Israel’s Eritreans in the Picture

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Check out the Guardian Africa Network photo album today with pictures of Eritrean migrants celebrating mass and baptising their children in Tel Aviv, Israel. The improvised suburban spaces used for these celebrations not only provide a spiritual escape from often aggressive government immigration policies but also recreate a sense of ‘home’ in a politically hostile environment. To place this in wider context, interesting work is currently presented on the plight of African refugees in Israel nowadays, amongst others by Haim Yacobi, Barak Kalir and Laurie Lijnders. 51gIhkX8ODL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Particularly Yacobi’s discussion of the ‘Villa in the Jungle’ – a trope that highlights Israel’s moral geographic engagement with Africa, significantly informs this debate. ‘Walling off’ Eritrean refugees, he says, has not exclusively become a vector for reproducing Israel identity as set apart from Africa and the Middle East, but also reflects the persistent attempts of government authorities at active demographic engineering and urban segregation. The active exclusion of Eritrean churches thus has to be read in this context, of the racialisation of political space that characterises Israeli society as a whole.

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‘Out of Place’

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Further to my blogpost on Boreano yesterday, I’d like to mention this report by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which just came out last month: Out of Place. Asylum seekers and refugees in Italy: informal settlements and social marginalisation (the full report is only available in Italian so far).

“Based on research carried out in 2015, the report details the unacceptable conditions in which thousands of people are living in dozens of informal sites which have sprung up around the country. Most are asylum seekers and holders of international protection –and therefore legally present in the country– who have been forced to live in these conditions for months, and sometimes years, due to the inadequacies of Italy’s reception system and social integration policies. They include asylum seekers who have just arrived in Italy and who are being denied the assistance to which they are entitled by law due to a shortage of places in reception centres. They also include people in transit towards other European countries, and refugees who have lived in Italy for years but remain excluded from mainstream society.”

The sites visited by MSF include the former Olympic village in Turin exMOI, about which I wrote before, which continues to shelter over 1,000 people, to the Don Gallo house in central Padua, the “Ex-Set” factory in Bari, and the Borgo Mezzanone runway in Foggia, an informal site beside a government reception centre. But they do not include the many informal settlements like Boreano and Rignano Garganico that serve as permanent labour camps for predominantly African (but also Romanian, Bulgarian and other nationals) farmworkers dotted across the peninsula.

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Boreano: chronicles of ordinary racism

On the night of 7-8 May, a destructive fire once again hit the African ‘ghetto’ of Boreano, situated near the town of Venosa, in the province of Potenza, on the border between Puglia and Basilicata. It’s the third time in short period that an African labour settlement ends up in flames in this border region, which is also the heart of industrial tomato production in the South of Italy. The triangle of land between Puglia’s touristy coastline and Basilicata’s mountainous hinterland hosts dozens of ‘ghettos’ like this, but which usually escape the eye of visitors and the media.

(c) Marc-Antoine Frebutte (2015)

(c) Marc-Antoine Frebutte

But while national media reports on these “invisible cities” remain extremely rare even during the high harvesting season, local organisations speculate highly about the causes of this damaging fire. Daniele Troia, intendant of the Methodist Church, reports the cause might have been an incident: during a short moment of distraction, a gas bottle might have ignited and caused a rapidly spreading fire. Such fires do happen regularly in these haphazardly constructed bidonvilles made of cardboard and plastic sheetings. But others suspect a more criminal cause. Aboubakar Soumahoro, of the labour union Unione Sindacati di Base, says it is no coincidence the fire happened less than a week after a meeting, which brought together about fifty labourers who had decided to effectively claim their rights for fair pay and better housing conditions. Together with the Methodist Church, USB had started to accompany some of the African farm labourers who live inside the ghetto of Boreano, according to regional authorities under the strict control of the local mafia.

On May 5, about fifty African labourers met the mayor of Venosa in the city council accompanied by USB delegates, threatening to declare a general strike. As Gervasio Ungolo and Paola Andrisani, activists of the Osservatorio Migranti Basilicata, speculate, this experiment could have a potentially disruptive effect when spreading to other ghettos and threatening to break the power of the gangmasters. But they are quick to add that the latter are unlikely to be the instigators of this fire, because of the huge profits the ghetto generates for them.

In contrast to labour organisations, regional authorities continue to criminalise the place as hotbed of local mafia and gangmasters. Pietro Simonetti, coordinator of the regional task force on migration, who has repeatedly refused to meet Boreano’s inhabitants, commented that probably, the latter had received information of the imminent demolition of the labour camp. And so in concomitance with this decision someone decided to set the camp on fire. Without further ado, the coordinator also promised -unlike last year- to demolish the remaining habitats and host “those workers who are not illegal or working for a gangmaster” in the official host centres regional authorities have started to set up in cooperation with private organisations. Ironically, Simonetti used the term bonificare (disinfest, reclaim), which raises the impression he wants to rid the area of undesired habitants as if they were plants or animals.

In the meantime, the inhabitants of Boreano have decided to carry their struggle onwards. On Thursday about 50 labourers are meeting in Potenza in front of the Regional Palace to protest and bring their demands to the governor Marcello Pitella.

(c) Marc-Antoine Frebutte (2015)

(c) Marc-Antoine Frebutte (2015)

 

Afropean conference

The School of social sciences and humanities of the University of Tampere, Finland, is announcing its first call for sessions for a conference on African diaspora and European cultural heritage. Among the confirmed keynote speakers is Professor Paul Gilroy from King’s College London. In addition to academics, the organizers welcome artists, activists, authors, journalists, and independent scholars with a specific interest in the field. The cultural programme of the conference is organised in collaboration with Fest Afrika festival and Speaking Volumes Live Literature Productions.

1st Call for Sessions
Afroeuropeans: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe
Sixth biennial network conference
University of Tampere, Finland
6 – 8 July 2017

For more information, one is invited to explore the conference website.

Asmarina

On 13 May, the Human Rights Nights Festival in Bologna will host a rare screening of Asmarina, by Alan Maglio and Medhin Paolos. The documentary tells the history of Milan’s Porta Palazzo neighbourhood through the voices of its first- and second generation African immigrants. It investigating the identities, experiences and aspirations of Milan’s habesha community -a term that has attracted quite some attention lately with the ongoing arrival of Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants who use the neighbourhood as a hub for their onward journeys.

Besides many other interesting events, the festival also screens Jonas Carpignano‘s Mediterranea, about the plight of burkinabe’ immigrants working on Italy’s orange plantations. Their plight has received renewed attention lately because of increasing tensions about their labour condition in and around the region of Puglia and Basilicata, about which I will report later. In the meantime (and for those who cannot attend) I attach the movie trailer.

 

Death by Rescue

A new investigation by researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London, accuses European Union policymakers of “killing by omission” after cutting rescue missions in the Mediterranean in full knowledge of the lethal consequences of their actions.
The report ‘Death by Rescue: The lethal effects of the EU’s policies of non-assistance at sea’ demonstrates that, with the ending of the Italy-led Mare Nostrum Operation and the launch of a limited Frontex-led Triton operation, agencies and policy makers enacted a policy of retreat from state-led search and rescue operations. By doing so, they consciously placed the burden of migrant rescue to merchant ships, thus ignoring insistent calls from from shipping industry professional organisations that catastrophic loss of life could occur. Because this decision was taken in full knowledge of the risk, the EU carries a strong degree of responsibility for mass deaths at sea.
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courtesy University of London

In the meantime, Watch the Med, another organization concerned with deaths at sea, has placed an urgent call for donations for its Alarm Phone, which has already saved dozens of lives in the Mediterranean. You may find more information on the organization and the call here.

Sacrifice

david-showing-goliaths-head-caravaggioFurther to my previous post about Brussels some days ago, two apparently unrelated analyses appear to confirm my observations about the reasons behind IS expansion. According to terrorism expert Hassan Hassan, the strategy of hitting targets in Europe, far removed from their operational bases in the Middle East and Northern Africa, is increasingly unrelated to the loss of terrain they are experiencing in the latter. On the contrary, the attacks in Paris and Brussels show how IS is trying to take control over former Al Qaeda networks by aligning and associating themselves with the latter’s militants.

In an unrelated analysis, Scott Atran -an anthropologist working in France and the UK- warns not to underestimate the ideological traction of the IS Caliphate. In the poor neighbourhoods of Casablanca and Tetuan, as in the Parisian banlieus, he and his colleagues encountered a widespread acceptance, if not a sharing, of IS values as well as the brutal violence committed in its name. Despite some of the factual mistakes in Atran’s text (which are discussed in part on the Aeon forum) the key message is valid and lays in what Edmund Burke, in a different context, calls the attraction for the sublime -or the fascination to fight for a glorious and unifying cause.

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Far from being miserable paupers, or a rejected Lumpenproletariat (as Diego Gambetta showed for other historical examples), IS suicide bombers not only share this fascination, but they are also ready to make the ultimate sacrifice in favour of this greater good as well as for their group of companions with whom they share intimate relationships (Atran talks about a fusion of identity in this regard). In this sense it does not come as a big surprise that the large majority of IS recruits are mobilised through their proper families, the French centre against religious radicalisation (or CPDSI) reveals. Rather than more police and camouflage on the streets, therefore, what might be needed instead are closer contacts with such families at risk as well as community leaders. In their unwillingness to also address the socio-psychological causes of this terrorist (or, as Atran provocatively says, “revolutionary”) struggle, European leaders continue to play into the cards of the IS military leadership, which is becoming increasingly apt in exploiting this diminishing grey zone between the sovereign life of post-modern (neo)liberal democracies, and the killing of this life in the name of revolutionary sacrifice…

 

 

Doreen Massey

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Sadly receiving the news about the passing of Doreen Massey, I would like to flag two obituaries that describe well her life-long dedication to an understanding of space that is “complex, porous and relational,” as Noel Castree put it. Massey is, concretely, the reason why I am in(to) geography now. I still remember my colleague flagging up her brilliant piece Politics and Space/Time when I was about to finish my PhD. Together with Michael Watts’ ‘Sinister Life‘ it greatly influenced my thinking for the next decade. So I am extremely grateful to Massey -and to my colleague of course- for having brought me onto this path. Words can’t describe her career better than these two separate obituaries by Noel Castee (for PiHG) and David Featherstone (for the Guardian).

 

After Brussels

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I’ve been willing to write something about Brussels for a while now, but somehow I missed the words. Other than the tragic loss of 32 lives, the wounding of many others, as well as the fact that the attack took place in Belgium, where I was born, in an airport where I’ve passed dozens of times, a metro I regularly took, perhaps the most sobering aspect of the 22 March attacks has been the widespread resignation with which they have been received. Contrarily to Paris and New York, there were no patriotic speeches on the rubble of crumbled buildings; and few were the propositions to ‘smoke out the terrorists’ from their ‘caves’ and hideouts.

One reason might be the awareness that the neuralgic centre of the attacks lay a few miles from where they took place this time. In that respect, it’s been ironic how Brussels, and Belgium by extension, has quickly acquired the epithet of the ‘failed state’ in quite similar ways Afghanistan or Somalia continue to be described by some conservative think-tanks like the Fund for Peace. Driven by almost revanchist undertones (for example in these reflections by Tim King and former war reporter Teun Voeten for Politico), Belgium’s dysfunctional federalism is taken as a mirror for the ‘lawlessness’ and rising radicalism in the Brussels neighbourhood known as the terrorists’ headquarters. Such analysis not only glosses over the systematic institutional hypocrisy with regard to the city’s, admittedly, major problems (which are confronted with the usual mix of militarisation and social neglect) but it also mistakes such wider social unrest for the jihadi’s personal motivations. Besides the fact that Belgium still produces more foreign fighters than any other European country, one must not forget that none of the attackers (neither of Paris nor of Brussels) were interested in radical Islam until very late before they decided to dedicate themselves to the armed struggle. Observers, like Olivier Roy and Fabio Merone, who know the wider recruitment basis of ISIS in Europe a bit, all agree that the religious extremism of these young people is nothing more than anger dressed as Islam. Otherwise how do you explain that Abdelsalam Salah was “drinking beer and smoking joints” a few weeks from the attacks of the Bataclan, as some of his friends recalled in front of the cameras…

In that respect I much more preferred a report by l’Espresso (unfortunately not translated into English) which places the reasons for this rage in the socio-cultural divide between first and second generation immigrants, and the fact that immigrant youth risk to see their host country and their parents as traitors of a failed life project (or, as one foreign fighter explained to his mother shortly before he left: “If I had blond hair and be called Jacques I would most likely be sitting at my comfortable job at the commune, but with my Arab name I can’t even find work as a street-sweeper”). Even if this sounds absurd for the majority of muslim youth in Belgium, ISIS has become very apt at exploiting the projects of revenge that germinate in a life enmeshed with boredom, frustration and petty criminality for a minority of them in very similar ways as the Camorra has taken grip over its strongholds of Scampia or Castelvolturno in the Italian de-industrialized South. With the only difference that ISIS does not (just) promise money and power but also paradise. Feeling rejected by their homes, organised violence provides for these youngsters a new family in many respects -awkward as it is.

But BXL22M also forces us to consider more seriously the changing geography of global warfare these days. Besides the risk of urban conflict strategic think thanks warn for (of which Brussels has been another prominent example the last few days), global jihad cannot be limited to a war ‘in the borderlands’, but it also comprises a wider structural basis in the many de-industrialized cities of the North that continue to germinate frustration and revenge. How to connect these dots will be an important task for the future, as will be the challenge to avenge right-wing extremism that is rising at equal pace.

(AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)