This week on the blog, we are hosting a guest post by Adam Kersch, an MA Candidate who will begin his PhD in anthropology at the University of California – Davis this fall. Here, he presents findings from his ethnographic research on the health and wellbeing of migrants entangled in the legal webs of relocation in southern Italy.
In January to July 2015, I conducted ethnographic research at a reception center for migrants in Siracusa, Italy, focusing on the struggles they faced upon arrival. Although the legal difficulties and hurdles that migrants faced were readily apparent, the toll that these policies took on the health and well-being of these migrants became increasingly visible during my research. Migrants coming to Italy and to Europe have often endured traumatic events resulting from war, violence, and poverty. Once migrants come to Europe, this crucial period of psychological and physical recovery is marked by ongoing anxiety and hardship as they navigate a complex web of legal processes as they seek asylum. That is, procedures and policies that compose the migration reception apparatus commonly have direct and deleterious effects on migrants’ health.
Abraham was one such migrant whose mental well-being was harmed by slow moving legislative mechanisms. Abraham, a 25 year-old Pakistani man, had been waiting in Umberto I, a primary reception center for migrants in Siracusa, Italy, for nearly six weeks and had heard nothing regarding the status of his asylum request. The poorly-supplied center was only designed to hold migrants for 72 hours, and no legal information was provided to its residents, leaving the migrants waiting in Umberto I without a clue as to their futures in Italy. Abraham left Pakistan fleeing sectarian violence and lack of economic opportunity. After some travel, he found himself in Libya, seeking passage to Europe. Like many other migrants, he was tortured and robbed by militias while in Libya as he worked to pay for his passage to Europe. Reeling from torture, the stress of his liminal status in Italy became unbearable. The center had given him no idea as to when he would be transferred, why he was there, or what his future might be like. Like many others before him, one day Abraham had enough of the waiting and clandestinely left the reception center. He contacted me a few days after leaving, begging for help. He was in Northern Italy, trying to cross the border into France to meet with a friend in Spain, but he kept getting caught and sent back to Italy. “I want to die,” he confessed, “I am a failure. I cannot support myself, I cannot support my family. No money, no work.” Having come to Europe for safety and to help support his family back in Pakistan, the painfully lethargic process of legal recognition prevented Abraham from being able to achieve his goals. His lack of documents prevented him from legally seeking work, but the longer he waited for these documents, the longer his family in Pakistan went hungry, unable to support themselves. Trying to seek asylum elsewhere seemed to him the only logical choice.
During my fieldwork in 2015, I found that migrants waiting to hear about their legal status in Italy had little to no access to legal information, and that this state of liminality facilitated social, psychological, and somatic trauma. Centers like Umberto I function as a part of the migrant reception apparatus in Italy that treats migrants with spotty assistance at best, and absolute negligence at worst. This lack of legal knowledge contributes to an environment of anxiety and leads to the physical and mental suffering of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have come to Italy in recent years. This dearth of information violates United Nations and European Union (EU) policies on migrant reception, both of which stress that migrants should have access to any legal personnel willing to provide services. In this way, these policies suspend migrants in an ambiguous, unresolved legal status that both directly and indirectly impacts the psychological and somatic health of the migrants and their families.
Lamin, a 20-year-old migrant from Gambia, was another temporary resident of Umberto I. He, like Abraham, experienced deteriorating health as a result of the migrant reception policies and procedures in Siracusa. He had unknowingly agreed to serve as a legal witness for the state against the captain of the boat that brought him across the Mediterranean, who was being charged with human trafficking. The police had effectively coerced Lamin to sign the papers, which were in Italian. They assured him the papers were for his own benefit as they would secure him legal protection. However, since signing them, he had no updates about the court proceedings or about his own legal status. Lamin languished in Umberto I for the moment that he might be transferred or summoned, all the while ignoring the severe pain he was experiencing as a result of holes that had been drilled into his teeth when he was tortured in Libya. He refused to seek medical help, fearing that he may miss his chance to leave Umberto I and finally move forward while getting his teeth fixed. It was only after significant encouraging that he finally sought care from Emergency, a local medical NGO. Thankfully, Lamin successfully recovered and was finally transferred a few weeks later.
In cases such as Lamin’s, legal liminality takes priority over physical suffering. As a result, the slow and onerous migrant reception apparatus exacerbates and prolongs the wounds of migration, whether they are psychological, physical, or social. Those in Umberto I are far from the only sufferers of legal liminality. Cutiyo and her daughter, both refugees from Somalia, came into the legal office late one night in Siracusa. Cutiyo had regularly been coming to speak with Giulia, a local legal activist, to help file a family reunification to bring her husband living in Somalia to Italy. She often saw Giulia simply to ask about the progress of her husband’s case, wondering when she might finally see him again and when he would finally be safe from the violence in Somalia. Cutiyo spoke softly and left quietly after speaking to Giulia. Giulia turned to me, on the verge of tears, and explained that Cutiyo’s husband had been shot in the head five times by militants the night before in Somalia. This happened only a day or two before Cutiyo’s husband was finally to be brought to Italy to be with his wife and daughter. If the sluggish process had been streamlined, perhaps the family could have been reunited. Instead, Cutiyo was now alone in Italy with her daughter, faced with both an uncertain legal status and the social distress and strain caused by the death of her husband. The slow-moving Italian legal system had produced another casualty.
These moments of “in-betweenness” that migrants experience are crucial periods of temporal and social displacement that exacerbate the traumas from which many migrants are attempting to recover. As migrants wait to receive documentation or for their families to be reunited, the physical and psychological risks inherent to seeking a new future in Europe are placed in migrants’ peripheries as they seek legal recognition. As observed by anthropologists Cristiana Giordano (2014) and Miriam Ticktin (2011), granting asylum is often a process of recognizing and validating the suffering migrants experience before arriving in Europe. In circumstances such as these, suffering can become a migrant’s path to legal protection, functioning as a perverse currency that promises security and safety. But during the period in Europe preceding asylum decisions, migrants’ pains are perhaps ironically exacerbated by obtuse and labyrinthine legal processes in the very countries they have come to for protection. Whether it be by anxiety that defers attention to health issues, an uncertain future prompting a rejection of the reception apparatus, or documentation that arrives too late, migrant legislation and reception procedures in Siracusa, Italy have severe consequences for the well-being of people seeking a new future in Europe.
Giordano, Cristiana. (2014). Migrants in Translation: Caring and the Logics of Difference in Contemporary Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ticktin, Miriam. (2011). Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France. Berkeley: University of California Press.
About the Author: Adam Kersch is currently a MA Candidate at the University of Central Florida and in September 2016 will begin his first year of PhD studies in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of California, Davis as a Mellon Institute Comparative Border Studies Fellow. His research is focused on provision of health and legal services to migrants in Italy. He is particularly interested in human rights, imaginaries of Europe, and the politics of care in the context of austerity.