In its half-century-long existence, the European Union has tried to become a model for a new type of citizenship. Theorists and jurists have spoken of a post-national paradigm of political freedom able to separate citizenship from national belonging, a revolution no less radical than that of 1789. But when put to the test of immigrant flows, this looks less like a reality than a myth. The nation-states become protagonists again, bilateral diplomacies gain the upper hand, frontiers are closed, skirmishes over certificates and repatriations are unceasing. In the face of disembarkations of refugees from all over the world, Europe doesn?t seem to wish to be the laboratory for ?a new type of citizenship.? The EU Court of Justice?s recent decision to reject an Italian law that introduces the crime of illegal entry can be read as an encouragement from the Europe of rights to the Europe of politics to review its strategy on immigration.
But in spite of what Europe wants or does not want, migrants are by now part of its identity, of what it is and will be. They are the test bench of the European myth, and the myth of democratic civilization. We are talking not simply of immigrants, but of stateless migrants, a global phenomenon of people who lack a proven nationality, either because the state they come from has ceased to exist due to war, or because their identity left them subject to repression. There is, of course, a legacy of ethnic cleansing in Europe, when Jews and members of other European national minorities were reduced to the status of non-citizens, in the countries which they were born and previously enjoyed full citizenship rights, with the result that they could be deported and eliminated en masse. Even today, stateless persons are at the mercy of the current potentate.
In 1954 the UN adopted the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, with the aim of preventing anyone from not having a state. In 1961 many countries signed the convention, pledging to assure nationality to stateless people born on their territory.
But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, civil wars in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the anti-authoritarian revolutions in Arab countries have produced an unforeseen increase in migrants, refugees who flee hunger and violence and ask for asylum. Thousands of men, women, and children, in small groups or one by one, on foot or by precarious means of transportation paid for at blood-sucking prices, have been on the move for years. Among that stateless humanity, a new political identity often seems to take shape, in the interstices of the law?the oppressive law of the states they come from, and the law they meet in the states where they land and are immediately declared illegal. It is in such an identity, with neither state nor law, that a new citizenship is forming?not an institutionalized belonging, but an act of self-determination. It is a nascent democratic citizenship, because it radically denounces a condition of utter subjection, claiming not just human but civil and political rights, as Andreas Kalyvas has observed.
Migrants enjoy, thanks to international conventions, fundamental human rights: the right to humanitarian and medical aid, the right to bare survival. But, as Hannah Arendt wrote, migrants are not granted a legal and political space; they are not granted the right to organize themselves as autonomous beings, but only to survive as in nature, outside the family of nations and states. The paradox of human rights is that in order for them to be respected, their subjects must become objects of repression. Because they lack documents, migrants are legally nonexistent, forcing them to become politically active outside the law. By infringing the law and crossing borders, they earn their entry into the system of law and acquire civil rights?to defense in trials, or to treatment without violence and torture.
Starting with the revolt in Greece in December 2008, migrants have shown a new willingness to use political language, to exercise some form of citizenship. It happened in Rosarno, Italy, at the beginning of 2010, when African seasonal workers organized themselves in order to fight back against their half-slavery. It happened recently in a detention camp in Australia, where more than three hundred migrants decided to hold a hunger strike in order to gain an audience with Australian government officials with their request not to be repatriated to Afghanistan, from which they had fled. They asked for interlocutors with bargaining authority, just as we citizens do when we want to have our voice heard. To us that voice is given by constitutions. To them it is denied in spite of the human rights they enjoy.
The clear self-proclamation of political subjectivity is an important step for migrants because it admits that human rights alone do not give them the power to oppose repatriation. But what citizenship is possible outside the space of the state? The juridical order, including Europe, cannot contemplate a political identity outside the state. But migrants who request political rights as human beings look to a supra-national and cosmopolitan citizenship.
This novelty is a significant challenge to Europe?s progressive and democratic forces, which must combine the reasonable regulation of migratory flows with a project that grants migrants political status and the capacity to make proposals and raise objections, to bargain and have representation beyond and independently of their belonging to a political body or a state. An unprejudiced appraisal of those facts is the minimum condition for advancing juridical and political solutions that give dignity to migrants and simultaneously promote the idea of a European political community that is not just a myth.
Photo: refugees at a camp in Germany in 2010, by KamiSilenceAction via Flickr creative commons