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

Anna Finiguerra

4. Solidarity as an Ethic and as a Practice: Rediscovering Humanity, Practicing Reciprocity

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1The solidarity initiatives that were born in Ventimiglia present very different scopes, organisational forms and political or humanitarian aims. Nevertheless, they share some striking similarities in the ways in which volunteer-activists frame their actions as a necessity guided by ‘humanity’”, ‘solidarity’ and a somewhat deep ‘“instinct to care’. Furthermore, the informality that distinguishes them from professional or institutionalised humanitarian actors represents another layer of their specificity. It is this very feature that allows activists to practice forms of care and reciprocity that deviate from the scripts of care and dispossession that often play out in formal humanitarian settings with regards to migration. Finally, informality also has an effect on political horizons in these spaces. While informality is a resource for practicing reciprocal care, it is also a limit to the construction of a familiar political movement, as it fosters short-term immanent focus, indicative of other forms of politics available in those spaces.

2The following sections will unpack each of these three dimensions of solidary spaces, beginning with the concept of solidarity as a necessary human ethic, and moving on to the importance of reciprocity and mutual care and vulnerability in order to translate such an ethic of solidarity into practice. The last section will be dedicated to the ways in which gendered understandings of care and protection, respectively reflecting a feminised and masculinised character, inhabit these spaces, and the informal, affective relationships of the borderland. The presence of gendered structures often translates into unequal burdens of care, which throw into stark relief the need to take vulnerability seriously as a spectrum on which both the care-giver and the care-recipient can be found. Accounting for the vulnerability of the care-taker provides an opportunity not only to truly build relationships based on reciprocity, but also to be aware of the harmful consequences of unequal burdens of care.

4.1 Being Human: The Necessary Ethics of Solidarity

3Many of the volunteers who became active in Ventimiglia became involved either through word of mouth in their social circles or after witnessing instances of violence and suffering that called them to action. In the latter case, many professed that they had immediately felt an extremely negative emotional response, which only worsened and increased the urgency of action when they analysed also the role of the state, of their own state in perpetrating violence or abandoning the vulnerable. For many, indifference was deemed impossible.

  • 1 This is a reference to the summer of 2017. At that time, the local authorities closed the drinkable (...)

As a person who lives in Genoa, I’m in Genoa but I come from the hinterland, I come from these valleys, living this situation like someone who is watching on the big screen hurt me. We need to share, we need to participate, I could not live this situation any longer, being a spectator was something that hurt me within […] So for me it was a necessity born also of the fact that I was born in these localities and seeing how we are becoming ugly. I am worried about social decay, because migration, the big migration flows, the crises, we will see them, they will be cyclical, they will happen again and again. But it is how we respond as a society [that’s important], and we are not responding well. It’s a question of ethics, it’s an urgency from within […] When people have faced torture and drinkable water1 is denied them we are not talking about politics. We are talking about fundamental rights. Politics, local administrations, they firstly need to protect the most vulnerable, otherwise what is their purpose? If a democracy fails to protect the most vulnerable, it has failed. And if we turn our backs to those who are in need, and we cannot deny that they [the migrants] are in need, because then it means that we are denying the obvious. If in a democracy, we stop, we turn our backs on the most fragile, then we are over. (Interview 4, author’s translation)

That [the violence] for me was the trigger. I remember that when I saw the video I was studying. I closed my book and said, I’m going, because it was… it was really awful, and it was the sort of show that maybe you are more used to seeing from police forces that, I don’t know, it was really oppressive, it was awful and I think that was the spark that made me say, okay, there’re the guys at the border, they are the ones that decided to start this struggle and we can’t leave them alone. We can’t leave them alone not because they are not able to do this on their own, because they have been able to start it and they have been able to stay on those rocks even though they were doing the Ramadan, and it was 40° in the shade. We can’t leave them alone because it is our state that is committing this stuff and we can’t leave, we can’t let it go and prove ourselves indifferent. (Interview 5, author’s translation)

4The impossibility of being a silent witness to such suffering and being complicit in perpetrating injustice is a theme that recurs also in other testimonies. Furthermore, the experience of living and crossing the border freely, which was for so many migrants an insurmountable obstacle, was compounded with a lived, embodied reality of the differential mobility regime that regulates the borderland, giving another dimension to claims of injustice attached to the checkpoints. The vulnerability of the migrants, who were seen as unjustly suffering at the hands of the state, triggered political action, while the reading of migrants as mournable, non-expendable subjects provided the necessary background to such a process. Few activists would openly call their action political, or dictated by political beliefs. For them, responding to the crisis, and more importantly to the politics of abandonment that the state had implemented in the borderland was a question of necessity and of basic humanity.

5These two words came up again and again during my fieldwork, when each volunteer was asked why they were there to provide basic necessities such as food or drink. Two such exchanges recorded in my field notes were particularly poignant. When asked for her motivations for being at the border, a Kesha Niya volunteer stated ‘We are friends, just a group of friends from Italy, France, England, Germany who come here and do this […] I don’t like to say to help. My friend, [there’s] a lot of people in the police station, 10 km from Ventimiglia, no food, no water, someone has to do this. It’s important.’ If being in solidarity is a result of mobilising on the basis of a shared humanity, solidarity itself then becomes a facet of the very same notion of humanity espoused by activists and produced through their commitment to action.

6Similarly, a volunteer from Calais, responding to a migrant’s surprise upon seeing free food and drink offered on the roadside, said ‘It’s not strange, it’s human’. As yet another activist put it, underscoring the fact that even for migrants, the reception of basic aid, for free and without strings attached, is often a novel experience: ‘Yeah, we do it because of the heart, but people don’t understand, like no matter where you are from, the concept of something being free is just impossible. Maybe if it’s a favour from a friend, but in the streets, free food and drink is just not possible. And it’s, you know, stuff is there we can just share it.’

7Aid and solidarity then, among strangers and across borders, is a surprising concept in its simplicity. In the face of frustrated fundamental rights and human dignity, which activists recognize as belonging to the migrants as much as to their fellow citizens, activists have become active in denouncing and addressing this wrong, through protest and direct action. Their solidarity is anchored in a perception of mobile people as fully and inalienably human. This reading of mobile bodies as non-expendable and entitled to rights is what empowers their suffering to trigger solidary action. Solidarity in this case is a frame for action mediated by the understanding of migrants as belonging to a human community to which moral and ethical commitments are attached (Wilde 2013). By witnessing the frustration of such commitments by the state, whose legitimacy hinges on its role of protector, activists feel the need to intervene to address this wrong.

8‘Being human’ for the volunteers who worked at the frontlines of the crisis is again a strikingly simple concept. It is entirely grounded on affect and on the search for sometimes banal commonalities, whether that is a similar taste in music, or a shared football game.

Like, I remember once, one of the moments, one of the most moving ones, there was this group of friends from Sudan, they came from the same village, they were my age, so, this is the thing, because, ok there is a lot of adults, everything you want, but many are young, like normal young people, like simple, they could be your friends. They also become your friends, because maybe you listen to the same music, and so, it’s like this. So empathy, if you can feel it, it’s also simple to feel it, because you connect with them. (Interview 5, author’s translation)

You realize we’re all brothers, when you see the shabaabs laughing, when you find yourself along the river at seven at night, with the guys kicking a ball without any shoes and you saw them laughing, then you understand you are doing the right thing. And then, you say, I’m doing it just for this, because now you can kick that ball and we are both happy. And the same when you saw a child laughing and smearing a biscuit all over your face, and you saw him laugh and so I’m happy with you, and you saw his mom laugh and who knows how long she’d gone without laughing. Maybe that was all it was. (Interview 4, author’s translation)

  • 2 The volunteer I interviewed in this case said that she had become extremely close with a group of m (...)

With my friendship group2 it was basically, because like, a lot of my friends back in the UK are very similar, and so it was just like in that a natural attraction, our humour and the way we were brought up and stuff […] I think it's just like emotions, we're the same because of emotions. (Interview 1)

9The emphasis on contingent, contextual similarities echoes an understanding of human solidarity built on commonality and difference as matters of degree, entirely dependent on the saliency of relevant features in the present moment (Rorty 1989). In the solidary spaces of Ventimiglia, markers of difference such as documents or access to the social and political fabric of the polity, which determine exclusion through the action of state officials and humanitarian actors, cease to matter. Instead, shared affective relationships and the experience of common living become more salient. This process also mediated difference, in the form of the abandonment of stereotypical notions of activists being more educated, or more politically aware than migrants. This is also another recurring theme in some of the interviews. Volunteers realised early on that what they saw as their contribution as someone who ‘knows better’ or has a better grasp of the situation was nothing more than a fiction.

When I had the guys sitting down and pouring their heart out, and it’s not even because the situation is like that, but because someone had tried to give them a t-shirt for free, these people are not stupid, that’s what actually instantly… It’s very easy to think that as a volunteer you are the one that you’re super clever, you’re the graduated one. But actually, I spoke to a guy who worked for the United Nations back in his own country. It’s actually insane when you listen to what they’ve gone through and you actually listen what experiences they’ve had, which is just the same as people who said oh, I have just graduated from an engineering degree, it’s just like my friend in the UK, it’s just so insane. (Interview 1)

10This reversal was crucial for the building of horizontal relationships, also fostered by the practices that underpinned political and social action, especially at the time of the Balzi Rossi squat.

Some of the migrants who passed through, one in particular, his memory has remained with me. Because he was a wonderful person, he is a wonderful person, let’s not say where he lives, he’s well and happy, and he had a great attention with regards… he thought a lot like a group. He had a – I must say that I think he had other political experiences, he had a well-trained sensibility, otherwise I can’t explain certain things, or anyway, if not, congrats because it means you’re someone with some impressive capabilities. He has an attention to group dynamics that was amazing, impressive. And that is the example that stayed with me. If for me, in my own way, but also others, we scratched our heads on how to make, how to help the struggle the most, I had in front of me when we spoke a person who reasoned like I did, much better, with a greater awareness and with the awareness of many different viewpoints. It was clear that […] we were not in the same conditions […] but he had full awareness of that distance and how to bridge it. That kind of attention towards the whole community had a great impact on me. I learned a lot, I don’t know how to say, I learned a lot, it’s one of the things that slaps you in the face and tells you that just because you are white and with a PhD doesn’t mean you know more than others. There was this guy who was on a dinghy until the other day and who has this care, that I had to learn through political assemblies, but he had it with something more, and something different, beyond being more or less, something different. That, that was really beautiful, I must admit. (Interview 6, author’s translation)

  • 3 Producing a truly inclusive communal space often meant for activists the creation of separate space (...)

11Through their activism, volunteers and migrants not only perpetuated a form of solidarity built on shared humanity, understood as shared affects, political agency and similar life trajectories, but they also produced an understanding of what it means to be human in practice, through their daily activities and achievements. Crucial to their understanding of ‘being human’ is the ability to determine one’s future and present, by freely choosing one’s path. This includes crucial life choices such as settling in one state or another, escaping a trafficking ring, but also more mundane matters, such as cooking one’s own meal or choosing one’s own clothes.3 Ultimately, the recovery of humanity that the activists were proposing was the recovery of social bonds and solidarity, understood as communal ties hinging on belonging. Being tied to a social space, through people, networks and practices was the necessary condition for migrants to take control of their journey and put an end to it where they wished. Participation and emotional attachments were the crucial components of their political action.

There’s also who stayed in Italy. Because they found their place, their environment, some got engaged, some got married, some had children [laughs]. And really, that is the basis that brings you to do certain things, the freedom to choose and transform your life however and whenever you want. (Interview 5, author’s translation)

We are humans, they [the migrants] are people who are living extremely difficult situations, it’s true that there are people who tell them what to do, there’s the lawyer, there’s the public health officer who does checks, but they are alienated. They are alienated, they are wretched, as you said there is no one who is able to make a joke. In our Sisters’ Group the girls could have nail polish, they could pick their own clothes. And here is the difference, it’s not welfarism, we left them there and we told them, here, these are the clothes, take what you like, choose them, try them on. Becoming women again, not going to Caritas to receive a package. It’s a small thing, but that works as well, to feel like people […] More than friendship, it is renewed self-confidence. Because recovering your self-confidence means looking at the future with a new enthusiasm, otherwise these people are lost from the very beginning. This is the difference. There are people who don’t even know where they are anymore, if no one speaks to them, tells them a story, how can you settle, love the place where you are? If no one asks you who you are, what do you do, if no one listens to your story? (Interview 4, author’s translation)

12From here stems the importance of the personal and social ties that developed between activists and migrants. More than the provision of aid in the short term, such as food, shelter and clothes, more than legal advice and language lessons, it was the opening of a personal, intimate communications channel that opened up the possibility for true change. From a situation of constant forced mobility in a suspended time and landscape, migrants were finally able to engage with a community, understood as a network ‘primarily constituted through informal directly interpersonal relationships’ (Calhoun 1999 cited in Humpage and Marston 2006), that welcomed them as equal members, participating in its activities and its decision-making processes. Far from being bare life or powerless victims, they could and did make their voices heard and their actions count. For this ‘recovery of the human’ to be truly successful however, it was necessary to not only start out with an ideal of humanity and solidarity that is inclusive but also practice equality and inclusivity in ways that fostered reciprocity and openness. The various practices that allowed for the creation of a true, if fleeting and embryonic, horizontal community in the borderland of Ventimiglia are the focal point of the next section.

4.2 Performing Privilege: Dangers of Solidarity

13Many studies of humanitarian camps and initiatives, as well as of solidarity activism have pointed out that, in many instances the relationship between volunteers or activists and the populations they strive to help is a vehicle of privilege. Camps in particular have been shown to create specific hierarchies inscribed into space and on bodies through differential mobility regimes, as well as a differential attention for their (in)security (Hyndman 2000; Fassin 2007). In some cases, the same can be said for solidarity activism. As Mahrouse (2014) points out in her monographs on the racial power dynamics that structure transnational solidarity activism, often the presence of white, preferably European or North American volunteers and activists is required on account of their pacifying effect on local violence and harassment, and the fact that they can effectively rely on their privilege to legitimize struggles or capture international attention.

14However, on the ground, this assumed white saviour identity, apart from being a product of openly racial power dynamics, and even when accompanied by anti-racist commitments, is increasingly complicated by local political and geopolitical dynamics, becoming either ineffective or an exercise producing new imperialist identities and scripts. These crucial markers of inequality are not necessarily articulated in terms of race as a stable power geography, but rather as a series of interlocking systems, which touch on perceptions of class, citizenship, race, gender and sexuality and are mapped on bodies over time and space. In the Franco-Italian borderland, a racialised and class-based regime of mobility, which privileges white and apparently well-off individuals at the expense of racialised, gendered bodies, was clearly in place. The existence of this imagined backdrop to policing practices was increasingly obvious to migrants and activists alike, and it often provided opportunities to fool controls or to challenge their effectiveness.

The greater part of police checks was carried out in the stretch [of the train lines] leading up to Menton. So we went to check ourselves just to see if, for instance, and it happened sometimes, sometimes not, depending on your clothes and attitude, also to French guys, or Italian ones, who were black and so were stopped by the police. This happened very often […] I’d say that 70% of the time it was like this. That remaining 30%, I have to say it depended very much by the clothes and the attitude of the young man in question. A suit and tie, and a good smell [would save you] […] They even asked for my ID because they thought I was from Syria. I’m half Iraqi, so sometimes when I crossed they [the police] would ask for my documents. [laughs] Actually, a group of Albanians, they always did this thing, with total nonchalance – no, they weren’t Albanian, they were, I don’t remember precisely, they were from Eastern Europe. So they would wear some light trousers, a white shirt, with their sleeves rolled up, the shirt a bit open, sunglasses, and nothing on them, no backpacks, no bags, and they crossed [laughs]. Easy as can be. Because they were brown, but it looked like a tan, so [laughs]. But that’s the thing, it depends on your attitude. Because if you go up to them [the police] looking hesitant, or intimidated, they would stop you. There was a Moroccan friend of mine, he’s Italian, his parents are Moroccan, they [the police] always stopped him, every single time. We had been there for six months, you know? I knew each cop’s face [laughs]. (Interview 5, author’s translation)

  • 4 Discriminatory practices are not only the purview of the police. Public and private services in the (...)

15For the migrants themselves, the question of colour is not only an instance of open discrimination,4 but also a clear lack of reciprocity. As a woman I met during my fieldwork put it, ‘Here they don’t like this colour. But God created this colour and it’s not going away. You are white but you’re not God. In our country, there’s French, there’s anyone, we still respect them, we talk to them, we love them. Not because they’re white, because we are all human […] I will cross today!

  • 5 Interestingly, one of the volunteers working with Kesha Niya identified in the badges and vests of (...)

16This differentiated mobility regime, although justified in terms of citizenship or nationality, revealed quite clearly the racial and political economic background against which belonging is constructed in the European imaginary. Activists and migrants were both painfully aware of their relative positionality vis-à-vis the border and police controls. Volunteers often took advantage of it through what they termed monitoring practices. Those monitoring practices effectively inscribed a hierarchical, racialised power pyramid by determining whose body was more or less likely to be on the receiving end of police brutality. NGO professionals, with their vests and badges,5 irrespective of their embodied racial or gendered features, were considered perfect deterrents to violence and harassment. As formally recognized humanitarian and non-governmental actors, they enjoyed full legitimacy in the eyes of the state authorities, and in some cases represented an extension of state policy, as is often the case for humanitarian personnel, performing state policy through other means.

17Activists instead occupied a shifting middle-ground between the positionality of local humanitarian personnel and that of the migrants. Their presence during monitoring shifts was similarly thought to discourage police brutality, although they were also very often on the receiving end of threats, harassment and police action, such as arrests, identification checks or expulsion orders. During protests or other political actions conversely, they stood on the same plane as migrants, in the likelihood of experiencing extreme police violence. Furthermore, activists perceived their differential mobility vis-à-vis the border in comparison to migrants as another marker of difference, although their relative capacity to cross the border unimpeded was only one aspect of their privilege as European or Italian citizens. Finally, solidarians saw their capacity to tap into a social network of willing helpers and allies in their struggle as another, sometimes more crucial form of privilege, which put them in a relative position of power with respect to the migrants even in the camp-space.

18In light of the distance and disparity that migrants and activists perceived with regards to their respective positionalities, the potential of the camp-space to give birth to eventful alternatives becomes more crucial. Often in the camps power dynamics can play in completely different ways. The study of camps, and protest camps in general, is important precisely because of the way they restructure power dynamics by restructuring space. By bordering a space outside of the hierarchies and power relations of the borderland, activists and migrants were able to subvert or substantially change the status quo, creating different structures through their practices. The opposition of the solidary spaces to the outside was thus not only necessary for the existence of these spaces as independent entities, but also fundamental for allowing their internal dynamics to coalesce around forms of organic horizontality as they renegotiated external power formations.

19On the one hand, in the Balzi Rossi squat, the creation of an organic community, which was open and inclusive, managed to subvert certain unequal power dynamics and substitute them with horizontal practices and equitable cooperation. On the other hand, in the informal camps created after 2016, the lack of a true sense of community, of times, spaces and practices of aggregation and the rising numbers of camp denizens allowed these camps to become theatres of racial and sexual violence as well as trafficking and prostitution. The more common episodes of violence were fights during the distribution of meals, when migrants would queue up to receive food. The fear of going without food for the night, or possibly the whole day, created tensions that often exploded in episodes of violence around racial tensions. As one volunteer described it:

  • 6 This was the only interview in which the word ‘race’ actually came up and was repeated several time (...)

Actually it’s really about the racial conflict, that was quite intense. Every now and then there would be a huge fight, between two races.6 Yeah, like, every dinner time, they would actually always argue between individuals, those with lighter complexion they would like they would say, no we, we should go in front of you because we are better than you, basically. (Interview 1)

20The informal camps that were built along the riverbed in 2016 and 2017 never managed to become a space of aggregation to the same extent as the Balzi Rossi squat. Political efforts to rearticulate the power dynamics of the borderland remained confined to the space of the Infopoint, or the Hobbit Bar, while under the bridge in Via Tenda there remained a very fragile balance born out of simple coexistence. Rather than building a community that could bridge difference, those informal camps remained spaces where families or groups of friends lived together, without mixing with one another. Although such spaces also saw convivial moments of laughter and exchange, the spectre of violence always remained present.

I always made sure, if I was walking under the bridge at night time, well, not at night, when it gets dark, I’d always make sure that I am with someone who I am super comfortable with […] Even though how hard the situation is, living under the bridge, there are so many times when everyone is laughing, and like you know just sharing the most stupid memory, because you know, someone has to take a bath and they’re really cold, like just really like small things like, people get so much closer, I guess. (Interview 1)

21The lack of an obvious common spatial opposition, such as the border checkpoint, and the construction of the camp as a hiding place rather than a form of protest effectively disallowed the negotiation of the camp-space as a full-fledged example of political resistance. In turn, missing adversarial spatial practices hindered the creation of the same type of organic horizontality which made the Balzi Rossi squat viable, informing its decision-making processes and every other aspect of communal living.

4.3 Practicing Reciprocity, Levelling Inequalities

22Life in the Balzi Rossi squat was very different from life in the riverside camps. Each morning the squat greeted the new day with an open assembly, planned the routine activities of the day as well as the political actions that could be undertaken in the near future. Every denizen was involved in the daily running of the camp and everyone could participate equally, to the best of their ability. These participatory community activities such as cooking, retrieving food from markets or other local producers sympathetic to the cause, storing donated materials, welcoming new volunteers, were slowly born out of coexistence and proximity without any intentional design. As one of the volunteers who arrived at the camp during the first days of the squat put it, the practice of cooking was extremely useful for fostering an early start to cooperation and horizontality.

As soon as we started to cook we realised that that was already a chance to meet people in the squat, because you involve them in cooking, so while you cook, you chat with them, and so you know them. So, there was already a first process of encounter, of exchange, already with the practice of cooking. Then there was the question of the sharing of the meal, once you cooked. And that was also a very important moment of exchange that I think in the beginning was really important to kick off assemblies. Because at the beginning, there weren’t any. When we arrived, there were the solidarians, there were the squatters on the rocks, but it all was very rough, in terms of relations. Cooking surely helped to kick off some processes. (Interview 7, author’s translation).

23Although the population of the squat was constantly changing, as well as shrinking and enlarging, the practices of communal living remained stable over time and provided the bedrock for a small political community to flourish. The political importance of these practices rests on the idea of reciprocity, which is fostered by the equal burden-sharing and participation that this entails. The alienation that is often diagnosed as a product of humanitarian approaches to encampment and the production of subjectivities of abject victimhood has been long identified as a product of the lack of reciprocity that characterises those relationships of aid (Turner 2016; Nyers and Rygiel 2012). By reversing the terms of the relationship through practices of reciprocity, the Balzi Rossi squat allowed for equally politically powerful subjectivities to emerge both among activists and among migrants.

That night for the first time we didn’t cook by ourselves. From the early afternoon many came to our camp stoves bringing with them flavours and recipes from the countries they left, comparing them with our dishes and exchanging pots, samples and help. Ibrahim, who looks like he’s a great cook, asks us to sample his dishes to check if they’re ready and at 8pm he offers us a plate of chorba (He cannot eat yet because he’s observing Ramadan and the sun has not set) and with a smile he says “You’re welcome” [In English in the original]. Welcome to my story, to my life. A great twist: it was us who had gone to Ventimiglia to tell them “Welcome”. (Staffetta Eat the Rich 2015, author’s translation)

24Reciprocity fostered in practices of communal living was also conducive to the realization of a deep sense of equality between the denizens of the camp. This in turn allowed for an implicit rejection of any sort of dependent relationship between volunteers and migrants, in clear contrast with the state-led humanitarian response to the crisis. In the words of one volunteer:

  • 7 The original Italian noun used by the activists is ‘assistenzialismo’. In context, it refers broadl (...)

We eliminated any form of dependency,7 by consensus and almost in a way, implicitly. Like, I am not here to tell you what you have to do, what you don’t have to do, what you have to eat, when you have to eat, how you must behave […] Perhaps, the first experience [as a migrant] you have is the landing at Lampedusa and in Lampedusa you already come into contact with an organized structure, with a welfarist reception system through which I am making you depend on my system, and this was made visible also by the notions, by the information that they had on the European system. (Interview 5, author’s translation)

25The rejection of co-dependency was transformed into practices that could foster individual choice and freedom in the camp. Firstly, everyone could and did participate in every part of the logistical running of the camp, establishing relations of reciprocity of aid. Secondly, the volunteers strove to provide as much relevant information as possible to the migrants, with regards to language, geography and migration policy so they could have the tools they needed to continue their journey or stay in Italy, depending on their wishes. According to the volunteers, this exchange of information was their way of putting their privilege, in terms of cultural and social capital, to good use in support of the political struggle initiated by the migrants on June 12th, 2015, creating an ambiguous relationship between the practice of reciprocity, forms of privilege and inequality.

26It is this reversal that permits an articulation of subjectivities, where neediness does not immediately translate into powerlessness or abject victimhood. Neediness in this case is a cry for help that does not erase the full humanity and subjectivities of those receiving aid, rather it testifies to their humanity. Furthermore, the ability to be involved, to give back is a signal to migrants themselves that they are welcome to be included in the community, on an equal footing with their ‘hosts’, thus avoiding feelings of inescapable indebtedness (Nyers and Rygiel 2012). For many migrants their new, unstable condition is shocking and difficult to come to terms with. For each gesture of solidarity they receive, some are determined to give something back. An exchange I had with a young Afghan man on my first day of fieldwork clearly delineates this dynamic.

  • 8 Z. is the initial of the young man’s given name, which I use to refer to his part of the dialogue. (...)

Z8. Where are you going on holiday?

A. I am not going, I don’t have the money.

Z. Then call me and I’ll give you. You gave me a banana and I’ll pay you back.

A. Okay. [I laughed embarrassedly, thinking that my gift of a banana could not be worth that much gratitude]

Z. You don’t believe me! I have money, my father is a judge in Afghanistan. And now I’m in this shitty situation.

A. Okay, I believe you.

Z. Give me your email address, and please answer me.

27The attempts to create a factual equality between all camp denizens extended also to the political actions and processes initiated in the squat. This community eschewed banners and particular political claims or colours, save for their rallying cry ‘We are not going back, we need to pass’, which was what the migrants who had started the squat had first articulated as their demand. The addition of other volunteers over time only made it more difficult for the authorities to silence the migrants’ political claims and to evict their squat immediately.

You see, a phrase that surprised us at the time when we spoke with, with the people who wanted to cross the border, they told us once, we are strong if you are here, [in English in the original transcript]. And in that case, that was completely self-evident. In a normal situation I think it is like this, normally, migrants, the migration question is silenced, and probably at the time it would have made its way into newspapers very strongly, but that intervention [of the solidarians] made the situation even more difficult for the authorities, who could not evict the squat fully. (Interview 6, author’s translation)

28While the political activities that centred on the squat grew in their frequency and complexity, the risk attached to repression grew alongside them. The increasing risk to which activists and migrants exposed themselves became on the one hand a possible vehicle for the activists to reassert their privileged position as European nationals:

The first camp, in 2015, at the Balzi Rossi was extremely heterogeneous so people came from all sorts of backgrounds, especially from the north of Italy, that’s also true, simply because of the locality of the squat, and no one put on a hat. There was not one movement who had put a header on the thing, and that, you can also write that in your thesis, that was the issue in later years. Because yes, you can do assemblies with 100 people where you speak 5 different languages, it’s complicated, but the strain is necessary. And there was sharing, and that was beautiful, there were also moments of gap, because making choices in an assembly is hard, because maybe they, the migrants, feared exposing themselves too much when repression became harsher, and we instead knew that we could risk a bit more, but what do you do? Do you force them? It’s their life, in the end. So uniting the two things wasn’t always easy. (Interview 5, author’s translation)

  • 9 Affinity groups are smaller decision-making units used by new social movements and protest camps to (...)

29On the other hand, common vulnerability to risk also became a uniting factor that pulled camp denizens closer to one another. The participation in protests and ‘frontier jamming’ actions, as well as the sheer exposure to police violence, mediated the differences between camp denizens by uniting them against a common enemy, but also by fostering affective relationships born out of care for others’ wellbeing. Furthermore, members of the squat strived to keep the political direction of the squat as open as possible, accommodating for different points of view and allowing people the freedom to dissociate from actions. Decisions taken in the assembly were never final, but took on the shape of a constant, never-ending dialogue that also kept recurring outside of the assemblies, in small groups over time. This process, similar to the affinity group model9 of other protest camps, was entirely informal and organic, springing from coexistence and communal living rather than an intentional political organization.

30The lack of purposeful political direction and the necessity to keep the community open and mutable hindered the birth of a proper, nationwide political movement. Many activists saw this as the failure of the squat. Other activists, who were active at a later time in Ventimiglia, were instead more sceptical about the value of protest and political movements but were also very aware of a supposed tension between direct aid and political mobilization. This contrasting commitment to either political mobilization or direct action and aid are also explored in other studies on solidarity activism (della Porta, 2018), leaving the impression that aid stands as a distraction from the more important and fruitful instrument of protest.

31Is the creation of camp alternatives a lesser political endeavour than outright protest? It certainly is a different sort of politics, but an important form of political action all the same. In the space of the camp, where volunteers were still mindful of the ways in which their actions could convey their privilege and prove to be less emancipatory than they seemed, the creation of an alternative that articulated subjectivities in the struggle, in contrast with the workings of the borderland, was a crucial political action. As Mamma Africa put it in her interview, and a sentiment later echoed by other volunteers, the border is not just the checkpoint. The exclusionary processes of the borderland evidently follow people into their homes, cutting them off from the local social fabric:

Where is the frontier? The frontier is not between Italy and France, France and Germany, France and England. That’s not the frontier. Where is the frontier? Independently from the colour of your skin, because you can be white or black, it’s when you find yourself in a state, where you have no documents, you have no work contract, without a work contract you can’t have a home, you have no right to access health services. It’s not about identity, I cross and identify myself. That’s not the frontier. That’s an entry ticket, an exit ticket, like in a cinema, I pay the ticket to come and see. That’s not a frontier. Migration is not these people crossing on foot, migration is what they leave behind, what they suffer in the journey and until they get to the end, that is migration. (Interview 2, author’s translation)

32A man I met during his crossing put it similarly:

Yes, I come only to look at Italy! [sarcastic laugh] I don’t fight, I don’t sell drugs, I don’t do bad, but there’s no work and I don’t beg. You can take my prints today, tomorrow, two thousand times, I’ll still come, until I cross. (In English in the original)

33Not only do people contest their right to move (i.e. ‘We are not going back, we need to cross’), but also the right to stop somewhere and have access to the elements that make up what we would consider a normal life, a job, a home, a social network to which we belong. In that sense, although the camp alternative is not a viable long-term solution, it opens up certain alternatives that begin to integrate migrants into a social fabric that welcomes them as its members and not as temporary visitors. The camp can be understood then as an example of ‘interstitial politics’ (Pignarre and Stengers 2011) where the status quo of the migrating subject, who is often found in constant movement, in a suspended time frame and in a spatial vacuum (Mountz 2011), is subverted through the creation of bonds that link them to a new solidary geography. However, this political project is not born out of the affirmation of a privileged political subjectivity, but rather through the contextual effort to respond to social and political dynamics as they arise, working through ‘the middle’ of the situational fabric (Stengers 2013). This sort of politics, which eschews banners, long-term strategies and great declarations is instead a politics of ‘doing possible things’ (Kesha Niya 2017), whose definition is as changeable as the fluctuating dynamics of the borderland, although it is no less relevant, for its fluidity.

34Rather than challenging the logics of the borderland in movement, the opening of solidary spaces (the Balzi Rossi squat, the Infopoint, the Hobbit Bar) bracketed off certain localities from the relations of power and exclusion that govern migration. By doing this, solidarians and migrants articulated alternative modes of being and of living together that resisted the alienation of the mobile subject and the creation of bare life through exception and suspension. These bonds often took the shape of familial ties, of sisterhood, brotherhood, sometimes even motherhood. Many of the volunteers described their encounter with the migrants as the encounter with a new younger or older brother, a long lost sister, or a new adopted son. This dynamic can be witnessed in every solidary space that has been opened in Ventimiglia, no matter how transient, from the Hobbit Bar to the make-shift squat-cum-observatory on the frontiera alta organized by Kesha Niya.

4.4 The Feminine Burden of Care and Forms of Masculinist Protection

  • 10 The reasons behind the discrepancy in the numbers of male and female volunteers represents another (...)

35The language of family, interestingly put forward more strongly by female interviewees, is by no means politically neutral and brings forth gendered dynamics that may give rise to many imbalances and difficulties. The importance of intimate exchange and relationships, as well as emotional support provided by volunteers, often leaves female activists in a position of greater demand that their male counterparts, where they often find themselves having to deal with a thorny balance between their self-fashioned role as helpers and their own personal and mental well-being. This dynamic might be said to represent an example of the ‘feminization of care work’ (Cohen and Wolkowitz 2018) insofar as it not only concerns a type of work that is mainly performed by women,10 but also a type of interaction in which female volunteers are preferred to their male counterparts.

It’s difficult to… because obviously I’m a woman, and being surrounded by so many men, obviously you know, that some of the friendships are really just fake, they really just want your attention, because you’re a woman, that sort of thing. Yeah, so I had that quite often, but then, I had genuine, real, friends as well. I would be hanging out with them, and being really comfortable being with them, and they also shared their life stories with me and stuff, genuinely, yeah. (Interview 1)

36The importance of personal relationships and of care work, with its emotional burden, drew volunteers’ attentions to the conflictual relationship between their own desire to help, the moral necessity of solidary action, and their own well-being. Their informal provision of care might ultimately create bonds that transcend professional roles and thus run deeper, filling the void of human relationality that opens in transit, addressing the issues of alienation that volunteers diagnose in the borderland. However, it also leaves volunteers vulnerable to instances of extreme emotional strain while shouldering the bulk of the emotional labour required on the frontier. This conflict remains ultimately unresolved to a large extent, with volunteers identifying this mutual vulnerability in the provision of care as the best feature of their action as well as its greatest danger, setting their work apart from professional organizations and NGOs, whose bureaucratic organizational dynamics sparked the frustration of more than one volunteer with whom I interacted.

  • 11 Names were changed and bear no similarity to the original ones.

Surely this was one of our strong points. Humanity shining through, no? Through people. You are… it is not your profession, you are not doing a job, it’s something you believe in, you are not an Oxfam observer, you are not an Intersos observer, you are Arianna, you are Marco, you are Giulia11 and that surely made it so that people came closer. On the other hand, we always took up the issue of training, because I cannot deny that there were episodes of, it would be wrong to say burnout, but often getting so close to suffering and to the constant deprivation of rights challenges you. Maybe from this perspective people who do this professionally and are used to doing it can have that necessary detachment. I have seen people who have stayed in Ventimiglia for three months sleeping in a tent, this winter, they were there under the snow, but I also saw their pain later, because if you cannot detach yourself, and as a person you cannot, afterwards, there’s pain, there’s suffering. So yeah, this is the upside and the difficulty as well. (Interview 4, author’s translation)

37Care labour is an extremely feminine domain, characterized by the mobilization of personal relationships as instruments of political change. It is only possible to speculate as to why people in transit reach out more readily to women. Some activists suggested that they might seem less threatening and more trustworthy, while male figures in transit often represent the possibility of further exploitation and violence. The creation of viable ties of trust and aid is entirely based on a contextual experience of the situation, rather than predetermined roles, formal requirements and mandates, highlighting the informality and contingency that rule these processes.

The best kind of relationship [with migrants] comes to me through the situation that is born in that instant, and it’s my instinct, it might also be wrong what I do, it’s not a certainty that it is right. But it is my instinct as a woman, as a mother, as an aunt, as a cousin, as a sister that drives me to act that way. Until now I haven’t gone wrong, of course, if people ask me advice, for lawyers, for… I’m not up to that, but fulfilling in that moment the need for affection, a shoulder to lean on, I am there for that. (Interview 2, author’s translation)

38Emotional availability sometimes leads to requests to which volunteers are not willing to comply, and many have learned to cope swiftly and directly with requests for personal contacts or displays of affection, if unwelcome. For some, these instances are also opportunities to reflect more about their role in the borderland and the work that they do. When they face difficulties however, their narrative goes back to the necessity that brings them to the field and a seemingly inescapable responsibility to be active and resist the dominant power dynamics which see migrants silenced and marginalised.

It is a very difficult space, it is difficult for the women in transit and it is difficult for [female] volunteers. Because you have to deal with situations… we cannot hide this, situations of promiscuity, difficult situations, situations with people that have been traveling for long with many different backgrounds. It is true that sometimes your smile can be misunderstood and you need to be careful, it seems like a slap in the face but even that, maybe, that is a lesson, I mean, you have to understand that, it is a further push to stay human. Because we cannot… what do you do then? Play the same game? Then we should say no, it’s not worth helping [them]. But we cannot think this way. (Interview 4, author’s translation)

39The dimension of kinship that is born in these spaces is not only made up of the tricky balance of emotional labour, but it can also become the theatre of a long-term dialogue on gender issues and cultural differences, as well as a space where rules are enforced through relationships of trust and respect. The reliance on mutual trust and personal relationships for the enforcement of order is another feature of the role that horizontality plays in camp-spaces, tying people together not on account of formal structures but rather on account of a sense of closeness determined by a common opposition (adversarial spatial practices) as well as the creation of an embryonic community, born out of liminality.

I’ve always felt comfortable, I slept in a tent for 5 months and no one ever came to bother me. Also because I was crazy and half hysteric and so I yelled at people, I scolded them, I treated them like my younger brothers, exactly like this, I scolded them all the time, because that’s how I behave generally… But many, there were people better than me at mediating, let’s say, I also explained myself to them, when you live 24/7 with someone you build relationships, and when someone does something wrong or you treat someone badly there is space for dialogue, to understand cultural differences as well if you will, because there are […] The thing was, what I tried to explain was that it’s not like they had to treat me well as a woman because I was there helping them and I was Italian, they had to treat me well as a woman because I was a woman, period. And they had to treat their sister well just the same, as far as I am concerned. (Interview 5, author’s translation)

40The language of family became then not only a means to vehicle belonging to the solidary community of the borderland but also a tool for the exercise of authority and the enforcement of rules and standards of behaviour, enriching the varied horizontality of solidary-spaces with another layer of togetherness. The most striking case of such dynamics is that of Mamma Africa.

I had to assert my authority, put forth some rules because for all I care you can wash but the bathroom needs to be clean, since you are going to wash you ask for the mop and you dry the floor. Because there are women and children going in there, but not even that, it might be your brother who goes in there, slip in the water or step in the dirty water on the floor, that’s not nice […] I disciplined them, like small children. They are not used to receiving orders from a woman, so for me it was a double [effort]. They left the bathroom dirty, even though I had put a sign saying ‘clean it’, even though I had put the mop to their disposal, nothing, so I locked the bathroom. Since everywhere else they could not go in and in the train station they had to pay to go to the bathroom, they understood. (Interview 2, author’s translation)

41The enforcement of rules and order based on informal dialogue and horizontality was not enough, however, to disallow the emergence of cases of sexual violence both at the Balzi Rossi squat and in the informal camps, highlighting the limits of horizontality when it comes to gendered power dynamics. Two such cases, one for each camp, was reported to me by the volunteers whom I interviewed, in addition to the many tales of sex trafficking and violence that came up in conversation. The cases that were reported involved the rape of a volunteer in the Balzi Rossi squat by one man in transit, and the rape of a sixteen-year old Ethiopian girl by a group of five Afghan men. In the latter case, no one mentioned to me any response to the incident, while in the former, the whole squat was involved in dealing with this episode of violence, with the women attempting to care for the victim and the migrants and volunteers spoiling to lynch the accused perpetrator, who later ran away. According to a volunteer, the only one who mentioned the case, this reaction, while violent, stemmed from a drive to protect the victim:

This thing about their response, beyond the fact that it could be violent or not, was an action of protection and respect. When I was saying [earlier in the interview] that we were often only women, because often it happened that for days at a time we would be 3 men [volunteers], 5 women and 180 men. That is not an attempt to justify or down play what happened, but also speaking for my personal experience… they, there never was this thing where you are a woman, you wash the dishes, no it was more like, you are a woman, you are helping me, you are my sister. It was very much like a brotherhood, and sisterhood, so even if it was only women you never felt in danger. And even after, after the rape incident, some of the migrants who had stayed for longer, they were reprimanding [others], scolding, saying “Oh, look, you have to behave with them” […] They would scold the new ones who arrived and who would treat you badly because you’re a woman. Then, in reality, it was a very rare occurrence, they were few. (Interview 5, author’s translation)

42A similar reliance on informal relationships, stemming from the sense of (in)security that permeated these spaces, was also present in the riverside informal camps that succeeded Balzi Rossi, where horizontality and adversarial spatial practices were not articulated in such a way as to succeed in creating a viable community.

  • 12 This name has been changed from the original in the transcript.

My dad said – my dad came to visit for like a week – there was, the guys he really trusted and said okay, Jane12 is your responsibility, so that gave more of a brother kind of relationship as well. (Interview 2)

43Although in this case the notion of ‘brotherhood’ is mobilized in a way that promises protection, it is sometimes the case that, for women in transit, brotherhood can just as easily mean exploitation. In some instances, trust placed in kinship relationships is betrayed and leaves plenty of room for violence. This is the case of sex trafficking rings, where reliance on informal ties between people met in transit drives women to a situation of exploitation, while female volunteers who struggle against sex trafficking strive to earn women’s trust to disentangle them from such dynamics. This shows how mechanisms of masculinist protection, entailing the subordination of women’s agency (Young 2003) to that of their male counterparts are a clear structuring force of the management of (in)security in these spaces, highlighting the double and thin boundary that links protection to violence and oppression.

Logically, a woman coming with her child, does not believe us whites but believed her brother and she doesn’t know that her brother sells her […] It is not easy [to build trust] in very few minutes, because many times you do not have an hour, or a day at your disposal to make them understand that you are on their side […] I am proud of that [of succeeding], or when they came… There was one time, we’re talking about 2017, a woman with four children and pregnant with another, I gave them food, brioche and juice, and a toy to go on with their journey, and when they got to France they call you and they thank you, and for a couple of months since their departure, sometimes even now they call me to tell me “Thank you, Mamma” […] Or another time, last year, a girl arrived, they brought her to me, a girl at 7 a.m., that had been beaten early in the morning, stoned, she had a hole in her head this big… Because she had refused to prostitute herself in their ring, and in those conditions, where do they bring her? Not to the hospital, they take her to Mamma Africa. (Interview 2, author’s translation)

  • 13 This detachment can also be taken to represent another layer of privilege that separates migrants f (...)

44The moral and ethical necessity of bearing witness to the events of the borderland and of not appearing indifferent to the plight of people in transit does not eliminate the difficulties that dealing with such a politically charged context entails. Whether it is personal risk – of arrest, of physical violence – or the strain of the emotionally demanding situation, many volunteers face the impossible task of balancing their commitment to the cause with their own personal wellbeing. Furthermore, many are critical of the long-term consequences of their actions, wondering whether they might ultimately have negative consequences for people in transit and what kind of responsibility they should bear in their regards. Attitudes are very varied on these issues. Each volunteer I interacted with had their own sense of right and wrong and their own personal boundaries related to questions of legality, collusion with passeurs or to advice given to migrants. Some also openly discussed the importance that they placed on distancing themselves physically from Ventimiglia and only coming back when ready to face the gruesome stories that greet them every day.13 However, for many (female) volunteers the sheer necessity that they feel to be present in the borderland sometimes trumps any difficulties that they face.

So the job of a volunteer is devastating, because you know you have to keep doing it but it hurts, because these people, today you see them, you greet them at night, you don’t know if tomorrow they’ll be there still and you don’t know what’s in store for them. Nothing rosy is waiting for them. And even after that border, to which they aspire so much, we ask ourselves often, we try to help them in the crossing any way we can but towards what? What are you going towards? Because there is nothing, there is no heaven beyond that border. So it is hard, hard. Because many women, I saw them lose their light, the light of hope, but it’s also true that among women, the very fact of holding a sister and letting her feel at home can turn that light on again. Even if it’s little, that is what is needed sometimes. (Interview 4, author’s translation)

45The wellbeing of every participant in a conflictual situation, such as that of the borderland, is valued contextually, seeking to find solutions that do not entail anyone’s suffering. By constructing a moral dilemma in such a way, volunteers are not in a position to elevate their own well-being above that of migrants, whose recognised neediness is what drives political action and informal humanitarian assistance. Furthermore, the framing of solidary action as necessary and intimately human entails an additional layer of moral commitment to the construction of the role of solidarity activism and volunteer humanitarianism in the borderland, firmly anchoring the provision of care and the recognition of mobile people’s vulnerability and non-expendability in the framing of solidary identities.


1 This is a reference to the summer of 2017. At that time, the local authorities closed the drinkable water taps close to the bridge under which many migrants slept. This choice ultimately denied access to drinkable water to several hundreds of people.

2 The volunteer I interviewed in this case said that she had become extremely close with a group of migrants, and whenever she referred to them during the interview, she would call them ‘her friendship group’.

3 Producing a truly inclusive communal space often meant for activists the creation of separate spaces for men and women. In the Infopoint especially, it become obvious early on that women would not attempt to use the computers at their disposal while men where using the same space. Furthermore, as women were more often in charge of taking care of children, the provision of aid in the caring of their children was often a necessity to offer them respite from travel and their daily caretaking duties. Finally, all those women who ended up in trafficking rings were often unable to truly take advantage of the aid volunteers offered, and as already stated in chapter 3 it was rare for the activist network in Ventimiglia to be truly able to put a dent in sex trafficking. Humanity, then, as free choice and unencumbered agency, could be said not to be a possible path for all.

4 Discriminatory practices are not only the purview of the police. Public and private services in the locality of Ventimiglia also refused migrants on the basis of colour. Whether it is a taxi service insisting on knowing the skin colour of its clients, or a bus driver refusing to take on more than 10 migrants because that would cause a disservice to other white users waiting at other stops, racial discrimination is common and goes entirely unchecked.

5 Interestingly, one of the volunteers working with Kesha Niya identified in the badges and vests of NGO personnel a distancing device, which kept migrants wary of them and made it impossible to build an open and horizontal exchange.

6 This was the only interview in which the word ‘race’ actually came up and was repeated several times. In other interviews, possibly on account of the fact that they were carried out in Italian, while Interview 1 was carried out in English, the word race never came up. However, activists found other ways to communicate the same concept. In particular, in Interview 5 with an activist who lived at the Balzi Rossi squat, the language became increasingly creative. As she explained to me, in the squat they found different ways of communicating racial differences by terming the denizens of the squat white, ‘macchiato’ (like a cappuccino) and black. Another pair of terms used to mark difference in the squat was ‘locals’ and ‘migrants’, where locals signified people with European citizenship. Although these language markers came up, activists mostly referred to the people they met as their friends, by their name. They referred to people as ‘the guys’ or ‘the shabaabs’, and ‘solidarians’ or ‘activists’ in the cases in which they were singling out their relative ‘role’ in the story, often seemingly more for my benefit and my understanding than any desire to mark their difference.

7 The original Italian noun used by the activists is ‘assistenzialismo’. In context, it refers broadly to a culture of welfarism, and handouts that create dependency and is detrimental for individual freedom and autonomy. However, if this expression might have a different meaning in the context of a debate on state welfare and social policies, in this case activists used the term to diagnose a clear trade-off in state-sanctioned humanitarian action between the provision of aid and the individual freedom and political agency of the recipient. This analysis of the reception policy for migrants in Italy largely corresponds to a broader critique of humanitarian responses to migration stressed by the literature on the topic.

8 Z. is the initial of the young man’s given name, which I use to refer to his part of the dialogue. A. refers to my own initials.

9 Affinity groups are smaller decision-making units used by new social movements and protest camps to foster a sense of organic horizontality in their decision-making structures. They strongly resemble small groups of friends in their workings, reaching decisions by consensus, and feeding back these decisions to a bigger assembly, which in turn deliberates again by consensus (Feigenbaum et al. 2013).

10 The reasons behind the discrepancy in the numbers of male and female volunteers represents another interesting avenue of research, unfortunately largely beyond the scope of this paper.

11 Names were changed and bear no similarity to the original ones.

12 This name has been changed from the original in the transcript.

13 This detachment can also be taken to represent another layer of privilege that separates migrants from volunteers. Although both are entirely mobile and changeable populations in Ventimiglia, there is an unmistakable ease in the ways in which activists (and students of the topic) can opt out of the violent dynamics of the borderland if they so desire.


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