International Relations/Political Science
18 August 2020

Assisting migrants in Ventimiglia: When solidarity mediates inequality

In the small town of Ventimiglia, at the Franco-Italian border, activist solidarity with migrants has been taking place since 2015. In her Master’s dissertation, Anna Finiguerra explores whether such solidary spaces could be conducive to participatory politics, ultimately mediating the deep structures of power and inequality which underlie struggles for mobility. Her findings, which she details in this interview, won her the International Relations/Political Science Department and are now published in open access as part of the Graduate Institute ePapers, thanks to the support of the Vahabzadeh Foundation. 

Your paper is a case study of solidarity with migrants in Ventimiglia. Why did you choose this research topic?

When I started thinking about the topic of my Master’s dissertation, in the summer of 2018, I knew I wanted to focus on forms of activism that for me represented particularly innovative ways of thinking and practicing politics but I did not set out to study the contentious politics of migration. Rather, I started researching protest camps more in general and global justice activism as a particular strand of social mobilisation. I came across protests regarding freedom of movement in Ventimiglia only by accident while scrolling through my Facebook feed. The act of crossing the border in protest immediately caught my attention for its symbolic power and later, as I got to read more about the topic, I also became interested in how forms of activism regarding migration seem to straddle a particular line between political activism and humanitarian action. This tension later became the central puzzle of my dissertation in the form of the concept of solidarity.

How did your research questions formulate this puzzle?

While reading about forms of political mobilisation regarding migration I realised two things. On the one hand, while many studies mention solidarity as a crucial concept for understanding these forms of activism, very few dig a bit deeper into how this concept is understood and then translated into practice. On the other hand, forms of activism that focus on direct action (such as the provision of medical and legal aid, food and basic goods to people in transit) have a complex relationship to both grassroots political action and forms of professional humanitarian aid. Therefore, I decided to focus on the latter form of activism and explore how in the context of care-giving and the provision of what often amounts to humanitarian aid the concept of solidarity functions as both a frame for understanding political action and a practice that allows for particular ties to emerge among activists and migrants. 

What was your methodology?

I carried out a period of fieldwork in Ventimiglia, Italy. This small town at the Franco-Italian border has been a crucial landmark in the contentious politics of migration in Europe ever since the closing of the border on the French side on 12 June 2015. In March 2019, I went there on a short research trip and volunteered for one of the organisations that still today provide aid to migrants crossing the border. This allowed me to observe the workings of aid provision networks in Ventimiglia, which in my dissertation I call solidary spaces, and to gather the contacts of other activists that had been engaged in political organising in Ventimiglia ever since the summer of 2015. I employed a mixed qualitative methodology comprised of participant observation and semi-structured interviews, carried out both in person and through Skype or telephone.

What are your major findings?

My main argument is that solidarity in the case of such forms of activism functions as both a frame and a practice, structuring the processes of identity formation of participants in the struggle. Solidarity is understood as a motivation that brings participants to the field. Given the fact that activists see modern policies of management of migration as fundamentally flawed in their de-humanising effects on mobile people, solidarity functions as a concept that mediates the identification of mobile people as inescapably human and the provision of aid as a solution to that problem. The identification of mobile people as part of a fellow human community tied together by affect and vulnerability renders them party to a moral relation that actuates itself in the form of care-giving practices. As such, vulnerability is not something that disqualifies mobile people as human or political subjects (as many studies on the logics of control behind humanitarian aid have argued) but the crucial basis of a relationship based on solidarity. 

Clearly, solidarity as a frame is not enough to address the deep inequalities which structure such an exchange. European nationals in their role as activists remain in a privileged position with respect to the people they strive to help on account of the ways in which their bodies are perceived and acted upon in public space. Indeed, it is only through the practice of solidarity on the basis of mutuality and reciprocity that participants to solidarity initiatives can begin to mediate the deep structures of power and inequality which underlie struggles for mobility. Reciprocity translates into mutual vulnerability to violence, horizontal decision-making practices and equal access to and responsibility for the infrastructure making up solidary spaces, carving out new forms of belonging.

Are you still in the academic world today?

Yes indeed. At the moment I am undertaking a PhD in Political Science at Queen Mary University of London in the School of Politics and International Relations. My project is part of an interdisciplinary research programme titled “Mobile People: Mobility as a Way of Life” funded by the Leverhulme Trust. I am continuing the work of my Master’s dissertation by exploring some of the unanswered questions that I could not touch upon, such as the ways in which the initiatives that I describe in my previous work can simultaneously represent very different understandings of what it means to be political or to act politically and how these tensions can coexist and structure the wider politics of mobility. 

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Full citation of the e-paper:
Finiguerra, Anna. Vulnerable Solidarities: Identity, Spatiality and the Contentious Politics of Migration. Graduate Institute ePaper 29. Geneva: Graduate Institute Publications, 2020.

This e-paper was published thanks to the financial support of the Vahabzadeh Foundation. It reproduces Anna Finiguerra’s Master dissertation in International Relations/Political Science (supervisor: Professor Elisabeth Prügl), which won the 2019 International Relations/Political Science Department Prize.

Interview edited by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image: excerpt from a picture by Brothers Art/