This photo was taken by a Guardian photographer earlier this year. It shows a boat of African immigrants (sometimes referred to as refugees, depending on the source…) on their way to southern Italy. In many African countries, poverty, unemployment, malnutrition, war, national service conscriptions, and other issues compel citizens to pay people-smugglers to ship them to Italy, one of the closest European countries to the northern coast of Africa. This eerie picture portrays a boat crammed with 300 people just off the coast, right before it was intercepted by the Italian coast guard. The birds-eye view conveys the terrifying, cramped anonymity of the situation: according to the article accompanying this photo, 60 thousand immigrants arrived on the Italian coast between January and June 2014, and tiny towns are struggling to house and support influxes of several thousand refugees at once.
My family lives in Florence, where the African “community” consists of Somalian immigrants who sell fake designer bags on the streets. Residents of southern Italy are hugely critical of the situation; they believe the European Union isn’t doing enough to divert immigrants from Italy and “protect” Italian borders. They claim that because the immigrants come in search of EU citizenship and just happen to land in Italy, the EU should be sending more resources and aid to the borders. The EU in turn blames the Italian government for being inefficient and failing to handle the issue well.
The transnational dynamics of the situation are really delicate. The typical narrative about “illegal” immigration usually leaves out an important detail– that immigrants often have no choice but to leave their countries. This point is echoed in We Need New Names— there is nothing in Zimbabwe for Darling and her friends and family. The only way to imagine a future is to see it in America. So the solution can’t be as simple as deportation. But in this case, Italy’s porous borders belong not only to the nation but to a larger transnational group– the EU. The decision of what to do about the immigration issue must occur in a transnational space, where the Italian government, the EU, and the country-less Somalian (or Eritrean, or Syrian, or Ghanaian) immigrants can compromise.
The immigrants in this tiny boat must literally sit on one buttock lest they be asked to leave. They often come into Italy seeking asylum– they can’t claim the country as a home, only as a refuge. In this situation, unfortunately, the multi-layered responsibilities of the different authorities who can take action have caused a deadlock in policy, so that it seems that they won’t be able to sit comfortably for a long time.