Lampedusa: Italy pays lip service but ignores real cause of refugee tragedy

photo credit: Corscri Daje Tutti! [Cristiano Corsini] via photopin cc

photo credit: Cristiano Corsini via photopin cc

Extract from the article I wrote for The Conversation, 4 October 2013.

Apart from superficial, if not cynical, displays of bewilderment and Christian solidarity by Italian government officials – an obligation for a coalition led by a Christian Democrat particularly at a time when the Church has taken a stronger position in favour of migrants – it doesn’t seem to be a genuine intention to address the causes of the latest tragedy. The call for a more substantial involvement of the EU risks becoming  justification for a further militarisation of the Mediterranean Sea in order to keep aspiring migrants away from EU shores, dead or alive.

Following the publication of the article I have been interviewed by: BBC Radio Scotland, Lithuania National Radio, Bulgaria National Radio, Greek newspaper ‘To Vima’, Turkish News Agency ‘Anadolu’. The article has been translated in Italian by Corriere Immigrazione and in Turkish by Translate for Justice. The piece was also cited in The Express Tribune.

On the diversity turn, publication announcement

The special issue of Identities. Global Studies in Power and Culture on ‘Ethnography, diversity and urban space‘ that I  edited with Mette L. Berg and Ben Gidley (University of Oxford) is out. Below an edited and substantially abridged version of the introductory essay I wrote with Mette L. Berg. Full version available here

By Mette Louise Berg and Nando Sigona

photo credit: Chris Devers via photopin cc

photo credit: Chris Devers via photopin cc

The demise of multiculturalism as a public policy, and as a political discourse in several European countries, including Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, began over a decade ago in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York and the subsequent so-called war on terror. The multiculturalism backlash that ensued effectively left European immigration countries that are de facto multicultural – in terms of languages spoken, religions practiced, ethnicity, etc. – without an explicit policy for dealing with this fact. Meanwhile, in scholarly discourse, ‘multiculturalism’ as an analytical concept has gradually faded away.

The critique of multiculturalism has given way to a broader expression and recognition of different kinds of differences, resulting largely from the waves of new migration that have transformed the demographic profile of urban areas, and increasingly also rural ones: what Steve Vertovec has termed ‘super-diversity’. ‘Super-diversity’ is increasingly used where multiculturalism would have been used previously, but, as we argue in the Introduction to a new special issue of the journal Identities, in sometimes contradictory ways.

The special issue on ‘Ethnography, diversity, and urban change’ is co-edited by Mette Louise Berg, Ben Gidley, and Nando Sigona and brings together an introductory essay on uses and abuses of ‘diversity’, seven ethnographic articles, and an epilogue that use ‘diversity’ to gauge and examine processes of everyday intercultural encounters and practices across European countries, from capital cities to small provincial towns and suburbs.

Cover, Identities: Global studies in culture and power

Cover, Identities: Global studies in culture and power

The articles are concerned with the politics and poetics of belonging, and how they relate to social and spatial practices of inclusion and exclusion. However, unlike studies based within a multiculturalist framework, they consider not just cultural differences, but also class-based differences, housing trajectories, and lifestyle and consumption practices. They analyse practices of the majority, ‘white’ population as well as of minority or migrant groups, thus unsettling established categories of difference. They are attuned to both the micro-level of everyday encounters in streets, housing estates, markets, and neighbourhoods, but also to transnational connections and belonging.

Ben Gidley discusses the commensurability and incommensurability of lives lived in a London housing estate. His article is followed by Camille Schmoll and Giovanni Semi’s reflection on the shadow circuits of trade in the Mediterranean. Alex Rhys-Taylor takes a sensuous approach to the study of local intercultural encounters at an East London street market. Susanne Wessendorf discusses intercultural encounters and relations in an area adjacent to the street market, namely Hackney. Ben Rogaly and Kaveri Qureshi’s article by contrast is set in a new arena for diversity, namely the provincial English city of Peterborough. Ole Jensen moves to another new site for discussions of multiculture, namely an English suburban town. Finally Lars Meier echoes the themes of nostalgia and loss evoked in Gidley’s article. Here, in the former company town of Werderau, a Nuremberg neighbourhood, retired industrial workers lament the loss of a well-ordered, hierarchical world. The Epilogue by Karen Fog Olwig reflects on the theoretical and methodological implications of the diversity turn in ethnographic studies of migration.

The issue as a whole explores how diversity is experienced locally, but also takes into account people’s transnational connections, linking these to the micro-level of everyday life. It opens up a new agenda for scholarship, pushing us to go beyond static categorisations, which constrain our understanding of social life and towards a better understanding of the contingency, spatial specificity and complex conjunctures of multiplying axes of difference.

This new agenda attends closely to how histories and sedimented narratives of encounter shape such conjunctures, while also revealing new sites of encounter as shifting cartographies of difference emerge. As the articles in the special issue demonstrate, a fine-grained, ethnographic understanding of the diversification of diversity as lived experience helps us understand when, where, how, why, and for whom some differences come to make a difference.

This blog post is a substantially abridged and edited extract of ‘Ethnography, diversity and urban space’  by Mette Louise Berg and Nando Sigona. Full version available here:

The politics of refugee voices: notes for a chapter

Asylum seeker protesting in the Darwin Detention Centre, photos by Refugee Action Coalition Sydney, 2011

With current and former colleagues at the Refugee Studies Centre (Elena Fiddian Qasmiyeh, Gil Loescher and Katy Long), we are editing a large collection on forced migration studies to be published by Oxford University Press in 2014. The collection, The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, includes over fifty chapters and even more contributors. It is exciting and daunting to be charged with the job of reviewing a multi- and inter- disciplinary field of study and account for its past, present and possible futures, and I am glad to be sharing the job with such capable and knowledgeable co-editors and authors.

I am finalising my own chapter for the collection at the moment. This will be included in the section on ‘Lived experiences and representations of forced migration’, and explore the tension between dominant representations of the refugee which make them speechless and agency-less victims and refugees’ quest for political subjectivity. The chapter aims to explore and conceptualise the complex relationship between memories, narratives and representations of refugees’ experiences in the contemporary world. It problematizes the notion of a ‘refugee voice’, paying attention to the different contexts of production and consumption of narratives of asylum as well as to the power relations underpinning them. Michael Jackson’s ethnographic exploration of Hannah Arendt’s idea of the ‘political’ as power relation between private and public realms and ‘storytelling’ as the bridge between these realms – a process through which individual passions and shared views are contested and interwoven – provides one of the entry gates to the discussion. Vanessa Pupavac’s analysis of the dominant representation of the refugee among refugee advocates as a victim/patient and the ambivalence embedded in the sick role, a concept developed by the sociologist Talcott Parsons, also provides an inspiration for my chapter. The representation of the refugee as a patient finds an echo also in Didier Fassin’s seminal work on the use of medical certificates and medical expertise as ultimate evidences of the truth of asylum claims, and substitutes for asylum seekers’ voice in the asylum process.

Human mobility and the Arab Spring(s)

Audio recordings of the international symposium ‘The Arab Spring and beyond: Human mobility, forced migration and international responses’ are on now available at Forced Migration Online.

By Nando Sigona

What follows are brief reflections inspired by the international symposium ‘The Arab Spring and beyond: Human mobility, forced migration and international responses’ that took place at the Oxford Department of International Development on 20th March. The event was organised by the Refugee Studies Centre, the International Migration Institute and the Oxford Diasporas Programme with the participation of international scholars, practitioners and policy makers (see also Hein de Haas’ blog post on the symposium).

The geographical focus on the Levant and North Africa enabled participants to discuss migration in two crucial and distinct stages: in the context, and in relation to the transition and consolidation of new political regimes; and during the uprisings. It also offered the opportunity to discuss issues around the circulation of people, ideas, models of mobilisation and counter-mobilisation and international engagement between these regions.

The first panel, ‘Revolution, asylum and mobility’, addressed the impact of the Arab Spring on existing migration patterns in the regions and its capacity to generate new ones. The presentations by Clare Oxby (University of Bern) and Phil Marfleet (University of East London), and a written contribution by Hassen Boubakri (University of Sousse) questioned assumptions on the capacity of uprisings to radically transform existing migration patterns in the short term, and emphasised respectively the differential impact on migrants of the ongoing political transition according to ethnic and cultural positionalities (Oxby); the longue durée of processes of neoliberal land reform in Egypt initiated under Mubarak that, by producing the ‘disembedment’ of peasant youth from land, created the premises for some of the migration flows we are witnessing now (Marfleet); and the need to look not only to the impact of the Arab Spring on migration, but also to the impact of migration control on the Arab Spring (Boubakri). Boubakri notes in particular that at the end of 2010, the EU and its Maghreb counterparts ‘could estimate that the problem of crossing the external borders of Europe by “undesirables” was, if not solved, beginning to be mastered’.

Boubakri’s observation alerts us that the proximity of the Arab Spring to the EU goes beyond the consideration of the geographical distance between the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea (just 14Km between Spain and Morocco!) and , which makes North Africa part of the areas covered by the EU neighbourhood policy, pointing to the symbiotic nature of the economic, social and political relationship between the peoples and institutions in the Mediterranean Basin.

A further aspect to consider is that, in addition to the closure of irregular and regular channels of migration to the EU, the strategy of migration management and the expansion of the EU borders (and border control) beyond the EU territorial boundaries through initiatives such as the bilateral agreements between the former Libyan regime and Italy, or Tunisia and France, or Morocco and Spain, also affect existing migration routes and systems that are internal to the African continent. This is a side effect rarely considered by EU policy makers but with significant consequences for the livelihoods of local populations. The hundreds of thousands of sub-Saharan migrant workers stranded in Libya that sought refuge across the borders with Egypt and Tunisia during the civil war made the scale of intra-African migration suddenly visible to the global public. As the UNHCR Chief of Mission, Emanuel Gignac, noted in his presentation, non-Libyan nationals made up a large part of the displaced population from Libya. However, the ‘migration crisis’, as described by the IOM representative Mohammed Abdiker, also showed the presence in Libya of a significant population of migrant workers from Asia and whose repatriation posed logistical challenges to respective governments and to the international agencies that assisted them (i.e. IOM and UNHCR). The cooperation between IOM and UNHCR was one of the main themes of the second panel on ‘Migration and institutional responses during and in the transition’ and the speakers from both organisations offered interesting insights on the challenges and strengths of this partnership and of the circumstances that led to it. The framing of the crisis as a ‘migration crisis’ rather than a ‘refugee crisis’ is at the core of the definition of the ‘problem’ that the international community set out to respond to, and implicitly shaped the terms for the ‘solutions’ adopted to address it. The crisis also brought to the fore the complexity of migration routes and flows and challenged existing models of intervention/protection.

Shaden Khallaf presented the case of Egypt and the impact of the fall of Mubarak on asylum and humanitarian protection. She noted that asylum seekers and refugees are suffering from increased insecurity, wide-spread impunity of abuses and rampant xenophobia. The crack-down on civil society and closure of several NGOs, together with a general ‘revolution fatigue’, have caused the shrinking of political spaces for rights-based advocacy and weakened the position of refugees in Egyptian society. Violeta Moreno Lax gave a critical appraisal of the EU’s responses to the Arab Spring. The array of documents, statements, and position papers issued over the last year by EU institutional bodies is remarkable and points to a certain anxiety in Brussels about the so-called ‘biblical exodus’ or ‘human tsunami’ of North Africans towards the northern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. This exodus never happened and, as mentioned earlier, the relationship between the Arab Spring and migration is far more complex and cannot just be interpreted within a narrow EU-centric prism.

The EU’s response to migration induced by the turmoil and instability in North Africa has shown the tension between internal and external dimensions of migration governance. The EU’s Global Approach to Migration and Mobility paper (GAMM) has tried to address this issue – reframing migration in the context of mobility and constructing the EU’s approach around four ‘equally important’ pillars: facilitating regular migration and mobility; ‘preventing and reducing’ irregular migration and trafficking; maximising development impact; promoting international protection and external dimension of asylum policy.

While a step in the right direction, the GAMM still falls short of offering a systemic interpretation of the multiple and interlinked dimensions of migration and remains locked into the false and misleading dichotomy of ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ migration (even though with a softer tone). The centrality of migration enforcement and control is still paramount and the renewed role of FRONTEX, which saw its operational budget rocketing from €6.3 million in 2005, to nearly €42 million in 2007 and topping €87 million by 2010, encapsulates this priority. The reality of the death at sea of 2,000 migrants in 2011 alone, at a time when the Mediterranean Sea was one of the most militarised areas in the globe, further confirms the distance between EU rhetoric on development and human rights and actual practice. Linked to Moreno Lax’s paper, Polly Pallister Wilkins (SOAS) discussed the spaces and practices of contestation of the EU’s expanding and fluid borders and the possibility for transnational solidarity between Western activists and migrants.

The role of diaspora organisations, transnational networks and civil society was the theme of the third and final panel. In their presentations, Urs Fruehauf (UNHCR) and Jonathan Steel (Guardian) turned the discussion to Syria and the situation on the ground. Drawing on the results of a recently completed survey, Fruehauf discussed the situation of refugees and IDPs in Syria and offered some insight on the pressure they are under in the current political climate. Steel’s presentation centred on Syria’s silent majority and explored the tensions between the narratives produced by the mainstream media and Syrian diaspora and the views of the opposition in the country.

To conclude this short overview of the themes covered at the symposium, I would like to point to two issues/questions that seem to me particularly relevant both in terms of research agenda and potential policy implications:

Is there a link between the closing of irregular, and regular, channels to migration from the Maghreb to the EU, the impoverishment and discontent of North African youth who have lost a promised future and the eruptions of protests on the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco…? How can we research this link? What are its policy implications in the medium and long term from an EU perspective?

Will an anxious EU in search of reassurance for the lost bilateral agreements which had ensured the reduction of ‘undesirable’ migration over the last decade, be able to acknowledge the challenge for newly democratically elected governments to be partner in immigration control and repatriation programmes, or will it rather undermine the credentials of the governments vis-à-vis their voters (brothers, sisters, friends etc. of the migrants) and internationally (maybe with the accusation of being Islamist) in order to force its agenda?