The reconfiguration of European Space: French and Italian responses to migration after the Arab spring

Following the Arab Uprisings of 2011 and the subsequent migration of those fleeing the war in Libya and political upheaval in Tunisia, the small island of Lampedusa has become synonymous with death, conflict and statelessness. This week, a ship carrying over 300 migrants from Somalia and Eritrea caught fire and capsized just off the island with only half of those on board rescued. The declaration that the dead will receive automatic Italian citizenship is cold comfort to those alive inside the island’s detention centre as they wait for news about their asylum claims. (See here ). Where much of international reporting and debate on migration to Europe during and following the Arab Spring has focused on Lampedusa and Italy as landing points, there is a more complex story to be told here. It is one that draws our attention to the paradoxes at work between the individual EU states and their internal borders together with the fluid definitions of terms like ‘economic migrant’ and ‘Schengen’.

A chapter worth noting here is the tale of the ‘Collective of Tunisians from Lampedusa in Paris,’ around 300 migrants who occupied 51 avenue Simone Bolivar during May 2011. (see here) What was at stake in the formation of such a collective? How did this and other movements draw attention to and contest the deliberate inconsistencies and inadequacies of immigration and asylum policies across the EU. What role did France play in affirming the persistence of the nation-state and the privileging of a certain type of ‘economic’ migrant?

Where the granting of Schengen visas to Tunisian migrants in 2011 by the Italian government might be read as an exercise in moving people on, France’s response was to push them back, refusing access to those coming with less than 62 Euros a day to live on. Referring to the securitarian measures implemented in France in relation to the arrival of Tunisian migrants in 2011 as well as those used to remove 1000 Roma people in 2010, Martina Tazzioli has suggested that:

 ‘These French enforcement interpretations of the Schengen Border Code produce a segmentation on an economic basis of the right to free circulation across the Schengen Area: Tunisians were irregular migrants with no means of subsistence and Roma people were public land squatters. In both cases, French raids were performed with a rule of efficiency. In 2010, the police were asked to evict 100 camps a month (giving priority to those sheltering Roma people) and in 2011, Foreign Affairs Minister Claude Guéant fixed a minimum target of 28,000 for that year’s expulsions, prompting security forces to focus on Tunisian migrants. Whereas in Italy the mode of circulation imposed on Tunisian migrants was disguised as a humanitarian measure, in France it was presented as sheer economic rationality.’ (Martina Tazzioli, ‘Schengen Intermittences’ in Glenda Garelli, Martina Tazzioli and Federica Sossi (eds), Spaces in Migration: Postcards of a Revolution, Pavement Books, 2013).

Nevertheless, if the intentionally conflicting discourses of border control and migration in operation across European space attest to the proliferation and reinforcement of borders both material and ideological of Fortress Europe, these are directly confronted by individual and collective attempts to imagine, think, traverse and live space differently. At the same time, an emerging field of ‘Border Studies’ together with the groups like the ‘No Borders’ collective are supplementing such confrontations with intellectual discussion and interventions. Like all convergences of resistance, protest with intellectually-motivated activism, there are inevitable tensions produced here. Before being shut down by police, the ‘Collective of Tunisians from Lampedusa in Paris’ was subject to the ‘support’ of both Islamic political groups and left-wing activists all hoping to appropriate the migrants to their specific agenda. Yet, what remains today of the movement is its appellation – a collective which refuses to settle on a single identity or location, naming three – Tunisia, Lampedusa and Paris and the slogan ‘Ni Police, ni charité. Un lieu pour s’organiser’ neatly summing up the dialectic of today’s European borders.

Sophie Fuggle, Nottingham Trent

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