Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

The new barbarians

MIGRATION / When visiting a migrant island like Lampedusa, what experiences can be linked to the theory of the 'Other'? Perhaps some philosophers can show the way. Unless the migrants are the best guides.

The propeller plane abruptly lands on Lampedusa. This Italian island between Tunisia and Sicily receives large numbers of refugees, or ‘migrants’ as they are before being granted refugee status.

As you know, many drown on the crossing. It doesn’t seem far, as we could almost see the coast of Tunisia on a good day from here. But the boats are often in poor condition if the migrant can’t afford what they call the ‘VIP journey’ for 6,000 euros. And if a migrant wants to halve the usual price of 5,000 euros, he steers the boat – but runs the risk of being punished as a smuggler on arrival in Lampedusa.

We meet Paola Pizzicori here, who tells us about a number of events. She has been a volunteer community activist for a few decades after arriving in Lampedusa at 23. When 10,000 people arrived in a short time in 2011, the locals stepped in and made thousands of meals to distribute to the new arrivals as they sat in the streets. Lampedusa itself has only 5,000 inhabitants… The capacity of the reception centre here is 400, but several times larger numbers have arrived, so the locals had to help. Conditions can become unbearable when the capacity is constantly bursting.

In the cemetery in Lampedusa, all buried Italians have a photo of themselves on their named burial chambers. On Lampedusa, people are not cremated. But the migrants are laid in the ground from time to time with a few crosses, without names. Yes, in a couple of places, a migrant has been given the same type of tomb, with a graphic drawing, as ‘Welela.’ A local lady had financed her final resting place.

I tried to visit the detention camp here, but there was barbed wire, and the police were telling me to stay away. At least we watched from a distance as a boat full of refugees entered the local harbour guided by the coast guard. This time, most of them survived. I walked around the island, looking for destroyed refugee boats to take photos. But I only found some clothes, like a pair of children’s pants and a couple of vests. The boats had been legally taken over and destroyed by the authorities. Here, where tourists also like to lie on the sandy beaches, the migrants are clearly not to be confronted.

At the morgue here, Pizzicori describes the stench, as the migrants can lie there for weeks, stacked on top of each other. She also emphasizes how they have worked to track down the names of dead migrants rather than letting them end up as just numbers. The locals – despite some aggressive xenophobia – and international aid workers treat the arrivals, living and dead, with dignity.

Fellow's Grave
Fellow’s Grave

What can Europe do?

The female civilian workers – from the NGOs Forum Lampedusa Solidale, Maldusa & Mediterranean Hope – talked about their work right next to the coastal sculpture Port d’Europa on Lampedusa. I ask what the EU’s Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni achieved after their visit here when 8,000 migrants arrived in three days last September. Contemptuously, they reply that a veritable show was launched on behalf of big politics. The reception centre suddenly showed a normal number of migrants and was cleaned for show. But the Red Cross, for its part, pointed out that the reception centre recently had 2,500 people crowded together where there should only be room for 400.

Meloni had asked von der Leyen for help. The number of migrants had doubled from 2022 to 2023. After the visit, the two politicians’ big point was that stricter measures were needed to stop the crossing to Lampedusa. An agreement with Tunisia should be established to limit the flow.

Pizzicori also emphasizes how they have worked to track down the names of dead migrants, rather than letting them end up as just a number.

Recently, Von der Leyen presented a tribute speech to Israel, which she referred to as having built the prosperous country in the ‘desert’ it occupied. She had no feelings for the ‘Others’, the Palestinians who were massacred and expelled from the area Israel has now colonized for over 75 years. In other words, there is no empathy for the refugees in Gaza’s hell.

But it’s a discussion about what Europe should do, as open borders could possibly change the continent entirely. And in my discussions on Lampedusa, there was an issue of whether you are an ‘economic’ or ‘political’ refugee. The latter means, for example, fleeing war, famine or persecution. The former means fleeing poverty or searching for a different and often more fulfilling life. But the control questions the desperate migrants often face from the police at the reception centre here is whether they want a job in Europe. Something most will, of course, confirm – with the consequence of being labelled as an ‘economic migrant’ – without the same protection as the political one.

Arriving Migrants
Arriving Migrants

A peace before all enmity

Along the way, I was asked to give a talk on ‘the Other’ (the migrant) to a number of Sicilian and Maltese students who were visiting Lampedusa with us. I focused on Emanuel Levinas’ writings on ‘the Other’ – with notes from the late Professor Asbjørn Aarnes’ earlier lectures on him at the University of Oslo. I tried to open up some thoughts to encounters with strangers:

One term is ‘asymmetry’. For Levinas, the Other is more significant than you, just as her or his face puts you to ‘an-answer’ – you must ‘answer an’. In a way, the face ‘calls’ to you, with a pre-theoretical and pre-reflective relationship, a vulnerability that says: «Don’t kill me.» (Just think of how the little murdered bodies in Gaza make this clear.) Herein lies a humility for the irreducible exteriority of all of us, this environment that from the beginning of your childhood has defined you: The way someone else’s face, perhaps your mother’s, gave you language and gestures, and the way you adopted practices from your environment to find meaning, establish behaviour, find values. As a subject, you are thus not created by yourself. Levinas’ (pre-philosophical?) ethics refers to the very relationship of trust that must first arise – here, he is in line with Dane Knud Løgstrup (The Ethical Demand). Distrust and criticism must come later. But the starting point is this community, which is close to love. Those who are stubborn in their individualism are consequently in the domain of the ‘same’, not open to the ‘Other’.

On the back of Levinas’ book Autrement qu’être ou au-delà de l’essence (‘Other than being or beyond essence,’ 1974), it reads: «To the memory of those who were closest among the six million assassinated by the National Socialists.» He traced the roots of a growing nationalism in which we distinguish between ourselves and ‘the Other’. Generalizations like ‘Jews are greedy’ and ‘Muslims are terrorists’ – such simple reductive, almost allergic categorizations of the ‘Other’ – easily lead to aggression, borders, and walls.

The ‘Other’ is also always more than simple categories and urges us to see the ‘infinite’ in each other. Obviously, the aid workers in Lampedusa can see themselves as both host and hostage to the migrant’s needs. Our relationship with the ‘Other’ defines us. Hospitality, welcoming others, is the basis of the human community as such—with Levinas a peace before and above enmity.

In today’s fear-generated culture (see also my Modern Times interview with Grimonprez), ‘enemies’ are used to increase military budgets and weapons use. Levinas’ philosophy of responsibility, love, and communion with the stranger is becoming increasingly necessary.

But the question may ultimately be: How can big politics be changed to peacefully include all of us who find ourselves on the same globe? Migration just won’t go away in a time of environmental change and social media showing what it looks like on the other side of the border—no matter how hard Europe tries.

«Refugees expelled from one country to the next represent the avant-garde of their people.»

Agamben and hospitality

Since I’m in Italy, it was natural to bring up the philosopher Giorgio Agamben in my lecture, who has constantly dealt with vulnerable, powerless and stateless people – Homo Sacer. In 1994, he also wrote about Hannah Arendt’s old essay We Refugees (1943), in which she points out ‘the right to have rights’, as citizenship ensures this. After all, she migrated from Hitler’s Germany and the persecution of the Jews as a ‘homeless person’ to New York.

But let us, with Agamben, see the positive side of the migrant: He writes that the refugee who has lost all rights «stops wanting to be assimilated at any cost to a new national identity» but achieves a great advantage as a foreigner: «For him, history is no longer a closed book, and politics ceases to be the privilege of the Gentiles. Refugees expelled from one country to the next represent the avant-garde of their people.»

With more fluid physical and mental borders and the dissolution of traditional values, the migrant can be exemplary as the human of the future. Arendt herself dedicated a chapter in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism (2024/1951) to the refugee problem.

Ask yourself: Isn’t the centuries-old practice of sovereign states (which can do whatever they want, cf. Israel/Gaza) somewhat questionable today – in a possibly more shared world that is both seen and heard more globally? For what kind of Europe, or what kind of European human values, can we preserve if we do not all take each other seriously? Nor am I the first to wish for a real ‘USE’, a United States of Europe, as a federation (somewhat different from the EU) that would have certain European laws for everyone: not just human rights, but preferably supranational sustainable laws for better migration, climate and environment.

In Lampedusa’s harbour is the café Port M, where the ‘M’ refers to both Mediterranean and migrants – it is decorated with leftovers from the migrants. There’s also a small ‘European’ library – including Antonio Gramsci’s Scritti politici and Per la verità. And the Lampedusian owner was musical, as he sang and played solo on as many as four different instruments on our last evening – with a hospitality that shone.

The trip to Lampedusa ended with a 17-hour crossing of rolling seas by sailboat to Malta, with vomiting and nausea. But that experience was far from what the migrants are exposed to. And in Malta? No, they don’t accept migrants there. A Norwegian passport, on the other hand …

Ukjente's Grave
Ukjente’s Grave

Rethinking Lampedusa

The event I travelled with, ‘Rethinking Lampedusa’, wanted to look at the migrants positively. Together with the philosopher Leonardo Caffo, we talked like Agamben about the migrant or refugee as a person for our time and for the future, where state borders should be transcended, where people move around, communicate across borders and live in an increasingly ‘fluid’ modernity (cf. Zygmunt Bauman). We took a model from the book Empire (2000) by Toni Negri and Michael Hardt, where one chapter deals with the migrant as ‘the new barbarian’. These philosophers are like Kant, cosmopolitans who look beyond state borders.

The new barbarians are those who have escaped local constraints on their situation as an individual but who also have to construct their lives anew. This can be a violent, barbaric journey, but as Walter Benjamin has also said: «Barbarism? Exactly. We affirm this to introduce a new, positive concept of barbarism.» [The barbarian sees nothing as permanent but sees new paths everywhere, as Negri and Hardt write. He or she wants a ‘body’ that does not conform to dominant structures. As Baruch Spinoza once wrote, it must be ‘a powerful body’ created by a high consciousness – mixed with love.

Optimistic, isn’t it? Let’s hope not.

A short film from the trip will be available later.
See also Norwegian-Maltese Kristina Quintano’s book
Messenger from Hell, chapter 5 about Lampedusa.
We will bring news from her in the fall issue.

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Truls Lie
Truls Liehttp:/
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review.

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