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The book tells the recent history of Mediterranean rural capitalism from the perspective of marginalized Black African farm workers. In the book, I show how in the context of global supply chains and repressive border regimes, agrarian production and reproduction are based on fundamental racial hierarchies.
Taking the example of the tomato—a typical ‘Made in Italy’ commodity— I ask myself asks how political boundaries are drawn around the land and the labor needed for its production, what technologies of exclusion and inclusion enable capitalist operations to take place in the Mediterranean agrarian frontier, and which practices structure the allocation, use and commodification of land and labor across the tomato chain. While the mobile infrastructures that mobilize, channel, commodify and segregate labor play a central role in the ‘naturalization’ of racial segregation, they are also terrains of contestation and power—and thus, as The Natural Border demonstrates, reflect the tense socio-ecological transformation the Mediterranean border space is going through today.
On a particularly hot day of August 2018, I met Idrissa*. I was talking to one of my acquaintances in the ghetto of Borgo San Nicola*, a run down and abandoned ruin in the middle of the fields of Basilicata, South Italy. Idrissa, who was visibly inebriated, asked me for money to buy him a drink. I asked him to wait. I had met Idrissa a few times before: a young man from Burkina Faso, he lived in a ramshackle room on a farm in the vicinity of the ghetto. Since a couple of years, he had been working as a day labourer on South Italy’s food farms, picking tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables under the boiling sun. My acquaintance, who had come from Burkina Faso to Italy ten years earlier, asked Idrissa if he had finally decided to accept the work, he had offered him: a day of picking tomatoes in neighbouring field. Idrissa shrugged, standing aloof for a moment in the sun. Then, he answered: “my fate is in the hands of God.” Severely, my acquaintance responded: “your fate may be in the hands of God, but K. does not live in heaven, you know” – after which he left and drove off in his second-hand car.
In Italy, there are tens of thousands of young men like Idrissa. They represent what the labour unions call Italy’s vulnerable agricultural labour force: subject to severe labour exploitation, and marginalized socially and spatially, their number has risen exponentially over the past twenty years. According to FLAI-CGIL, around 180.000 of the plus-minus 400.000 ‘foreign’ (without Italian nationality) workers in this sector meet these criteria of vulnerability and marginality; around 40 percent being refugees and asylum seekers – mostly young men from South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. These numbers by far exceed the formal hires the Italian government permits through its so-called ‘Flow Decrees’ (Decreti Flussi), in 2023 around 83.000, 44.000 of which concern so-called seasonal labour. Instead, agri-food workers are typically recruited through all kinds of mediating infrastructures that sustain the operations of contemporary supply chain agri-food capitalism: illegal gangmasters (in Italian caporali), ‘cooperatives of convenience’, and, in a growing number of cases, migrant reception centres. In Idrissa’s case, the piecemeal work was offered to him through a tight hierarchy made up of K., a Burkinabè intermediary (commonly called capo nero) and their Italian superior (caporale).
Yet while the illegal gangmasters are often fetishized in the media and in decision-making circles as the main culprits of labour exploitation in agri-food chains, my recent research with Domenico Perrotta shows the functionality of this infrastructure as a grey space that sustains and reproduces inequalities in agri-food labour markets. Furthermore, the persistence of caporalato capitalism goes paired with a concentration of capital in what Philip McMichael calls the ‘corporate food regime’ (even if the discussion remains open on the terminology).
In Europe, for example, scholars have noted a growing monopolization of food production, distribution and marketization by a few powerful players who tend to dominate the entire value chain of agri-food business. As dominant players in global food markets today, supermarket retailers typically avoid direct involvement in production. Instead, they prefer to specialise in controlling marketing and supply chains through quality standards, branding and logistics while they outsource production towards smallholder farmers who are able to diversify risks and subject their production to the conditions imposed by their clients. This has led to a steep dispossession from below: the growing concentration of farm property in the hands of private smallholders whose production is tied exclusively to the retailers’ supply chains. Recent global crises – of the Sars-CoV-2 or Covid-19 virus and the war in Ukraine in particular – have made this tendency even more visible: research by the via Campesina network, by Oxfam and by UNITE conform this tendency of land property concentration: compared to 15 million firms in 2003, only 9.1 million companies currently farm 157 million hectares of land, equivalent to 38 percent of agricultural land in the region (according to Eurostat 2020 data). Italy is a typical case of such dispossession: between 1990 and 2022, the total agricultural surface (superficie agricola totale: SAT) per agricultural firm has expanded from 7.6 hectares to 14.5 hectares, while in during 1982-2022, the number of agricultural enterprises has dropped from 3 to little more than 1 million.
After having commodified the land as a resource for capital’s gain and exploiting it with ever-more insidious techniques of fertilization, seed and crop modification, global agri-food corporations are now intoxicating the planet even further through their deliberate precarization of human labour. During the pandemic, the question arose why agri-food production is not being automated more than it is today. While governments around the globe proceeded with the closure of territorial borders to prevent the corona virus from spreading and negatively affecting national economies, we all witnessed the importance of precarious migrant labour to keep agribusiness going. In Thailand, thousands of migrants from neighbouring Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos returned home at the height of the rice growing season, leaving the country’s large monocultures unattended. Australian horticulture industries saw their labour force evaporate due to Covid visa restriction. Fearing a shortage of 80.000 workers, the British farmers’ Association launched an appeal to constitute a Land Army. To support agricultural production, European agri-businesses were actively trying to recruit students and pensioners to replace the foreign labourers from Eastern Europe. Speaking of a shortage of 200.000 workers, the Italian association Confagricoltura demanded the establishment of “green corridors” to facilitate workers’ mobility. Agribusiness’ calls for assistance ultimately prompted the European Commission to include agricultural workers in the category of “indispensable workers” within its Guidelines issued on 30 March 2020.
Despite these measures, however, the vulnerability of agri-food workers continued to rise during the pandemic, As I discuss in my monograph The Natural Border, to the extent that several medical and socio-judicial organizations denounced the lack of interest in the health of seasonal workers from the part of European governments. In Italy, MEDU and MSF criticized the government’s lack of interest in the health of seasonal workers. In Germany and Italy, meat processing factories and industrial slaughterhouses became prime places of contagion because of the close proximity of migrant workers and lack of protection measures. Yet, while these contagions highlighted the vulnerability of the corporate food regime as well as our global capacities to guarantee access to food in a time of viral crisis, this narrative does not emphasize enough the toxic labour regime that channels and captures workers’ lives: in order to keep workers tied to the land and to their precarious labour conditions, agribusiness increasingly depends on the spread of toxic borders.
My article for Geopolitics shows two complementary dynamics in this context. One of these concerns the territorial stratification of the agricultural workforce. In the context of agri-business, I note how, by this time, the political technique of territorial residency (in short: of residence papers) has become a deliberate instrument of labour disciplining and control, more concretely, to territorially stratify and carve up the labour force. This stratification often assumes a racialized gender dimension. In the context I have studied, which is the South of Italy (but for a wider, comparative perspective I refer to the project I coordinated during 2015-2018), I see two interrelated trends.
On the one hand, migrant workers are forced to internalize the effects of their geographic segregation. In short: while agri-businesses actively exploit their labour, state governments deny workers their fundamental rights to health, to unemployment and social benefits. Concretely this means that non-EU workers (so, workers who do not have a European nationality but still make up the majority of the active labour force in this sector) are increasingly trapped between their need to have territorial residence papers renewed and the impossibility to do so outside the channels imposed by corporate capital. In Italy, informal migrant workers (including asylum seekers and refugees) who want to regularize their status as workers are obliged to demand their residence papers through their employers. This is also the main reason why a majority of working refugees in agriculture has preferred not to choose this bureaucratic trajectory (during the last round in 2021-22, only 15.000 regularization demands were filed by farm workers).
The impossibility to acquire a resident status outside of the overburdened asylum system de facto places such refugee workers in a state of legal limbo. Migrant workers who are neither refugee or asylum seekers, but who do want their residence renewed, however, need to show a formal employment contract to do so. This feudal system – in which not free labourers but the employers indirectly determine who has a right to residency and who has not – notoriously binds the workers not just to the land but also, and increasingly, to the hand that exploits them. It is quite significant that for refugees and asylum seekers, who – as I said – constitute a growing labour reserve in Italian agri-food firms, residence papers have acquired the status of yet another racket to deal with for these workers, besides the restrained access to housing and to employment, according to a first nation-wide enquiry approved by the Italian Labour Ministry.
At the very minimum, these data destabilize the predominant narrative around the relation between economic and political migration: as I show in my monograph, asylum seekers and refugees are frequently forced to become economic migrants out of a sheer lack of alternatives to make a living in their new ‘host’ society. The exponential denial of asylum renewal by the Italian Interior Ministry during the past half decade (from 60 to 80 percent in 2016-2018) seems to consolidate the trend, indicated by Dines and Rigo, of the refugeeization of farm labour – a term which is meant to highlight not only a numeric shift in the composition of the agricultural work force, as I indicated earlier, but also, ad maybe even more importantly, the radically conflicting grounds upon which the stratification of labour is constructed in the context of neoliberal market reforms. Speaking more widely, this trend calls us back to observation, made by Cedric Robinson and other Black Marxists in the 1980s, that capitalism is very well capable of coexisting and articulating itself alongside other modes of production Despite many crucial differences between now and then – the replacement of slavery with other forms of unfreedom being one of them – race often remains a key factor of differentiation between worthy and unworthy lives in the contemporary after-lives of early modern plantations.
On the other hand, in fact, I notice both a systematic externalization of the cost of labour reproduction towards workers who remain racially segregated as a consequence of the tightening grip of agribusiness on agricultural labour. In an economy that is still largely sustained by small-to-medium family enterprises, at least in Italy, famers households typically enjoy the benefits of social welfare through their formal, perennial employment. But, as my study shows, this comes at a high price for non-family members employed in the enterprise. Migrant workers instead continue to pay for their own reproduction through the expansion (both economically and geographically) of an informal economy that serves to cover the needs that are not taken care of – nor by capital nor by the state.
An emblematic illustration of this dynamic is the spread of the ghetto – a designation Sub-Saharan African workers use to define their temporary labour camps, constructed with makeshift materials, and usually far removed from the infrastructures of modern urbanity. In the Mediterranean context, such sites are often invoked as an extreme form of social marginality, if not as hotbeds of organized criminality. Because of their exponential growth (the Labour Ministry report estimates their number around 150, hosting around 10.000 informal migrant workers), during the past decade, such ghettos have increasingly become a thorn in the eye of public administrations who, with varying success, have started to eradicate and evict them. The solution state governments offer is a merely logistical one: in order to host agri-food’s temporary labour force, planning efforts have concentrated on the construction of tent and container camps managed through the Red Cross, Caritas, and other emergency organizations. Despite the active use of territorial residency as an instrument of labour discipline (since 2014, following the new Housing Plan, squatters get their residence papers formally denied – and seasonal workers can only renew their residence papers when they reside in a formal labour camp), a majority of migrant workers in Italy’s agri-food zones refuses to live in state containers and prefers instead to dwell in the ghetto. This is also why many ghettos across the country are temporary only by name, since many of the goods and services that are neither offered by public administrations nor by corporate capital, are operationalized here. In the ghettos I visited, a loose hierarchy of intermediaries was responsible for organizing food and sex work, alongside the accommodation and servicing of seasonal workers; transport, electricity, and water supply all were paid by the workers themselves.
From here on, the lesson to be learned is pretty straightforward: even if public administrators continue to designate migrant workers ghettos as free zones situated outside the perimeters of the formal market economy (and even of modern civilization) my research shows how these are quite fundamental places that bear the cost of a labour force no-one situated within these same perimeters is willing to pay for. In that way, however, migrant ghettos continue to act indirectly as a subsidy to agri-food retailers who reap the largest profits of the food crisis we are told to be living. In my view, deconstructing the toxic narrative of this crisis – as a crisis of sustenance, and thus an emergency that requires more food to be produced, at ever greater speed and with ever expanding exceptional measures – becomes a priority not only in human but also in planetary terms. This dimension, which I call natural racialization, I will now turn to in the last section of this post.
Natural racialization refers to the process through which migrant labour infrastructures are actively ‘naturalized’ as places of Blackness that stand outside the perimeters of white, European civilization. This process involves two complementary dynamics: after having transformed the land into a resource for capital’s gain, state governments and corporate capital actively marginalize the remnant space as either a form of ‘pristine’ and ‘untouched’ ‘wildlife’ that should be cherished and protected (usually through new forms of commodification) or, on the contrary, as a devalued margin, a jungle, a dangerous place that remains impenetrable for modern civilization. In the margins of the corporate food production regime that tends to dominate the Italian countryside, migrant workers proceedingly occupy this marginal space as a kind of fugitive site: a place to recast connections in a world that is characterized by brokenenness and disruption, and a place from where to invent oneself anew in a context of constant denial and marginalization. Not by surprise, in fact, the term Jungle (brousse, macquis) figure prominently in migrants’ designation of these occupied places as a kind of open frontier, where outcomes become unpredictable and the contours of new life worlds being are traced.
At the same time, government planning efforts tend to further intoxicate migrant’s life worlds through an active politics of dispersal and destruction. In Basilicata and Puglia, where I carried out my research, five large ghettos have been evicted in the past four years by state security forces, leading to the displacement of an estimated 1500 people (on top of the 1500 calculated by MSF in its 2018 report). Strikingly, this has not led to a formalization of workers’ employment or accommodation, on the contrary: the same makeshift dwellings usually re-appear within a matter of weeks, typically at the start of the new agricultural season. This constant cycle of eviction and resettlement thus contributes to a further precarization of already detrimental conditions. Next to the acute health problems farm workers face as a result of the long working hours and unhygienic living conditions (in its 2019 report on the Calabrian plane of Goia Tauro, a global centre of orange and citrus production, the medical charity MEDU observed widespread tract inflammation, mainly related to climatic conditions and the impossibility of staying in healthy environments, followed by osteoarticular pathologies associated with carrying out particularly strenuous work, digestive pathologies, in particular esophagitis and gastritis, and skin pathologies like mycosis, allergic dermatitis, and dermatosis due to a major exposure to pesticides), migrant farm workers’ living environments are frequently exposed to hazards, like fires (which have caused several deaths), mudslides and floods (as a result of rainfall and erosion). As contemporary archaeologists Hicks and Mallet note for the Calais Jungle, the naturalization of migrant lives (intended here as second-order nature) thus tends to produce a hostile environment, which, as part of Europe’s repressive border politics, functions as a debilitating mechanism, a form of slow violence that actively deforms the characteristics of migrant’s reduced living spaces and, de facto, makes these places unliveable.
Towards an Immersive Geography
Contemporary archaeology offers a potentially fertile place from where to make sense of this emerging political ecology of toxic border regimes. In collaboration with MIC|C, a small, anonymous collective whose work I describe in the Geopolitics article, I have tried to pinpoint the logic of dispersal that sustains the expansion of an ecological border regime in Italy’s agrarian landscape since 2014 – the results of which we present on this website. The result is an immersive geography of farm workers life worlds that are connected through trajectories of acute marginality and labour extraction.
Scavenging through the piles of waste of evicted ghetto settlements indeed makes one acutely aware of the violent intoxication that characterizes Europe’s current border politics in the rural margins. The scaled toxicity produced through this spatial marginalization in my view indicates a stratigraphy of power that is not highlighted enough in contemporary research on territorial borders. Paraphrasing Marco Armiero, I could say that the relationship of wasting migrant life worlds produces migrant workers as a racialized group located outside the contours of formal industrial development, while including them into the techno-stratigraphy of wasted matter that piles up at the end of a deliberate process of extraction, of the land, and of the labour that brings it into fruition. Thinking of borders through waste in my view thus has the potential to foreground wasting as a socio-ecological relationship that both creates and reproduces wasted people ad wasted places in the context of contemporary supply chain capitalism.
I am especially happy about the outcome for two reasons:
(1) the article allows me to propose an infrastructural perspective on bordering processes that foregrounds their stratifying and racialising dynamics. Taking the example of migrant ‘ghettos’ – or informal labour camps – and partially based on my joint work with MIC|C in Southern Italy, I intend to highlight the dynamic entanglements that underpin their social and material reproduction.
(2) The article follows at least two contributions in the Geopolticis journal that have caught my attention – and with which directly relate to the argument I make. One, directed by Ida Vammen and colleagues, focuses on the securitization of the EU-African border space, and the other, directed by Umut Ozguc and Andrew Burridge, focuses on more-than-human borders. Both propose a new research agenda, which coincide very well with the infrastructural lens I am proposing in the article. Looking forward to discuss more…
I am proud to announce my first Italian book with colleagues Ilaria Ippolito and Mimmo Perrotta: ‘Braccia rubate dall’agricoltura: Pratiche di sfruttamento del lavoro migrante’. The collection, published with SEB27, addresses the plight of migrant labourers in Italy’s regional agricultural supply chains, from Puglia to Piemonte. Different chapters emphasize the systemic linkages between repressive laws, retail monopolies and geographic marginalization, which have become a structural feature of migrant exploitation. I am grateful towards the Swiss Network for International Studies, which generously funded the New Plantations project I directed in 2015-2017. The Piemonte and Basilicata research are both outcomes of that research project.
I am happy to announce the publication of the Black Mediterranean: Bodies, Borders and Citizenship. In collaboration with Black History Month, we (the is: a collective of scholars called the Black Mediterranean Collective) launched the edited volume at NYU, Florence, earlier this month. The volume is the result of an intense collaboration across disciplinary and professional boundaries. Reaching beyond the tropes of humanitarian emergency and border security, we seek to rethink the contemporary migrant crisis in the Central Mediterranean by foregrounding questions of race and Blackness. In so doing, the Black Mediterranean Collective aims to capture the long histories of racial subordination and resistance in the Mediterranean region, while at the same time opening a space for radical reconsideration and change.
Following up my earlier posts on COVID I’d like share a long interview (in Chinese and Italian) with Zheng Ningyuan on the website sconessione precarie, a web platform of precarious workers based in Italy. Ningyuan is a Chinese artist and co-founded founder of the WUXU group. During the current crisis he founded the 4xDecameron project to share reflections and thoughts on the quarantine between Italy and China.
Ningyuan’s interview offers a spectrum of how COVID may transform people’s lives fundamentally in the shadow of currently adopted containment measures. One important aspect concerns what Biao Xiang, in another article, calls the deep transformations to our current “mobility economy“. In line with previous observations about the rising oligopoly of retail businesses and the current global re-dimensioning of commodity trade (particularly of food products), Ningyuan reveals a few rarely highlighted aspects of the Chinese crisis response. Rising difficulties in the food supply chain during the lockdown have inspired the Chinese government to stimulate digitalised buying platforms like (Alipay) e Tencent (WeChatpay), for example. On the one hand, such online distribution has compensated the perceived inefficiency of physical retail shops and centralised logistics. But it also generates an acceleration of control mechanisms over people’s everyday mobilities through increased web surveillance. Finally, it leaves millions of non-resident citizens such as informal migrant workers and homeless people, literally, off the grid. During this current epidemic, for example, the Chinese government has strengthened the so-called “health code (健康 码)” system in order to monitor the biological status of individual citizens in order to avoid possible threats to public health. This system can directly limit our very sense of being mobile, Ningyuan concludes, because it further blurs the boundary of who and what is determined a risk to the preservation of biological life as an object of government intervention.
One of the major challenges ahead is exactly to foresee how the biological governance of post-COVID life will further enhance this digital extractivism of our everyday mobilities – in which China is observed to be prime developer and commercial leader. In line with Ningyuan’s interview, Biao Xiang writes how the COVID-19 epidemic and the subsequent responses are particularly impactful because they abruptly halt what we may call a “mobility economy” -while also transforming it in different ways. Comparing the Chinese government reaction to the 2003 Sars crisis and the current COVID epidemic, he concludes that that the control of mobility is no longer specific to controlling the chain-like mobility of rural-urban migrants and the way they are presumed a risk to society. Today, the government is consolidating what Xiang calls a serious of grid reactions: residential communities, districts, cities and even entire provinces act as grids to impose blanket surveillance over all the residents, minimise mobilities, and enforce isolation. Such reactions are following a trend of proliferating labour mobilities, whereby people are constantly moving between homes and jobs -a situation that is pushing this differentiation, rhyzomatic government response. Several autocratic governments are already experimenting with social network technologies today to control mobility in the post-COVID phase. it remains an open question how these technologies will also include the “off the grid” informal workers and non-residents who remain or do not remain valued as key assets to maintain current levels of welfare.
While the impact of the recent COVID pandemic on agri-food labourers is only now becoming apparent, new alarming information emerges about yet another unprecedented crisis: of fresh food production. In a recent article forInternazionale, Fabio Ciconte and Stefano Liberti quote Italian producers, who, they say, have been suffering a drop in turnover of between 30 and 50 percent in recent weeks. In this phase of global emergency, the agricultural sector is not only undergoing an unprecedented crisis. But the growing monopolisation of fresh food distribution appears to be exacerbating frictions between producers and supermarket chains. As I wrote last week, the latter have been officially privileged in this crisis.
In particular, Italian food producers accuse large-scale distribution networks of channeling their profits through telematic food fairs: a method of of public food sales, which, Ciconte and Liberti reveal, pressurise farmers to sell their produce at unsustainable prices.
In the meantime, the global farming industry complains about a huge shortfall of workers to harvest fruit and vegetables. Despite the joint call to constitute a “land army” by the British Farmers’ Association -presumably to be recruited from people put out of work by the crisis – protectionist policies are visibly damaging the labour force employed in the harvesting of food products in the UK -often under detrimental conditions. Already in 2017, 4,300 vacancies here were left unfilled by immigrant workers due to Brexit.
This militarisation of food supply chains also generates important setbacks though. Today farm groups in the US are warning that immigration restrictions put in place this month by the Trump administration could lead to important shortages of food and the labour to harvest it. In Asia, the situation looks equally bleak: in Thailand, thousands of migrants from neighbouring Myanmar, Cambodia and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic are returning home, leaving the country’s large mono-cropping cultures practically without labour. Australian horticulture, which is in the middle of harvesting season, finds its thousands of workers with their visas curtailed because of COVID. In India, agricultural labourers are already among the worst hit by COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns.
National containment measures against COVID continue to block mobility, close borders, and prevent global interaction. But global production chains will soon be confronted with companies that lack the necessary mobile labour to produce food for those staying home.
One of the interesting – and worrying – dimensions of the corona (officially COVID-19, or Sars-CoV-2) containment measures has been their reliance on food retailers. Despite all the social distance measures and mobility restrictions nation states are now imposing across the world, people still need food. And retailers have been crucial, sometimes even the only legitimate resorts to get it. But is anyone asking which consequences this generates for those who are producing it? In this post I am asking what is happening to agricultural labour at a time of corona crisis across the Mediterranean, which for some time now has gained the status as one of the most important provider of fresh food to European markets.
In Italy, the corona crisis is producing significant effects not only on retail businesses, but also on agricultural labour. In 2018, for instance, the federation of food producers estimated, about three quarters of fresh and packaged agri-food products were sold to large retail chains. One of the important measures taken by the Italian government has been to centralise food consumption during the current crisis. In annex to the Ministerial decree, signed on 11 March, a list appears of what the government regards as legitimate food retailers. Interestingly, these include supermarkets, discounts and grocery shops -but not food markets nor acquisition groups. This unique reliance sounds strange at a time when food supply networks may come under increasing pressure. Without much consultation, several mayors have univocally closed down weekly food markets in their cities. This has generated an even closer dependence of their citizens on large-scale distribution networks. Despite the governments’ explicit call not to hoard prime necessities, every decree has been accompanied by a systematic assault on supermarkets and a rapidly emerging crisis in commodity supplies.
A direct consequence of this dependency on supermarket distribution has been a rising nervousness in the agricultural districts. In rare agreement, labour unions, agricultural entrepreneurs and voluntary associations have been ringing the alarm bell to denounce the lack of assistance and call for preventive safety measures. Ironically, the agricultural sector has been designated as ‘essential’ to keep the country going in the latest Ministerial update, alongside transport and logistics -but assistance to workers has been structurally lacking. Not coincidentally, these sectors represent a labour force of predominantly foreign origin. In the province of Cuneo (Piemonte), the Capitanata (Puglia), in Castel Volturno (Campania), the Vulture (Basilicata) and in the Piana di Gioia Tauro (Calabria), where thousands of foreign labourers work to pick fruits and vegetables for Italy’s home-staying citizens, NGOs and labour unions are currently assisting workers in the margins, pending institutional support. Worries are now rising that a COVID contagion may spread in these districts like a fire.
An extra source of stress for those who are already struggling to work for the day is the limited freedom to move around. In the informal settlements of Rignano and San Ferdinando for example, where up to 500 people permanently reside without access to basic services, humanitarian organisation INTERSOS and EMERGENCY have set up mobile monitoring units to assist mobile workers. Other organisations like the RED CROSS and CARITAS, who previously managed official labour camps, are struggling to meet governmental criteria. The result has been a rising informality among workers who already remain invisible to state institutions.
To reach West-African workers active in the agricultural sector, EMERGENCY has now produced a video in pidgin English that informs them about possible anti-COVID precautions.
Similarly to Italy,the continuous arrival of Syrian refugees in Turkey has led to a refugeeization of the agricultural labour force. Basically, this means that refugees now take on the precarious day jobs that domestic and other migrant workers would usually do. Of the 3.57 million Syrian refugees present in Turkey, only a small part live in official refugee camps. In turn, a growing majority has been filling the ranks of farm workers on the countryside, while trying to find a living in livestock production, greenhouse cultivation, and the harvesting and processing of various crops (like olives, cotton, hazelnuts, tea, pistachio, citrus fruits and stone fruits, vegetables). While relations between domestic and migrant workers have generally remained peaceful, recently there have been sporadic violent incidents against migrant residents. Now that Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan is rising its pressure on Syrian refugees to leave the country, the conditions of Turkish agriculture may soon face an unexpected downfall as its labour power is siphoning towards Europe.
In the meantime in neighbouring Greece, where migrants have been supporting the agricultural economy since decades, the patrolling of Europe’s Southern border is now rapidly turning from repressive, to violent. Before sealing its border completely in response to the global corona outbreak, Greek government forces have been caught repeatedly in violent anti-migrant actions (in one such event on the Greek-Turkish border, one man was allegedly killed by either Greek soldiers or ‘armed locals’ who actively assist them in their task – as the research group Forensic Architecture documented in the attached video). Urged by European governments, Frontex is planning to send more guards to the region now, together with vehicles, ships and surveillance technology provided and financed by European member states.
While anti-migrant violence is arousing protests among human rights groups and advocates, the question how rising border repression may affect the current Sars-CoV-2 outbreak remains so far unanswered. In Turkey, Greece, and Italy, farm production depends ever more significantly on the effort of flexible, precarious labourers who, at rising rates, are recruited among refugees who are either blocked or killed at the border. While the corona virus has certainly made the world aware of its intense interconnections, this may be yet another, important question to figure out in the near future.
I share a reflection by Adia Benton on the development of the recent COVID-19 emergency, which I think is worth reflecting on:
Very rightly I think, Benton argues against the conventional outbreak narrative, where a new, deadly virus emerges in the scandalous intermingling of Asian or African native species and ‘man’, circulates along well-traveled business routes, and is unleashed on the Western world through illicit intimacies. This linear geography – which she picks up from the famous movie Contagion – strongly misses the point about the way the recent COVID-19 disease spreads and affects the world. Viruses move in bodies, she notes, and thus the relative freedom of certain bodies to move across borders as well as the perceived risk associated to this mobility definitely deserves more attention at a time when national security and territorial borders appear to become again a dominant paradigm in international politics.
At a time when governments increasingly wage their wars against the national contagion of a disease, which -as the epidemiologists keep repeating – ‘respects no borders’, it becomes clearer and clearer that its mobility is actually more networked and rhizomatic than state governments are willing to accept. Mind for example the recent Malta, Slovenia and Austria closures with Italy as well as the Trump administration’s continuing flirtation with the same idea. Such territorial containment and its related, racist imagery of the evil outsider may well help ‘put a face’ on an otherwise unidentifiable danger, but it risks to create an illusion of national security at a time when mobilities are regulated increasingly through other, more subtle technologies of diversification and control.
One small irony in this context has been the progressive acknowledgement that the infamous Patient One, a businessman who was hunted down for weeks in the Italian region of Lombardy, actually brought the virus over from neighbouring Germany; on the way, infections of the same cluster (named Germany/BavPat1/2020) have been identified throughout Switzerland, Finland, Mexico and Brazil. Although the evidence on this cluster is far from definite, it appears to confirm Benton’s thesis that indeed certain forms of border promiscuity and certain forms of border containment are accelerating the wider infectious consequences of COVID-19 throughout the world.
Another interesting point Benton raises, concerns the largely neglected political ecologyof contagion. At a time when humanity is thought to have acculturated nature completely and the consequences of its extractivist expansion are spreading throughout the planet, the COVID-19 emergency does force us to reflect a bit more deeply about the wider implications of these anthropogenic interventions, not just in terms of global ‘risk management’ but also in terms of nature’s response. Benton uses a prop from the 2011 film Contagion, which ironically may contain some elements for such future reflection: the Nipah virus the film talks about takes off from the intimate contact between a bat, driven away from the tropical forest (literally flying off from a chopped palm tree), a slaughtered pig and a business women who shakes the chef’s hand in a casino restaurant before setting off on her global travel, contaminating the rest of the world. Next to the openly gendered and racialised imagery this film projects, it also poses two crucial questions for us to answer in a preferably not so distant future:
what level of (calculable) risk is humanity globally willing to accept to sustain its current level of (certainly unequal and diversified) growth and welfare?
And what kind of interventions are needed to distribute this risk in a geographically sustainable manner?