- Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migrations at the World’s Deadliest Border by Maurizio Albahari
“The Mediterranean Sea should not be a tomb.” Thus pronounced Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople and leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as he met on the Greek island of Lesbos with his Roman Catholic counterpart, Pope Francis, in a symbol of ecumenical solidarity with the plight of refugees.1 More than seven months had passed since international public opinion was riveted by the photo of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian toddler, whose body had washed ashore on a Turkish beach after the capsize of the smuggler’s boat in which members of his family sought to flee, wearing their fake life vests. In the previous fourteen years, some 25,500 (undoubtedly a low estimate) had perished under similar circumstances, trying to cross what Maurizio Albahari, in his extraordinary and prescient book, calls “the world’s deadliest border.”
The author sets out his ambitious task with characteristic clarity:
[W]hat do democracy, rule of law, sovereignty, and human rights look like in the encounter between those chasing the other side of their horizon and those who have the duty to deter, rescue, welcome, categorize, and potentially deport them? How does the task of managing maritime borders and saving lives take shape in actuality, beyond the abstract vocabulary of sovereignty and human rights?2
The book defies easy summary. It should be read. The author makes generalizations, but they are built on detailed assessments of particular events, and are subject to qualification and nuance, and sometimes even contradiction by the details of other events. He calls his approach “artisanal ethnography.”3 As the author puts it, “[s]ituations and contexts are the story here, not colorful supplements.”4
Albahari, an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame, conducted a decade of research on migration by spending extended periods in Apulia and other southern Italian coastal regions, on the island of Lampedusa. He also visited other sites of debarkation, transit, and destinations around the Mediterranean, including Malta, Libya, Tunisia, Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia. Long before he embarked on his research project, Alba-hari was drawn to the subject when as a high school student in Gallipoli, a seaside town on the heel of the Italian boot, he witnessed the arrival, in July 1990, of Albanian profughi—political refugees from the tottering communist regime. [End Page 1135] As a result of negotiations between the Italian and Albanian governments, the dissidents arrived by ferry, everyone on board “greeted as a hero of anticommunism” and offered generous hospitality by the local residents.
With the fall of communism, Albanians continue fleeing economic and political collapse, more haphazardly, and at risk to their lives. The facilities that house the arrivals, often run by the Catholic Church and staffed by volunteers (of which Albahari the researcher later became one), are eventually transformed into centers that work with the government to identify the migrants and ascertain their status, but also to detain them for possible expulsion. Despite their new designation as centri di accoglienza—centers of reception or welcome—the welcome begins to wear thin. The locals no longer consider the Albanians, for example, victims but rather products of a communist regime. “They did not value individual labor and private enterprise,” in the author’s summary of some local views, and “were failing to make a positive return on the Italians’ gift of compassion and reception.”5
As the light irony of that passage hints, Albahari has an eye for the contradictions and paradoxes inherent in his subject—and a real talent for conveying them in vivid prose and with a controlled passion. Through his narrative we come to admire the humanity and generosity of spirit of the Catholic officials, such as Don Cesare of the Regina Pacis Foundation. The priest chafes at the dual role he must play, offering charity, but also—under contract with the state—serving as a “bureaucrat of exclusion.” Later we learn that Don Cesare has been charged with embezzlement and convicted of abuse...