2016. On the one side, the neighbourhood of Le Gianchette; on the other, Ventimiglia’s historic town centre. In the middle, the informal settlement of asylum seekers. Credits: The Subway Wall / Radio Frequenza Appennino / Reticolo Zero.
Tina is a 62-years woman living in the neighbourhood of Le Gianchette, Ventimiglia (the last Italian city before the French border). After 42 years working as a chambermaid in Monaco, she is finally retired. The highest goal she reached in her life is, in her own words, having helped his son to get a job in the same hotel, with a good salary (a low salary in Monaco is, indeed, a decent one just a few kilometres away, on the Italian side of the border).
Mario works as a gardener in private mansions in Monaco, too. He used to work in the production and exportation of flowers, like many other small entrepreneurs of the region. But now, with 47 years, he was forced to close his activity because the competence of other markets, especially from India and South America, lowed the prices until turning the local production of flowers unsustainable. Like him, many other local entrepreneurs went bankrupt. He is currently one of the local representatives of Lega, the populist, right-wing party.
Finally, Luciano, 63 years old, is the owner of a small shop of groceries, that he manages with his wife, Antonija, a Serbian woman. With their activity, this couple hardly makes ends meet. In their opinion, they lose many clients since the neighbourhood started to be “invaded” by migrants stuck on the Italian side of the border, after French decision of reintroducing border controls (and implement systematic migrants rejections) in 2015.
Tina, Mario and Luciano are all residents in Le Gianchette, a working-class neighbourhood harshly affected by the local declension of the “refugee crisis” at the French-Italian border. Ventimiglia is also known as “the Italian Calais”: a kind of “buffer zone” where hundreds of asylum seekers moving towards France (or other European countries) are daily stuck and repressed in their quest for mobility. As a working-class neighbourhood, marginalized both geographically and economically from the rest of Ventimiglia, Le Gianchette has been the neighbourhood with the most visible presence of migrants in distress.
The main street of the neighbourhood, via Tenda, runs along the river Roya. Since the end of 2015 to 2017, a makeshift settlement on the banks of the river was the home for hundreds of asylum seekers waiting for the best opportunity to cross the border and pursue their seek for a better life in France or other EU countries. Women and children were hosted in the local church of Le Gianchette, whose parish priest, Don Rito, was accused by a part of the neighbourhood of “helping migrants more than local poor”.
Inside the informal settlement, Ahmed, living there without access to proper sanitation and sleeping on a piece of cardboard, shows with enthusiasm the pictures of her sisters and nephews in Tunisia while announcing, with the same enthusiasm, his will of reaching France to start a better life. He has just arrived in Ventimiglia and he doesn’t know anybody in France. Nobody is waiting for him on the other side of the border, but even so, he is confident that everything is going to be better there, compared with Tunisia.
Daily push-backs of irregular migrants by French border police produced tensions, distress and uncertainty not only for migrants themselves (with more of 20 deaths registered since 2015 in the attempt of crossing the border in dangerous conditions) but also for local residents and workers, daily confronted with a humanitarian emergency (more than 48.000 migrants in three years transited across this small town of 24.000 inhabitants, most of them in Le Gianchette).
On the day of the inauguration of the new space for the local assembly of Le Gianchette, I was received as a researcher carrying out an investigation on the consequences of the border closure. “We are not racist”, “This is not a racist neighbourhood”, are among the first sentences through which the main representatives of local residents’ organization introduced themselves, even before we could ask them one single question. “You have no idea of how much we helped them,” explains a resident woman. “Being defined as a racist would break my heart.” However, talking with her in more depth, a subtle blame-the-victim rhetoric emerges: “There’s a space for them, the Red Cross camp. But they don’t want to be identified at the entry, they prefer to live on the banks of the river”; “If they break the law, nothing happens; if I break the law, I have a lot of problems”; “The Municipality paid 20.000 euros for cleaning the bank of the river after their eviction; me, I pay 500 euros for waste taxes per year… You know, this is a small town, we are few residents taxed for such a big expense.”
Even if no explicit xenophobic aggression has ever been reported, and residents and migrants in transit share commercial spaces (like bars and shops) without major conflicts, micro-dynamics of racism are daily observable in Le Gianchette. Resentment, tensions and recriminations form part of the interactions between a part of the residents, on the one side, and migrants and volunteers helping them, on the other.
Is it correct to define working-class people, harshly exposed to the contradictions of EU migratory policies (and EU fight against asylum seekers mobility) as “racists”, from on high of academia’s “ivory tower”? Is it correct to use the category of “racism”’ even when Gianchette’s residents explicitly fight for avoiding this kind of stigmatisation?
Of course racism, like other forms of domination, is deeply embedded in the fabric of significances pervading every aspect of social, political and economic life, to the point that everybody, including intellectuals and anti-racist activists, should honestly ask him- or herself to what extent unconscious racism has colonised his / her way of feeling, thinking and acting. It is only under the condition of recognising the omnipresence of racism that I dare to speak of racism in Le Gianchette.
In a political context characterized by an increasing hegemony of populist and xenophobic discourses, it is possible to establish a correspondence, or leitmotif, between stories of social and economic exclusion, or désafiliation, produced by economic global trends (and deeply embedded in globalization processes) of Gianchette’s residents, on the one side, and their loose of agency, or self-determining capacity, on the other, at the same time that they are facing a world dramatically changing before their very eyes, in their own neighbourhood. In the meanwhile, on the opposite side of the street, migrants living in much more desperate conditions, in an extemporary, makeshift encampment, put emphasis on the autonomous, self-determining dimension of their migratory project, and the hope for a better future that it implies. The juxtaposition of the two narrations brings to light the perception of this “agency differential” as a key element to understanding the rising of racist discourses and attitudes among working-class actors.
By adopting this peripheral area’s perspective, it is possible to approach the understanding of the symbolical dimensions of contemporary, working-class racism by analysing gazes, perspectives, discourses and practices of both residents and migrants in a désaffilié neighbourhood of a border town, where impacts of racial profiling and push-backs practices by State agents (French border police) are especially visible.