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Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migrations at the World’s Deadliest Border

0 Comments 🕔17.Mar 2016

In Tunis, on International Migrants Day, I attended a conference entitled “Migration Clinic: Reflecting on Care Across the Mediterranean.”[1] The event had been organized by Psychologues Solidaires, a group of young Tunisian psychologists who engage with what they view as mental health issues pertaining to their society, such as those of the “harqin”—a local term referring to young men who “burn” Europe’s frontiers by emigrating via irregular means—and of the loved ones they leave behind. For Psychologues Solidaires, therapeutic support for migrants and for their families must be thought through in tandem with a critique of the political and legal contexts that de facto illegalize those wishing to travel. They take pathologies related to migration to be inherently linked to their political settings.

This standpoint resonates with the work of Italian psychiatrist Franco Basaglia, whose ideas lie at the core of Maurizio Albahari’s Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migrations at the World’s Deadliest Border. Working in another borderland, that between Italy and Yugoslavia, which at the time sat on the threshold of the Iron Curtain, Basaglia revolutionized psychiatry in the 70s by exposing the state’s approach to psychiatric care as institutionalized violence. In his book, Albahari draws on what Basaglia and his wife Franca Ongaro termed “crimini di pace”: those “crimes of peace” committed by states in the name of security that serve to safeguard the status quo. Albahari thus embarks on a detailed and historically grounded analysis of the ways in which the Italian state’s management of migration perpetrates and reproduces structural violence, injustice, and death. Based on ten years of research in southern Italy and in various other Mediterranean sites, Albahari weaves together oral testimonies, journalism, NGO reports, discourse analysis, and legal documents to uncover the workings of today’s well-oiled European migration governance. While focusing on Italy, the book seeks to address bigger questions of state responsibility and criminality vis-à-vis non-citizens, and in doing so places under scrutiny Europe’s much-heralded values of democracy, human rights, and justice.

In the first section of the book, “Journeys,” Albahari takes readers back to the 1990s when, as a teenager living in Apulia (the Italian region situated at the heel of the peninsula’s boot), he witnessed the first maritime arrivals deemed unauthorized by the Italian government, those of Albanians fleeing the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania. This is an important precedent to remind readers that the Mediterranean border did not just recently turn deadly in the aftermath of a summer characterized by huge media interest in migration. It is precisely the deeply unjust and yet recurrent, cyclical aspect of so-called “invasions,” shipwrecks, imprisonments, and deaths that interest Albahari. Employing a lucid and quasi-journalistic prose, he traces twenty years of seasonally proclaimed “emergencies” in Europe with regards to immigration, and shows that there is nothing preordained or incidental about the ways in which migration governance has developed since the 90s. The relative novelty of maritime migration at that time and the lack of legislation left more room for those inhabiting Southern European coastlines to organize spontaneously in the face of arrivals. Yet this does not mean that today, with all the legal machinery in place, alternatives are not available for states—or sought after directly by citizens (as the author hints to in Chapter 6).

The first two chapters, “Genealogies of Care and Confinement” and “Genealogies of Rescue and Pushbacks,” aim to shed light on the contradictions that have come to be at the heart of the moral and political spheres of European migration management. The author moves from shipwreck to shipwreck, relentlessly exposing the crimes of peace committed by governments across the political spectrum. As he documents events, readers unfamiliar with recent Mediterranean history discover how Italian bilateral agreements with Albania are replicated with Libya and Tunisia—thereby externalizing migration control to countries outside of the EU, how military involvement in securing the border gradually becomes the norm, how charities and church groups start getting paid by the state to run migration holding centers, and how ultimately humanitarianism and militarization have become two faces of the same coin when it comes to border control.

The chapters described above set the scene for “Middle Worlds”—arguably the most theoretically stimulating section of the book, perhaps because it is also the most ethnographically grounded. Here, Albahari explores the links between sovereignty and salvation (Chapter 3), and between sovereignty and preemption (Chapter 4). He goes through the laws that have resulted in deterring civilian involvement in rescue at sea, and offers a critique of the media and politicians’ discourses on human smuggling. He argues both are complicit in European citizens’ inaction in the face of migrant deaths and of profoundly unfair treatment of irregularized non-citizens. The Italian military cum humanitarian operation Mare Nostrum of 2013-2014 exemplifies for Albahari the way in which the state governs in a situation of “impossible sovereignty” (a term he borrows from Mae Ngai, 2004).

Following these reflections, Chapter 4 begins with a poignant vignette from Albahari’s fieldwork in 2005, when he was volunteering in The National Centre for the Identification of Asylum Seekers in Apulia. A group of Bulgarian nationals (which at the time was not an EU member state) were taken to the Center and detained unlawfully for a month despite their claim that they were just tourists, and their wish to return to their lives and jobs in Bulgaria. They were detained preemptively, and no document or official reason was ever provided by Italian police authorities with regards to their detention. Albahari asks once more how it is that blatantly unjust situations such as this are allowed to occur routinely without sparking civilian dissent and intervention. He shows how the living conditions in holding centers are not designed to address people’s needs, and that the preemptive power and knowledge these facilities conjure up are in effect unlawful and are based upon simplifications that are all but coherent. Ultimately, “undocumented border practices,” which stand at the opposite end of what is thought of as the ideal-type of legal and bureaucratic state, are actually at the heart of state practice and power. Albahari thus shows the connection between the detention of migrants and the inaction of locals. He then goes from discussing the preemptive properties of sovereignty, to also highlighting the preemptive urges of academia—the itch to identify, categorize, and attribute meaning in advance—thereby elaborating a spot-on critique of how both result in stunting alternatives, in obfuscating different possibilities, and in ultimately failing to take people and their choices seriously.

In the third and final section, “Borders Adrift,” the author brings us back to 2011 to outline the deadly effects of political and legal developments in Europe that emerged in response to revolutions in North Africa. Newspaper articles and his fieldwork on the Italian island of Lampedusa and in the Manduria camp in Apulia, Albahari work together to assemble major shipwrecks; official mourning visits; military operations with colonialist Latin names; migrant protests; indefinite leaves to remain granted solely to the dead; Nobel Prizes; boats left to die; NATO interventions; and monuments to the deceased, conjuring up a complex portrait of Mediterranean migration up to 2014.

Despite the comprehensiveness and critical perceptiveness of this account, I often wished the picture could have been infused with more ethnographic detail, that the author would have jumped more often between the larger story, which we have all been able to follow in the papers, and those smaller scale events that populate it and that show how its contradictions are lived on the ground. In documenting crimes of peace related to migration over a twenty year period, the book at times lacks a sense of how, as Sarah Green suggests for the Aegean maritime border, “border-ness was historically variable” and so experienced differently by its inhabitants over time (264).

In the concluding chapter of the book, Albahari advocates for more focus on instances of collective civil action, of “public citizenship,” in his words. Attending to the role of European citizens in this way must also require an understanding of how “today’s performance of border exists in the company of past performances of border that linger, not only in people’s memories, activities and understandings, but also in theories, places and things” (Green 264). Since new ways of relating cannot emerge in a vacuum, we must reckon with implications of residents in the state’s crimes of peace. Crimes of Peace is a valuable read for anyone interested in the very concept of Europe and of the rule of law. It powerfully addresses the uncomfortable question of how, between the state’s monopoly of both violence and of rescue, European publics have as of yet abstained from, but could always start, to advance a sovereignty of responsibility.

Reviewed by Valentina Zagaria, London School of Economics and Political Science

Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migrations at the World’s Deadliest Border
by Maurizio Albahari
University of Pennsylvania Press
Hardcover/272 pages/2015
ISBN: 0812247477


Green, Sarah. “Performing Border in the Aegean. On relocating political, economic and social relations,” Journal of Cultural Economy 3(2) (2010): 261-278.

Ngai, Mae. N. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, 1924-1965. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 2004.

[1] My translation of the original conference title in French: “Clinique de la migration. Penser le soin entre les deux rives de la méditerranée.”

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