Maurizio Albahari: How do liberal democracies deal with newcomers?

For Maurizio Albahari, an assistant professor of anthropology and native of Italy, this year’s refugee crisis in Europe is a new layer on an old story of deadly immigration efforts across the Mediterranean Sea from Africa and Asia to Europe. While media coverage of the suffering has inspired personal generosity among many Europeans, he says, the movement could trigger political retrenchment against newcomers.

The experience also bears considerable analogs with American migration issues, Albahari says, although especially in the Mediterranean situation, a fence is not a feasible solution. His field-researched book, “Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migrations at the World’s Deadliest Border,” was published earlier this year.

“Generally, I believe that people who look at the Mediterranean should examine the literature on the U.S.–Mexico border in particular,” Albahari says. “That literature presents important findings. I also think the other way around should be true. The scholars who work on immigration in the U.S. might consider looking in a comparative perspective to Europe and to the Mediterranean’s complexity. I engage both cases from a comparative point of view in teaching.”

In his Immigration in Global Perspective class, he says, “It’s good to remind students that while we have ongoing issues on the U.S.–Mexico border, other societies face similar dilemmas and challenges.”

Just as the U.S.–Mexico border is the crossing point for many who come from Central America and South America, for example, the Mediterranean Sea is the crossing point for many who come from sub-Saharan Africa as well as North Africa and the Middle East.

The European Union, however, leaves part of its immigration policy to its member nations, so Hungary, Spain and others can block or divert immigrants in ways that Texas and Arizona cannot.

“Part of that is quite unique to the European Union because in reality it’s 28 different countries, so they have much of the prerogative when it comes to immigration and refugees, while in the U.S., immigration is a prerogative of the federal government,” he says.

That has added to the chaos at train stations and other sites on the refugee route, scenes that moved many Europeans for political, religious and other reasons to volunteer and even open their homes to strangers.

“I would say the overarching motive is the perception of injustice,” Albahari says, adding that the positive public response supported German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s professed openness to admitting up to one million new refugees a year if need be.

While the memories of their own refugee status are fresh for some Serbs and Croats, the experience of mass emigration is more remote for Italians and Spaniards. Parts of Europe are more homogeneous than they were before World War II because of the large-scale killing of Jews and Romany.

“Now they’re at a turning point because they’re facing the prospect of losing their perceived ethnic and religious homogeneity, as most of the refugees are Muslim,” Albahari says.

“It’s a complex situation. The Hungarian government in particular decided to be tough, exacerbating a feeling of foreignness toward refugees. In reality, Syrians’ incorporation into the socioeconomic fabric of society might prove easier than for other groups.”

Before 2011, immigration from Libya to Italy, gateway to Europe, was managed by arrangements with Libyan ruler Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Since then, attempted crossings have increased, and the Aegean Sea has become a new front.

A shipwreck that killed hundreds this spring, plus the images of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach and chaos at European train stations, has escalated both social and political attention.

“When people talk about emergency and crisis, the story is really much, much longer. Every year over the last few years is becoming the deadliest year on record in terms of Mediterranean migration because of shipwrecks and other ways that people lose their lives at sea.”

The urgent case is an example of larger questions about how liberal democracies deal with newcomers, including immigrants and refugees.

“How do countries regulate who arrives, who gets to stay, who needs to be deported?” Albahari says. “How much to spend on border enforcement, and how much on refugee resettlement and integration? How do immigrants and refugees challenge majorities to rethink the common good?”


This story was originally published in NDWorks.