Quo Vadis? Alessandro Monsutti
Quo Vadis is a series of interviews exploring the people behind the scenes of the Global Migration Centre. In May 2021 we met with Alessandro Monsutti. We discussed his perspective on migration and he told us about his current interests and future projects.
Alessandro Monsutti is Professor in Anthropology and Member of the Global Migration Centre Steering Committee. He is concluding his research project, supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (FNS) and managed by the Global Migration Centre, on the border between Italy and former Yugoslavia National Borders and Social Boundaries in Europe: The Case of Friuli, with Stefano Morandini
What is your current activity/research?
I have just returned from Sabbatical. Unfortunately, I was not able to conduct the projects as I had wanted due to anti-COVID measures. However, what I am really enjoying now is making films, the latest of which is soon to appear on RAI3. It is part of my project financed by FNS. I collaborate with Stefano Morandini who films while I conduct the interviews. The film is set in a military zone. It is about a village caught in a NATO training zone during the Cold War where a large landslide was used as a pretext to expel the inhabitants. Fifty years on, with no infrastructure whatsoever, a few former inhabitants are returning to revive the village. Some areas are no-go zones where NATO officials went to watch heavy artillery being fired. There is an underlying atmosphere reminiscent of Andrej Tarkovski’s film 'Stalker'.
In your opinion, what can be done in order to normalize migration? Is it possible to change the perception of migration and how?
First, we need to conduct independent research documenting what migrants actually do, beyond existing mainstream administrative categories. I strongly believe that doing research beyond the usual categories is an act of militancy. We have a duty to think outside the box; it is an initial step towards acting differently. We must make the results of our research known to a broader audience and among politicians, stakeholders, and decision makers. I obviously do not believe that it is possible to transform the whole framework within which we think and act about migration, administratively or at the UN level. Still, we have to push the boundaries and show that somehow this existing framework is inadequate if we want to understand what is really going on. It is urgent to think differently as a first step towards acting differently, we have to repeat again and again that migration is a normal feature of social life.
If there is an anomaly in recent history, it is probably the nation-state.
The triangulation between the state, people/nation and territory was invented very recently in our human history. We tend to pinpoint the Westphalian sovereignty (1648) at the end of the 30 Years War in Germany as a historical marker, but the nation-state has imposed itself over the whole world only since WWII. If we take into account trusteeships and colonies, it is evident that we had a very heterogeneous way of occupying territories and political systems were disparate. It has only been over the last 70 years that nation-states have become the political organising entity in international relations.
The idea that Globalisation heralds the end of the nation-state needs to be questioned. We need to reform our perspective and admit that, on the contrary, today, for the first time in history, we are witnessing a triumphal period for the nation-state. Anti-COVID 19 measures have often led to spectacular actions of national re-territorialisation. Simply consider how easily nation-states, in the name of Public Health, have been able to block borders and develop a two-fold surveillance system on international borders and within their own territories. These measures control population and bind territory even more.
We need to reverse the idea that the nation-state is declining or disappearing. The development, articulation and communication of a counter discourse is required based on empirically grounded work.
What keeps you passionate and motivated in the field of Migration?
We were talking earlier about my work in Friuli, Italy, on the border of former Yugoslavia. This is actually the place where my father’s family is from. They are from a mixed background located on the border.
My interest came after having worked with refugees and others crossing international borders, often illegally. Refugees suffer from an absence of the State, they fall outside the protection of their states. The role of the international community is to intervene and provide protection for them. I wanted to study and work with the people living in the borderlands in Friuli, especially on the Italian side. During the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and up to 1991, during the Cold War and the iron curtain, one third of the Italian army was based on the short border with Yugoslavia. As a child, in my father’s town, which now has a population of 9000 inhabitants, there were 2000 soldiers, most of them from other parts of Italy. They were allowed to go out in the evening, wearing civilian clothing. This heavy presence significantly shaped the local economy. In 1991 suddenly, almost overnight, the soldiers disappeared; the armed forces withdrew. There was no economic plan or compensation. Huge areas were abandoned, with hundreds of barracks and bunkers falling into disuse.
After having worked with refugees who find themselves in the interstices between states, I wanted to work with “borderlanders” suffering historically from an excess of the State. There was strong surveillance, especially since most of the borderlanders in Italy were Slovenian speakers. They were regarded with suspicion as potential allies of Tito and Yugoslavia by Italy, but also by the CIA whose presence was felt with the proximity of the large Air Base of Aviano. Friuli is apparently the only place where they had actually started thinking of having nuclear land mines. NATO may have been ready to sacrifice a friendly population of 2 million in the event of an invasion by the Warsaw Pact.. Documenting and understanding the human costs inflicted by the state on local border populations was my motivation.
What keeps me motivated and passionate about this work is thus a kind of anarchist set of values. The absence of state creates many problems for refugees, but what is provided in lieu of the state, the humanitarian system, raises possibly more problems than it solves. This is especially true in Afghanistan where I have been working. Populations there were not expecting much from the humanitarian organisations supposed to assist them in the absence of the state, on the contrary, they were reproducing the distrust they had towards their own state.
I consider my work among refugees as a kind of reverse critique of the state and, on a general level, my work on borders is also a critique of it. The state tends to be presented as the only way to organise human and social complexity. I don’t know whether we can invent another system, probably not, but we can play with ideas and imagine other ways of living together that are not directly structured by the state, its administration and bureaucracy. This is what maintains my passion, it is a philosophical endeavour.
What are your future projects in that perspective?
I’m a little bit weary of journalists. I have been contacted frequently by them concerning Afghanistan and I’m reluctant to respond to the questions they ask, I prefer it when they give me the space to articulate my own thoughts. I love radio, I think it’s the best media, it’s a place where you can develop a discourse. I’m increasingly frustrated by journalists who ask me questions for an article and need just a quotation from an expert. I would like to communicate more with the public, but the options available are not always suitable for conveying a counter discourse.
As an alternative, I am exploring collaboration with artists.
I could not fulfill my research programme during my sabbatical leave. I was not able to go to Afghanistan or spend as much time on the Italian border as I had wanted, and crossing into Slovenia was not possible during some periods of time in 2020. I started writing poetry, for instance a letter to Mother Earth in the context of the COVID pandemic. I ask for forgiveness as a member of humankind for the damage that has been done, but I conclude by expressing my dismay that nothing will change.
I have also worked on an exhibition Destiny_Destination, which is a collaboration with an artist friend, Carlo Vidoni. He had been invited to display his work in quite a prestigious venue regionally and it was an opportunity to work together. He wanted to integrate migration into his work through my perspective as an anthropologist. In Italy, there is quite a significant rise of xenophobia. Friuli has been historically a place of emigration; witness now to the presence of many asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea, Syria and Congo. It is the entry point into Italy from the Balkan land route. Along with Sicily, it is one of the two most important entry regions in Italy. We wanted to cross-compare these peoples’ destinies. Friulians leaving to work abroad do not form one homogenous category and, likewise, non-Italians come to Friuli for very different reasons. There is great diversity between and within the two groups, and many transversal similarities too. We decided to produce seven biographies. I carried out the interviews whilst Carlo did the recording, the narrative being articulated around images of the palms of the hand. We grouped excerpts from the interviews following four themes: leaving and returning; traveling and arriving; living and working; dreaming and aspiring. We also fixed photographs onto boxes, like suitcases with drawers. Inside the drawers were the texts summarising the migrants’ trajectory, as if they were carrying the story of their migration in their own suitcases. We show migration in simple terms: « partir, c’est mourrir un peu » (Leaving is dying a little) but it’s also to live again.
All these narratives are extremely complex; leaving home can be painful but it also opens new doors. We wanted to convey the beauty of migration, not only the sad aspects. Sometimes it’s a gateway for young people to escape repressive families or conservative social environments. We were also keen on showing a balance, women and men, high profile professionals, so as to stress the diversity of migration. It’s not only about losing something but a lot about gaining too. Gilberto, one of our protagonists, for instance, who has sadly passed away recently, was deeply emotional about having the opportunity to talk about his life. For him, migrating outside Italy was like having an adventure. In 1976, he had to return because a major earthquake in Friuli meant that he had to take care of his ruined house and his elderly parents. It was like a little death for him to have to come back.
I love working with artists in Friuli. Because it is a marginal region, artists are somehow protected from mainstream discourses and what I like to call “the humanitarian aristocracy.” In Geneva there are so many humanitarian initiatives, some of them are fantastic, some can appear patronising.
Carlo Vidoni and I are working on a book and hope to bring the exhibition to the Graduate Institute. It is not only art, it is integrating art with research conducted among refugees and migrants with the active participation of the subjects themselves. The exhibition is not only about people who will consume it, the visitor, it’s the process itself that triggers a positive dynamic.
So that is what I have in mind, to have some fun, but in a meaningful way. And the Graduate Institute is a place where we can be a little subversive, subversive intellectually. So that’s the kind of action I want to do. That’s how I would see my future. I am thinking of publishing a small book with my poetry and I would like to illustrate it with photographs and artwork by my daughter and son to make it a family affair.