This post builds on the research article “Beyond Compassionate Aid: Precarious Bureaucrats and Dutiful Asylum Seekers in Italy” by Daniela Giudici, which was published in the February 2021 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
In the following author interview, Daniela Giudici reflects on her ethnographic engagement with the asylum management system in Bologna, Italy. Drawing our attention to an emergent “post-compassionate” ethos within Italy’s refugee management system, Giudici explores the violent effects of welfare decline, both on reception workers’ labor conditions and on the dynamic of aid that they ultimately provide to asylum seekers. In this conversation with Sarah Paust, Giudici expands on several key themes from her recent article, including the influences of Catholicism and nostalgia on the restructuring of the welfare state; obstacles and opportunities for the formation of transversal alliances and solidarities; and the impact of COVID-19 on mutual aid networks amid exacerbated vulnerability for migrants and non-migrants alike.
Sarah Paust: You articulate this idea of “background critique” within the asylum management system in Bologna, which is expressed verbally but also affectively experienced as anxiety, resentment, and vulnerability. As a researcher, what was it like for you to move in this space? Did you experience difficulties in gaining access or building trust with the workers, who hold precarious contract positions?
Daniela Giudici: When I first entered the rooms of the office I describe in the article, I introduced myself as a researcher, both to the workers and to the asylum seekers. However, while interviewing refugees was considered a proper “anthropologist’s job,” when I informed the workers of my intention of understanding their daily practices and representations, their reactions ranged from embarrassment to suspicion. I think that this is a very common situation for ethnographers doing “anthropology at home.” However, after a period of reciprocal examination, I think I managed to develop relations of mutual trust with most of them. By the way, I also hold a precarious contract position within academia, and I was often underlying this commonality in order to make people feel comfortable. Moreover, in the most recent part of my fieldwork (since 2019), I often happened to meet overqualified reception workers with a background in humanities and anthropology that, due to lack of other job opportunities, resorted to work within the asylum system. With those workers I shared an educational background, as well as a critical posture toward what we were witnessing, from different positionings.
SP: In your article, you mention that the Catholic-derived principle of subsidiarity has helped to motivate and justify the expansion of the “third sector” in Italy. Religion has often gone hand-in-hand with humanitarian efforts, and I’m curious if Catholic ideals (or other religious traditions) have been mobilized by asylum workers as a form of critique against the violence of the system or leveraged as a means of forging alliances, either with asylum seekers or with other precarious workers.
DG: Andrea Muehlebach (2013, 454) has poignantly argued that in Italy a Catholic-inspired idea of charity (or caritas) functions as a “crucial corollary to the marketization of welfare and as a key sentiment in the restructuring of care.” In this sense, in Italy, Catholic ideals seems to go hand-in-hand not only with humanitarian efforts, but also with neoliberal reforms. Personally, I like this approach because it complicates the idea of neoliberalism as a sort of all-encompassing, pervasive global force by foregrounding its culturally and historically grounded nature. As a matter of fact, the functioning of the Italian state is intrinsically tied to Catholic doctrine, not only culturally but also politically, as the country was ruled by the centrist Catholic-inspired Christian Democracy Party for almost fifty years, from 1946 until 1994.
Yet I would not say that Catholic ideals have been mobilized by the asylum workers I met, at least not as a form of critique against the violence of the system. Catholic-inspired sentiments such as compassion have traditionally been at the core of humanitarian practices, carried out both by state and non-state actors. However, I think that the most critical workers tend to be aware of the pitfalls of compassionate ethics and try to re-frame their claims in alternative terms. Actually, during many of the recent public protests, asylum workers chanted “we are not volunteers,” in order to convey the idea that their engagement was an actual job, which should entail fair remuneration and rights, and not a sort of “free gift.” As I suggest in my article, the progressive erosion of a compassionate ethos hints, on the one hand, at different paradigms of asylum management and, on the other hand, at alternative bottom-up practices, which exceed consolidated understandings of who is aiding whom.
" . . . the progressive erosion of a compassionate ethos hints, on the one hand, at different paradigms of asylum management and, on the other hand, at alternative bottom-up practices, which exceed consolidated understandings of who is aiding whom."
SP: A sense of nostalgia for how asylum management and human services worked in the past, before the third sector took over, comes through in excerpts of your interviews with asylum workers. You also point to a feeling of “collective failure” that permeates the current state of service provision in Bologna, which was once heralded as a model example of municipal service provision within a leftist political framework. How do you think this kind of uncomfortable, self-referential relationship to the past informs both current critique and collective re-imaginings of what might be possible in the future? In other words, what resources (or anti-resources) does the past offer both politically and pragmatically, particularly given the limits of compassion within humanitarian work in the first place?
DG: A sense of nostalgia for a supposedly “glorious” past—of social services, but not only—seems to be quite widespread in Bologna, not only among asylum workers. However, it is probably important to point out that the involvement of the third sector in social services is generally presented—in public and political narratives, but also in scholarly literature—as a positive asset for the welfare system. This is also to say that it would be misleading to think that in Bologna the “third sector” is generally dispraised, even by asylum workers. In fact, the notion of the third sector encompasses a constellation of civil society initiatives, which have evolved over time. Some of them still have an enduring reputation of virtuous forms of public engagement.
Thus, such nostalgic postures are embedded in a series of inherent contradictions and ambivalences. For instance, Davide Però (2005, 843), in his rich study of the relations between the center-left administration of Bologna and immigration, has shown how an apparently inclusionary rhetoric toward migrants may belie patronizing and infantilizing local policies. In this sense, this historically specific relation with a supposedly progressive and egalitarian past may conceal the reproduction of deep-seated inequalities in the present.
Yet the local level is deeply intertwined with the national and supra-national one. In recent years, migration governance in Italy (and Europe) has been aptly described as a “battleground,” a contentious field in which different actors—public and private, national and international, volunteers, activists, NGOs, migrants, and so on—interact, sometimes cooperating and other times conflicting (Fontanari and Ambrosini 2018). At the same time, an enduring economic recession paved the way to a series of mobilizations, which tend to blame governments for a collective “lack of future,” a sense of systemic breakdown perceived in everyday life (della Porta 2015; Narotzky 2015, 75). Within this context, new forms of protests that reinterpret particular historical traditions of struggle are taking shape, in Bologna and elsewhere.
SP: One of the things I found most thought-provoking about your conclusion was your nod to the “transversal alliances” that are possible when local communities engage in solidarity work with refugees and migrants; one example is Eugenia Siapera’s (2019) research on refugee support groups in Greece. However, you also acknowledge that there is a meaningful power imbalance between asylum seekers and asylum workers. Can you say more about the kinds of “transversal alliances” that you think are possible or already exist in the Italian context, and what kinds of barriers they face?
DG: This is a difficult, but very important question. I think that multiple obstacles may undermine those kinds of solidarities. In fact, the emergence of transversal alliances organized around the idea of a shared struggle across radically diverse groups (activists, refugees, social workers, etc.) is not unproblematic, as Heath Cabot (2020) recently noted by reference to the Greek context. Donna J Haraway (1997) already warned us against the notion of a shared humanity, which can end up concealing, rather than confronting, constitutive forms of difference and unbalances of power.
However, the right-wing populist rhetoric that is (re)gaining momentum in several Western countries, Italy included, focuses precisely on the division of the public across ethnic lines, mainly through the idea of welfare competition in times of “crisis.” Within this context, during my fieldwork I was particularly struck by the emergence of alternative narratives that criticized the very management of public resources and that—importantly—came from within the state-managed humanitarian system. Even though asylum workers’ margins of actions are consistently limited by their institutional positioning, I think it is very important to shed light on those forms of dissent.
At the same time, I also see some changes in the ways in which solidarity across relationships of power, such as pro-refugee solidarity, is represented and performed. As a matter of fact, the anthropological critique of the de-politicizing effects of humanitarianism has been embodied by several organizations and activists. Take for example Pia Klemp, the German search-and-rescue captain who was persecuted by the Italian government, who recently declared, “I’m not a humanitarian,” while refusing a medal from the mayor of Paris. Even though some actions of support are still largely informed by a compassionate ethos, alternative perspectives on solidarity, which are based neither on compassion nor charity, are also emerging.
SP: The ethnographic fieldwork you present in this article took place before the coronavirus pandemic hit Europe, and Italy in particular has suffered greatly. Over the past year, how have you seen the pandemic impacting asylum workers and other street-level bureaucrats? Or perhaps another way of framing this is, how has the additional layer of precarity caused by COVID-19 impacted asylum discourse and the kinds of aid that these workers are able to offer to asylum seekers, which you demonstrate was already so constrained by austerity measures?
DG: The outbreak of the pandemic in Italy has shifted the focus of public debate away from migration. Yet, it made invisible a multiplicity of vulnerable subjects (asylum seekers, illegal workers, homeless, etc.), while also creating new poverties and vulnerabilities, among migrants and non-migrants alike. Over the past year, I considerably reduced my in-person fieldwork, but I kept in contact with asylum workers and activists, mainly through online interviews. Some asylum workers lost or changed jobs due to the drop of arrivals on Italy's southern shores and to the readjustments of the national reception system, which I sketched in the final part of my article. However, the ones that are still working within the asylum system describe a situation of exacerbated vulnerability for asylum seekers, as chances of gaining economic and housing stability are dramatically reduced. At the same time, the protracted lockdown measures represented a sort of “suspension of time”: asylum claim evaluations were frozen, visas were prolonged, and dismissals from asylum housing centers were delayed. Within this context, many asylum workers spoke of an enhanced need for “proximity”—both emotional and material.
It is against this backdrop that networks of mutual support and solidarity have started developing in many Italian cities. Organized around ideas of mutual dependencies and collective care, those initiatives seek to tackle transversally the emergence of old and new vulnerabilities—for example, through the delivery of food and basic goods to families and individuals who cannot afford to buy them. Those initiatives hint at new ethics emerging in everyday forms of support as an asylum worker, who is also an activist in one of those groups, explained: “Obviously, it is not true that the virus made us all the same. But during the lockdown, when I was delivering food, it was as if . . . judgments were suspended. People for the first time did not feel the shame of needing help, as if it was their fault, as if they have failed. Relationships of care took a different shape.”
Cabot, Heath. 2020. “Solidarity in Greece and the Management of Difference.” In Digesting Difference: Migrant Incorporation and Mutual Belonging in Europe, edited by Kelly McKowen and John Borneman, 227–49. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.
della Porta, Donatella. 2015. Social Movements in Times of Austerity: Bringing Capitalism Back into Protest Analysis. London: John Wiley and Sons.
Fontanari, Elena, and Maurizio Ambrosini. 2018. “Into the Interstices: Everyday Practices of Refugees and Their Supporters in Europe’s Migration ‘Crisis.’” Sociology 52, no. 3: 587–603.
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Muehlebach, Andrea. 2013. “The Catholicization of Neoliberalism: On Love and Welfare in Lombardy, Italy.” American Anthropologist 115, no. 3: 452–65.
Narotzky, Susana. 2016. “Between Inequality and Injustice: Dignity as a Motive for Mobilization during the Crisis.” History and Anthropology 27, no. 1: 74-92.
Però, Davide. 2005. “Left-Wing Politics, Civil Society and Immigration in Italy: The Case of Bologna.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 28, no. 5: 832–58.
Siapera, Eugenia. 2019. “Refugee Solidarity in Europe: Shifting the Discourse.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 22, no. 2: 245–66.