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How do frontline communities in the Mediterranean experience migration and mobilize toward collective well-being? And what might their work teach us about the ethics of doing research?

This past summer, several hundred migrants drowned or disappeared while crossing the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Despite ongoing distress calls and reports of boats capsizing, European Union (EU) governments remained largely complicit while performing a familiar politics of irresponsibility. As human rights advocates lodged accusations of genocide, these same governments continued to criminalize humanitarian groups and NGOs that conduct search-and-rescue activities by imposing exorbitant fines, seizing their boats and other equipment, and threatening imprisonment. Meanwhile, in the region of Sicily, including the island of Lampedusa, thousands of migrants disembarked and entered Italy’s system (or what some critics allude to as a “nonsystem”) of accoglienza (migrant reception).

Since 2014, and through the years leading up to the pandemic, I visited Sicily for several weeks most summers to carry out fieldwork on the politics of migrant reception and the broader forms of social support that connected citizens and noncitizens. The timing of my trips had been decided by both the demands of the academic calendar and the fact that summer is the peak season for migrants arriving by boat from across the Mediterranean. Yet this past summer was quite different; much like other parts of Southern Europe, Sicily slipped in and out of COVID-19 outbreaks and struggled to combat some of the worst wildfires in modern history. Watching from the other side of the globe, I wrestled with my own sense of doom as fires scorched the western United States and the spread of the Delta variant inhibited any promise of a return to normalcy. I longed for the camaraderie and connection with those on the front lines of social solidarity initiatives and mutual aid networks in Sicily that in addition to providing direct material support, also responded to broader concerns for people’s emotional and psychosocial well-being.

No issue seemed to generate more frustration than this chronic deflection of responsibility among those in both Italy’s central government and within the EU more broadly.

Yet in many ways, the events of this past summer unfolded like clockwork. Frontline communities recognized the lack of coordination among Italian and EU officials that had characterized previous summers. Responding to the immediate physical and material needs of those migrating through the Mediterranean, these frontline communities once again absorbed the responsibilities of care.

“Not an Italian problem”

Over the past decade, Italy’s political leaders have frequently declared that the so-called crisis of people migrating into Europe to seek asylum is “not an Italian problem,” thereby implying that EU member states assume their share of responsibility and fulfill commitments to “burden sharing.” Sicily, as a region of Italy and thus part of the EU—a status met with ambivalence and even outright protest by siciliani at both ends of the political spectrum—has been made a frontline community by virtue of its central geographic location in the Mediterranean.

Sicily frequently ranks at the top of Italian regions reporting high numbers of migrants seeking asylum and humanitarian protection within their territory. My research collaborators rarely express surprise at the fact that Italy’s central government has provided only minimal support for frontline efforts in Sicily. They perceive actions by Italy, and the EU as a whole, as “extremely delayed and insufficient,” as one volunteer with several migrant-serving organizations in Palermo put it. For him, as for other collaborators, this lack of care at the macro level implies that “Sicily is ‘responsible’ for migrant reception.”

Credit: Megan A. Carney
Photograph of a bulletin board with multiple photos pinned to it
A bulletin board at a local community center in Palermo showcases instances of migrant solidarity work.

For the reception workers, volunteers, and activists that I interviewed over various phases of fieldwork, no issue seemed to generate more frustration than this chronic deflection of responsibility among those in both Italy’s central government and within the EU more broadly. This politics of irresponsibility not only characterizes present-day state policies on migration but also surfaced years prior, in the form of economic austerity measures that disproportionately targeted Sicily. Alluding to decades of labor and resource extraction from Sicily and to development and public spending far beneath that enjoyed by their northern Italian counterparts, my Sicilian research collaborators underscore the structural dimensions of poverty on the island that affects nearly half of the population. They lament the ways that a paternalistic Italian government has labeled them as backward and attempted to responsibilize them.

Those seeking to advance the rights of migrants in this setting perceive Italy’s—and the EU’s—stance on migration as inherently misguided. Rather than viewing migration as the problem, they underscore the crises imposed by colonialism, capitalism, and austerity regimes. Responsibility for these crises, they assert, most certainly resides with Western governments, the same governments that have abandoned regions like Sicily and other frontline communities throughout Southern Europe to assume responsibility for receiving and caring for migrants.

Grassroots mobilizations around social solidarity

“To be free for me would mean…”

This is the open-ended statement that organizers of Palermo’s Arte Migrante—a grassroots group that coordinates with other local chapters throughout Italy—invited participants to contemplate at their biweekly social gathering in May 2017. Over the course of an hour, the crowd in attendance, including local youths, students, people of a migrant background, and pro-migrant activists, responded to the prompt by elaborating on their desires for liberation from financial debts, material needs, racism, and prejudice.

Arte Migrante is one part of a broad constellation of social actors and initiatives in Sicily fighting to improve collective material and psychosocial well-being, to advance the rights and dignity of migrants through various forms of political activism, and to coalesce with broader mobilizations for social justice in the Mediterranean. Such efforts have been especially important not only for noncitizens but also for citizens as they recover and reclaim their dignity following the violence of austerity regimes and other forms of paternalism and dehumanization that harken to Sicily’s colonial beginnings within the context of the Italian nation-state and Europe more broadly. Many of these efforts are concentrated in Palermo, Sicily’s capital and self-proclaimed “city of solidarity” by its pro-migrant mayor. Yet similar efforts can be found in municipalities across the island, including in the cities of Catania, Siracusa, and Agrigento.

The work of solidarity in this particular context is risky and radical—risky in that individuals and groups might be criminalized for their collective actions and radical in that the work itself is ultimately predicated on shifting the balance of power in society to prompt an equitable distribution of resources.

There are those like Antonio who volunteer at disembarkations (sbarchi), engage in political activism, and provide sanctuary for newly arrived migrants whose migratory projects entail subverting the EU regulations that prevent them from resettling in another country prior to applying for asylum. Antonio was motivated by a number of factors, “the inadequacy of state-sponsored reception centers,” but also because “self-determination [of migrants] is a fundamental concept for us.” He lived together in an arrangement of convivenza with two other families with whom he pooled resources, enabling them to sustain this work.

Other examples of grassroots mobilizations of social solidarity between citizens and noncitizens include the wide array of thriving cooperatives that engage the principles of solidarity economy and facilitate practices of mutual aid among local residents. These cooperatives provide vocational training and employment opportunities while also being explicit about their pro-migrant integration activities and allowing members to pay on a sliding scale; those who can pay more are able to cover the expenses of those facing especially difficult economic circumstances. Mareme, the co-owner of a cooperative and originally from Senegal, explained how “part of my work in the cooperative is helping others to find work… I’m helping people who are in a situation similar to my own…they haven’t found work and they live in a country that is not their own. This cooperative has given me the possibility of realizing my dreams, to help others realize their own as well.”

Drawing from the rich repository of feminist and decolonial scholarship on reproductive labor, the social organization of care, and prefigurative politics, I theorize migrant solidarity work as a site of caring labor that directs its therapeutic potential toward the collective, or social body, and as an aspirational project to reconfigure the social organization of care amid multiple humanitarian and welfare state failures. The project of migrant solidarity is aspirational and both articulates with and subverts the political economic context from which it emerges. It is never perfect but rather indexes a politics of becoming as those performing it seek to bring their practice ever closer to the ideals that they purport and the alternative worlds this work may one day make possible. The work of solidarity in this particular context is risky and radical—risky in that individuals and groups might be criminalized for their collective actions and radical in that the work itself is ultimately predicated on shifting the balance of power in society to prompt an equitable distribution of resources.

As a potential ethnographic object, solidarity at times feels rather unstable, slippery, and unsolid. It appears across many different registers and is easily co-opted by those already in power. Writing about the rise of voluntarism amid neoliberal welfare reform in the Lombardy region of Italy, anthropologist Andrea Muehlebach critiques solidarity as an “emotionally resonant” category, one whose use is exploited to garner support for a range of approaches to and interpretations of “welfare,” including neoliberal reforms such as austerity. In short, not all claims of solidarity can be trusted, or as some of my research collaborators have suggested, some projects may be disguised as solidarity but are actually forms of charity and humanitarianism at best, or elitist and anti-poor endeavors at worst. Finally, solidarity work among other forms of mutual aid is sometimes overly romanticized and glorified, obscuring the stratification of labor and uneven power dynamics that inevitably feed into its social reproduction despite explicit attempts to prevent social inequalities from seeping into the material and affective dimensions of the work itself. These are the ambiguities, tensions, and frictions that citizens and noncitizens constantly negotiate and reconcile in the context of their work.

Credit: Megan A. Carney
Photograph of a group of people outdoors
First responders prepare to receive more than 600 disembarking migrants at the port of Palermo.

Solidarity and collective care in the context of COVID-19

Sicily was still recovering from the effects of austerity and attempting to recuperate much of the public spending that had been slashed, including for health care, when the COVID-19 pandemic began. The pandemic has also delivered siciliani an economic crisis of epic proportions. As many of the island’s inhabitants rely on informal labor—notably through tourism—they were excluded from government-sponsored financial relief. The tragedy of the pandemic and its human and social costs has intersected with the ceaseless tragedy of migrant deaths at sea. In 2020, there were more than 95,000 migrant arrivals to Southern Europe and an estimated 1,400 deaths; migration across the Central Mediterranean has continued as people now also flee from the consequences of poor responses to the pandemic in their countries of origin. In 2021, data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees shows that Italy has re-emerged as the EU front-runner in terms of migrant arrivals.

The grassroots forms of solidarity and collective care that emerged in response to unprecedented migration through the region and economic austerity have proven highly significant in the context of subsequent calamities such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Cooperatives, community associations, small businesses, and mutual aid groups have organized weekly collections and distributions of food, toiletries, and other necessities while groups like Arte Migrante have pivoted to offering virtual gatherings.

Challenges to solidarity as method

Solidarity is not the same as support. To experience solidarity, we must have a community of interests, shared beliefs and goals around which to unite… . Support can be occasional. It can be given and just as easily withdrawn. Solidarity requires sustained, ongoing commitment.

—bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center

Solidarity as a methodological framework for ethnographic engagement is always aspirational yet arguably also a requirement and necessary precondition for an ethical, responsible, and accountable research practice. Those performing solidarity on the front lines of repeated “migration crises” show that embracing an ethic of solidarity is about redistributing risk and using one’s privileges of citizenship and formal belonging to advance the rights and dignity of noncitizens; solidarity as methodological framework for research obliges the anthropologist to uphold similar commitments.

Those who study social movements are frequently animated by a desire to heighten visibility and awareness as well as to broaden support for the core issues underlying the movements themselves. Yet this desire alone neither predicts methodology nor encapsulates what we might refer to as “solidarity as method.” Conversely, I’m alluding to an ethics and practice of research discussed by renowned migrant justice activist Harsha Walia as deriving directly from social movements, specifically the core operating principles that guide people’s mobilizations toward social justice, as well as to the need for what Roseann Liu and Savannah Shange call “thick solidarity” that does not gloss over difference. While such research has been historically and systematically dismissed for its “lack of objectivity” or ostensibly “contaminated” political aspirations, hardly scrutinized enough is the source of these critiques: the colonial (and increasingly neoliberal) university. No single research endeavor alone is equipped to tackle this structural problem. Rather, solidarity as method necessitates collective action both in the field and beyond, as well as steadfast revision and reflection.

Authors

Megan A. Carney

Megan A. Carney is associate professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Regional Food Studies at the University of Arizona. Her second book, Island of Hope: Migration and Solidarity in the Mediterranean was recently published (2021). Follow her on Twitter @megan_a_carney

Cite as

Carney, Megan A.. 2021. “Migrant Solidarity Work.” Anthropology News website, December 20, 2021.

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