Darkness Before Daybreak: African Migrants Living on the Margins in Southern Italy Today

May 10, 2012

How hard life is for immigrants, exploited and robbed of their weekly wages by Neapolitans. What happens in a degraded economic area of Southern Italy when newcomers arrive illegally? The ethnographic dimension of such discussion goes back to the classic works of the Chicago School sociologists, from Robert Park to Ernest Burgess, which suggest that the "alien" will always provoke fear and threaten to undermine the self-identity of the natives.

Hans Lucht's work focuses on the risky and painful daily lives of Ghanaian fishermen who have migrated to the Naples area from African villages, hence leaving a place where globalisation has made its inhabitants aware of their increasing exploitation by the richest nations of the world for an area where unemployment and poverty nourish crime and exploitation. This is an eyewitness report, a dramatisation of the life of the most marginalised people in already marginalised areas of Naples - which is not dissimilar to what happens in other European cities where immigrants are present in large numbers. In any socially and economically degraded area anywhere in the world, who would be foolish enough to walk the streets at night with a Rolex on his wrist? Naples is no exception.

The reader who seeks scientific rigour and originality may be disappointed by a work that is frequently developed via journalistic conventions, in which the author struggles to present his ideas objectively. The result reads at times like a set of statements informed largely by cultural ethnocentrism and stereotyped prejudices about groups of people and places seething with blood - violent, lawless and dangerous - where even animals have a peculiarly violent temperament. This description is generalised rather than specific, and is used by the author to reinforce an ideology focused on the exploitation of the immigrant.

Lucht draws on the classical anthropological notion of "reciprocity", which concerns the plurality of human relations as an empowering strategy for approaching the outside world (local as well as global), intertwined with feelings of trust and a commitment to sharing what is held in common. But what Lucht underestimates is the existential logic at play between immigrants and natives. Key to this is the matter of the reciprocity between rights and duties, an issue extensively discussed in political theory and sociology, which hinges on the involvement that individuals intend to have in the territory in which they live. If natives share their resources, labour market and territory, especially in bad times and periods of economic crisis, their view of incomers tends to be: what do they do for us? Sociologically speaking, the immigrant may be the symbolic alien, but when he is an immigrant who can apparently leave when he wishes, he is more like the folk figure of the unwanted guest. Such immigrants are seen, in short, as opportunists - and this is an inconvenient truth that, if acknowledged, might prove useful in improving integration.

A key element in the book is Lucht's focus on the effects of social globalisation. In his explanation of the influences of globalisation on migration trends, the author's thesis is interesting, emphasising as it does how the political economy of the globalised world and its inherent polarisation hinges on the parallel mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion. This thesis arguably plays a useful role in understanding illegal immigration to Europe and the risks that immigrants take.

In a section of the book devoted to "the suffering world", Lucht aims to answer the obvious question, after all the stories of suffering and degradation: why is suffering in Naples preferable to life in a village in Ghana? The short answer is: it is always better to leave than to rot away at home. If one is already dead, socially and existentially, there is not much to lose. What is also clear is that the immigrants to Italy that Lucht investigates are only in transit.

The analysis in Lucht's book that may be most useful is the one that highlights why these immigrants are willing to endure risks and suffering, even though they are so intensely aware of the gap between their expectations for the improvement of their lives and the reality they experience. In the end, although migration as a final desperate bid for survival does take place, most new immigrants are simply seeking to escape the disappointment of expectations raised by ever-greater awareness around the world of the Western lifestyle.

Darkness Before Daybreak: African Migrants Living on the Margins in Southern Italy Today

By Hans Lucht. University of California Press. 306pp, £41.95 and £16.95. ISBN 97805200718 and 70732. Published 26 January 2012

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