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Urban Suffering Studies Center



Deconstructing the paradigm of "migrant emergency"

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Benedetto Saraceno


Too many innocent deaths in the Mediterranean Sea, too many innocent lives rejected, assaulted, humiliated and, in the end, "sold" to a dictatorship (even if "allied") to prevent them from invading the Europe of democracies. Too many innocent victims slaughtered in the name of god. Too many innocent victims slaughtered in the name of a democracy that sells arms in supermarkets. Too many women killed for the simple fact of being a woman.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that in 2015, 65.3 million people were displaced from their countries of origin, almost 6 million more than the year before. Of these 65.3 million, 3.2 million (ie less than 5%) expect to be welcomed in high-income countries. The High Commissioner Filippo Grandi writes: "At sea, a frightening number of refugees and migrants are dying each year; on land, people fleeing war are finding their way blocked by closed borders. Closing borders does not solve the problem". (UNHCR, 2016).
In actual fact it seems that "Evil" is radicalized to the extent that christian "Hope" and secular "Utopia" diminish and are lost, crushed by the evidence and rationality (alleged evidence and rationality) of a pragmatism without a vision of politics and an individualistic closure in the name of the new "short-sighted" religion of "well being", of "mindfulness" and of all the serious and less serious, valid and less valid forms of pursuit of individual well-being.
There is undoubtedly a serious and urgent emergency but it is not that of the "invasion" of refugees, displaced persons and migrants, covered every day by the media (let us avoid adjectives that qualify migrants at times, as "political" and therefore to be pitied, and at times, as "economical" and thus to be feared). What has to be reflected on is that a political entity (the European Union) of 500 million people, defines as an emergency, the arrival of a population that represents less than 1% of its own population: it has decided to call emergency its own intollerance, its own selfishness and especially its blindness to the dramatic european demographical crisis that would benefit from an injection of mass immigration. Therefore, despite media pressure, it is not appropriate to speak of "migrant emergency " for European countries. If anything the migrants themselves are exposed to an emergency, that of having to flee and find countries that will receive them.
The real western emergency, serious, urgent and to be opposed is that of the renunciation of a Utopia where, instead, against the radicalism of evil we should give life and strength to the radicalism of good, of the utopia of good, of the hope of good, of working for the good of all. With the excessively enthusiastic celebration of the " death of ideologies" (which have justified specific and totalitarian thoughts but have also produced dreams and hopes and visions of society) we are left without dreams and hopes while not getting rid of unique and totalitarian thoughts that are no longer supported by weltanshaung of good (even if immediately betrayed, it is true) but rather by deadly hysteria (Islamic Palingenesis clashing with Xenophobic National Identity).
From the years of "piombo" we have been inculcated with the belief (that we have too readily accepted) that a significant compromise is necessary between utopia and reality, that we have to mediate between dreams of good, truth and beauty and the daily practice of reality, in order to avoid political and individual infantilism. This seems reasonable and it certainly is. However, we have to discuss and decide what is the acceptable "measure" of mediation; what is the share of truth to be given up, which is the share of good to be regarded as postponable and what amount of evil is to be considered acceptable: this is the political and private matter that arises with increasing urgency.
Negotiation and Mediation have given brilliant evidence of success in the recent past, just think of the Commission of forgiveness established in South Africa at the end of apartheid. But there has also been disastrous evidence, just think of the repeated and irreversible failures of the Palestinian-Israeli dialogue. The peacemakers, operators for reconciliation and forgiveness, believe that mediation is the only possible and humane way for reality and hope to meet half way but, and once again it must be repeated, It has to be decided who determines where the halfway is and this applies both to groups, populations and nations that talk together or when the matter is presented in individual and sometimes intimate forms: what is "my measure" of acceptable mediation?
Therefore, is it necessary to create Mediation Laboratories to define new more effective forms of Mediation? Or, in the face of radical evil are we to give up the optimism of mediation and re-think of Conflict as the only answer? There is no doubt however, that Conflict in its traditional forms has failed: the years of "piombo" showed that armed conflict could only generate loss of life and trivialize death. But even in its traditional, nonviolent forms (the strike, the street protest) Conflict does not assure sufficient effectiveness any more and, not surprisingly, is rapidly rendered ineffective by the violence of the ambiguous "black bloc" who serve interests often unrelated to the good reasons for conflict. So do we need research laboratories for new forms of Mediation or new forms of Conflict?
One wonders if the reconsideration should be radical with research turning at the same time to new forms of conflict and towards new forms of mediation. In fact, there is no effective conflict that has not in itself the seeds of mediation and there is no real mediation that has not in itself the possibility of renewed conflict: if it were not so, conflict would be blind and destructive and mediation too pragmatic and pliable. Successful Conflict feeds on hope, utopias, weltanshaung, on hypotheses of society, and only if nourished in this way, will it have the ability to contrast, to resist and even to mediate.
If reflecting on and looking for these new forms of conflict-mediation is the real urgency that permeates us in these times of violence and loss of humanity, research has to equip us from now on to be able to read and act on the pseudo-urgency of migrants. The pseudo urgency of migrants should be deconstructed, demolished, de-institutionalized.
First of all, you have to make it clear once and for all that the emergency faced by migrants exists and is real and dramatic while the emergency represented by the arrival of migrants and which would affect the host countries does not exist.
In fact, as defined by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) a refugee emergency is any situation in which the life or well-being of refugees will be threatened unless immediate and appropriate action is taken, and which demands an extraordinary response and exceptional measures. (UNHCR 2007). So there is no doubt that refugees and migrants in general are exposed to an emergency.
But what about the emergency which the receiving (or presumed receiving) countries say they are exposed to?
An emergency is a totally unexpected turn of events, relatively rare and of a relatively finite duration: the massive arrival of immigrants from countries at war where the most basic rights are absent and material living conditions are below any threshold of tolerance, was not unexpected, but on the contrary it was predictable; the phenomenon of migration to Europe has for some time now become frequent, unstoppable and destined to last. So, you can talk of anything except an emergency for the countries that should welcome migrants. If an emergency is defined as an incident which poses an immediate threat to life, health, property or environment, european countries can not be said to be exposed to these threats and therefore they can not define emergency, that which is represented by the migrants (who on the other hand can, exposed to an emergency that threatens their lives and their welfare).
So who stands to gain from defining emergency that which is not an emergency?
The "benefits" of an emergency regime are numerous even if they are ambiguous, cynical, unjust.
1. First of all an emergency, since it is exceptional and unexpected, absolves national and local governments from accepting the issue of migrants as "systematic" and as such manage it as a "normal" phenomenon that requires political, systemic interventions, far-reaching and of indeterminate duration, similar to the interventions for all vulnerable citizens. It is not a negligible difference: it means abandoning the culture of "a mattress and a cup of broth" and take on the culture of structural intervention that guarantees rights, health, housing and education.
2. The emergency regime facilitates the creation of states of alarm, panic, misinformation, collective hysteria ("immigrant invasion", "threat to national jobs", "danger of epidemics", "risk of violence against women", "risk of terrorism", "attacks on national ethnic, religious and cultural identity"). These social paranoias are fueled by growing xenophobic formations that base their own convincing propaganda on systematic disinformation and on intollerance (in Italy the Lega, in France the Front National, in the United Kingom the movement of Farage, in Austria, Hungary, Poland the neofascist, xenophobic movements). These movements of "a call to hatred" base their success on the regime of emergency.
3. The systematic misinformation about the consequences of migrant emergency hides "other" truths and "other" real and uncomfortable information: national unemployment is not caused by migrants but by the collapse of national investments, industrial relocation and the shrinkage of the labour market; the vast majority of violence against women is perpetrated in domestic households by "national" spouses; terrorism does not make use of migrants but of citizens of not recent immigration; the only real risks of epidemics are not dependent on migrants but are related to criminal propaganda against vaccinations etc ...
4. Finally, the emergency regime favours the emergency business; conventions and boarding fees per head are a matter of important business that feeds many non-governmental, profit and non-profit organizations. In addition, there is an indirect economic effect related to training that represents another significant business even if it is not subjected to controls and evaluations of effectiveness: training for training without ever knowing what worthy effects the formation may have had.
Therefore, it is urgent to deconstruct the paradigm of the emergency, unmask ambiguities and reticence. It is urgent "to tell the truth". Furthermore, the High Commissioner writes: "While the spotlight last year was on Europe's challenge to manage more than 1 million refugees and migrants who arrived via the Mediterranean, the report shows that the vast majority of the world's refugees were in developing countries in the global south. In all, 86 per cent of the refugees under UNHCR's mandate in 2015 were in low- and middle-income countries close to situations of conflict. Worldwide, Turkey was the biggest host country, with 2.5 million refugees. With nearly one refugee for every five citizens, Lebanon hosted more refugees compared to its population than any other country..." (UNHCR, 2016).
It is necessary to be equipped with the knowledge and practices of conflict and mediation. Being able to face a direct confrontation, hard and aggressive to denounce systematic misinformation, to show real statistics and not the media-emotional ones, to denounce the abuses and violations of national and international laws, to demand justice, health, education, integration. To get involved in a serious battle but also to be ready for technical mediation along with all the lawyers, doctors, goodwill economists available, to form an army as determined in conflict as it is smart in mediation. Virginio Colmegna writes in the article entitled "Indignant" and published in this issue of Souq: "For this reason I wonder how to help free humanity, the earth from this stranglehold? You can not achieve this just by telling of another world, another ideology often rhetoric but it is even more urgent and possible to stay within the concrete experiences of struggle, sharing for equality and inclusion. This extraordinary hope for change, novelty, utopia must be lived on the field. It is certainly a long and arduous journey that perhaps will only succeed in changing from a condition of minor justice to a condition of greater justice, to an effort for greater inclusion. This is a unique but demanding opportunity and responsibility: being in the middle of local initiatives, of territorial communities, of industrious laboratories which show that we can and we must not resign ourselves. This says everything about the challenge to combine conflict and mediation, the struggle and the search for solutions.
In this perspective of "being in the middle", to quote Colmegna once again, Souq is in the middle and the 6 March 2017 organizes a day in Milan at the Università Statale to reflect on these issues by inviting the protagonists of courageous and radical experiences of hospitality and also the authoritative voices of local, national and international institutions: the high Commissioner of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi has agreed to hold on that occasion a Magisterial Conference.



1. UNHCR Handbook for Emergencies. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva, Third Edition February, 2007.

2. UNHCR Press Release 20 June 2016. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva


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Center for urban suffering

The study centre wishes to study the phenomenon of urban suffering, in other words the suffering that is specific to the great metropolises. Urban Suffering is a category that describes the meeting of individual suffering with the social fabric that they inhabit. The description, the understanding and the transformation of the psychological and social dynamics that develop from the meeting of ...

Who we are

The Urban Suffering Studies Center - SOUQ - arises from Milan, a place of complexity and economic and social contradictions belonged to global world.Tightly linked to Casa della Carità Foundation, which provides assistance and care to unserved populations in Milan (such as immigrants legal and illegal, homeless, vulnerable minorities), the Urban Suffering Studies Center puts attention on ...


Centro studi Souq Management commitee: Laura Arduini, Virginio Colmegna (presidente), Silvia Landra, Simona Sambati, Benedetto Saraceno ; Scientific commitee: Mario Agostinelli, Angelo Barbato, Maurizio Bonati, Adolfo Ceretti, Giacomo Costa, Ota de Leonardis,  Giulio Ernesti, Sergio Escobar, Luca Formenton, Francesco Maisto, Ambrogio Manenti, Claudia Mazzucato, Daniela ...
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ISSN 2282-5754 Souquaderni [online] by SOUQ - Centro Studi sulla Sofferenza Urbana - CF: 97316770151
Last update: 26/11/2020

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