The Geneva Conventions defines a refugee as a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country” (Art.1 A, par.2). Refugees in foreign lands are the result of two clearly conflicting contradictions: the voluntary choice made by those leaving their own countries and the needs that lead them to decide to leave. This contradiction encapsulates the state of suffering naturally linked to abandoning one’s own country, to becoming a guest in another’s land, to become a foreigner so as to survive or be free.
The rootedness of the culture of human rights, and of cosmopolitan law in particular, has contributed to alleviate the conditions of refugees (certainly that of political refugees) at least from fears linked to opposition abroad, and as far as the host state is concerned, not always necessarily benevolent as far as refugees are concerned. In spite of the power of Kant’s arguments on duties when hosting foreigners (as if wishing to emphasise the fact that we are all effectively foreigners on the this planet) and in spite of civil and international law’s humanitarian evolution over the last two centuries, conditions experienced by refugees in the Old Continent have not been and are not without risks. Even in countries such as France, to which for example many Italian anti-fascists travelled during the last century, starting with a young Piero Gobetti and Carlo Rosselli, who found both freedom and then death in France. It was Rosselli who with his frank words reminded us how those in exile experience a constant state of fear and diffidence, because: “Police forces always cooperate with each other, even when their respective governments are in opposition”. As if to say that even when civil and political freedom are guaranteed by a constitutional charter, no one can ever feel totally protected from all risks.
Rosselli’s warning is equally valid today, with the appearance of the new phenomenon of international opposition, not dictated by political reasons but rather by economic and social ones. Faced with this form of emigration, international conventions are non-existent and agreed human rights impotent. Democratic western societies, in particular European ones, have contributed in recent years to the creation of a new form of exclusion called ‘clandestinity’, that in recent weeks the Italian government has made a crime. Although everyone is equal in the eyes of the Law, the fact remains that all those coming from the poorest countries of the world, and who as best they can and nearly always en masse, try and travel to our countries to find economic survival, are illegal immigrants who will be prosecuted. Immigrants, without doubt those who aspire to have a job and a dignified life, take liberalism’s promises seriously, the foundations on which the societies now rejecting them are based: individual commitment as a condition for social achievement.
Transnational migrations and global interdependence challenge the liberalism of western countries, which is becoming increasingly national and less universal. They are also challenging the sovereignty and the borders of states, patrolled not only with officers and laws, but also with xenophobic ideologies and racism. Borders must not only be guarded and patrolled (a duty the sovereign state is obliged to respect), but must now also be closed to those arriving in search of an opportunity. The conflict between universalism and a moral culture of welcoming, values that democracy and liberalism cultivate naturally, and national interest, can have potentially explosive effects if it is true that a continent like Europe, which aspires to become the beacon for cosmopolitan morality and democratic values, patrols its borders to defend its civilisation and build its Europeaness.
Europe’s new enemies, the only ones against whom Europe is inclined and ready to mobilise armies, are neither warmongering states nor expansionist empires. They are instead boat people, desperate people attempting to survive by fleeing hunger and abuse, although unfortunately no international laws and no conventions provide them with the status of refugees, because poverty, and economic destitution are not considered as an abuse of fundamental human rights. This is a brief summary of the backdrop for this decision to criminalise attempts made by the most desperate people of the earth searching for an opportunity to work and have a life far from their own countries – countries that condemned by an unfair international economic order are unable to provide their citizens with any hope. The alienation of the poorest people on the planet, if and when it is not accompanied by a serious project involving global redistribution, hence policies involving a new balance between wealthy and poor countries, cannot be justified by those referring to liberal and democratic principles.
Nadia Urbinati is Professor of Political Theory at Columbia University, New York. Together with Andrew Arato she co-edits the magazine Constellations. Her works include Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy (University of Chicago Press 2006). An author of essays on liberalism, individualism and Stuart Mill, she edited and published in the United States, for Princeton University Press, Carlo Roselli’s Social Liberalism. She is also co-author of Liberal-socialisti. Il futuro di una tradizione (together with M. Canto-Sperber, I libri di Reset, Marsilio, 2003), and of La libertà e i suoi limiti. Antologia del pensiero liberale da Filangieri a Bobbio (with C. Ocone, Laterza, 2005).
Translation by Francesca Simmons