Crimes of Peace : how ‘migrants’ are deshumanized through bureaucratic procedures and dominant institutional discourses

Crimes of Peace : how ‘migrants’ are deshumanized through bureaucratic procedures and dominant institutional discourses

This paper is a review of the book Crimes of Peace : Mediterranean Migrations at the World’s Deadliest Border of Maurizio Albahari (2015). I begin with a short summary that emphasizes its key arguments. In a second part, I analyze through various anthropological notions, the first and last chapters of the book. Finally, I shortly expose my own opinion about Crimes of Peace.


First things first

Crimes of Peace (2015) navigates between two scales: a global and a local one. The author Maurizio Albahari focuses on the institutionalized solutions “made” in response to “immigration”: from severe bilateral agreements between nations to search and rescue operations such as Mare Nostrum and European programs of maritime surveillance (Frontex,  Eurosur, Maios Maiorum). On another hand Albahari circumscribes his own ethnographic field in the Italian cities of Otranto, Valleta, and Lampedusa. This dualistic methodology enables him to intertwine the knowledge provided by ethnography (interviews, encounters, observations, eyewitness accounts) to the analysis of various documents (legal, medias and investigation reports) in order to understand the concrete effects on human lives of the “grandiose sovereign project of managing the mobility of millions of humans” (2015: 18). Hence, Albahari offers his readers a deep and complex understanding of how various policies and mechanisms decided at national and international levels in regard to the “management” of “migration” and “borders”, are incarnate. In sum, Albahari emphasizes on the specific situations encountered by human beings whose individuality is too often veiled behind the homogenous category of “migrants”.

One of the book’s key arguments is how sovereignty is materialized through various policies of migration: from help-search rescues and security programs to administrative detention. Moreover, Crimes of Peace challenges the apparent necessity both the European union and various countries use when framing their politics of immigration. All in all, the book’s main aim is to question how our so-called “democratic” and “liberal” European nations and institutions keep letting Crimes of Peace happen.

Indeed, the book key notion is its title; Crimes of Peace are a way to reveal the political structures and various sets of decisions that enable events as terrible as shipwrecks to happen again and again. Hereby, Crimes of Peace are “empirical offenses of structural injustices” (2015: 22). With this notion, Albahari reveals how every specific action has consequences, specifically the ones legitimized through the use of notions such as “national security” “sovereignty”, “public safety” and even peace. Consequently, the question “is it peace for all?” (Albahari, 2015: 22) resumes the fundamental paradox that inhabits our so-called “liberal democracies:” how narratives and assumptions found in public/institutional discourses and procedures – which systematically evoke “public security/order”, “humanitarianism” or “management of immigration” – veil the political and structural causes of the numerous death happening in the process of maritime mobility?


Hospitality: between sovereignty and human rights

In the section From Children’s Colony to Penal Colony: The Birth of Confinement, Albahari makes a genealogy of the Italian system of administrative detention towards “migrants”. He examines how the Italian state uses narratives that portray immigration as a “challenge” to “public order”. Such narratives emphasize that migrants have to be “managed”. In chapter 1: Genealogies of Care and Confinement (2015: 42 – 48) Albahari describes the confinement of Albanian migrants in stadiums from 1991 to 1992. Then, he looks at i centri di permanenza temporanea e assistenza (holding facilities), which are the solutions proposed in the late 1990s. Albahari narrates the specific case of the Regina Pacis, a holding facility offered to the city of Lecce by its Diocese, in response to the urgent request for migrant’s accommodations, after the arrival in 1997 in Apulia of about fifteen thousand Albanian citizens. The Regina is the first facility of reception in Italy, with a capacity of accommodation up to five hundred people.

In 1997 one of the first reactions to the arrival of Albanian citizen from the locals living in Salento, was to provide them with meals, assistance and shelters. Locals organized themselves outside a specific institutional structure and without any intervention from the state. However, after severe migrant arrivals, the “emergency” situation began to be seen and portrayed as a regular issue. Albahari explains the deep consensus – shared by volunteers, the Regina Pacis director, medias and other civic/political actors – on how the state is quite unanimously seen as the legitimate actor to “manage” recurrent “emergency” situations with coordinated efforts, contrarily to the activities that took place before institutionalized solutions. (2015: 50). As a matter of fact, since the 1998 Turco-Napolitano law, what were informal and spontaneous structures of help and assistance became “institutionalized” “centralized”, “regulated”, and “financed”; the main emphasize of the law was caught up in “humanitarian and managerial” narratives which evoke a specific aim to “police” and “regulate” migration, all of this in line with the European context and policies, like the Schengen Agreement of 1997 (Albahari, 2015: 50).

Thus, one may ask how the concept of hospitality – a common theme in Mediterranean anthropology – can be used to understand the logics, assumptions and narratives that are at stake in the Regina Pacis, but also more generally in migrant’s confinement/administrative detention? To answer this problematic, I will analyze what kind of conditionality migrants encounter in order to be “integrated” and “hosted” in the Italian state, insisting on how hospitality is used as a “cultural and institutional invocation” (Albahari, 2015: 28) to justify migrants’ containment.

To begin with, the anthropological concept of hospitality enables a deep understanding of the migrant’s situation since it indicates how migrants are submitted to conditionality and hierarchies in regard to their social incorporation (Rozakou, 2016: 189). I argue that this said conditionality is – as seen in the case of migrants entering holding facilities like the Regina Pacis – of a bureaucratic nature. For an illustration, Albahari considers his own Italian passport as “a token of [his italian] citizenship” which “makes [him] exempt from the possibility of confinement in such a facility” (2015: 44). Therefore, one can assume that being considered as a (non)stranger is defined by the possession of administrative documents which prove the belonging of citizens to a specific nation. Firstly, this emphasizes the fact that people embody the sovereignty of the sate they (supposedly) come from.

Secondly, confinement in holding facility is inherently linked to bureaucratic apparels that dehumanize the individual situations, needs and aspirations of each “migrants”. Indeed (as Albahari explains it recurrently) everything that concerns the migrants’ rights does not escape a “humanitarian-managerial” perspective: the functions of holding facilities being on one side “detention” and on the other “removal” (2015: 50). Such functions inscribe themselves in the continuity of the discourse of Francesco Cossiga who said following the confinement of migrants from the ship Vlora in the Della Vittoria stadium: “immigration is a problem of public order”(Albahari, 2015: 42). In sum, from the stadium confinement in 1991, to the holding facilities like Regina Pacis in the 2000s and more actual holding centers, narratives framing the immigration phenomenon always emphasize a systematic method of emergency, which appeals to an institutional and managerial response to maritime arrivals in the name of “public order”. Moreover, because these institutional mechanisms and structures, like the Regina Pacis, act in the name of the State and for him, they appeal to always more permanent sovereign structures (ibid. 2015: 42). However, while institutional mechanisms define the everyday life and rights of the migrants in holding facilities, there are, as Albahari explains it for the Regina Pacis “ no institutionalized mechanisms [which] allow migrants to denounce potential ill treatment by the management, staff, fellow detainees or armed force” (2015: 47).

Furthermore, Albahari describes how holding facilities like the Regina Pacis are commonly situated far away from the cities. If the administrative procedures migrants have to go through before entering the facilities, can be considered as “rite of incorporation” (Pitt-Rivers, 2012[1977]) one has to question if such “rites of incorporation” reserved to migrant are coherent with human rights, particularly since migrants can only be “incorporated” as migrants, that is to say as non-citizens. Hence the interrogation “are human rights for migrants”? (Albahari, 2015) seems here particularly salient: can we really deny people any form of agency and submit them to the conditionality of bureaucratic machineries in order for immigration to be “managed” and “controlled”?

Moreover, Albahari reveals how locals and medias, when talking about migrants, refer to them as “gli ospiti” (the guest). Consequently, migrants are never considered as “tratenutti” (the detainees) even if people in holding centers are being forced to stay. Thus narratives of hospitality are based upon a specific image of the “migrant” that they keep reinforcing: the migrant as someone who belongs in the holding facilities (2015: chapter 1-2-3). Following Pitt-Rivers description of the law of hospitality, the migrant, because he is (considered as) a guest must respect the codes of hospitality (2012 [1977]). Hence he (or she) cannot refuse the act of charity unless offending his host. In public discourses again, we can see these offenses translated in a “larger perception that Albanians were failing to make a positive return on the Italians gift of compassion and reception”. (Albahari, 2015: 52).

 Albahari explains carefully this à première vue paradoxical pair of the hospitality-detention complex (2015: p. 20-50). Referring to Derrida, one may note that hospitality is inherently a paradoxical notion. Indeed, Pitt-Rivers explains in the law of hospitality how its “ambivalence” is a fundamental aspect (2012, [1977]). For Derrida, there is on one side the “ethical requirement of absolute openness to the Other “ and on the other “the exclusionary sovereignty, which simultaneously gives the former its reality and yet negates its aspirations “ (2000). Moreover, administrative detention allows the State to be incarnated as an entity, which serves the “public order” by managing immigration (that is to say gather the migrants away from the main cities (Albahari, 2015: chapter 1-2)). Hence, looking at the holding facilities through the lens of hospitality enables us to understand that the “management of migrants” is what both legitimize and portrays the Italian state/nation as the host, defining hospitality as a “national and civilizational trait”. Thus, the way the state and its infrastructures negate migrant’s human rights and “aspirations” is inherently linked to the exclusionary sovereignty hospitality incarnates.

In conclusion, the migrants have more than the mere moral obligation to accept the treatment offered by their “host”: as mentioned above, they are actually enforced to do so, having no other (material) alternatives. In the “hosting” of migrants, the reciprocity of hospitality (Pitt-Rivers, 2012 [1977]) is not fulfilled, in particular because the Italian state does not need to respect any “ethic requirements” to be perceived as a legitimate host. Accordingly, if the state is considered in public discourse as the migrant’s host, the asymmetry of power between the two is such that the state can put at risk the human rights of his “guests”, without harming his own honour or legitimacy.


The need for solidarity

At the end the book, Albahari argues that “we could demand something else” (2015: 202). That is to say, we – as people who have a citizenship that asserts the right to human rights  – could be (more) active in the civic sphere of life and through our daily interactions and acts. Papataxiarchis recognizes how the specific sphere of “informal daily interaction” can be the “locus where [migrants’] social existence is acknowledged” (2014 quoted in Rozakou 2016). Hence, even if migrants are denied agency and mere human rights, there is still something that can (or has to) be done through mundane actions. Therefore, I may argue for the need to apprehend the mundane human encounters and civic actions through the concept of Sociality, because such concept emphasizes people’s political potentialities. (Rozakou, 2016: 188).

In the early 2000s, the “Solidarian” model of solidarity between citizens and migrants was based upon anti-hierarchic and anti-bureaucratic logics (Rozakou, 2016) (Papataxiarchis, 2016). However, their model collapsed for various reasons  (Rozakou, 2016: 196). Still, such a model was widespread and used from left-wing political forces in opposition to institutionalized forms of more official volunteerism (ibid. 2016: 192). Rozakou explains how there was a shift in Greece concerning the use of the category Allileggí (solidarity); what was apprehended until 2015 as an emic category  (ibid. 2016: 187) began to be evoked by the state and its representatives. This reminds us how the state can legitimize itself – like seen above with the references to hospitality – and its action by evoking emic categories or words, with historically and socially located meanings.

On a last note, if social interactions were often apprehended as agonistic in the anthropology of the Mediterranean (Rozakou 2016; on solidarity) (Schneider, 2015; on honour). One may ask whether the nation/state – through the institutions that work as and for it –would be the main perpetuator of such violent relations, in regard to how it deals with non-nationals?


On transcultural affinity

If Albahari exposes, along the pages of Crimes of Peace, the lives of “the migrants”, he ends up his book by emphasizing how those lives are connected, because of the experiences they go through (from the maritime journey to the forms of solidarity as rescue and assistance) to the daily lives of the locals: people in Lampedusa (2015: chapter 6), Otranto and Valletta (2015: 205). Thus, one may argue that between the migrants – regardless of their national origins – and the locals, there can always be a nexus and affinity of transcultural nature. Ben Yehoyadah in the Mediterranean incarnate explains how relationship and socialities can create an affinity based not on the avoidance of supposed “cultural differences” but on their constant marking (2015: 205). If Ben Yehoyadah argues that common history can make people of the Mediterranean feel related, enabling slippages among their cultural categories, I assume that solidarity, encounters, and social relationships can also create similar slippages.

As a conclusion and on a personal note, writing about such a complex, rich and critical book was a tough exercise. To do so, I tried to focus on themes that allowed me to treat of the beginning and ending of the book, knowing however how I inescapably left aside many other topics and argument Albahari made, which are still to be explored, understood and challenged. I think my own analysis about the book can’t help but reveal how much I appreciated it. On my opinion, Albahari formulates a critical knowledge and purposely targets specific public discourses, actions, policies and actors, by revealing their logics in an unscrupulous and empirical way.

Furthermore, I have to say that Crimes of Peace is an important book since it reminds us how what we are so used to see through diagrams, anonymous images from the medias, words as “refugees” “migrant” “shipwrecks” actually have a human dimension. In other words, a reminder that those things happen: people die, people have to drink their own urine for days in order to survive, to face the death of their children in their own arms, all of this while they are hopping for a better future. People, like us, with relatives to mourn them, fears, expectations, exigencies and – as it is too often forgotten or unsaid – people with agency (even if theirs is denied by bureaucratic measures) who are not merely helpless, but who can help us as much as any human can help another one. I think we are caught up, when thinking of “migrants” in a habit of seeing them as dehumanized humans. A habit that veils the reality, and which has for consequences to make (the majority of) us never question ourselves on how such Crimes of Peace can keep happening. In conclusion, this is what Albahari does with Crimes of Peace: he challenges the manufacture of a supposed “reality” about the “migrants” and unveils the tragic and inhuman consequences of institutional and bureaucratic decisions, which are too often masked as (respecting) human rights.

Adriana Stimoli



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