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European colonial memory on sell: Italian-Libyan agreements and the rejection of migrants

by Enrica Capussotti
25 Aug 2009 • Comments (2) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Commons

On the 10th of June Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, leader of Libya, arrived in Rome for the first time since he ousted the monarchy in 1969. He addressed Italians saying: “you had apologised for what happened and that is what allowed me to be able to come here today”. To make explicit what he was talking about and to reinforce Italians’ memory, the Colonel had a photograph pinned on his chest; it showed Omar Mukhtar, the Libyan resistance leader – the ‘Leon of the Desert’ – when he was arrested by the Italian colonial masters in 1931; he was than hanged, aged 80. The last descendant of the Leon of the Desert accompanied Gaddafi to visit the former colonialists who were now addressed as “my Italian friends”. Italy ruled Libya from 1911 to 1943; the colonisation started with the liberal government of Giovanni Giolitti and was buttressed under Mussolini in the late 1920s and 1930s, when Italians regained, reinforced and extended their control. During this period ten of thousands of Libyans died, many of them in the concentration camps built by Italians or by chemical bombs. Today, new “camps” are scattered in Libya: they are the detention centres imprisoning African migrants expelled from Italy and Europe and built, in Kufrah, Sebha, Garyan – with Italian money.

What did make Gaddafi’s visit possible? Relations have improved since Berlusconi’s government agreed last August to pay about £3bn reparations for colonial rule; and Berlusconi also apologised for Italian colonial dominance. According to Berlusconi, the friendship and cooperation treaty grants Italy greater rights to Libyan gas and oil; 52 Italian companies have operations in Libya. Italy is Libya’s biggest customer and also its leading supplier of goods. On the other side, thanks to its oil revenues, Libya has stakes in several large Italian companies such as oil giant Eni and banking group UniCredit.

One of the paradoxes of the new Italian-Libyan relations is that they were signed by an Italian government which is supposed to defend a positive memory of colonialism. Indeed many current Italian ministers belonged to the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), the neo-fascist party which was founded after WWII and then turned in a “post-fascist” party in the early 1990s, before entering to the first Berlusconi’s government in 1994. During Gaddafi’s presence in Rome, there were governmental voices that tried to “remember” the “schools, roads, hospitals and towns brought to Libya by Italians”, but they were marginal and ignored. The dominant rhetoric had to celebrate a “new friendship” between the two countries. The institutional oppositions to Berlusconi’s government were unable to provide a more interesting discussion; many asked to move Gaddafi’s speech to a more peripheral area of the Parliament because he is a “dictator”.

The main Italian media mentioned Omar Mukhtar in passing, preferring to focus on the “folklore” of the Colonel who arrived with his all-female body guard, slept in a tent and wanted to meet with thousands Italian women to discuss women’s emancipation. Even the reparations, which are a historical moment, have been unable to provoke a public debate on colonial responsibilities in Italy. Italian colonialism is absent in the public sphere; although the rising number of studies, and the niche opened by the literary work of postcolonial subjects writing in Italian, the trope of Italians as ‘good people’, and of Italian colonialism as ‘ragged’ and harmless, is still hegemonic in the official national consciousness and self-representation.

A point has to be clear: it is positive that Berlusconi’s government has apologised and has provided symbolic and economic compensations for colonisation; in fact Berlusconi’s first visit to Libya was criticised by Gordon Brown, who is afraid Italy is providing a dangerous precedent. But why are apologies and compensation happening now? The question was posed by anti-racist activists, NGOs and migrant organisations, yet obfuscated in public discourse. The answer stresses Italian and European interests of the present; first of all to enrol Libya alongside the forces controlling European borders against immigration.

The second paradox is more tragic than the first (and of course interconnected with it); the colonial past is used to contain contemporary postcolonial subjects: women and men on the move for a better life. In the first week of May 2009 Italian minister of interior, Roberto Maroni, ordered a new policy against immigration, that of respingimenti; boats full of migrants are intercepted in the middle of the Mediterranean and immediately repelled to Libya. While migrants are not allowed anymore to touch the European soil, the success of respingimenti depends upon the Libyan willingness to jail the excluded women and men.

These new anti-immigration practices have been criticised in name of the Geneva Convention on refugees. The new policy does not differentiate between migrants and refugees who, independently of their right to move and apply for asylum, are sent back to Libya which has never ratified the Geneva Convention. It’s imperative that the continuous erosion of refugees’ rights perpetrated by Italian and European policies is opposed; but it’s also urgent to denounce the dehumanisation of migrants that allow these policies, and to resist the implicit differentiation between the ‘good’ (refugees) and the ‘bad’ (migrants). This differentiation conceals the social, economic and environmental transformation that are pushing women and men to migrate: lack of water, economic crisis, violence are threatening people lives, in addition to the political oppression experienced by asylum seekers.

Dagmawi Yimer (an Ethiopian refugee in Italy), Andrea Segre, (a filmmaker), and Stefano Liberti (a journalist) in the documentary “Come un uomo sulla terra” [As a man in the earth], have collected the voices of African women and men who, trying to arrive to Europe, have been imprisoned in Libya. The documentary narrates the violence of the police against the Africans, the insults – “Jews” and “Nigger” – and the months spent in prison, totally isolated, without food and clothes; women and men also recall the many times they have been imprisoned, sold to traffickers and than imprisoned again before getting to Italy and being recognised as refugees.[1] Above and beyond Libyan violence, for white European citizens it is particularly challenging to hear of the visit of European Union representatives who arrive at the camps in their air-conditioned modern cars with fluttering flags, to check Libyan respect of ‘human rights’. These EU inspectors arrive and leave without having any impact on the daily routine of the camps; they represent the hypocrisy of the EU, which fund these ‘camps’ and then construct human rights exclusively as a Libyan problem.

Berlusconi’s government, which uses racism as an institutional practice has decided that the positive narrative of Italian colonialism could be abandoned in the light of a more urgent matter: Libyan contribution to the repression of migrations. EU states appear content to delegate to Italy and Libya the dirty job; the movement further south of the walls of Fortress Europe is considered to be a successful strategy to prevent the movement of Africans. And Gaddafi collaborates both practically and ideologically; he responded to his critics saying that

“the Africans do not have problems of political asylum. People who live in bush, and often in the desert, frankly don’t have political problems. (…) [Africans] don’t even have an identity. And I don’t mean a political identity; they don’t even have a personal identity. They come out of the bush and say: in the north there are money, there is wealth and so they go to Libya and from there to Europe.”[2]

The documentary Come un uomo sulla terra, testifies to the conflicts, deeply rooted in history, between populations, places and groups in Africa; the European obsession with control and repression of migration has entered in this field, using both history and capital. It is Europe, the political space we have to address, to fight and challenge the dehumanisation and violence against migrants outside and inside Fortress Europe.


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Enrica Capussotti is a cultural historian working on migration, racism and sexism. Currently works at the School of Historical Studies, Newcastle University, UK.
All posts by: Enrica Capussotti | Email

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