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Cornell University Press

Italy’s Migration Crisis, its Colonial History, and Mobility as a Human Right

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The scene was familiar, hauntingly so. Italian authorities stood over a crowd of young men huddled on the ground. Their guns and their uniforms accorded them the power to keep these men fixed into place. Scenes such as this are recognizable as iconic images of Italy’s current crisis of migration and detention. They circulate widely in today’s media.

The island of Lampedusa, in particular, has emerged as the site where this “border spectacle” plays out in the Mediterranean. It is the place where hundreds of thousands of people arrive on the shores of Fortress Europe, and where migrants become subsumed into the labyrinthine process of identification, imprisonment, and expulsion.

Yet this image haunted me because it was not taken from today’s headlines: its date was October 1911.[1] I found it in a municipal archive on Ustica, a small island off the northern coast of Sicily that, like Lampedusa, was once part of Italy’s carceral archipelago. The young men in the photo had been deported from Libya shortly after Italian troops had invaded Tripoli. Their coerced displacement began a swift and ruinous wave of dislocation, dispossession, and internment that underpinned Italian colonial rule in Libya from 1911–1943. The colonial regime’s impulse to control all movement led to the widescale immobilization of Bedouin in Italian-built concentration camps across the Cyrenaican desert, leading to a genocide that remains little known outside Libya.

Yet this image haunted me because it was not taken from today’s headlines: its date was October 1911

In my book, Empire’s Mobius Strip: Historical Echoes in Italy’s Crisis of Migration and Detention, published in September, I explore the colonial roots of Italy’s contemporary migration crisis. Italy in its imperialism has often been framed as something of “colonialism lite,” especially because Italian colonizers imagined themselves to be brava gente (good people) compared to the British and the French. However, Italy’s colonial projects in Libya and Eastern Africa stood among the most brutal and bloody of the last century.

The control of mobility was central to the consolidation of Italian empire. On islands like Ustica and Lampedusa, for example, I show how Italian authorities rehearsed and perfected discriminatory tactics on a host of Others—from southern Italians to Bedouin prisoners, from domestic criminals to political exiles—before exercising these tactics against migrants on a much wider scale today. In precisely this way, Italy’s disavowed colonial past not only becomes expressed by this crisis but also emerges with amplified force.

In precisely this way, Italy’s disavowed colonial past not only becomes expressed by this crisis but also emerges with amplified force.

When I first began researching mobility and colonialism almost two decades ago, little did I think that, in 2019, we would be living in a world where more than 70 million people were forcibly displaced, the largest number ever on record.

Nor did I imagine that I would witness first-hand what I understood to be colonial techniques of exclusion and discrimination exercised so blatantly by those in power, among them: separating families at borders, incarcerating children in prisons dressed up as “centralized processing centers,” enacting biased travel bans, and sending people “home” to persecution and death.                                                                                                                                                

It is heartbreaking. These forms of violence, once part and parcel of colonial imperialism, persist today under the guise of migration. “Migration” has become a buzzword linked to crisis and emergency. The term “migrant” has been invested with a negative valence, modified by “illegality” and “irregularity.”

It is heartbreaking. These forms of violence, once part and parcel of colonial imperialism, persist today under the guise of migration.

In my interviews for this book with men and women detained in Italy’s migrant detention centers, I learned that no one begins their journey believing they are “illegal immigrants.” It is a category that comes to be lived ex post facto. Once labeled as “illegal” or “irregular,” this classification becomes almost impossible to remove like a stain or an accusation.

The exclusionary effect of this act of labeling is intensified by the spaces of the detention centers themselves. The razor wire, the plexiglass, the barred windows, the electronic locks, et cetera all constitute an architecture of sequestration that functions to control movement at all times. 

Anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard once wrote of the Bedouin interned in Italian concentration camps that “hunger, disease, and broken hearts took a heavy toll of the imprisoned population. Bedouin die in a cage.”[2] The same can be said of the people interned today in the migrant detention centers of Italy, and elsewhere around the world, especially the United States.

The same can be said of the people interned today in the migrant detention centers of Italy, and elsewhere around the world, especially the United States.

In the course of writing Empire’s Mobius Strip, it became clear to me that now more than ever, the power over movement equates to the power over people. It has affirmed my belief that the freedom of movement is a fundamental human right, one that is guaranteed by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Let us attend to the words and advance the actions that implement this freedom for all, so that in our world, broken hearts no longer take a heavy toll on the mobile populations who are imprisoned for exercising their inalienable right to move.


[1] “Ustica–il riconoscimento dei prigionieri” (Ustica–the identification of the prisoners), 1911. Image courtesy of Centro Studi e Documentazione Isola di Ustica.

[2] E.E. Evans-Pritchard, The Sanusi of Cyrenaica (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949), 189.


Stephanie Malia Hom is Executive Director of the Acus Foundation. She writes and lectures on migration and detention, colonialism and imperialism, and tourism history and practice, with a focus on modern Italy and the Mediterranean.

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