Why watching ‘The Other’ is like watching ‘Ourselves’. A comparison between immigration policies and practices of care
October is certainly one of the most prolific months for the porcini mushroom, and I’m sure that on October 3, 2013, someone in Italy took a basket of wicker, went to the mountains and collected many. At the same time, a few thousand kilometers away, near the coast of Lampedusa, some ships were gathering the bodies of African migrants who had set sail from Libya with a boat to arrive in Italy. Among the collected bodies, some of them were living (very few) and dead corpses. There were bodies of men, of women and of children. The 366 dead were placed in coffins and buried in Sicilian cemeteries. Of these 366 only a small part has been identified, the others lie nameless leaving a void of uncertainty unbridgeable in their families. The living, instead, has been grouped, identified and finally sorted on the national territory. Most of them will surely have become part of the Italian hosting system, in particular, they will have ended up in one of the many CAS centers (the Italian acronym of Extraordinary Center for immigrants Hosting) that are present in all the Italian provinces. The CAS centers were created to deal with the North African Emergency, a time when the Arab Springs of various Maghreb countries (and not only) had suddenly changed their geopolitical structures in the Mediterranean area, allowing the massive influx (more or less spontaneous) of Asylum Seekers through specific tracks such as the one that led from Libya to Lampedusa. This mass influx meant that the Italian historical hosting system (SPRAR system) was not able to manage these numbers, so the Italian government had to take emergency actions by creating these centers. These were to be temporary host centers in which the Asylum Seekers “waited” for their turn to enter the SPRAR. However, this reorganization never happened, and the CASs continued to manage the hosting in an “emergency” way, creating a parallel system.
But what does it mean to host? Does the new system really fulfill its purpose of hosting people? When we saved (I intentionally use the past) a life at sea, did we save the naked life (zoè) or the person? What does the migrant lose in crossing the sea and what does he acquire? What does our hosting system tell about us?
It is important for me to point out that, in order to define a person as “the Other”, there is undoubtedly a need to define “We”, so looking at “the Other” actually means looking at the way in which an “unclear We” relates with an “unclear Other”. Expanding our reasoning, observing how the Italian society and its institutions try to welcome the Asylum Seeker means to look deeply into ourselves, into our system of values, symbols, and power in which we are immersed. It is clear that a system based on saving lives at sea takes into account the Other not as a person but as a holder of life. Italian society and institutions do not care that the body I am collecting has escaped from war, has been persecuted for its sexual orientation or its beliefs. All that matters is that the heart in that body doesn’t stop beating. Gathering a body at sea, therefore, means depriving it of its past, of the suffering it has experienced, it means ignoring the historical and political processes that have led to the areas in which that person has lived to be affected by wars, famine, and poverty. Gathering a body means creating a system (that famous CAS system) where only physiological needs (a bed and food) are guaranteed to the exclusion of any other human sphere. But isn’t this attention to the body and its life also the characteristic of another area very dear to us? Isn’t it similar to the way Western medicine looks at the body of the sick person, separating it from every other sphere of the person?
The pathways proposed by social and cultural studies have allowed us to recover just some “pieces” of this person, recognizing that between us and the others there is an essential relationship, although designed often through asymmetrical processes, full of implications. The pathways proposed by social and cultural studies have allowed us to recover just some “pieces” of this person, recognizing that between us and the others there is an essential relationship, although designed often through asymmetrical processes, full of implications. The processes of attribution of identity are often defined by political, media, economic, symbolic weight that a group has at a given historical moment. These characteristics become existential and are thought of by the social actors themselves as natural, static and immutable. Instead, Marcus (Marcus et al., 1986) shows us that culture is something that men create and not conceptual baggage that we share as members of a group. In addition, the idea is that the body can no longer be seen as a set of pieces of gearwheel that work in unison but is the place where the person experiences the world, actively participating in the production of meanings through which we interpret reality and qualify our experiences (SCHEPER-HUGHES, 1994; SCHEPER-HUGHES et al., 1987). We see therefore that on the one hand, knowledge and social order are inscribed in bodies, making them appear as “natural”, on the other hand, the way in which we perceive the world is through a “culturally informed” body that acts by shaping perceptions before they become ideas, concepts or representations (Quaranta, 2012). The crisis of the body, therefore, produces a crisis also in our being in the world. To resolve this crisis, reducing it is not enough either to the objectivity of the medical body or to the subjectivity of personal experience.
For this reason, the Italian society should try not to think of the body and the “Others” as something separate or separable from “We”. The idea of the “body to be cured” should be abandoned in order to rethink the treatment pathways as a context in which a relationship is established between health professionals and the person to be cured. In this way, the health system would move from a one in which bodies are gathered and observed to one in which people are accepted and met, creating a context in which the actions of all should be oriented towards the co-construction of meanings. In the same way, the bodies collected at sea must become people and be included in hosting pathways that do not look at mere physical survival but that take into account the person in their entirety. To this end, we should make every possible effort to restore the dead bodies’ identity, trying to reconstruct that suspended relationship with their families (Robins, 2019). Finally, we should rethink our hosting system as an opportunity to improve the “We” that does not collect and clutches bodies in centers of semi-detention (where nothing is important except their bare life) but that welcomes people in paths of co-construction of a future together, returning their past and history (Pinelli 2014).
Other details in the World Health Organization (WHO) report on migrants care
Marcus, G.; Fischer, M. Anthropology as cultural critique: an experimental moment in the human sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Pinelli B., Campi di accoglienza per richiedenti asilo, in Riccio B. (a cura) Antropologia e Migrazioni, Roma: CISU, 2014.
Quaranta, Ivo, From the communication of information to the production of meaning as a strategy for promoting the right to health., «RECIIS», 2012, V.6, n.2, pp. 1 – 15
Scheper-Hughes, N. Embodied knowledge: thinking with the body in critical Medical Anthropology. In: BOROFSKY, R. (Ed.) Assessing Cultural Anthropology. New York: Mc Graw Hill, p. 229-239, 1994.
Scheper-Hughes, N.; Lock, M. The mindful body: a prolegomenon to future work in Medical Anthropology. Medical Anthropology Quarterly. v. 1, p. 6-41, 1987
Simon Robins, The Affective Border: Missing Migrants and the Governance of Migrant Bodies at the European Union’s Southern Frontier, Journal of Refugee Studies, 2019, fey064, https://doi.org/10.1093/jrs/fey064
Picture ‘La Pietà’ by Fabio Viale