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

Anna Finiguerra

1. A Look at the Relevant Literature

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1.1 Migration, Security and Order

1How to contextualise the study of resistance, through the concept and practice of solidarity, and in the larger scope of migration studies? Firstly, it is necessary to review how migration has become a crucial security issue in recent decades, justifying draconian measures to keep mobile people outside national borders or at least to keep them in place. In this larger process of securitisation, humanitarian initiatives and interventions can be understood less as a politically neutral response to migration ‘crises’ and more as simply another tool for the perpetuation of forms of inequality and control over mobility. The camp form thus becomes a space where humanitarian actors exercise particular forms of biopolitical control over mobile subjects, who in turn are represented and reproduced as powerless victims, deserving of pity and aid, or alternatively as threatening insurgent subjects whose excessive agency needs to be contained. These logics not only shape formal or professional humanitarian responses to migration, but also grassroots initiatives that are enmeshed in and perpetuate these discourses.

2It is in this specific context that the relationship between care and political agency becomes crucial to understanding how camps can function as tools of confinement and dispossession, by establishing a trade-off between the freedom or the right to act politically and the entitlement to receive care. This speaks to a wider understanding that constructs vulnerable subjectivities as entirely and only powerless, and caring subjectivities as fully agentic, without any acknowledgement of a wider spectrum that might exist in between. Resistance to current migration regimes and solidarity initiatives for and with mobile people seize exactly on these fault lines, mobilising the concept of solidarity, as an alternative to the management of migration through dispossession. Studies concerned with these initiatives however, while succeeding in representing them as an interesting site for the experimentation of alternatives, have fallen short in articulating how solidarity is mobilised in practice, both in terms of its conceptual dimension and its performance. The following chapter will explore the wider context of studies of migration, with special emphasis on the ways in which security, humanitarianism and care all contribute to shaping the de-evaluation of mobile people’s agency, and on how solidarity initiatives might constitute a viable alternative requiring further study and attention.

1.2 Soft Insides, Hard Boundaries, Unruly Outside

3Scholarly studies pointing to the relevance of migration and displacement for the field of International Relations seem to collectively espouse a view of any mobility outside of the correct population-territory-state matrix to be a stop-gap solution to other issues (for example, armed conflicts or environmental degradation), or as a threat to statutory orders everywhere (Betts and Loesher 2011; Turner 2016). Betts and Loesher (2011), for instance, highlight how scholars of IR should pay attention to migration, as it stands to have serious consequences for understandings of state sovereignty, the success of conflict-resolution and peacekeeping efforts, as well as the War on Terror. Refugees and migrants are considered externalities of the state system and as such represent a problem to be solved through governance and international burden-sharing. The management of migration as a crucial linchpin of international order takes on an even more pernicious veneer if the issue is rephrased in terms of security and protection.

4Migration and security have become two closely interconnected terms. This coupling, often termed the ‘migration-security nexus’ (Huysmans and Squire 2009; Walters 2010), highlights how migration has been understood and acted upon as a fundamental security issue. The implications that migration has for (in)security are twofold. On the one hand, fear of infiltration by terrorist groups has motivated states to strengthen their checks on mobility in order to protect the population from physical attacks (Walters 2010). On the other, identitarian paranoia has accompanied the stigmatisation and securitisation of mobility (Weber 2016). The cultural other, alien to the imagined community of the nation, is set apart by their backwardness, sexual promiscuity and incapacity to totally integrate, and sparks fear of invasion and the loss of cultural unity and purity (Hage 2016).

5As such, migration takes on the trappings of a crucial security question, requiring an adequate response from authorities. Whether the act of securitization itself is performed by international organizations such as the UNHCR (Hammerstad 2011) or by a Bourdieusian field of security practitioners, both private and public (Bigo 2014), it effectively produces pervasive devices aimed at controlling the mobility of these undesirables, while also enabling the unencumbered mobility of goods, capital and privileged subjects (Hage 2016; Hyndman 2000). The production of such society-wide devices of control, aptly named by Bigo (2014) the ban-opticon, results from the contest between different organizations to define the terms of the debate on migration in ways that privilege their own quest for legitimacy and capacities. At the same time, the ban-opticon works through the identification of undesirable people and their confinement to marginal spaces where suspension (Mountz 2011) takes the place of any sort of mobility. The creation of these spaces of waiting, on the margins, physical or otherwise, of the social scene (Agier 2014) can be both purposeful – as with the creation of humanitarian camps, detention centres or deportation facilities – or be the result of a politics of abandonment (Squire 2018), where distancing is an effect of the dispossession rather than the containment of mobile people.

6Humanitarian action in this case, rather than representing an opposition to the securitization of migration, as some authors have claimed (Hammerstad 2011; Barnett 2011), enacts and perpetrates the same unequal politics of privilege and exclusion put in place by state authorities (Squire 2015; Reid-Henry 2014). Analysis of humanitarian camps and humanitarian intervention is not by any means new to migration studies. A wealth of anthropologists, geographers, scholars of international relations and other social scientists have concerned themselves with analysing life inside these camps and the ways in which relations of power are reproduced in these apparently neutral spaces (Agier 2014; Hyndman 2000; Betts and Loescher 2011; Moulin and Nyers 2007). Moving from a rather uncritical view that reinforces the connection between humanitarianism and neutrality or strangeness, to political questions of control, inequality and power (Hyndman 2000), scholars have started to focus more and more on the dark underbelly of humanitarian action, highlighting the ambiguous connections between protection, control and obedience (Huysmans et al. 2009).

7A viable politics of protection requires the definition and production of a vulnerable subject, and of a threat from which it needs protection. This double boundary, which demarcates both the interior and exterior of a political community, has been identified as the root of sovereign power (Peterson 2018; Ashley 1989; Agamben 1995). This line of distinction, which Ashley (1989) calls the ‘Cartesian divide’, runs through processes of construction, both of the self as an individual and of the state. It demarcates a free, unencumbered and unitary interior in opposition with a messy, unruly and possibly dangerous exterior. When this logic of inclusion and exclusion is applied to examples of encampment and humanitarian action (Agamben 1995; Hyndman 2000), an extremely complex picture comes to light, as multiple boundaries are constantly drawn and redrawn around the figure of the ‘migrant’.

8Furthermore, acts of distinction understood in this sense also resonate with feminist perspectives on the gendered construction of the self (Chodorow 1997), as well as gendered constructions of nationhood and statehood (Peterson 2018; Brown 1992). These latter practices thrive on intersecting plays on inclusion and exclusion of subjects from the proper space of politics, on account of productive, gendered hierarchies. The drawing of exclusionary boundaries and fault-lines seems to be a constant feature of the construction of subjects, whether singular or collective, often lending a gendered connotation to both sides of the opposition. The inside – the vulnerable feminine space of private life or of the nation – needs protection from a barbaric, unruly outside, whether represented by war, anarchy, or in this case the consequences of global transformations. The dividing boundary – a hard one – promises protection and separation, while also requiring obedience and compliance on the part of the inside (Huysmans et al. 2009). The figure of the migrant is ambivalently both a threat and vulnerable victim, depending on how they are read by the authorities in the receiving polity.

9The identification of vulnerability in shifting, often questionable terms, leads the migrant to be equated with the humanitarian victim, in need of protection through the mechanisms of humanitarian action. The lack of formal identification as such, conversely, leads to a politics of abandonment (Squire 2018), where resistance is similarly disqualified and equated to a threat to the constituted order. In both cases, the positionality of the migrant, as an outsider who cannot partake in the political life of the more or less temporary receiving country, has complex implications for the ways in which political agency and subjectivity are understood, articulated and studied.

10In the case of humanitarian camps, migrants and refugees are effectively excluded from the political community in which they seek to be integrated. Entry and exit are under strict control, and the camp populace is not entitled to seek integration into the receiving country through employment or education, except for in very specific cases, which often depend on the relative wealth of material or social capital that the migrating subject has to begin with (Hyndman 2000). According to scholarly analyses of the subject, migrants as such become objects of the sovereign’s power of distinction, living in a suspended space-time continuum that reduces them to bare-life subjects, devoid of political rights and agency (Agamben 1995; Mountz 2011; Edkins and Pin-Fat 2005). As bare life, migrants are subjects that cannot participate in politics, reduced to mere bios, to the simple existence of their vulnerable bodies. Much thought has been given to the possibility of transcending this condition (Edkins and Pin-Fat 2005; Vaittinen 2015), with mixed results.

11The logics of governance inside the camps are based on an understanding of displacement as an affliction (Hyndman, 2000), as a temporary problem awaiting a solution (Turner 2016) that will naturally occur when the perverse mobility of the subject, whatever their legal standing, will be reconciled with the proper territory-nation-state matrix (Hyndman 2000; Betts and Loescher 2011). In the meantime, their undesirable mobility must be contained in the space of the camp. However, far from being spaces devoid of or insulated from politics, refugee and migrant camps not only present their own politics but they are also closely connected to the political dynamics just outside their walls (Hyndman 2000; Agier 2014). At best, camps are spaces of ‘banal cosmopolitanism’ (Agier 2014, 10, author’s translation), and community rebuilding (Fresia and Von Känel 2016). At worst, they are spaces where layers of intersectional inequalities are reproduced (English, 2017), and where detainees occupy a firmly subaltern status, immersed as they are in a ‘brutal discourse of race’ (Agier 2014, 25, author’s translation).

12It then becomes less surprising to consider that humanitarian camps represent a site for the enactment of practices of discipline and control of ‘suspicious’ and ‘unruly’ migrant populations, following the patterns of other spaces of biopolitical control – whether such control is exercised through headcounts, fingerprint-scanning, curfews or bodily checks (Fassin 2007; Hyndman 2000). However, humanitarianism is also a particular ‘politics of life’ (Fassin 2007) insofar as it enshrines privilege and inequality in the determination of which lives need/can be risked and which need/can be saved. This drives a wedge between the lives of the humanitarian personnel, whose security needs to be guaranteed by their sending organization, and those humanitarian subjects who can, in extreme cases, be sacrificed. Jennifer Hyndman (2000) highlights this form of inequality in humanitarian action by emphatically underlining the fact that the relative capacity to come and go from a camp is determined by one’s belonging to a cosmopolitan élite (either of the NGOs, IO personnel, or the nation-state hosting the camp), while migrants and refugees alike have no claims to mobility.

13Furthermore, Fassin (2007) also shows that, while humanitarianism perpetrates a distinction between the lives of the personnel and those of the vulnerable objects of humanitarian action, it also promotes a distinction between the politics of exception (afforded by states, which designate the vulnerable populations that may die), and the politics of life (which humanitarian action itself represents in its aims to protect the vulnerable). The very justification for humanitarian protection, then, is intimately tied to the concept of victimhood. However, that same victimhood is also often detrimental to recognising political agency for the protected, who are infantilized (Squire 2018). Turner (2016, 143) emphatically states that ‘To be worthy of humanitarian assistance, the receiver must be purely human – that is someone without a past, without political will, without agency.’ Thus, subjects of humanitarian protection – and control – trade in their political agency for the fulfilment of basic needs, such as food, shelter and medical attention.

14The intrinsic inequality at the basis of the provision of aid and care in humanitarian settings has led scholars to question whether these analyses have really discovered anything new about the logics of humanitarian action, or if they have simply finally seized on an underlying logic of control that has always been present (Barnett 2011). Equating humanitarianism with a paternalistic relationship between caregivers and recipients of care, Michael Barnett (2011) claims that, although humanitarianism is not an ideal tool, it nevertheless allows organisations or governments to mobilise compassion and care on behalf of ‘distant strangers’. This point of view, also discussed in Fassin (2007), privileges the action of the care-taker, as necessary or heroic, while diminishing the importance of the care receiver, who is but a passive recipient of aid that he or she cannot reciprocate.

1.3 Camp, Community, Resistance

15The logics described above are not only present in sanctioned, official humanitarian camp spaces. Similar dynamics can also be identified in urban forms of informal encampment (Lafaut and Coene 2018), where mobile bodies are identified either as vulnerable, fragile, in need of care, or as threatening. As Agier (2014) extensively develops, the camp-form is recognizable by its different degrees of extraterritoriality, exception and exclusion, and has no privileged geographical or spatial setting, if not that of constant marginality, and a fleeting temporal dimension. It represents an ambiguous, contradictory form of institutionalized, settled transiency, an in-between space that leaves migrants ‘suspended in migration’ (Agier 2014, 25, author’s translation). However these places might be defined, the empirical reality of life in camps frustrates attempts to view subjects of humanitarian aid as powerless and lacking agency, and camps as a-political spaces. Turner (2016, 145) effectively terms camps as spaces of ‘hyper-politicization’, where not only social hierarchies and power dynamics are re-negotiated and reproduced, but where the very attempt to depoliticize life makes the come-back of politics on the scene all the more fervent and sometimes violent.

16Although empirical analysis has fruitfully shown that, regardless of their specific form, camps remain highly political spaces (see Agier 2014; Hyndman 2000; English 2017 for some examples), the theoretical lenses applied to the study of encampment have sometimes driven scholars to excessively dire or excessively hopeful conclusions (McNevin 2013). Some scholars insist on seeing camp life as a form of bare life, and the figure of the migrant or the refugee as the modern homo sacer (Mountz 2011; Edkins and Pin-Fat 2005; Owens 2011), thus seemingly unable to exit the deadlock of exception. Other scholars, however, see in the migrant a form of transgressive subjectivity standing as a challenge to modern logics of government (Rygiel 2011; Ataç 2016). From this perspective, the figure of the migrant becomes transformative because it enacts citizenship in the absence of formal civil rights, and challenges the politics of belonging underpinning the concept of nationality. This is both less and more than the actual politics of the encampment seems to be. As Puggioni (2017) states, migrants might be in a position of rightlessness in their host countries, but they remain citizens of their home countries and as such have been socialized to have a political voice. No matter how narrowly or broadly one chooses to define what counts as a political subject, it seems increasingly difficult to discount completely or to over-emphasise the reach of the political claims aired by seemingly dispossessed subjects.

17The political opportunities offered by the analysis of the political agency of migrants is not the only point of contrast between scholars interested in migration and especially encampment. The very notion of community, and the ever-present question of whether camps should be rightfully considered communities in some form, is one of the crucial questions recurring in academic works. Hyndman (2000), while affirming the importance of both local and international political dynamics in refugee camps run by the UNHCR, discounts the idea of the camp itself being a community, due to its lack of self-identification as such, its limited temporal horizon and the hard boundaries regulating access to the outside. Other scholars have argued that, on the contrary, camps do represent a form of community. Bulley (2014, 67) claims for instance that the camp is a community in the sense given to the term by Jean Luc Nancy, one of ‘unavoidable coexistence’. As such, the camp represents a site for politics, both as management and as resistance. Squire (2018) goes even further, claiming that informal camps or squats can become communities insofar as they represent communities of sentiment, where shared notions and experiences of vulnerability and transiency provide the necessary foundations for forming communal ties.

18Informal camps and forms of volunteer humanitarianism (Sandri 2018, 66) have provided the background for more recent scholarly analysis of encampment and migration. Starting with famous examples, such as the Jungle in Calais or the Idomeni camp in Greece, scholars have focused their attention on camps run by grassroots organizations in concert with the migrants themselves, as a site for theorizing a way out of the deadlock of bare life and the recurring inequalities of humanitarian action. Sandri (2018), who coined the term ‘volunteer humanitarianism’, investigates the dynamics and the motivations that brought British citizens to volunteer in Calais. She highlights how, rather than a logic of liberal morality aimed at helping the vulnerable, the action of providing aid in such a fraught social space created situations of mutual vulnerability and neediness, which led volunteers and migrants to form strong bonds and consider each other as ‘extended family’ (Sandri 2018, 76). A similar accent on the closeness that is engendered by these encounters can be found in English (2017), Squire (2018) and Rygiel (2011).

19As a space promising to break down the barriers generally upheld by formal humanitarian action – more specifically by either long-standing NGOs, IOs or states – informal camps seem to have implications for the ways in which activists and migrants understand citizenship (Rygiel 2011), as well as the relationship between humanitarianism and politics. The relative borderlines between proper political action and neutral humanitarianism have always been contested. Although many scholars (Fassin 2007; Reid-Henry 2014) have successfully argued that humanitarianism is often politics through other means, in the field there remains much discussion about whether providing aid to people on the move is a form of political activism or a form of charity. Activists themselves often do not have one shared view on how to cast their actions. Some are extremely sceptical of the political value of aid (della Porta 2018), while others tend to steer clear of any political claims so as not to invalidate their standing as neutral practitioners (Lafaut and Coene 2018).

20Regardless of the unstable standing of these initiatives vis-à-vis the political realm, the process of becoming engaged in informal camps has led activists to become more and more involved in openly political actions such as lobbying and advocacy initiatives, even for those who primarily define themselves as humanitarian actors (Sandri 2018; Ataç 2016). This is compatible with other analyses of activism that take into account the specificities of camps as a form of political contestation, highlighting these spaces’ capacity to form new political subjectivities and educate participants to action (Brown et al. 2017). However, just like humanitarian camps, informal encampments are enmeshed in and re-produce different sorts of politics. In some cases, varying degrees of contextual vulnerability and intersectional dynamics effectively create inequalities and perpetrate different forms of violence, making (in)security one of the main contentious issues in the camps (English 2017).

21Inequalities and differences in power go hand in hand with a seemingly transformative approach to care in these spaces. Squire (2018) effectively argues that in such spaces, where each individual contributes according to their own abilities, and complex governance and rule-enforcing mechanisms are employed, the experience of mutual vulnerability breaks away from the classic dualism of caretaker/victim underpinning humanitarian action. This experience of transiency, born out of living together in various forms of dispossession and precariousness for both activists and migrants, becomes a mutually transformative and dialogical process of identity construction that ultimately leads to a community of sentiment.

22The focus on relationality and mutuality stands in clear contrast with views of humanitarianism that compare aid to gift-giving (Turner 2016; Fassin 2007). The provision of aid in humanitarian contexts often hinges on viewing the recipient of aid as someone who, by their very status as a victim, cannot reciprocate the gift in the form of a counter-gift. This figuration justifies humanitarian intervention on the grounds that victims cannot save themselves. Furthermore, as humanitarian assistance is often provided in situations of mortal danger, the very gift of life is the condition of inequality that underpins and produces both the powerless identity of the victim and that of their morally just saviour. As already discussed in the above sections, this condition of inequality is not only discursive but also entrenched in the daily lived experience of the camps (Hyndman 2000; Agier 2014), through management practices, control devices and enforced differentiated security and mobility regimes.

23In the context of informal camps, it is the very exposure of volunteers and migrants to the same dangers and sources of (in)security, without the widely different guarantees that set humanitarian personnel apart in the field, that creates the possibility for mutual exchange and fruitful political engagement. A similar condition of abandonment by the state at large (Squire 2018) fosters a shared experience of liminality, creating the closeness necessary for the basis of an embryonic community. At the same time, it is unclear which dynamics are at play when scholars point out the violence, inequality and injustice that are produced in these spaces. Although most analyses of informal refugee camps (Brown et al. 2017; Feigenbaum et al. 2013) are in agreement about the emancipatory potential of these spaces, the same studies have also revealed how, in certain cases, these realities ultimately reproduce existing relations of power as well as gendered and racialised hierarchies (English 2017; Pascucci 2017). Far from being utopian sites of egalitarian and progressive politics, these spaces can also transform into sites of oppression and discrimination. The ambivalence found in the literature, as well as in activist testimonies, calls for a careful analysis of the political dynamics defining these spaces.

24Are informal camps, squats and locii of volunteer humanitarianism really spaces for participatory politics and egalitarian relations between migrants and volunteers/activists? If so, how do activists as well as migrants construct their own identities vis-à-vis one another, bridging the gaps created by difference and inequality? What is the role of solidarity in this process, as both an interpretive lens and a practice? Finally, what power dynamics or inequalities are re-inscribed in these spaces, fraught with intersectional dimensions of difference? In order to shed some light on the contested and sometimes contradictory accounts put forward by scholars and activists alike (Pascucci 2017; English 2017; Sandri 2018; Squire 2018; Rygiel 2011), I propose to carry out an empirical analysis of such spaces in the border town of Ventimiglia, Italy. There, forms of encampment and solidarity activism first appeared in 2015, and have since then attempted to resist the policy of exclusion, abandonment and securitization put forward by the Italian and French authorities.


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