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Vulnerable Solidarities: Identity, Spatiality and the Contentious Politics of Migration

Anna Finiguerra


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Ventimiglia, Italy: Analysing the workings of the borderland

1Ventimiglia is a border town in north-west Italy, less than 10 kilometres from the French border. A town with a long history of migratory flows, it is not surprising that ever since the beginning of the most recent ‘migration crisis’ it has gained and held a place of particular importance, as a vantage point from which all the different features of this phenomenon can be truly witnessed. Tales of Ventimiglia starkly highlight the violence and insecurity that permeates the whole Italian borderland. A sense of uncertainty and precariousness accompanies a general frustration and sheer disbelief in the dynamics of discrimination, intersectional inequalities and forced mobility that are evident in those spaces. The border is neither closed nor open, but takes on different shapes depending on who is facing it, crystallizing their privilege or lack thereof. Appearances mark an individual’s belonging to an imagined white, wealthy Europe, on behalf of which outsiders are effectively stopped, checked, and subsequently let go, either across the border or back to their own side of the barricade.

  • 1 This has been the case since the start of the ‘crisis’ in 2015. However, at the time of writing the (...)

2Colour and class, as a purely perceptible difference in terms of appearances, determine whether or not the border is permeable. They determine the very existence of the border itself, since it has not existed for decades, as far as European citizens are concerned. However, the openly discriminatory and racialised border controls are not the only issues that have led sympathetic observers to define the situation in the Franco-Italian borderland as ‘absurd’, ‘ridiculous’, ‘unbelievable’. The border checkpoints at the frontiera alta and frontiera bassa (high and low, respectively), two major crossing points, are but one instrument of control of mobility put in place by the authorities. Due to regulations that allow the French authorities to return any migrant without French papers to Italy if found at less than 20 kilometres from the border, the French and Italian police effectively engage in a game of human ping-pong. The Italian authorities have no interest in certifying the presence of migrants in Italy because they would then need to allow those migrants to request asylum, while the French authorities have a great interest in patrolling the territory comprising a radius of 20 km from the border in search of migrants, to detain them and send them back to Italy with any pretext.1

3This process had and still has migrants running in circles, ceaselessly attempting and often succeeding in crossing the border, only to be brought back to the starting point. Similarly, humanitarian camps and compounds have been created as a further instrument of control. Rather than providing neutral, safe enclaves for migrants, they are inhospitable, temporary shelters whose purpose is to firstly keep migrants away from the public eye and secondly to provide another space for the policing and control of migration flows. The Roya camp, built in the summer of 2016 near Ventimiglia, served to fulfil those very functions, tying together the provision of aid, shelter and food with not only necessary identification procedures but also constraints on mobility and other freedoms.

4There is an increasing consensus in the literature revolving around encampment about the shortcomings of such a system of humanitarian assistance and control. Far from promoting the integration of migrants and refugees in host societies, it creates the conditions for their perennial exclusion (Agier 2014). The practices that underpin humanitarian protection have long been shown to foster the proliferation of a racialised, abject figuration of mobile people as helpless victims (Turner 2016). At the same time, the process of securitization of migration has generated a representation of mobility as endemic, dangerous and necessitating authoritative action on the parts of states. It is no surprise that in Ventimiglia, like elsewhere, the management of migration flows has been carried out through strict and often violent policing practices on the one hand, and on the other, the offer of humanitarian protection at the cost of one’s status as a fully political subject (Walters 2010; Huysmans et al. 2009).

5In Ventimiglia, resistance was born in parallel with the exercise of control. In the summer of 2015, many migrants and sympathetic activists had already mobilized to struggle against not only the securitization of the border and its closure but also against the role that humanitarian action played as a further form of control. In 2019, regardless of the many waves of repression, mobilization is still ongoing. Resistance coalesced around the creation of spatial enclaves, which I will call solidary spaces, aimed at re-shaping the unequal dynamics pervading the borderland. On the one hand, activists attempted to create safe spaces for migrants, which could become a stable landmark in the mobile geography of the borderland and foster social ties. On the other, they attempted to mediate and level the differences and inequalities that would otherwise put activists in a relative position of power vis-à-vis migrants, fostering instead horizontal practices of communal living and decision-making, re-articulating their subjectivities and the meaning of solidarity through notions of reciprocity and mutual vulnerability.

6Such forms of resistance to the current migration regime in Europe is not by any means limited to Ventimiglia or to Italy in general. Wherever policies have built walls and restricted mobility in Europe, there has been an insurgence of solidary initiatives attempting to resist those very processes of exclusion and marginalization, through the provision of direct aid and political mobilization (della Porta 2018). Despite this fact, such initiatives have engendered scarce scholarly attention, with few if notable exceptions. Out of these contributions, there arises a sense of the potential that solidary spaces and initiatives have for restructuring the politics of mobility, by substituting inequality and abject victimhood with mutual care and vulnerability (Squire 2018), by fostering new familial and communal ties among strangers, built on a shared experience of liminality (Sandri 2018) and new understandings of citizenship (Rygiel 2012). However, similar studies have also shown that these initiatives and informal camp-like spaces can also become vehicles of other forms of violent power dynamics, based on interlocking systems of race, gender and difference more generally (English 2017; Pascucci 2017).

7Until now, no contribution has systematically analysed the ways in which these forms of solidarity activism resist and re-articulate the unequal power dynamics found in the European borderlands, while also re-inscribing inside their own boundaries different sorts of hierarchies and relations, which can be conducive to other forms of violence, to varying degrees. The focus of my research stems from a conscious effort to move the debate on migration away from understandings of encampment as bare life (Mountz 2011; Agamben 1995; Edkins and Pin-Fat 2005), as well as from an understanding of the subjects/objects of humanitarian aid as perfect victims, whose figuration props up a paternalistic, liberal self who engages in care-taking (Barnett 2011; Turner 2016. The emphasis on activist rather than humanitarian forms of encampment opens up the possibility to reach farther into conceptions of solidarity, that reshape relationships of caretaking, from unequal exchanges to situations of mutual vulnerability (Vaittinen 2015; Sandri 2018). Furthermore, this paper openly stands to intervene on mundane discourses on migration, security and humanitarianism. It seeks to become an ‘enactment’ of the realities it stands to portray, by representing opposing practices, discourses and identities as potential nodes of resistance (Aradau and Huysmans 2014).

8My contribution seeks to show how resistance in Ventimiglia, from 2015 to the present day, has been articulated in the form of ‘adversarial spatial practices’ (Feigenbaum et al. 2013) and ‘interstitial politics’ (Pignarre and Stengers 2011), where the effort to bracket off social spaces, away from the power relations of the borderland, have enabled activists and migrants to re-articulate their relationship with the borderland and with one another. Their action, motivated by an ethics of solidarity that is built on a sense of common humanity and the experience of suffering, has reshaped the forms of aid available in Ventimiglia and their political significance, recovering the political agency present in vulnerability. Their ideal commitment to solidarity, translated into practices of communal living, has informed the creation of horizontal ties of care and belonging. However, if solidarity as a practice has succeeded in levelling relations of privilege and has disallowed certain forms of violence, to a certain extent, gendered dynamics in the provision of care and emotional labour, gender-based and sexual violence as well as racial tensions have remained structuring forces in these spaces, complicating their potential to spark the creation of political alternatives.


1 This has been the case since the start of the ‘crisis’ in 2015. However, at the time of writing the situation seems to be changing. Most migrants attempting to cross into France do have some sort of identification papers or asylum seeker status in one or several European countries. Many of them also work or have worked in Italy and are seeking to move to another country because of the worsening working and living conditions in Italy, especially given the rise in hostility towards migrants and the more stringent asylum regulations approved by Parliament in late 2018.


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