rotunda (M-240)

Kingsborough Community College – CUNY

(Below is the text I read today at the Social Justice Conference at Kingsborough Community College)


Migrant and Refugee Crisis in Europe

(Bruno Gullì, Assistant Professor, Philosophy)


I want to thank Professor Indira Skoric and the other organizers of this important day event for giving me the opportunity to share with you some reflections on the so-called migrant and refugee crisis in Europe, and really on a global scale. I say so-called because, as I will try to argue in a moment, the crisis should indeed be individuated at a different level –not at the immediacy of those who, displaced by war and other human-made disasters, have to endure the difficult experience –if not the nightmare— of migration, exit, and escape, but rather at the level of the ‘grand politics’ of the nation-state. I will not be concerned here with the technicalities of the difference between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ migration, but I will treat the issue as an existential one, an existential experience and a way of being in the world. In this sense, the distance between the figure of the migrant and refugee is already reduced and perhaps eliminated. We can then consider the two figures as interchangeable, or look at them in light of their intersectionality. The refugee is certainly also a migrant, and the migrant is in many ways also a refugee. However, the question we will be concerned with here is that in both cases –of the migrant and refugee – the crisis is elsewhere.


I want to quote at length from a book by Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher. The book is titled Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, and it was originally published in 1995. Agamben says, “If refugees (whose number has continued to grow in our century, to the point of including a significant part of humanity today) represent such a disquieting element in the order of the modern nation-state, this is above all because by breaking the continuity between man and citizen, nativity and nationality, they put the originary fiction of modern sovereignty in crisis. Bringing to light the difference between birth and nation, the refugee causes the secret presupposition of the political domain –bare life—to appear for an instant within that domain” (Agamben 1998: 131).


Let’s begin with the concept of bare life, which is also included in the book’s title. Bare, or naked, life becomes, according to Agamben and other thinkers, a concern –perhaps the main concern—of the modern political paradigm, the biopolitical mode of governance, whereby the control of entire populations becomes necessary. Bare life is “the secret presupposition of the political domain” in the sense that this biological, natural fact is extended into the political domain and becomes its ground. There is a difference between birth and nation, nativity and nationality, the former being a biological occurrence, the latter a social and political construct. Usually, this difference is forgotten under the assumption (a false and ideological assumption) that we belong in a nation by right of birth, and thus our nationality is understood as a biological given. We are citizens, have a passport, and so on. But our citizenship or passport can be revoked, our legal, political, civil rights taken away. We can be expelled, banned, forced into exile, solitary confinement, and so on. We are then thrown back into a condition of bare life, where anything can happen to us, and there is no protection whatsoever. This is the meaning of ‘homo sacer,’ sacred man, in the title of Agamben’s book. Homo sacer is the person who can be killed and not sacrificed; in other words, the person who can be killed at will, made to disappear in the depths of the ocean, the desert, a solitary confinement cell, a ghost prison. The figure of the refugee causes this hidden reality, this hidden truth, to appear. As Agamben says, today we are all “potentially homines sacri” (sacred men and women; 84); we can all become refugees –and to an extent we already are.


In the passage I quoted above, Agamben speaks of “the originary fiction of modern sovereignty.” This is what really is in crisis. The modern nation-state, which formally emerged with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, was already a reality since the beginning of the modern age itself –we can choose the year 1500 as a useful divide, or perhaps the year 1492 would be an even better choice. The modern nation-state makes its crisis reverberate on a global scale. The history of the modern nation-state, the history of sovereignties, is, as another thinker, Jean-Luc Nancy, says, “a history of violence.” We know: the history of conquest, of genocidal attacks against indigenous people (that continue to our own day), the emergence of capital, now in its neoliberal and most determined form. This is the meaning of the word “fiction” in Agamben’s quote. Modern sovereignty, the modern form of the nation-state, is a fiction because its claim to legitimacy is empty and void. There is no legitimacy whatsoever, but only violence or the threat of violence. Borders, for instance, have no other validity than what the self-referential nature of the law assigns them. Yet, it is at the borders, in the twilight zone that defines them, that the contradiction, the truth, comes to the fore. There, the possibility of bare life appears.


Let me switch gears and focus on the situation in the Mediterranean for a moment. For the past few decades, the crossing of the Mediterranean Sea has become an important venue for migrants and refugees to seek security and a better life in Europe. Often, during the crossing, hundreds of people die in tragic shipwrecks determined by European policy on the one hand and the recklessness of smugglers on the other. But before I offer some reflections based on personal observation in the area of Southern Italy, it might be good to ask again the question of what causes this ‘crisis,’ that is to say, the question of dispossession and displacement, of economic and existential insecurity that forces people away from their places of origin. The twilight zone of the borders is not to be found only where borders are marked and recognized as borders, but even within the confines of any given political entity (a country, a city), which is supposed to have unity and security. In this sense, I want to remind you of the situation that gave rise to the Arab Spring, which certainly complicated and worsened the so-called migrant and refugee crisis in Europe (think about the horrifying consequences we are still witnessing of the collapse of the Syrian political and social fabric, or think of Libya). The Arab Spring started after Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor immolated himself at the end of 2010. He set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, and he later died of his wounds on January 4, 2011. His death brought down the 22-year-long ‘presidency’ of Ben Ali in Tunisia –a clear example of the lack of legitimacy in sovereignty and the modern nation-state. Bouazizi’s sacrifice was the ultimate act of resistance and defiance of a young man who had reached the bottom of hopelessness and despair in a situation of systemic police brutality and state violence. Burdened with debt, Bouazizi had tried all he could to support himself and his family. The Tunisian police had often harassed him on the basis that he did not have a license to sell on the streets. Then, on December 17, 2010, they confiscated his merchandise, mistreated, and humiliated him once again. They had destroyed his humanity, his dignity, and Mohamed reacted in the tragic way we know.


Bouazizi has become a symbol, but he was an actual human being, whose humanity was crushed by the state and its police. However, what determined Bouazizi’s situation and his tragic death was not simply the local and corrupt police force and the equally corrupt and repressive government of Ben Ali, but also the global and neoliberal forces of capital creating unlivable conditions for the vast majority of people everywhere. This is what causes displacement and migration on a global scale. Debt, unemployment, and poverty are material instruments of violence equal to the brutality of the police or the agony and misery of war. They all participate in the making of a global political order that maintains itself in power by exploiting, marginalizing, oppressing, humiliating, and crippling people’s lives –indeed by killing and exterminating them.


Bouazizi was a worker, but he was destitute. He was a worker, but didn’t have a job. He was unemployed. He worked anyway in the so-called informal sphere of the economy. He was brought to the point that he could not even do that. Many young men from Tunisia, other countries in North Africa, and those in sub-Saharan Africa undertake the nightmarish journey from Africa to Europe, about which I will say more in a moment. Bouazizi did not do that, did not migrate or cross the border. As is common in the informal economy, his life became work and his work became life. The two, life and work, coincided. Indeed, migration is one of the most striking examples of the identity, in contemporary societies, of work and like and the disappearing of the distinction between the time of life and the time of work, between being at home and not being at home. Migration calls into question the existence of borders, including the border between life and work. Obviously, the condition of migration –alienation and homelessness—can be experienced in one’s own place of origin, one’s own country, either because of internal migration or because of a type of displacement that is perhaps more subtle, less visible in its process, yet no less destructive. The latter type is the homelessness experienced by an increasing number of people in the world’s largest cities that brings about anxiety and depression, fear, and loneliness, as marginalization, unemployment, underemployment, poverty, and oppressiveness rise. The self itself is thus displaced. One is lost in a meaningless world with the injunction to go on, live and work, or try to find work and make a living in conditions that are entirely destructive of the human spirit. This was the experience of Bouazizi in Tunisia, but it is also the experience of a multitude of people throughout the world. It is a borderline experience, where extreme danger is constant.


Unlike Bouazizi, those who do choose to migrate do not do so in ways that are less compulsory and potentially fatal. Migration, whether we think of the US-Mexico border or the crossing of the Mediterranean Sea or any other specific context, always presents the same general characteristics. It is a central moment in the friend-and-enemy logic. The migrant, or the refugee, is the potential or actual enemy. Usually, little thought is given to the fact that irresistible and unavoidable forces determine migration. People lose their source of livelihood in their places of origin and their right to remain where they are. They are forced to embark on a journey whose outcome is uncertain and that all too often ends tragically. Those who make it potentially face all kind of violence in the new places where they try to work and build a new life. The violence goes from arrest and deportation to discrimination, exploitation, constant humiliation, and even murder. The violence is institutional as well as noninstitutional. Of course, there is a difference between legal and illegal migration, but, as I have said earlier, in the context of this discussion, which does not deal with the technicalities of the law but the political and ethical and existential issue, that difference can be overlooked. The institutional kind of violence that often sets in is similar to the violence of gangs and organized crime to the point that it is difficult to say which is more original, which mimics and reproduces the other. (In this sense, I may suggest the movie Sin Nombre, which describes the journey of Central American migrants through Mexico to the United States).


To go back to the Mediterranean area, to Europe as a field of struggle, as some say, let me give an example from personal observation. It has to do with the situation in Lampedusa, a tiny and beautiful island in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Tunisia. Belonging geographically to Africa but politically to Italy, Lampedusa has become one of the main ports of entry to Europe for many African –as well as non African—migrants. They undertake the perilous journey across the Mediterranean leaving from Libya, where they often arrive after a similarly dangerous journey across the Sahara and where they are often abused, imprisoned, and tortured. Finally, they find themselves in the hands of cynical human smugglers, who very often leave the migrants to their own fate in the open sea. In a book called Darkness before Daybreak: African Migrants Living on the Margins in Southern Italy Today, published in 2012, Hans Lucht notes, “How many people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean is unclear” (p.120). Terrible tragedies keep happening, where each time hundreds and hundreds of people die. In the meantime, the Mediterranean has become increasingly militarized. The Italian navy now intercepts fishing boats arriving from Libya on the high sea before they get to Lampedusa, identifies the migrants, and sends them to detention centers throughout Italy or back to Libya and other African countries. Those who are not sent back become the target of what is often described as a vicious policy, for having been fingerprinted and identified in Italian territory, they will in the future –by a European Union Law— not be able to move to other European countries, which is what most migrants who arrive in Lampedusa and Italy desire and intend to do.  There is an expression that describes this situation, ‘Fortress Europe,’ to name a Europe inaccessible to what is deemed to be ‘irregular’ migration. Just think about the camp in Calais, France, known as ‘the Jungle,’ where migrants from all parts of the world had been living, waiting to find a way to go to the UK, before it was demolished by French authorities this past week. This brings us back to Agamben’s concept of bare life, and the way in which it may always reappear. Interestingly, in the same book Agamben also says that the camp has become the paradigm of political modernity.


And I stop here –though of course much more could be said about this important issue. But perhaps we may have some time for discussion.

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