Xenia, disclosures

A straight plain text version of the chapter Disclosures, from the booklet Xenia (Collective Dictionaries, Campus in Camps).
Into the issue of hospitality and refugeehood, as seen from Italy and beyond.


The present exploration brings with it several questions formulated by the students of Ancient Journeys. I submitted the inquiry to four guides I rely on, who are involved directly, practically and daily with refugeehood and migration. Their names are transfigured into a fictional antiquity to bridge diverse geographies, ages and points of view. The flux of shifting insights shapes a small templum to begin the interrogation of  contemporary hospitality from within.

 

Do you, or have you ever, witnessed a ‘culture shock’ when working with people who are moving into/through a new place/environment? For example, do some individuals find it difficult to experience social situations that they may not have experienced before in their home place?

 

Sinon, hospitality operator
We are speaking about encounters which, as an exchange, bring diversity and questions to deal with in team work and, even if they are cultural issues, have to be resolved on a technical and practical level. Many difficult situations brought me numerous questions but also funny moments, not necessarily lived with anguish… many of them regarding religious issues, above all about magic… but mainly on gender issues, on the role of women… great discussions although very difficult to tackle. The most displacing moments are when, on a personal and almost naïve level, I engage with great sympathy with someone only to discover their absurd ideas on women, ideas that for our culture are even extremely violent. In these cases I feel on the right side, but yet I have to deal with a certain sensitiveness, due to a great complexity. It won’t be an hour and a half of dialectic to convince a person how to change their mind but, more importantly, it’s about learning in the field to be non-judgemental: even when someone is claiming some “bestiality”, or something problematic about children’s education, beatings… bestialities! Never judge. Never  offend. Nor will I feel offended from such exclamations as “you are not a real man” or something heavier. This is a very technical approach that preserves me from a “state of shock”, it’s a sort of “right distance” that is fundamental, above all if dealing with this lasts for 8-9 hours a day. Empathy and technicality are not contradictory to me. Now I work more on a one-to-one level, but I have also an experience of welcome services with multitudes, for many hours a day. There is something you can see in all jobs called “aid relationships”, like medics or lawyers for example, which is the preservation of self-health and self-integrity in order to do it and keep on doing it. So when I speak about the “right distance” it’s not about suspending empathy. I mean empathy as that leap towards the other’s personal issues and feelings, maybe dealing with sadness, through codes that are all of yours and not necessarily welcomed… never forgetting that dealing with aid hospitality means to face the others more than just one other, from several parts of the world, different cultures and education levels. Empathy is fundamental to understand problems even when people don’t want to make you understand… fair enough, but you can still perceive “alarm bells”. The very hard thing is trying to solve these problems showing a proximity, considering also the clarity you have to keep in order to do it. It’s more or less like those latex gloves worn in first aid training: the first thing you learn is that if you don’t have them, you stand still and don’t touch the body, even if the person is seriously wounded. It’s hard, but you adapt, with experience but also through strong (I mean very strong) traumas. All the operators have this awareness. Of course it’s a goal sought after training, because nobody becomes a machine! Sadness, violence, sympathy, rudeness, joy, the one and the many… so many different cases… and you introject all of this and bring it home, to your companion, to your parents, to your friends: you have to learn, otherwise you don’t do it.

Themis, criminal Lawyer assisting migrants
Yes, it happened several times, while listening to migrant and refugee stories, when facing other cultures often completely different from mine in terms of values and perceptions. Most of the people I support come from Africa and particularly from the sub-Saharan area, where death is lived in a completely different way and this was truly displacing for me in the beginning. When asking an asylum seeker “how did your father or your mother die… because of what?” and s/he answers “I’don’t know…”, well… the next question coming into my mind is “why don’t you know?”. For us it’s a basic thing to know why somebody died, even more so when that person is close: we want to know and investigate, we want doctors’ explanations, why did it happened in one way or another. I feel like in Africa dying is part of life and when it happens… it just happens, there is no need to ask too many questions: just dead, that’s it! No one will go to the doctor asking if it was a disease, which kind of disease, why it could not be diagnosed before. The second thing I would mention is related to women and sex, in particular rape. It’s perceived in a dramatic way, of course, but it’s nevertheless a very common crime, so common that when women speak about it they speak almost as if it was a banal crime, like somebody stole my wallet on the bus, definitely much less stigmatized than in Italy. For sure, women in Africa are more vulnerable and exposed to this kind of aggression than the women in western countries. It’s not easy to get at the sense of what people are feeling after they experienced the African route, then landed in Sicily, then again conducted towards Bologna… sometimes they wait some 2 years or more before being listened to by the Commission. Also because I’m a lawyer, not a welcome operator nor a social worker who have the right tools and expertise to get such details. I have a juridical approach which is based on the person’s history, on specific declarations. I’ve been documenting this situation myself, because one of the problems, in order to obtain the residency permit, is to be believable, but if you go into court with a strong emotive detachment, above all if you have little or no documentation that such facts happened, the judge can perceive your detachment as a lack of credibility. So, documents from UNHCR are very helpful on how to tackle such encounters… advising the courts about the possibility that these people could be silent on these arguments, maybe for cultural reasons.

Menander, international cooperation consultant
If by ‘culture shock’ we mean a sort of cognitive and psychological dissonance, it concerns virtually countless daily facts.  It’s a matter of registering these facts, decoding them and seeing what they tell us, because in dissonance it’s not a matter of “right and wrong” or “true and false”… rather we move into another dimension of expectations and perceptions, digested dialogues and de-codified meanings, which are often beyond the simple verbal communication. This brings to my mind the term you have chosen, xenia, and its correlatives  in other languages and not only in the Mediterranean cultural space, used to call the guest, sometimes the host and also the stranger, the alien, the friend and, in Latin, also the enemy (if we accept that hospes is related to hostis). It refers to a basic information problem which is “I don’t know the person who is coming”: who are your parents, who is your grandfather, from which village are you coming, and so forth. So according to me the welcoming rituals are an elaborate and historically robust informal institutional solution to a  process of understanding under the constraint of a security predicament, because you could be a potential enemy. So we should avoid a literal reading of classical sources as “wow… once upon a time people were so welcoming, traditional cultures were so open!” toward the refugee and the foreigner, while we are so mean, so selfish.
Another example is how hospitality is organized in traditional houses in Afghanistan, in the countryside. Welcoming is a very important thing that involves even the honour of the family. Most family compounds in the rural areas are shaped like rectangles, with boundary walls like a small fortress, responding to the lack of general security,  and they have a guestroom strategically placed near the main gate. So the stranger is welcomed as a guest within the family compound, but confined in the guestroom, never in contact with the most private area, especially where the women are. The host will welcome the guest, entertain him and treat him with the best food and accommodation he can afford. Normally it is the task of the younger boys in the household to assist the guest while also, crucially, carrying out an important  information-gathering task, like “how this person behaves”, “is s/he polite”… I even read some ethnographic accounts of foreign travellers who could not walk around, even outside the compound, if not chaperoned all the time by their young hosts. This highlights the ambivalence of hospitality, where the initial extension of trust is sacralised and ritualised, but combined with forms of control, information gathering looking for further signals of trustworthiness.  You can realise this also in the connection between the semantic and the practical side of the word hospitality. There are many examples in literature or history where a whole party of guests is slaughtered by the hosts, and viceversa during a feast   Hosting of the foreigner implies this kind of lingering security predicament, and perhaps that is one of the reasons why s/he is put under the protection of the gods.

Antigone, policy advisor on asylum migration
I can’t deal with a negative or strong definition of ‘culture shock’, but many times migrants changed my perspective. For many years I worked with cultural mediators, particularly in the health sector, before that I also taught Italian to foreigners. I’ll tell you about an episode that I use a lot, even when I lecture about these past activities to health operators. These people are professionals encountering many relational difficulties with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, inside a severely malfunctioning system. One thing in particular that sends the women operators haywire, is the alleged submission of the muslim woman to man. Some Pakistani boys came with their sister to the Italian school for migrants which I was coordinating, to register her, on the condition that the teacher was a woman, and that during the class there were to be no men. This led to a very difficult negotiation. When they left I immediately thought “Poor her! What a stressful male presence she has around! That’s suffocating and controlling!”. Then she became our student so we became familiar, also due to my habit of finishing work late at night and going back home alone, by bike in the dark. Some months later she revealed to me that initially she thought about me “Poor her! Such an unlucky woman without any brother, father or husband picking her up nor taking care of her!”. This was a very healthy overturning, above all of the militant feminist logic… the reason I was feeling sorry for her was in fact an asset to her, while the thing I was feeling proud about my autonomy, for her was a condition of solitude, sadness and isolation. We had many laughs together about this! This made me reflect very much. But on a daily basis, while differences emerge from any gesture, I wouldn’t speak about destabilising shocks, even encountering those peculiar beliefs of the people coming from Sub-Saharan and Western Africa.

 

As an individual, which do you think would be easier to work with: a large crowd of many hundreds/thousands of people who are willing to work alongside you, OR just one individual who, however, is stubborn and unwilling to adapt to new situations when they should?

 

Sinon
I don’t think we are talking about two problems at all, it’s very objective. I challenge this question in the way it relates to numbers: it’s not something impossible to manage, even more if related to the number of inhabitants in Italy or Europe. In all the world there are more or less 65 million refugees for political, humanitarian or environmental reasons. Maybe we can negotiate a little bit on how many were forced to leave… I consider also those who want a different life, but let’s stay close to the hardest push factors that are (still) present inside the Geneva Convention about asylum seeking. Lebanon has 4 million inhabitants with 1 million refugees, a flux of 180 thousand people that cross the Mediterranean not mentioning the Eastern route… it’s not that huge a flux considering the 500 million people living in Europe population or the almost 70 million in Italy. Thinking about the world described by the Ancient Journeys class… hospitality reminds me of an odd comparison with the practices of today: have a meal, a cover, let’s make a medical check and then we see if you can stay or not.

Themis
I do prefer working with many people ready to… allow me, to “integrate” them, to follow the steps, to respect the procedures, like to fill in the papers, to wait in a welcoming centre, to submit the request for asylum, to follow some Italian classes… all this simplifies my work a lot and it’s much more useful to them. Of course not all the people are like this and it’s right that differences emerge: somebody has, for example, a stronger personality and disengages from the welcome-circuit… there are many, in truth. With Italian people of course the job is much simpler because of a common language, while with refugees and migrants the first obstacle to manage is exactly language, despite the mediators. Consider that when refugees arrive here they are exhausted and with little patience to understand why they have to face so many other difficulties. So in sum, working with a group of people pursuing the same goal, which is regularization through all these steps, is preferable. In fact most of my time is spent with refugees! Some days ago I spent 4 hours just making people understand what a judicial hearing means, how to behave in front of the judge, to remove the hat, to say “goodmorning”, to say good-bye when leaving… I never do this with an Italian, there is no need. It happens that I’m much more patient with asylum seekers, it’s an impulsive factor, patience is much more needed here. Imagine: some of them even greet you by saying “god bless you!” and it’s not the best thing when the judge is an atheist (laughs).

Menander
If we are talking about establishing a human relationship I can only think working with another individual. A crowd implies a massive coordination problem, unless institutional and organizational procedures have been previously initiated. On an individual level each person is a universe unto her/himself, “stubbornness” included. Of course, on a matter of scale, if we follow the sweeping generalisations of many media narratives, we are also forced to see everything as dark and difficult. But if we focus on individuals, although keeping them somehow at arms length, and activate some empathy-building devices it’s a different scenario. I remember when last year the mainstream media was quite favourable in spreading a positive image of refugees coming from Syria, highlighting how  many of  them were doctors, dentists, electricians, teachers, craftsmen, etc, the message was “these people had difficulties, they were forced to move, but they are very much like you!”. Furthermore, if you move onto a personal level, it’s random because you are dealing with another individual and her/his idiosyncrasy, things become quite unpredictable. Well we have to remember that we don’t “have” to become friends with everyone, it could be wrong to make it a sort of moral demand: beyond tolerance we could and perhaps should pursue a level of civility.  Then there are institutional requirements that demand understanding and adaptations that the people on the move are much better at getting and in assimilating rather than cultural critics, columnists or opinion-leaders. Even if it’s not something we can generalise about: are we talking about dress-codes or law? Although unfortunately more and more dimensions of everyday life are being legally codified leaving little space for adaptation. In the end, direct dialogue is the only way of engagement I can see. But how to cope with “scale”? It’s a short sighted attitude not recognizing the difference between a few and a multitude. If we accept the best way is direct engagement, dialogue, etc… it requires a lot of time and resources, not so effective if in the short term you have to face the arrival of a million of people in a few months in a relatively small place. The issues of “scale” should not be underestimated and I’m afraid that sometimes, above all in the refugees’ freedom of movement camp, it’s completely ignored. In Belgium for example there are 10 million inhabitants and it makes a difference if 1.000 or 50.000 or 500 000 refugees arrive. There is a point when you reach a limit in the carrying capacity because it’s not just a matter of will but of resources too, not only financial but human, social workers for example.  Some colleagues of mine  successfully practiced in the social housing estates of Wien with a  structured pattern of communication using direct dialogue , but it took time and resources to set up, in a particular environment.

Antigone
Absolutely the first one! Which is also the most frequent situation I find myself in, a very NGO-style way to work – you need to be adaptable. Rigidity is not an option… beyond the very specific context which you are inhabiting, I would say. More so if you are working on migration and asylum, which means to work with continuous fluxes of change by any standards. You know the constant in the history of humankind is that people, nationalities, methods of arrival, admission modalities, laws and above all… praxes, change. In the Italian context we work with the the Ministry of the Interior, so with police headquarters and prefectures: none of these behave in a similar way! Adaptation and a lot of irony are fundamental. Of course working with a multitude can be tiresome due to fragmenting and dispersing efforts… maybe working with small groups, in a situation of permanent crisis and evolution, due to the way I am, would make it easier to work. But if this means stubbornness or lack of adaptation… no way! This happens to my colleagues, to those working on participation on a local or national level. A very tiresome endeavour because people show up en masse, languages are different, even when the goal is the same the ways to achieve it differ. It’s not easy to find a synthesis.

 

Do you think that such a crisis as we have occurring today would be easier to deal with in the past, hundreds or even thousands of years ago (there are less useful technologies but perhaps more flexible border controls and less fixed legal issues), OR is it easier to cope with it today (better technologies and resources but fixed laws regarding mobility that can make things tricky)?

 

Sinon
From which point of view? The controller or the citizen? It’s really a wide question as it proposes a big jump by comparing between a system of rituals and praxes, more or less cultural and less technological, and the world of today. In the middle we experience the rise of several novelties, conceptual and practical, above all the National States and the borders. With borders, in the way they developed into a control grid and not just a wall, I mean a set of mechanisms (truly mechinic I would say) that, in reality, don’t succeed in their gigantic effort to contain, control, register. A bureaucracy (also made of weapons, jails…) constantly in pursuit: the flux of people, but above all the individuals, challenge these apparatuses in a very strong way and, paradoxically, from a position of strength in the sense that this machine is always pursuing, always behind. Sometimes I see people at the border and they have a strength expressed in many ways that the machines can’t get at all. On the other hand, I confess I’m quite skeptical about “welcoming the stranger” from the point of view of a community, as I perceived, experienced or seen in the town where I grew up, a small place among the mountains. You can be very attentive and responsive to her/his needs, but it’s still about welcoming the “stranger” until s/he stays a “stranger”.  But what happens if this person wants to stay? Maybe not in your house of course, but in town, or close… because she/he fell in love with someone, or just because the environment is nice and affordable. So I find this kind of hospitality quite ambiguous and I don’t think it’s the right way to welcome because it’s unable to capture the strength of somebody’s escape and its consequences. Of course the others are “strangers” in the sense they are not from the place, different for several aspects, but can’t we say the same for genetic pools? There are so many differences… I can claim I’m more akin to an African rather than my neighbour!  Who is not different from one another? Quite a few of these people leave their countries with the idea to see how Europe is and consider the idea of going back. In most cases they are escaping and, for several reasons, they want to stay here. So back to this problematic word, “stranger”… I wonder if in the ancient world there was a similar nuance: the arrival of people that want to live with us! Maybe they want to be hosted, why not, with very primary needs, drink, eat, a roof and… work. The majority wants to work not for the sake of it, but in order to earn some money, even if some people I met come from places where there is still a dignity derived from work (which I don’t believe in…) recalling a dimension we also experienced along time ago: the factory, the pride… the absence or work sometimes cause even neurosis and pathologies. Not good at all, but indeed reversing the prejudice of people unwilling to work! The problem is there are no jobs and what I see sometimes is of big sadness, as these people are deprived of identity, beyond a very practical problem which is bringing home money, in the country of origin. To me, it’s very ugly to see this, because we are talking about “sad passions” but also because it refers to an immense problem in our societies, much beyond “safety” and “threat”… it’s about equality, dignity and recognition.
Moreover… how can we deal with the criminalisation of aid? Beyond the absurdity it causes also a lot of traumas because it’s not nice being un-able to offer a meal, added to the bigger trauma suffered by those in need.

Themis
In the first stance, I disagree with the actual European and Italian law: it’s absurd that during a war it’s impossible to create a humanitarian corridor, to issue a visa for humanitarian reasons! It seems to me a war crime… like what is happening with Syria. Since the “humanitarian visa” doesn’t exist, you can only ask for a visa for work, study, to join a family member or tourism. Well… work is even difficult for Italians, for studies it’s very rare, for the family it is an articulate process… what remains is only tourism and with many requirements: income, insurance, bills, bank guarantees… how can anyone  have all of this, in such a desperate situation? So, beyond asylum seeking, legal efforts have to be made if people are bombed, or being less rigid in issuing tourism visas. It’s surely a shortcut but we have to allow people to escape from warzones! I know I’m quite radical, but entrance should never be controlled, anybody should be allowed to move freely. It’s possible, with no chaos. We have to consider also the places where there are no wars but maybe a war has just finished, or an unstable situation is undermining peoples’ survival. Even the so called “economic migrants”: among all these people arriving in Italy, some of them scale the long path to citizenship… just  a few stay in Italy! The majority want to become Italian citizen to go away and some of them to go back to their country… maybe because there they succeed in building some savings, build their house and there it is more possible and more sustainable to live their life, and after all, to support their country’s development. They don’t like to move away from their countries, from the place they are born in and grew up in… but for need! If there were no regulations as such, illegal migrants, visas… there would be less problems for all. Tell me, why can I easily move to any African country and they cannot do the same to come here?
Still it’s hard for me to think about the past times… I can just think about invasions or colonizations… but in general it could be different now… think: if I had a problem, to move to another place or country and try to make a living, sharing what I am and negotiating with the inhabitants. Too simple? Well, all the borders, technology and protocols did not solve the problem: all devices that complicated and worsened people’s lives. People keep on arriving and dying during the crossing, while terrorism is spreading and striking also in the heart of Europe. Doesn’t sound to me like a solution!

Menander
To confront with the past we would need an expert historian with good data, and the further you go into the past the more difficult it is to have good data. From my anecdotal sense the sheer scale of people’s movements  we are facing today are quite unprecedented in the history of mankind. Perhaps they compare with the wolkswanderungen at the end of the Roman Empire but it’s really difficult to make comparisons across so many centuries. It makes perhaps more sense to compare our current “globalisation” with the previous era of relatively open markets and freedom of movement of goods, capital and labour at the end of the 19th century up until the beginning of the First World War. In that period  3 millions of Italians migrated to Argentina, of which  1 million and a half  went back. It’s a huge number overall but we are talking about a process that lasted something like 50 years. The same is true for emigration to the U.S.A. until the First World War. The number of legal migrants to the US in recent years, if I remember it correctly, has even surpassed the total annual arrivals – around and above one million people per year, but we should check these figures – at the height of the “first globalisation”  Or again, concerning borders’ history, are we comparing with a feudal Europe, with monarchies, or with Nation States? Let’s admit there were no borders: travelling was much more expensive, difficult, insecure… in terms of money and hardship.  It should be an analysis made with a humble spirit from both sides, the historical and the contemporary. Paradoxically travelling has never been so cheap and easy as today on the global scale, but still many thousands die while trying to cross the Mediterranean. Let’s take the Syrian case, which until 5 years ago was beyond our mental map: just a fraction of the population is moving towards Europe, while half of the pre-war population remained inside Syria, often internally displaced, or in nearby countries like Lebanon or Jordan or Turkey. If I can draw a parallel with the Afghan war and refugee crisis since the ‘80s there is probably the same pattern: the richer a  family, the further would they be able to go . “Rich” not only in a financial sense but considering a broad set of assets like education, connections, friends or relatives already living in other countries. So by and large the poorer Afghans barely managed to scamper beyond the border and stayed in refugee camps in Pakistan, while the richer ones resettled to Australia, Germany, The Netherlands or United States.  If the same is going on also in Syria then from the European perspective we are just seeing a small part of what is going on and perhaps the poorest and most vulnerable refugees are still in refugee camps in or around Syria. It is a good reason to calm down and consider with reflection, about what we can do without being disappointed too much about ourselves. And also ask some uneasy questions about how to use scarce resources: would it better to assist 10 thousand refugees in a camp in Jordan, say, or with the same amount of resources, one thousand refugees in Italy or Germany? It’s not easy!
Now, the borders have never been so open and so closed at the same time. Some historical borders have disappeared and others are as hard as fortresses[1]. Combining the relative openness of borders and the transport infrastructure on the global scale, perhaps it has never been so easy to move around the planet for such large numbers of people in history.  But not for all.
For war refugees one wonders why is it not possible for them to apply for asylum or humanitarian protection before reaching EU soil and risking their lives in the process. Sometimes this is done quietly without much fanfare (although we are talking about small numbers). The case of a Syrian family who applied in the Belgian embassy in Lebanon and was denied humanitarian protection recently arrived all the way to the European Court of Justice that  eventually upheld the denial saying that providing humanitarian visas was an option that member states could resort to but not an obligation. Then remote protocols are more open to corruption, like the Italian consul in Erbil who was arrested for accepting bribes to provide visas.

Antigone
This is a gigantic issue. First of all we should refer to a “humanitarian crisis” on a global level and try to approach it in a technical way. Yes, movements and displacement of people recall a crisis and what will make the system collapse, if it’s not collapsing already, due to the rigidity of borders. I can’t talk about the past, where surely the technological component was not so sophisticated and the grids were softer, although not necessarily better in reality. On the one hand we have movements of people that won’t stop, on the other hand we have borders that can be impenetrable or permeable according to the political opportunity of the moment. Take the Italian case, despite the complex apparatuses deployed by actors such as Frontex, when movement of people is allowed people pass: from Sicily moving forward to the peninsula (now with more difficulties, but the situation will change again), from Como, from Ventimiglia… despite the physical possibility to block them, there is a margin which is political. What I’m truly scared of, regarding the European Union, is the inappropriateness of the response: there is no such a thing as a “number crisis”, we are perfectly able to manage these numbers, I always get very annoyed about this. Those in crisis are those arriving, who are furthermore put into a deeper crisis by our political incapacity, in a continent of about 505 million people. I’m really afraid that what is at stake are not the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), like the Dublin agreement, but Schengen, which is the basis of Europen identity. The free movement of people was argued about much earlier than the Arab Spring or than the appearance of these changes. The European context is becoming panic-stricken, not farsighted at all, addressed to the electorate belly, a herald of the problems that are to come. The issue of border control is a serious one: some of the technologies are funded by the Official Development Assistance (ODA), arguably a serious ethical problem, these technologies are not the ones deciding how to open or close borders, but rather political opportunities. Look at the departures from Egypt to Italy, shifting in accordance with the tense diplomatic relations connected to the Regeni case[2]. Or look at the agreement with Libya ratified to radically decrease peoples’ departures, instead however even more people are arriving. Then, the technological control of bodies is a very significant issue but, in reality, to “check on bodies” European institutions did not hesitate to use much more primitive means, like paying the Janjaweed troops[3] (internationally recognized as war criminals) to prevent people crossing the Sudan border. So what are we talking about? Paradoxically, while human mobility increases and the political response is unable to cope with this challenge, we are going towards nineteenth-century behaviour, a sort of Nation-State approach that will not withstand the reality check. Let’s not hide: the new Africa Fund[4] of Italian Ministry of Foreign Affair or the Trust Fund launched at La Valletta[5] in November 2015 is the way Europe is trying to move outside its borders, the body check, practically washing its hands of what will happen next. We all know the 6 billion euros promised to Erdogan, partially already paid, has been used to build detention centers at the Syrian border from where, as Amnesty International testifies[6], people are sent back to Syria.

 

How can people encourage their governments to improve the help for refugees?

 

Sinon
There is no end to improvement. Again, in reality we are not speaking about such big numbers, nevertheless for a country like Italy for example, that never experienced until recently such an important phenomenon and problem, we see something changing in the cities. To claim it’s a demographic change is an exaggeration but it’s possible to experience differences. An example. Among several friends working in hospitality, but also among those who don’t, there is a new knowledge under development: about things nobody had an idea before. For example “what does it mean bambarà?”… “oh yes! It’s the most used term in Mali!”. And this is quickly becoming common knowledge, as we all learned what punk and rock and roll are.
Second point: these people are in reality feeding us. I have a permanent contract and many friends of mine found a job as well in the field of hospitality; I honestly doubt we could have find such a stable and, in some ways, even beautiful jobs without the phenomenon we are talking about. In my opinion national labour organisations haven’t yet valued how much Italy has gained so far in terms of employment. Consequently… consumption: all these people have a life, they go home, they go to the bar, have leisure time and so on. But, above all, I value the new common knowledge that has been forming, many little things like “which language they speak over there?”, “how are Senegalese people compared to Nigerians?”… let’s be honest: before we had no idea what Africa was and now there are people, mostly young people, who are more experienced or, even better, come from there. Or what Islam is in extent, while before we heard just brutal opinions. Middle-East and Africa definitely entered our daily chats and vocabulary. We have, consequently, a double form of enrichment.
So we are talking about a political issue, beyond pietas or ideology, towards a sensitization and a wealth that are growing. But something has to be done on a political level. Welcoming is political and will be more and more political in the future. The European Commission level is very complex and distant , so to improve policies sometimes could mean to erase them. How? There are elections, talking about it, to write about it, to protest and so on… this enrichment can be claimed and so policies can be changed or improved with joy, and I use joy in the most explicit sense, which is on a political level.

Themis
If there were any politicians able to tackle the issue, without following consent! Migrants are largely exploited for electoral purposes… think about Lega Nord or Le Pen. When people build barricades to prevent refugees from arriving there it’s a big problem related to ignorance, but I look to the long term: new generations are growing, they are multicultural and used to experiencing differences from the start. So I think the first thing is stop following political leaders that use explicitly provocative rethoric and even demand the punishment of those speeches inciting discriminating habits. I mean to do it with sanctions, if necessary, both on a political level by being removed from political positions and on a penal level, as I see some behaviours as incitements to hatred between the social classes and racism. There should be less tolerance for things like these. What can we do now concretely? Do our best in our small way, by showing other sides to reality, sensitise people on specific issues, exchange views with our neighbours, maybe without confrontations. Or subscribe to an association, or write, like open letters to newspapers… in any case it’s important to manifest our resentment toward such behaviours, because if we leave our astonishment all the time only on the inside, within the four walls of our houses, it’s like replaying the song to ourselves.

Menander
First of all the public sphere should be detoxed from all the rumours we are experiencing. There is a vicious agenda behind the demagogic right-wing discourse, beyond the difficulties we have been speaking of so far. But moralising and lecturing doesn’t help much here, especially when those doing the lecturing and moralising about welcoming the refugees are perceived by their target audience as highly educated and well-off professionals with comprehensive private health insurances and whose children go to public schools  that do not shoulder their fair share of the burden. When I was doing social work in the 1990s when Roma refugees from the former Yugoslavia arrived in Bologna there was a resettlement plan coordinated by government officials (we’re talking about 250 people in an urban area of 500 thousand). During heated public information meetings the local residents of the areas where the shelters were going to be opened expressed a variety of point of views, from open, blank racist hostility to more general worries about the unknown, but the recurring criticism was that not a single shelter was going to be opened in the better off neighbourhoods of the city. If you build shelters just in a lower-class area, you are reinforcing zoning or ghettoes: this is very clever just from the point of view of elite control… people will focus on  conflicts related to beliefs, religion or cultural differences rather than building class solidarities.

Antigone
Who are the “people”? The few who know what’s going on are those operating in the field, who are obliged to study the dossiers? Or those who for political or individual sensibilities, hide when something is going wrong. So the first step is to widen the audience and change the narrative of the stranger, an aspect that is still admittedly on the level of the “Athens and Sparta age” and the easiest leverage with which to manipulate the electorate. We have become delirious… in complete chaos fed by numerous media, intentionally or stupidly, even by respectable newspapers like La Repubblica or La Stampa, not just extreme right-wing sheets. Going back to the “audience”, the question is are the “people” a significant, critical mass or the same handful of people from NGOs and those few who are politicised. Then we should clarify the rethoric that states “let’s help them in their countries!”: Italy for example is among the last countries in aid policies for public development, meaning that our country is not respecting a series of obligations by withholding money that should be directed to such a task; what’s more – according to OSCE, countries in northern Europe are using the constrained funds for aid development for in-donor costs[7] (Italy, Sweden, Netherlands to name a few…). Regulations on this matter are not so harsh, but this is clearly a dishonest trend that has grown over the years, deviating resources from the public aid development funds. To tell you the truth the first impact of these funds, when used properly for on-site education, infrastructures, services, have many times the opposite effect by increasing the migratory flows, since no aid policy can overturn so quickly the status-quo: for example, transforming Nigeria into Netherlands, so in the mid-term we witness more and more people choosing to move away. While the real, true desperate people, or those who just feel good don’t move at all, there is an intermediate range of people with a new better income looking for new perspectives elsewhere. Not to mention western post-colonial heritage, alive and kicking through white-washing procedures: our countries still want to exploit African or Middle-East resources, and in so doing support governments which are far from being democratic, dressed up as humanitarian or development agreements like the Khartoum process[8]… or the recent agreement between Italy and Sudan while the President of Sudan has two warrants from the International Criminal Court! The aid funds are used to patch huge wounds and what disgusts me even more is the explicit, direct intention emerging from the papers: “I give you the money if you keep the migrants. And if you don’t keep the migrants I don’t only withhold the money but I fine you!”. A vulgarity that beforehand was diplomatically hidden, now it is shamelessly exposed.
So maybe there are two very simple and clear ideas that we could ask people to address their governments. One is the inescapability of the present, for there is no way to stop this phenomenon, despite any new wall, so we should calm down and maintain a practical attitude, trying to manage it instead of being subjected. The second is the disastrous demographic ageing that is going to affect our welfare system: with the increasing number of non-productive people, tax payers will decrease reducing also the possibility to fund (and on the contrary, taking) for example, public education, public health system or retirement benefits. We can be saved only by migrants in the end, so let’s stop considering them as just poor victims, recipients for volunteering, or usurpers and let’s start looking at them as resources. These are sensitive arguments: even considering South of Italy, for example, it seems that unemployment is specifically defined by certain sectors where there are empty work places still to be filled. Job creation, sustainability, welfare, new families are enormous issues, but this is the reality and data can just confirm and we can only end full circle into widening the audience.

 

There is a great deal of fear surrounding movements of large groups of people, so what can we do to inform society about the situation and alleviate this suspicion?

 

Sinon
Fear is an important and legitimate issue, because it can be experienced but also used and manipulated. My suggestion could be something like: “are you afraid? Come with me, I will show you what reality is”. So we have a duty which is to accompany people in their understanding and knowledge. When fear is manipulated it unleashes many reactions, like violence. Again, a very political issue where peculiar territories can soften the level of fear. Bologna has its historical newspaper that plays on fear, unleashing a lot of anxieties. I like to imagine many parades in the city to confront this trend.

Themis
An extraordinary power relies on communication: good journalism using precise information and data, avoiding the use of inflaming titles to grab the attention would be a good start. This is valuable also for any other media, even if it’s a method which is hard to control. Also, in this case it would not be wrong to sanction the foolishness that is, many times, delivered by various media: what about engaging the Association of journalists to de-qualify, sanction or suspend those journalist, editors or directors intentionally spreading manipulative information? A good practice is represented by the Progrè[9] association, devoted to debunking false myths on migrants: it’s a model of loyal information with precise data, because someone can spread very bad information even using such data, isn’t that so? It’s manipulation and disloyalty to claim an invasion if, for example, 1000 migrants landed in Lampedusa, while in the previous years the figures were the same but nobody was interested. It would be more correct to state that “the trend hasn’t changed, also this year 1000 migrants arrived…”, just as an example of course.

Menander
As I said, we are talking about something unprecedented… some research has been developed in the U.S. by Robert Putnam, which says something like let’s be careful… if we accept a model of high mobility and high diversity (for a moment out of the bigger issue of forced displacements) also on a local level, with a continuous shake-up, it could work even over a long term, but they observed how  people may lose the ability to build relations, to trust and cooperate, arguing that if people have more cultural differences they trust less, they cooperate less. He uses the expression: “people hunker down”. Of course the U.S. context is different, and the legacy of slavery and the broader racial issue may have an impact that is not present in Europe  (yet). Nevertheless the continuous shake-up of the social fabric, due to economic reasons for example, can cause a problem in the quality of cooperation among individuals which is serious.  The problem becomes very serious  when we start to combine high ethnic diversity with high income inequality. But, again, it’s an issue related to the unprecedented “scale” of the phenomenon that we should at least acknowledge in order to face it pragmatically, without any ready-made solutions in the pocket. On the contrary, in the highly toxic  political and media environment we are immersed, if we go for a competition for who shouts louder,  the “voice of reason” tends to be overwhelmed. But for this reason to work it has to become embodied in a political project, with a strong redistributive component, moralising alone does not help, it’s even counterproductive.
There are broader questions about the consequences of migration in general. In this sense Paul Collier wrote a courageous book for a liberal economist, asking troubling questions. For example what are the economic and political consequences of migration on the sending societies. If we accept that economic migrations are always somehow “forced” by dysfunctional systems (lack of jobs and opportunities, rentier economies, corruption etc.), does the migration of the young, talented,  energetic and often better educated than the average, have any impact on changing this system?  I have a hunch for example that there might be some connection between the Tunisian revolution in 2011 and the fact that migrations from North Africa to Europe had become more difficult in the previous decade, with the coming into force of bilateral re-admission treaties.  But this is an open question. And again difficult for whom? Is it easier to migrate for those with more resources?

Antigone
Maybe playing a game, with the neighbours, with the family… I did in my surroundings, with allegedly well informed people by asking “which country in the world has the biggest number of refugees? And the European one?” and the biggest absurdities came out. In my brief experience as researcher I learned that “data matters”, in order to enable people in understanding for real: beyond one’s perception, numbers tell another story and as a matter of fact we are not surrounded by moving masses! Sure, if you get stuck in front of the TV looking at landings in Augusta, Palermo, Pozzallo, the very powerful images of the Balkan route with all these people walking through the fields you think “the world is coming to us!”: it’s not like this, and it’s very difficult to communicate in an efficient way. We should start at school, and make the children understand how to properly use real data, to re-set our perceptions… maybe the Lebanese are right in panicking as one in four people there is a refugee, but not us as we don’t have in Italy 25 millions refugees! Another good thing to do would be to start from people’s stories, as there are several reasons people are escaping, not necessarily all due to devastation by wars but nevertheless very hardships like poverty, land-grabbing, desertification, climate change… very complicated stories that, if told with good narratives, could explain the reasons of so many departures, avoiding the mistake of connecting everything to conflicts. Conflicts are easy to understand, the rest much less so, and this is true for the majority of the fugitives. I’m not so optimistic that this information will have a massive effect but at least it could widen the audience we were talking about, even just to push away the demented dichotomy between refugee, asylum seeker and economic migrant. These are distinctions Europe created to discriminate the legal entrants for work reasons, so those who come have no other way but to apply for asylum, creating mass confusion, and devaluing the concept of asylum. But these people are just the subjects of a distortion we only created as part of the false myths, like the stranger coming to steal jobs, land and women… a myth of the Middle-Ages, we are not going to be set free, but at least to work a little bit.

 

Are there any ancient examples of a mass exodus in the way we have now, which you can immediately think of, with a similar view of integration and perhaps a similar drive? Or has our society forced out a new type of refugee?

 

Sinon
For sure there are new kinds of exodus, because they face all the novelties the ancient world didn’t experience. Probably motivations aren’t that different, wars and environmental disasters above all. Of course I think about the Jewish people… when I was in Palestine a guide told me about all the clashes with the local communities at the time of the Philistines… but Palestine in particular was crossed by several exoduses. The ancient world experienced also weaponized exodus, like Alexander the Great, Gengis Khan, groups moving burning what they encountered, in this sense it could be different from nowadays. But mankind always moved, individually or collectively… I think it never stopped, in truth. Isn’t it? Who knows how people arrived in Easter Island. I can’t help to think, more recently, about the British in America, Australia and New Zeland, the Portuguese in the Western Indies or the French in Africa. Colonizers that stayed there in the end. Very different aims, no doubt they arrived as colonizer empires, but with a big movement of people nevertheless, with huge fluxes. Now we are not coping with invaders at all, even if in some cases they are shown as such…

Themis
I’m not an expert on ancient issues at all… but being myself from Calabria I can tell you that it is a land from where people have gone away since forever. Much more recently in 1900 I look to all those people that moved to Latin America, or even Switzerland, for economic reasons. But without a doubt, wars are a constant push factor, from the ancient times to the present…

Menander
Let’s take the migration of the Lombards who are from Saxony, along the Elbe river to Pannonia and Hungary, than through the eastern Alps to northern Italy, hence giving the name to the region, Lombardia. Someone could argue about this but it seems to be the last great movement of people that significantly changed the composition of the Italian population. We are not speaking about some groups leaving but entire families, an entire population of a few hundred thousand to change their place of abode over several years. The global population was much smaller and the space available was larger but if we take into account density and speed of movement, what we are facing now is unprecedented. And if it is not well… this is the life we have the chance to live! As the saying goes “the past is a different country… they do things differently there” so it’s very tricky to make analogies between past and present, it can even backfire or even have unintended consequences.

Antigone
Contemporaneity has produced some good outcomes since the Geneva Convention, legislative tools conceived to protect refugees, although these tools are no longer moving with the times. Contemporaneity also provokes displacements on an ever larger scale that is in many cases planned, on the basis of expectations projected toward new destinations, initiated in the countries of origin. For example the Albanians during the ‘80s and ’90s were very much influenced by the Italian music Festival of Sanremo, thinking that the TV programme broadcasted the representation of what Italy was. Or, rather it is the creation of false myths through social media: people coming from the Sub-Saharan area arrive with a huge amount of information, from word-of-mouth, from websites, from social networks. This of course makes things easier but often also complicates, because they arrive with a preconceived framework that collapses at the moment of landing. They find themselves in a completely different situation from what they imagined. All this is reinforced many times by those who, after a successful inclusion, tend to give a sugarcoated version of their experience. This is, I think, very different from the past: the creation of myths and expectations that are doomed to be disappointing for most. Quite frequently it happens that people, after landing in Greece or Sicily ask “am I in Germany?”… “sorry no, you are in Pozzallo in the Ragusa province…”. Or I remember an Egyptian guy whose smartphone fell in the sink: he panicked completely, not able to communicate with the family but, above all, losing his entire network of virtual/real relations. An enormous chaos with an enormous quantity of information is a destabilising short-circuit. I can hardly think about this in the past. It could be an opportunity in terms of both integration and spreading the right information.

 

Who should be responsible for the welfare of refugees? The local community or the state? Who succeeds in making people feel most welcome?

 

Sinon
First of all it depends if you trust or not the idea of the State. Personally, I’m losing it while in the past I was much more a staunch communist, almost Leninist. I believed in the capacity of the State to tackle things that a community cannot: if you think about a community that works beautifully inside but without doors, it’s a dead community. All of us should be responsible, considering the State in the form we have been received and that a community is not reliable as an absolute: there are good and bad communities. But, personally, I don’t trust communities to grant everybody dignity and respond to their needs. So we should find a balanced State that sometimes advocates the duty of hospitality. In Italy we witnessed examples, like in Gorino[10], a very ambiguous phenomenon. I did not want to blame those people who built barricades against the arrival of refugees, it’s a very complex dynamic… it was very ugly to see the extremely offensive slogans addressed at the inhabitants, practically mirroring the brutality of the barricades and the speeches. This complexity is also echoed in the idea of “the good community”, so you can’t just say “beasts! You are not Christians!” to the inhabitants of a small village in the middle of the swampland. The State tried to impose, rightly, the placement of refugees but in a very impractical and brutal way and, in the end, it disengaged completely! A very bad but also very interesting story that should deserve to be a book, a reportage, a case-history. Even Alfano (Interior Minister at the time) claimed “these people are not Italians!”… Look who’s talking! The one that deported 40 Sudanese people to Sudan… So this story is a great answer, with a question, to your question.

Themis
According to me, local communities. And when they don’t welcome they should be coerced and supervised by the State because not everybody is able to give hospitality, it is something that needs a path of preparation starting from schools. We should try to avoid those cases where refugees find barricades or laxity without any attention beyond a meal and a bed: hospitality is something else. People living in the territory are fundamental also because if a person feels welcomed, s/he will feel less pushed to break the rules: if you find an honest job, you can take care of yourself, you can send money to the family you left, you don’t feel the need to access the illegal channels, which are so skilful at attracting desperate people, above all the migrants.

Menander
First of all we should question why this has to be considered a “burden”, how long should assistance be kept up before people become self-sufficient, at least up to a point. In Italy for example the financial cost, if fully born by the State, and the way the welcome machine works, is highly dysfunctional. People wait one year or even more without any possibility to work and with little chance for the asylum request to be recognized for those applicants coming from West African countries. More and more people are choosing the asylum seeking route because the economic migration route is closed… it’s a dysfunctional substitution because they can’t work until papers are accepted, while the State is supporting them economically. More, voluntary arrangements are not enough: we can’t sort refugees only where they are welcomed because it’s not enough. The best way could be to shorten the application period and the process of recognition, after which a person can start study, work and take care of her/himself as soon as possible. Then again the “scale” problem… if I’m not wrong the great majority of the asylum seekers are not recognized as political refugees… it’s a failing system! I don’t see the voluntary welcome by villages or communities as the ultimate solution. On the other hand I think that when there are economic incentives by the State to prepare or build shelters things work smoothly. In the end there is not a single rule that applies to all cases.

Antigone
Both. The local community is truly fundamental but it’s critical if you don’t involve it. 20% of the people in Italy are welcomed through SPRAR projects[11] realised by empowering local communities and city councils who are leading a chain of local associations, cooperatives and so forth with governmental money. 80% of people are hosted in Extraordinary Reception Centres, that can be anything and its opposite: from ordinary flats with services similar to SPRAR (cultural mediation, Italian classes, etc.) to places similar to detention centres. Why? Because they are managed directly via prefectures by the Ministry of the Interior. What does it mean? The 80% of refugees are distributed directly between the prefectures and the managing staff of the Special Welcoming Centres, without any involvement of the local communities, nor the city councils nor the Regions. This is an indefensible mistake, causing the notorious barricades against the refugees: beyond the visceral reactions it’s a real problem. A system that is rhetorically horizontal is, in reality, pretty much vertical, managed directly by the State, without any involvement of the local dimension despite the joint conferences with ANCI (the national association of city councils) and the declarations addressed to reinforce SPRAR. Without considering any involvement or responsibility of the local institutions, whether the city council or the neighbourhood, inclusion is not possible. In my experiences integration is, in fact, easier in small villages: we manage several in Tuscany and even if the first impact is truly strong, the satisfaction is greater at the end of the process above all if operators are skilled. The local community needs evidence of reliability, here I will give you an example. In one of these communities, we realized we overcame the local, initial suspicions when the refugees, impressive tall African guys, were involved in the walking-bus service[12] by the elderly volunteers association: the community entrusted the refugees with their children, with the endorsement by the old inhabitants… it was so incredible it was reported in the newspapers! This is much easier in a village, while in the city I see my colleagues struggling to gain trust with the barber, the cashier, the baker in order to grant a minimum recognition for the refugees. Considering that in Italy, of the 8000 city councils, just 400 subscribed, since SPRAR is on a volunteer basis, I start thinking subscribing to SPRAR should be mandatory in order to have a more proportioned sorting of people around the country, with the effect of softening the alarm level felt by the population. According to some constitutional lawyers this obligation is even required by the Italian Constitution… but this is too sensitive to be exposed to the electorate, of course! Coming full circle, well-being can be obtained only through proximity relations.

 

What are your ideas of ‘home’ and how would you define the term?

 

Sinon
For me “home” means “rest”. And rest means a lot of things like safety, in the sense of safety of affections, that it won’t be demolished… to rest!

Themis
The place where I was born and grew up in the family, immersed in nature. An innocent part of life. Well I guess that people forced to move from their homes can also perceive quite the opposite, as it is a place impossible to live in anymore. But I also think that there is a strong sense of belonging related to a birth factor or a beautiful image nested in their minds. Personally, I struggle to feel really deeply at home outside of my place of origin, Calabria. The rest, the far away, is more the “house” for the adult life, related to responsibilities but definitely not the carefreeness nor the comfort I feel when I go back.

Menander
For me home has to do with roots, density of relationships, human and symbolic… where I feel some kind of rootedness with traditional things like family, culture, language, places, references, etc… with a higher density in the place where you spend more time, like during childhood. But roots do not have to be strictly localised. Keeping with the botanical metaphor, there are plants that develop aerial roots from out of the soil and then just after a time those roots connect to the ground giving an expanded sense of rootedness. So it’s not just a matter of volition but a matter of time too… a subjective time of course, so for example I may develop a higher density of relationships in one place after one year rather than after spending 4 years in another place.

Antigone
Home is where I feel good, where I can nurture my personality, my potential and my relations. Or on the contrary where I have the possibility to hide when I need to. I felt at home in many places actually…

 

What is the biggest difficulty in integrating into a society? Language? Social preconceptions?

 

Sinon
Though to say… are we talking about people aged 14? 18? 50? Individuals? Families? From Sierra Leone? Gambia? Niger? Mali? For every one is different, even being deterministic according to language, country or religion… it’s so different! Even on a practical level. For example a person coming from Pakistan has already a web of relations, often a large one that can even be an obstacle to integration, that a guy from Gambia doesn’t have. The latter maybe goes to a disco, dressed like us, finding a local girlfriend. There is always a common grammar… yes language can be the first obstacle but in need it takes little to learn it in reality. It’s so diverse and rarely is this diversity considered. All this is also a discourse about integration, a very ambiguous word. I see how much the people arriving are held responsible for integration, with a weight that nearly achieves a sense of guilt: if the “new” people don’t show commitment and passion to integration, they will be declassified as B series asylum seekers. You can see this in the last Italian legislative decree or last speeches about volunteer work, or giving back to society by working for free… all played in the realm of morality and guilt. So it happens that often integration becomes a very strong “subjectification bludgeon”. Despite this, there are thousands experiencing volunteer work, in all the country. I even saw an Al-Jazeera documentary on my small town of origin, presenting refugees, in uniform, sweeping and cleaning the streets as a good practice! We have to consider that sometimes people don’t want to integrate themselves! Even more so those who come with a local web of relations. Maybe they want to follow their religious network, or an economic network… why they should care about integration? It becomes a problem if we think about ghettoization, like in France for example, no? It’s not an easy argument that becomes difficult because of policies even if, it’s true, they are getting worse and worse. At the same time we can’t say “integration, such a beautiful thing!”. I don’t believe in a fancy multiculturalism, it’s rather a big chaos and I firmly believe in living together in the most absolute way, not differentiating nor segregating. There are many things really problematic for me about some habits or beliefs from people arriving from other places, but I tell you that when it comes, for example, to religion I’m a rabid anticlerical with everyone. Starting from the Italians! No difference. Coming full circle, it’s a big mess and policies are part of this.

Themis
Language is an important barrier initially, considering that in Italy apparently people don’t fall in love with learning different languages… even with English we have some difficulties to the point that, instead of learning English to communicate better, we force immigrants to learn Italian. Some of them are really talented in learning quickly, even those that never studied not even in Africa. This is important because of the prejudices that are still influencing people’s perception: if a black person stops an inhabitant to ask for any information, the latter many times thinks they are about to be harrassed, for help, for money or to buy something… it’s quite common. If it’s a white person who comes close, the game changes. If migrants know the language, they can create an opportunity for an encounter themselves, even just asking for information.

Menander
To me mastering the language is paramount to rooting in a place. Integration is a two way process, a part depends on me, another is in the eye of the beholder: no matter how I learn by heart the local constitution or how well I speak, I have to face a kind of perspective.  So I have to keep an eye on what I can do. I don’t expect my neighbours to like me,  it is always interesting to get to know each other. Consequently I value very much those intermediate bodies or horizontal places where people can meet, dialogue, discover common problems and eventually get along. This is more than tolerance, here in Belgium they call it samenleven – living together, civic sphere –  and can bring to cooperation, which is the start of any political project rooted in society, as opposed to  a political product sold through some marketing strategy.

Antigone
The level of services we are providing to refugees, in order to integrate, is weak. We only pretend to teach Italian, if compared to the Scandinavians where people are committed to 30 hours a week of language classes. I know some migrants are still struggling with Italian, even after a year-long  programme, considering that once at home s/he will speak the native language, or English, or French. I also know some of them are unmotivated because, once the refugee status is obtained, they want to leave for another country. We should also consider the emotive exertion of those who arrived passing from Libya: those coming from there, in the best case, were beaten with a stick for weeks… there are stories I can barely repeat. So you can imagine the depressing approach of some people, obstacles to performative activities like learning a new language, new habits – like what is a supermarket – to get inside of it, to put vegetables on the scale: all this seems so banal, but if you have never seen it in your life it demands a big mental and emotive energy. From banal, it becomes heroic if you arrive deprived of such energies, so an adequate psychological support should be granted, first of all. These people experienced a hell that compressed their potential. Again, providing these kinds of services with efficency should be an intentional investment considering these people, hopefully, will obtain the status and will be autonomous as soon as possible, “giving back” (even if I don’t like this expression at all) the favour. We do our best but we also see the worst, like people “parked” in unhuman places staring at the wall, often minors, burnt-out people literally dumped in our territories. Lastly, prejudices are and will be part of our history and we’ll never eradicate them completely… we need participative modalities, like local assemblies, new ideas other than the third sector and, above all, the local governments. If we intend to meet people’s fear and cope with it, we have the opportunity not merely to mediate among conflicting ways of being, but more importantly to take into consideration all the forms of poverty afflicting a place. I hardly see any administration willing to open serious debates on this.

 

Do you expect large cities or smaller towns/ villages to be more welcoming to refugees?

 

Sinon
You should ask refugees where they want to go. I know some of them would prefer definitely to live in a village, others don’t even think about that!

Themis
The small villages, is where there are very good examples of integration. Of course we are talking about only a few people to deal with, because we have to consider proportion and ratios. First we have to understand the context and then send a proportional number of people. I want to believe that in the small villages people are already used to integrating and sharing, in a different ways than the city. In the city I perceive much more individualism. In the South of Italy for example, among the bad examples of rural work exploitation, there are also great examples like in Riace[13], where the whole town was revitalized. In other places the soil has been prepared for welcome. As I engage with criminality, I think in small villages the contact with crime is less probable, while in the city, at the moment that a person exits from the circuit designed by authorities, the path becomes much more risky. Even in a city like Bologna, which is not that huge, drug dealing is an easy option. Cities have a stronger market for “crime freelancers”. I’m not saying there is no criminality in villages, but rather that it can be controlled more easily.

Menander
If we talk about a recognisable agency in doing the welcoming, I hardly imagine that a metropolis like London can have a discernible single agency. While in a small town there are meetings in the house council with people raising hands and where they can directly decide whether to welcome or not for example, a family of refugees. So it’s difficult to compare the two if we focus on agency. In the small place it’s easier to recognize the decision process while in the city there are undetected processes. But if we look at the outcome only, there are perhaps many more migrants and refugees in large cities because it’s a more open environment with more economic opportunities.

Antigone
I can add another example of a village near Pistoia where we located some young people from Africa. Initially the inhabitants hardly reacted, imagining just a gang of drug dealers. After a while the refugees, farmers in their countries of origin, started cultivating some plots of land by themselves, in an area where a very special potato with protected designation of origin is cultivated. After a while there was such a bond between the refugees and the elderly native farmers that, when the refugees had to leave, the latter driven to tears declared they found their successors, after being abandoned by their sons and youngsters. In the city this is more difficult unless we work on neighbouring, inside condominiums… but again it’s a case by case: for a guy coming from Lagos, Florence is a small village, while for a group coming from a small village in Senegal, San Casciano could seem like a metropolis.

 

What can be done, especially by the media, in order to educate or to reassure people?

 

Sinon
Again, what are we talking about when we talk about media? We saw very well with the American elections… where do people get their information? TV? Internet? Where do they shape their opinions? Maybe they make their mind by reading 10, 20 comments on facebook. If we want to talk about the classic media like TV, radio and newspaper, sometimes when I read above all the local news the first exclamation that comes into my mind is “you are a gang of irresponsible people!”. How can journalists follow just the print sales by reporting imprecise, unfounded, manipulated facts or their ignorant, weak political view with such a false awareness? They depict people, they use words and expressions so foggy, like “that clandestine made this and that”. Responsibility. This is what I stand for.

Themis
As I said, to provide accurate and trustworthy information.

Menander
I’m afraid that the Brexit and Trump phenomena signal a kind of backlash against mainstream media, even if they are public broadcasting services. It seems that  people don’t want to be educated that much about what to do and what to think or at least do not trust the “educators” anymore. I’m even more skeptical about the current configuration of the corporate social media landscape that functions like eco-chambers among like-minded audiences. Traditional media and digital social networks are not the only sources of information and education… we need a “healthy diet” of sources and crucially also direct “un-mediated” discussion.

Antigone
To say that media should inform and not reassure, we have a serious problem in Italy as spotted by Carta di Roma observatory[14]: the level of the debate and the (mis)use of refugees issues in the media is widely embarrassing. Media means many thing: the news and the in-depth analysis mixed with programs for housewives, to build the perfect monster-self… it’s very difficult. Being an independent journalist seems already difficult. Media should involve itself more with different experts, who are rarely introduced in debates, not just the same gurus… we are numerous people conducting serious work both on the academic and on the practical dimension. Then I go back to data, to use numbers, to make comparisons with other countries, to show trends over the years, to pay attention to the usage of images… the bombing of images with boats just pass the vision of a boarding attack, directly to our homes. Then, to pay more attention to people’s stories so the narrative of the privileged refugees draining resources can leave room for the reality check of those almost detained and largely unprotected. Abroad it seems quite different, while reading The Guardian or some French press I can find more objectivity in comparison to the Italian media, where emotiveness is always exaggerated: the “assault”, the “wave”… all expressions building on a negative impact.
What happened with Bosnia or Rwanda should make us reflect on this.

 

[NOTES]

1 — http://www.amnesty.eu/content/assets/Reports/EUR_050012014__Fortress_Europe_complete_web_EN.pdf
2 — https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/25/giulio-regeni-death-italy-egypt-libya-cambridge-student
3 — https://www.hrw.org/legacy/features/darfur/fiveyearson/report4.html
4 — http://www.esteri.it/mae/en/sala_stampa/archivionotizie/approfondimenti/2017/02/cooperazione-il-decreto-fondo-per.html
5 — http://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/regions/africa/eu-emergency-trust-fund-africa_en
6 — https://www.amnesty.org/en/press-releases/2016/04/turkey-illegal-mass-returns-of-syrian-refugees-expose-fatal-flaws-in-eu-turkey-deal/
7 — https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/apr/13/aid-budgets-hosting-refugees-oecd-figures
8 — http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/analysis-fears-development-may-be-used-bargaining-tool-after-eu-migration-summit-1513078836
9 — https://www.facebook.com/Progr%C3%A8-193844467317064/
10 — http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/gorino-goro-italy-refugees-migrants-crisis-women-and-children-blocked-ferrara-a7380566.html
11 — http://www.sprar.it/english
12 — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walking_bus
13 — http://www.bbc.com/news/in-pictures-37289713
14 — http://www.cartadiroma.org/who-we-are/