The Migrant’s Corner

Paradoxes of Representing Mediterranean Crossings in Italian and French Contemporary Culture

by Caterina Scarabicchi (Author)
©2023 Monographs X, 238 Pages
Series: New Comparative Criticism, Volume 12


The stories of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe have made the headlines in the news over the last twenty years. How have these human itineraries been represented in contemporary culture? This book considers the migrant’s story as portrayed in literature, cinema, museums and festivals in Italy and France, in order to explore the widespread ethical complexities related to agency and advocacy. While typically produced in support of migrant communities, these narratives often confine the experience of displaced individuals within a Eurocentric, humanitarian discourse that is difficult to overcome. Through an interdisciplinary and postcolonial approach, the book analyses, among others, recent works by Laurent Gaudé and Emanuele Crialese, the Musée National de l’Histoire de l’Immigration in Paris and a community festival in Lampedusa, to highlight the complexity of advocating for migrants from a European perspective.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Border Burners: Mediterranean Migrations in Italian and French Fiction
  • Chapter 2. Impossible Encounters: Screening the Migrant in Italian and French Cinema
  • Chapter 3. Curating Migration: Politics of Representation in French and Italian Contemporary Migration Museums
  • Chapter 4. Mise en scènes of Migration: Performing Community at Italian and French Migration Festivals
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

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This research project started as a doctoral thesis at the School of Modern, London. I am, first of all, indebted to my two supervisors there, James S. Williams and Fabrizio De Donno, who have constantly guided and encouraged me throughout my work. I am also grateful to the School of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Royal Holloway for granting me the Mary Slack Award in 2015, and for funding my fieldwork in Lampedusa and Paris, which was crucial for the evolution of my research. I would like to thank my examiners, Charles Fordsick and Federica Mazzara, for providing invaluable feedback on the development of my project. I am also grateful to Agnes Woolley, Mariangela Palladino and Celeste Ianniciello for involving me in the AHRC project ‘Responding to Crisis’, an experience that nurtured my passion for the theme of migration and the arts between Keele, Naples and London. I would also like to thank all the colleagues and friends that, in the course of the past few years, have inspired me with their ideas.

This book is dedicated to displaced individuals everywhere, and to all individuals unwilling to accept the state of things in the present world order, to painful endings and beautiful beginnings, to survivors and thrivers in all struggles and to all those working towards new commons. It is also dedicated to all my students in Florence, who taught me fundamental lessons over the past five years. I am deeply grateful for the support of many friends in Florence and elsewhere. A special thank you goes to Aldo, Massi, Gaia, Lisa, Sascha, Michela, Francesco, Isabella, Valentina, Marina, Guido and Charlène, for their lasting love and presence. The greatest gratitude goes to my family, who helped put things in perspective and supported me throughout. Finally, this book is dedicated to the memory of my grandmother Gina, who taught me so much.

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Since the early 2000s, the Mediterranean Sea has repeatedly been declared the deadliest route in the world for migrants and asylum seekers. According to the Missing Migrants Project of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), since 2014, over twenty thousand people have lost their lives while attempting to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea (Missing Migrants Project 2022). This tragic toll is a direct consequence of the restrictive measures put in place by the states of the European Union to prevent unauthorized individuals from entering their national territories. As transnational migration remains a highly divisive theme in the EU political debate, the movement of people in search of better life opportunities has been increasingly hindered by newly erected fences, patrolling agencies on land and at sea and hostile measures aimed at rendering Europe an inhospitable place especially for undocumented migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. The xenophobic attitudes of political parties and citizens towards migrants have encouraged policies of deliberate inaction in the management of asylum requests, informal migrant camps in EU border areas and search-and-rescue operations at sea. As a result, thousands of displaced people have been left stranded in appalling conditions on the periphery of European cities or drowned at sea before even reaching the continent.

As of March 2022, the global spread of the Covid-19 epidemic has significantly contributed to further worsening of the conditions of migrants attempting to reach Europe: as Maurice Stierl and Deanna Dadusc state, the pandemic has been used as an excuse for strengthening border controls, suspending rescue operations and containing the movement of undocumented migrants, now increasingly depicted as a threat to public health, in addition to national security (2021: 3). Furthermore, in the words of Martina Tazzioli and Maurice Stierl, the pandemic has ‘further multiplied unequal access to mobility, rights, and protection’ (2021: 78), leading to an increased precariousness for displaced individuals seeking refuge in ←1 | 2→European states or already living in dire conditions in informal border camps. While hostile policies have often prevailed, many voices have also been raised in support of migrants’ rights at national and international levels. Over the past decades, citizens, associations and artists alike have mobilized through public demonstrations, campaigns and literary and visual works to call for a more welcoming and humane political response to the arrival of migrants.

This book engages with the cultural representations of migrant subjects circulating over the past two decades in Italy and France, two European countries deeply affected by the so-called migratory crisis, to contend that, although based on an urge to express solidarity, the ways Italian and French authors, filmmakers and curators have represented the figure of the migrant are loaded with ethical complexities that urgently call for deeper analysis. Indeed, this body of artistic engagements, which has grown exponentially in recent years, aims at relating the migrant’s story and experience, while still from a Western, European viewpoint which is problematic. Stemming from the belief that the way transnational migration is represented in contemporary culture has the power to influence individual and public perceptions, this study sets out to investigate the paradoxes implicit in narrating the migrant’s story from an Italian and French viewpoint. In particular, it aims to: reveal the significant absence of migrant voices in the European cultural sphere; investigate the ambiguities and the issues in ‘speaking for the other’ in the context of the European ‘migration crisis’; understand the hegemonic and colonial implications of these representations which often ultimately reproduce, rather than challenge, the power dynamics between Europe and non-European migrants; and explore the possibility of alternative, more inclusive ways to bring the contemporary experience of migrants to the fore of cultural imagery. In other words, the book stresses the need to find new ways to discuss the experience of migrating in the contemporary age, reflecting on key terms such as agency, solidarity and humanitarianism, and on the need to decolonize one’s perspective.

The choice of topic derives from an interest in the power of narratives to do service, or indeed, disservice, to the reality of migration to Europe today. By narratives, I intend all descriptions and accounts that enable an interpretation of contemporary migratory experiences, ranging from ←2 | 3→political discourses to media representations, scholarly analyses within academia and creative reimagining of the Mediterranean passage by artists. In particular, this work is in contiguity with the ever-growing body of studies that aims to refute the widespread representation of human movement as an emergency and threat to the receiving society. As many scholars have recently argued (New Keywords Collective 2016; Jeandesboz and Pallister-Wilkins 2016), the transit of people to Europe today has intentionally been depicted by governments and media as an unprecedented emergency. The commonly used term ‘Mediterranean migration crisis’ has contributed to the legitimization of pushback operations and stronger border controls in violation of international law, by depicting the current situation in the Mediterranean as a somehow unexpected, unmanageable occurrence that requires exceptional measures.

And so, the continuing violation of human rights on Europe’s borders has by now become the norm, rather than an exception dictated by extreme circumstances. Indeed, forced removal, arbitrary detention and police violence are everyday occurrences in France, Italy, Greece and other EU countries. It is by now clear that the protraction of the ‘Mediterranean crisis’ year after year is instrumental in justifying and maintaining a reactive ‘closed border’ policy towards heavily racialized ‘others’, discriminated against on the basis of their origins and citizenship status (De Genova 2018; Cuttitta 2018), rather than in the adoption of more humane, long-term measures in response to the numbers of people attempting to reach EU states. The cynical statement made back in 1989 by the then French prime minister Michel Rocard – ‘La France ne peut pas accueillir toute la misère du monde’ [France cannot welcome all the misery of the world] – still seems to reflect the position adopted by Europe and most ‘Western’ countries over thirty years later. In France, as in Italy, the government has targeted migration as a crucial theme for its populist rhetoric in order to increase voter support, thus encouraging an attitude of ‘zero tolerance’ towards undocumented migrants.

The deplorable state of migrants’ rights in today’s France is epitomized by the progressive strengthening of repression and control in its border areas. According to Thom Davies and Arshad Isakjee, the informal border settlements created by displaced people should be regarded as both ←3 | 4→fundamental necropolitical and postcolonial spaces of today’s European society (2019: 1–2). In Calais, the repeated destruction of spontaneous refugee camps between 2002 and 2016 and the frequent episodes of police violence against irregular migrants have transformed France into a deeply hostile country for immigrants, who live under constant threat of deportation (Agier et al. 2019; Agier 2018; Ticktin 2006). At the border with Italy, French police have adopted a systematic refoulement strategy, denying access to all those who, in public spaces, on trains and in the street, are racially profiled as potentially ‘illegal’ migrants and arrested or sent back to the Italian border. Similar episodes have become frequent in Paris, where temporary settlements in sheltered areas, such as the areas below the station of La Chapelle, are destroyed and their inhabitants forcibly dispersed. Finally, like a growing number of EU countries, France has suspended the Schengen agreement allowing the free circulation of people across the borders of some member states. In 2018, President Emmanuel Macron declared that France would no longer allow a ‘new jungle in Calais’ (Willsher 2018).

In the Italian context, the debate has inevitably focused on the role of Italy as Europe’s first port of call for migrants arriving by sea, and also on the lack of collaboration between national authorities and the European Union. The short-lived search and rescue initiative Mare Nostrum, aimed at intercepting and rescuing migrant boats in the Mediterranean Sea, was financed solely by the then centre-left Italian government and did not receive the support of other EU member states, to the point that politicians, experts and the public were led to feel that Italy, like Greece, had been ‘abandoned’ by the European Union to face the situation alone (Giuffrida 2017; Grigoropoulos 2016). The exposure of the Italian peninsula to the arrival of asylum seekers has favoured the growth of new anti-immigration sentiment, supported by the xenophobic League Party. In summer 2018, Matteo Salvini, the then minister of the interior, issued a decree closing Italy’s harbours to NGO rescue boats, refusing permission to dock to the vessel Aquarius, which was carrying over six hundred refugees and migrants departed from Libya (Tondo 2018). This was just one of the latest episodes in the battle of the Italian right against humanitarian associations operating in the Mediterranean Sea, which have repeatedly been accused of buonismo [goody-goody attitude], of being a pull factor for migrants ←4 | 5→leaving Libya and of colluding with human traffickers. Even after the highly mediatized arrest and subsequent acquittal of the German activist Carola Rackete, captain of a Sea-Watch vessel (Tondo and Le Blond 2019), the activity of search and rescue NGOs has continued to profoundly divide public opinion and the tense political debate in Italy.

These recent events in Italy and France are the historical result of the progressive development of xenophobic feelings and a lack of openness towards the migrant. Since the 1990s, the perception of a migrant ‘invasion’ has occupied the forefront of the public sphere in Europe, inflated by mass media such as television, press and, increasingly, social media, and encouraged by the alarmist tones of conservative parties and xenophobic movements, by now major actors in the political life of both Italy and France. Such phenomena are part of a global trend amongst ‘developed’ countries across the globe to treat the transnational migration of unauthorized migrants as a crime, justifying strict pushback policies at land and sea borders. As Lynda Mannik (2016) observes, this is particularly the case for migrants travelling by boat who, despite being exposed to the highest risk of death in a journey that is often their last resort for a better future, are still perceived as the most ‘threatening’ kind of displaced individuals both in mass media discourse and public opinion. Suffice to think of the case of Australia and its offshore processing centres, repeatedly exposed by human rights activists for their arbitrary imprisonment of asylum seekers, or of the aggressive campaigns to reduce the number of ‘illegal’ immigrants on US or UK territory, or of the charter flights, organized by Western countries, to forcibly repatriate individuals fleeing persecution in their homeland, to realize that migrating is far from being considered an inalienable right of the individual. For its part, over the past five years, Europe has externalized border controls to third countries with appalling human rights records, reaching economic deals with countries such as Libya, Niger and Turkey, in order to obtain their assistance in reducing the number of displaced individuals attempting the Mediterranean crossing. Ultimately, Europe as a potential host society seems to have rapidly transformed into a society of rejection in which the foreigner is considered a threat to be expelled.

The inhumane management of migration has been met with widespread acts of resistance across European countries. Both migrant and ←5 | 6→non-migrant communities engaged in protests, campaigns and direct social action to counter the hostile policies of governments towards asylum seekers and undocumented people (Stierl 2019; Carauș and Paris 2018). Particularly important have been those interventions aimed at providing support to migrant communities through a bottom-up, participatory approach, as in the case of activist networks and collectives in Greece, Italy and France focusing on migrants’ autonomy and self-determination when responding to the basic needs of displaced individuals for food, housing and legal assistance in European cities (Mudu and Chattopadhyay 2017; Zamponi 2017; Tsavdaroglou 2018). Alongside them, artistic interventions in all fields of cultural production flourished as a reaction to European restrictive policies, in an attempt to shift public perceptions of the migration ‘crisis’. Before exploring these cultural representations, it is essential to investigate critical key terms in the current migration debate.


X, 238
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2023 (April)
migration cultural representation agency advocacy Europe migration literature migration cinema migration museums migration festivals Caterina Scarabicchi The Migrant’s Corner
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2023. X, 238 pp.

Biographical notes

Caterina Scarabicchi (Author)

Caterina Scarabicchi is an independent researcher in Cultural Studies based in Italy. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature and Culture from Royal Holloway, University of London.


Title: The Migrant’s Corner
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