Conspiracy and populism at the border

Before starting my research about the social impacts of the reintroduction of border controls at Northern Italian borders, aimed at impeding asylum seekers’ intra-EU mobility in the aftermath of “the long summer of migration” in 2015, I was expecting to find on the field an increasing upsurge of anti-immigrant movements. Such an upsurge was to be expected as a consequence of the increasing visibility of migrants on the move, stuck in train stations and public spaces of Italian border towns. However, what I discovered on the field was that the target of those citizens and movements usually categorized in media narratives as “racist” were not migrants themselves, but other compatriot citizens and organizations who were supporting them. The social conflict was therefore not properly between migrants and anti-migrant groups but rather between “migrant helpers” and “anti-helpers”.

Letting aside sporadic episodes of anti-immigrants mobilizations at the French-Italian border, promoted by far-right movements such as the French “Generation Identitaire” (whose militants were mostly not locals) what was interesting to observe and analyse were the complex dynamics at work among local residents.

In Ventimiglia, the last Italian town on the coastline before the French border (also known as “the Italian Calais”), the reintroduction of border controls, in the spring of 2015, was accompanied by massive demonstrations of solidarity towards migrants by local residents. In the very first day of the reintroduction, a lot of local residents gathered in the square in front of the train station. They brought sandwiches, clothes, shoes and blankets to migrants pushed back by French border police. Among them, many residents of the neighbourhood Gianchette (successively tipped by media as a “racist neighbourhood”) actively participated in supportive initiatives. The president of the local association of Gianchette, for instance (a former border police officer), told me that he even hosted in his house a Kurdish family. Tina, a resident of Gianchette, also remembers that “we were all there, in front of the station, distributing food, water, clothes… until the moment that the Red Cross set up their tent.”

As time went by, however, the wave of solidarity turned into a permanent, unease coexistence of local residents, activists form the urban milieu and migrants in distress in public spaces. It was in this context that I assisted at several episodes of conflict, not between residents and migrants themselves, but between residents and supportive organizations. In Ventimiglia, most of the resentment of local residents was addressed against the “no-border” movement, allegedly responsible for the crisis of the touristic sector the depicted as a group of “rich kids”. Neighbours’ pressures on the owner of the premises where an association close to the no-border movement was providing free internet connections to migrants, led the owner to revoke the rental contract to the association. Don Rito, the priest of the church of Gianchette, who opened the doors of the church to thousands of migrants between 2015 and 2017, was accused by neighbours of taking advantage of being in the media spotlight for getting more funds by private donors for the NGO he had founded. Further north along the French/Italian border, in the village of Claviere, local residents got physical against a group of no-border occupying the local church for providing a shelter to migrants on the move. All along mountain paths, French police officers who stopped white, pro-migrants activists used to ask them to show their wallet (being the possession of cash used as a proof of migrant smuggling).

Resentments against supportive, “pro-migrants” individuals and organizations was fuelled by three main discourses spread by the governing parties of that moment: Northern League (NL) and Five Stars Movement (5S). Interestingly, NL and 5S accusations, addressed against humanitarian actors operating in the Mediterranean Sea (NGOs carrying out search-and-rescue operations), were reformulated at the local level against local supportive organizations, associations and individuals.

The first accusation was that migrant helpers were a pull factor for migration. Contrarily to all scientific evidence in migration studies, which demonstrates that push factor is usually much stronger than the pull one, supportive citizens and organisations were accused of attracting more arrivals with their behaviour.

The second accusation was the non-disinterested character of supportive practices. In other words, helpers were supposed to get an economic benefit from their practices. Alternatively, they were depicted as privileged up- or middle-class citizens, do-gooders without bigger issues to solve (like make ends meet). Two derogatory, untranslatable neologisms, in French and Italian, were used to stigmatize the behaviour of these “irresponsible do-gooders”, through the addition of the “–ism” suffix to the French noun angel (angelisme) and the Italian adjective buono (buonismo). Therefore, someone helping migrants was not buono (good), but just buonista.

Finally, the third accusation against helpers was to be (unconsciously or, even worst, intentionally) the last link in the smuggling/trafficking chain (with the boundaries between the concepts of “smuggling” and “trafficking” deliberately overlapping in the blaming discourse). In other words, NGOs and individuals were accomplices of criminal organizations devoted to migrants traffic.

The systematic suspicion about the “bad faith” of supportive organizations and individuals was framed in a more comprehensive construct according to which the billionaire philanthropist George Soros was responsible for funding search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea to promotine an ethnic replacement in Europe and/or putting in competition native workers with foreign ones, thus ultimately destabilizing the economy of the EU for speculative purposes. Such theory, disseminated by the leader of Northern League Matteo Salvini and also reclaimed by the leader of the Five Star Movement Luigi Di Maio (who coined the expression “taxis of the sea” to define NGO vessels involved in search-and-rescue operations) was just the crowning narrations that justified disadvantaged social groups’ defence of their remaining privileges over more disadvantaged newcomers by avoiding open accusations of racism.

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