Radicalizing Tensions: Between Fascism and Solidarity in Italy (Part II)

By Lauren Heidbrink


How do citizens enact solidarity when nations fail to? In this second of a 2-part series, anthropologist Lauren Heidbrink examines forms of solidarity that have emerged in Italy in spite of and in active resistance to the state.

In the run-up to this December’s ratification of the United Nations Global Compact for Migration, nations are being called to provide a “holistic and comprehensive response” to migrants and refugees. The Global Compact is in direct response to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon 2016 lamentation that the world was not in a crisis of numbers but a crisis of solidarity.” Citing that 90% of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing countries, Ki-moon identified an imperative for equitable responsibility-sharing across the globe. In the European Union, solidarity has come to signify the re-distribution of migrants and refugees from Italy and Greece to northern Europe. Yet efforts for supranational consensus within the EU continue to stall, leaving a deep chasm between rhetoric, policy, and practice. The rise of populist governments across Europe has only heightened hostilities towards migrants.

In Italy, where I conduct research with young migrants, resistance to the right-wing coalition of the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the League party has mounted, and new forms solidarity have emerged among civil society, social movements, and social enterprises. Here, I ask: how do citizens enact solidarity when nations fail to?

For those Italians new to solidarity efforts, volunteers with immigrant rights groups in Rome and Sicily whom I interviewed cited feeling compelled to engage in everyday acts of solidarity, to increase charitable contributions, and to begin volunteering their time at local reception centers as teachers or as guardians for unaccompanied children. Other more seasoned advocates shared a deep personal and professional commitment to refugees, one intimately intertwined with their Italian identity and history. Ester, a doctor who provides health screenings to newly arrived migrants in the Messina hotspot, shared, “We Romans invented the law thousands of years ago; this man [Interior Minister Matteo Salvini] and his hate may do harm, but the law will not be undone. Our obligation is to mitigate the damage and counter with empathy and solidarity every single day and in every interaction.”

Several immigrant rights advocacy organizations described newly launched public campaigns as critical to countering the xenophobia granted license under Salvini, “one tweet at a time,” as an advocate Rocio contended. “Our job as activists and organizers isn’t just to argue with the demigods, not just to debate with the snake oil salesman, but actually through actions as much as words, our job is to start drowning them out.” Indeed, nearly 20,000 people recently took to the streets of Rome to denounce the potential implementation of the Decree-Law on Immigration and Security, a particularly pernicious law that ends humanitarian protections and erodes legal relief available to refugees in Italy.

Senatus Populus que Romanus (SPQR, The Roman Senate and People)

As forms of legal solidarity—that is, the legal protections afforded to migrants and refugees—are eroded by Italy’s ruling populist coalition, Italians have diversified forms of solidarity, including public protests, transnational marches, solidarity tourism, and vows to intervene in deportation flights if Salvini follows through with his threats to deport 500,000 migrants.

Sitting on a bench in Rome’s Piazzale Maslax, the coordinator of a citizen solidarity program Giana impatiently explained to me, “Given the fascism of the League, everyday acts of kindness are not enough. We must retake the streets, the piazzas, the parks. You see SPQR on the sidewalks and buildings?” Gesturing to the piazza surrounding us, “They…this…belongs to the people of Italy, not to those in power who do not represent us.” Here, Giana referenced the phrase of the ancient roman republic Senatus Populus que Romanus (SPQR, The Roman Senate and People), which emerged from the ancient belief that authority originates from the people, not a single ruler, and which brandishes city streets, public buildings, and government correspondence throughout Italy.

Piazzale Maslax has become a vivid and enduring marker of a cosmopolitan solidarity with migrants in Italy, a solidarity rooted in fundamental notions of rights that exists in spite of historically and geographically constructed classed and racialized identities. Home to the Baobab Experience, volunteers provide tents, serve meals, provide haircuts, and create spaces for attorneys, Italian classes, and medical visits, enlisting social media to organize meals, volunteer hours and donation drives. Citing cultural values of hospitality and empathy, Italians have expressed solidarity in attending to the material realities of refugees and migrants in the absence of state support. Such efforts exist within a context of austerity measures following the global financial crisis in 2008 that has led to the decline in resources available to Italians and migrants alike. Similar models have emerged in Belgium, France, and northern Italy in response to the 2015-2016 influx of refugees to Europe and the closing of borders in the Balkans, Switzerland and France.

Serving food in Piazzale Maslax. Credits: Baobab Experience

Serving food in Piazzale Maslax. Credits: Baobab Experience

The Piazzale Maslax and nearby abandoned buildings overtaken by migrants serve as critical for solidarity among migrants themselves. Here, migrants share information about how to navigate Italy’s cumbersome bureaucratic processes, secure essential translation and interpretation of documents, provide comfort amid a bleak future, and, on occasion, laugh, sing, tell stories, or share a meal. Mariam, an 18-year-old Eritrean who lives in a disused building near the Piazzale Maslax, described, “I’ve lived here for maybe 9 or 10 months; its where I can find a piece of home with my countrymen. Rome is a very lonely place. I am happy to be here, or I suppose, the promise of here.”

Initiatives like the Baobab Experience exist as a form of radical solidarity that has emerged in spite of and in active resistance to the state. A Baobab volunteer Eleonora asserted “If we are only talking to the shooter, we are doomed to fail. Here, we are organizing citizens to undermine the predatory forces of capitalism and the extreme fascism in Italy by creating a functioning society rooted in solidarity with migrants. We are building coalitions where the Italian state won’t.” Grounded within notions of reciprocity and deservingness, Italian citizens seek to demonstrate a viable alternative to the status quo in which hope might trump hate. Or, as 17-year-old Abeiku, an unaccompanied minor from Ghana, aptly described, “Desperate situations can make you desperate, or they can help you to hope.”  

Hope at the port of Catania. Credits: Lauren Heidbrink

Hope at the port of Catania. Credits: Lauren Heidbrink

Along with Salvini’s campaign to criminalize anyone daring to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean Sea and eroding social support and legal protections for refugees, he has turned his gaze to citizen solidarity efforts. In mid-November, Italian authorities violently and very spectacularly cleared Piazzale Maslax, leaving homeless 150 people including several unaccompanied minors.

Other Italians have merged material support with relational solidarity by inviting migrants and refugees into their homes and providing lodging when government facilities were unwilling or unable to provide shelter. In response to my request to meet with Refugee Home (a pseudonym) regarding their efforts to provide housing to failed asylum-seekers in Rome, the coordinator responded via email: “I am going to propose a contra deal or tit-for-tat: You provide one placement in a city (preferably Rome but any city will do), get them through the first few weeks of the homestay so we know you are serious; then, I or one of the team will answer any or all of your questions.” 

While sympathetic, Giuseppe, a caseworker at a drop-in center for unaccompanied children in Rome, critiqued this approach,  “I spend my taxes on the national healthcare system, but I don’t conduct open heart surgery on my kitchen table. It is a fairly straightforward relationship.” For Giuseppe, such private forms of solidarity undermine the state’s legal, financial and moral responsibility to refugees. “Solidarity must be a national value,” he explained.

For Giulia, a collaborating artist at a day center for unaccompanied youths in Palermo, Sicily, the politics of representation are a lynchpin of solidarity. “We must make more space for all refugees to speak their truths, not just those who are perfect victims.” By hearing more complex and diverse voices, she argues, the public can begin to recognize the agency of migrants while empowering migrants themselves to narrate their own stories.

Geographer David Featherstone argues that solidarity can serve as a transformative relation between places, activists, and diverse social groups. If indeed transformative, cosmopolitan solidarity must extend beyond material and affective solidarity to simultaneously equalize the fundamental inequity in power relations between undocumented migrants and asylum seekers and Italian citizens standing in solidarity with them. In other words, how might we enact a shared commitment to justice that transcends an increasingly fascist state?


Lauren Heidbrink is an anthropologist and assistant professor at California State University, Long Beach. She is author of Migrant Youth, Transnational Families, and the State: Care and contested interests (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014). As the recipient of the Fulbright Schuman 70th Anniversary Scholar Award, she is conducting a comparative study on the migration of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Italy, Greece, Belgium and the United Kingdom.

Note: In an effort to ensure confidentiality, names of individuals and organizations are pseudonyms. All views expressed in this publication are of the author.