Unaccompanied Foreign Minors: Where State Care Meets Migrant Agencies
Maurizio Albahari offers a damning critique of the illegal border pushback (rispingimento) policies in Italy and the European Union’s Frontex program more broadly.1 With case study after case study, Albahari outlines the systematic ways that Europeans have allowed and increased the likelihood of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean. Years earlier, Iain Chambers presented a dramatically different view of the Sea—one highlighting centuries of African and European exchange that live on in present nuances of food, music, migration, and more.2 Readers of these two fascinating monographs could easily question how to reconcile views of the Mediterranean as a place of both extreme European violence and boundless human mobility.
Stephanie Malia Hom’s Empire’s Mobius Strip: Historical Echoes in Italy’s Crisis of Migration and Detention intervenes exactly into this tension, provocatively analyzing human mobility in relationship to Italian state making and empire building.3 A compelling framework of “imperial formations” allows Hom to explore how counternomadic concentration camps in colonial Libya, for example, reflect state logics still at play in camps for detained African migrants and relocated Romani in Rome’s polluted peripheries. While drawing inspiration from Giorgio Agamben’s theorization of camps as sites par excellence for the unbonding and exclusion of certain populations from social relations, Hom also participates fruitfully in a body of literature that routinely questions intimate relationships between racial-spatial control in colonies and corresponding metropoles.4
I come to Hom’s work with a very particular lens. I have spent the last five years conducting research among unaccompanied foreign minors (minori stranieri non accompagnati, or MSNA) from West Africa who are living in Italian migrant centers. Although widespread use of the MSNA moniker dates back nearly a decade, only National Law 47/2017 (known as the Legge Zampa) formalized this category. Under National Law 176/1991 (and now National Law 47/2017), Italy must accommodate MSNA within the territory and provide them with state care. Italy must serve their “best interests.” Many migrants, therefore, present falsely young ages at the Mediterranean border. They achieve what so many others cannot: entry into the EU. As a result of ethnographic research among this population, I am left with generative questions after reading Hom’s compelling work. First, how does Italy’s genocidal colonial violence in North Africa and sedentarizing policies for Romani relate to (highly mitigated) forms of care in youth migrant centers? Second, how might we account for African agencies?
Along with those considered victims of trafficking, MSNA receive some of the most solicitous state care in Italy.5 As wards of the state with legal statuses similar to that of Italian orphans, MSNA do not quite constitute juridical foreigners. Protected status does not indicate that life for MSNA is simple. Scandals of embezzlement and inhumane conditions have long bedeviled MSNA centers. Lampedusa’s migrant center uprising was by no means singular.6 What I have found in many centers are underpaid, unpaid, ill-equipped, and untrained staff members attempting to care for migrants. Many Sicilian employees lament an ongoing lack of payment while sometimes creating their own Italian lessons and bringing resources from home in an attempt to ensure that life is not simply miserable for the young Africans residing in “welcome centers,” or centri di accoglienza.
It took me a long time to appreciate the complexity of Italian-African relationships in migrant centers. I was filled with anger the very first time I entered a youth migrant center in 2015. Where were the staff? The question repeated inside me. I found bored-looking young men sitting around and doing nothing. They could not tell me where the staff hid. “Maybe over there,” some directed me noncommittally. I searched corridors and rooms. Where were the staff? I was livid. How could migrant care and integration look like this? Is this legal—young men draped across fraying and broken furniture? I searched bathrooms and peered outside, naively scandalized by the apparent abandonment of unaccompanied foreign minors on the outskirts of a small town in eastern central Sicily. I found the staff, smoking, chatting, and playing cards.
After years of research, conflicting emotions—appreciation, pity, rage, and frustration—trouble my memories and judgments of migrant center staff. Many express racist and Islamophobic viewpoints, and others arrive daily only to smoke on the balcony and chat with other staff. Sometimes I told myself they would not abdicate their duties if salaries arrived regularly. I do not know this. Many volunteer workers attempted to fill the gaps of state funding and stretched themselves—their emotional and financial resources—while working with migrants who, in my opinion, justly resented low levels of care. Staff goodwill prevented many MSNA from going to bed hungry some nights and prevented the complete absence of state services. Some brought toys and clothes from home to help migrants sleep a little better. Others expressed frank racism and xenophobia. With what standards might one evaluate the work of unpaid employees who expect pay? Did staff hold some sort of baseline human responsibility to MSNA? What ethics should guide unwitting almost-volunteers with virtually no resources? I do not know.
Hom raises urgent questions regarding space, race, otherness, and power in Italy. I reflect upon lived experiences in MSNA centers because I wonder how such spaces may fit into Hom’s illuminating exploration of imperial formations. Migrants, for example, have routinely protested—primarily with civil disobedience—substandard living conditions, a lack of legal aid, and persistent discrimination in migrant centers. In addition, many unaccompanied foreign minors leave migrant centers at night, often heading toward Germany and becoming “undocumented” in the process. My point is not to uncritically celebrate the ways that some Africans negotiate highly suspect apparatuses of state care and surveillance. Instead, I posit that modes of Black protest and Black escape unfurl, reknit, and morph just as much as Italian imperial formations. Hom cultivates ample space to examine Black geographies in relation to Italian empire, and to see their overlap.
As a cultural anthropologist, I have quite predictably questioned the interpersonal textures of Hom’s temporal and geographic framework. Above, I have gestured toward messy relationships among migrants and Italians in migrant centers. I have also gestured toward African agencies, specifically pointing to age fluidity, protest, and refusals of state wardship. In both cases, I hope to have underscored the unpredictable lifeways that may simultaneously uphold and refute imperial formations. My doctoral dissertation, Black Boy Feelings: Race and the Erotics of Migrant Governance in Sicily, seeks to understand the emotional life of Blackness in Italy. I especially consider the role of sadness within modes of migrant self-making that often subvert local discourses of African youth as “future Italians.” Studies of youth in myriad African contexts repeatedly underscore ingenuity, creativity, and entrepreneurship.7 I am excited to further question how these literatures may interact with Hom’s historical-ethnographic analyses and complicate understandings of African life making in Italy.
Torin Jones is a doctoral candidate in the anthropology department at Stanford University. Torin conducts research among young West Africans seeking asylum in Italy while investigating the intersections of migration, humanitarianism, race, and emotion.
Maurizio Albahari, “Europe’s Refugee Crisis,” Anthropology Today 31, no. 5 (2015), https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8322.12196.
Iain Chambers, Mediterranean Crossings: The Politics of an Interrupted Modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).
Stephanie Malia Hom, Empire’s Mobius Strip: Historical Echoes in Italy’s Crisis of Migration and Detention (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019).
See Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 2008); Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended (New York: Picador, 2003); and Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Imperial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995).
Cristiana Giordano, Migrants in Translation: Caring and the Logics of Difference in Contemporary Italy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).
Hom, Empire’s Mobius Strip, 58.
See Karen Tranberg Hansen, “Getting Stuck in the Compound: Some Odds against Social Adulthood in Lusaka, Zambia,” Africa Today 51, no. 4 (2005): 3–16; Mark Hunter, Love in the Time of AIDS: Inequality, Gender, and Rights in South Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010); Janet Roitman, Fiscal Disobedience: An Anthropology of Economic Regulation in Central Africa (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); and Vinh-Kim Nguyen, “Uses and Pleasures: Sexual Modernity, HIV/AIDS, and Confessional Technologies in a West African Metropolis,” in Sex in Development: Science, Sexuality, and Morality in Global Perspective, ed. Stacy Leigh Pigg and Vincanne Adams (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 245–68.