Israel’s Eritreans in the Picture


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.







‘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.


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.

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.


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


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).