Rachele Megna 21.03.2016

Last summer, debates took place over which title would be most appropriate to attribute to those individuals who reach, legally or otherwise, the shores of Europe, after having fled from their home countries. The debate has been particularly contentious since the policies on migration are based exactly upon “the name” with which individuals are legally classified, materially affecting the life and the future of each subject who is transitioning across the borders and to the space of Europe.

Italy provides a particularly sensitive context in which to tackle the role of the politics of naming for those who arrive via the sea. While it is necessary to acknowledge the effort in mobilising solidarity and action on behalf of refugees, the persistence of a form of institutionalised discrimination against “the foreign” is still particularly strong. This discrimination is not visible only in the political and media discourse in the Italian cultural scene, which either ostracises the refugees as an economic and social plague, or as a problem too big for Italy to face without due support from the European Union. While this polarisation of opinions is due to the extreme politicisation of Italian media, none of the different political and media affiliations have ever offered due respect to the deep emotional, physical and psychological displacement that individuals who are forcibly “un-homely” undergo.

No one leaves home unless home chases you (…)
No one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land (…)
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper
unless the miles travelled means something more than the journey” (Shire, 2015).

Regarding the “power of the name”, or “the name of power”, Judith Butler (1997) argues for the crucial importance of the role of language for the politics of identity. For her, language offers a double bind: on the one hand, the power to name oneself as a sexual, gendered and racialized individual belonging to a specific social group has enabled minorities to gain a political voice, becoming a legitimate part of democratic institutions; on the other hand, Butler argues that language “traps” subjects within identity categories that do not capture the more complex reality of their social existence. In line with this reasoning, the name “migrant” has been claimed as unable to encompass the enormous amount of fear, risk, physical and emotional distress that those individuals go through, in their escape from a home which has become unbearably dangerous for themselves and their families. Through persistently deploying the name “migrant”, racialized political discourses have fertilised, across all European states, the tendency to “other” refugees as threatening and dangerous individuals, rather than as human beings in the difficult situation of having to flee from impossible conditions.

This institutional form of racism is not only visible in the Italian political discourse, but it is further legitimised by a number of laws and legal measures that define Italian citizenship in line with the rules determined by jus sanguinis. That is, the name of “Italian-citizen” can only be conferred to those who have some biological tie to Italy. The decision to adopt the jus sanguinis pertains, paradoxically, to a time of great emigration of the Italian population during the 19th and 20th century; in fact, Italy has become a destination for immigration only in a relatively recent past, while historically the migratory flows were predominantly in exit, towards other European countries and the Americas. However, today this law inadequately accounts for the changing nature of Italy and its demographic nature. The situation is particularly difficult for second generation migrants, that is, those born in Italy from “foreign” parents: while they are legally allowed to remain in Italy until the age of 18, after that the process of naturalisation for Italian citizenship becomes overly complicated, if not impossible, for many.

The Italian government seems reluctant, now more than ever, to grasp the major changes that are occurring in the Italian demographic constitution. With a stagnant political spirit, Italians seem to refuse to face the inadequacy of their legal system, which legitimises a colonial regime of citizenship based on essentialist understandings of race and of nationality, and which does not account for the constant movement of people across its borders. The cultural implications of this refusal are enormous, fertilising racist and xenophobic attitudes that alienate those who are perceived as “others”, going against any proclaimed “politics of hospitality” founding the European spirit of solidarity and openness to the other and to differences.

dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange- savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off our backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces” (Shire, 2015).

Why would Italy, which is historically a diasporic and divided nation, enhance and support a discriminatory citizenship regime that allows these foreign pejorative names? While it is often assumed that colonial times are over and gone for Italy, which also has a quite limited and heterodox colonial history in comparison with major colonising nations such as the UK, the continuing existence of the jus sanguinis shows the persistent impact of the premises upon which the colonial enterprise was based. That is, the supposed political, economic and biological inferiority of the colonised, which not only justified an economic division of labour and flow of resources and knowledge in favour of the coloniser nations, but also sustained a specific cultural imaginary in which the “time” and the “space” of the colonisers were inherently superior, “with more dignity” (to refer this directly to the line of reasoning of the Enlightenment philosopher Kant) than those of the colonised. Because of the legitimacy of this line of thought, which is reinforced and reflected by the jus sanguinis – since it confers the privilege of being “named” as an Italian and European citizen only to those who are biologically tied to the racialized and gendered space of postcolonial Italy – Italy remains, culturally, ideologically, politically, and also legally, an exclusive space of privilege for those who have been historically designated to belong to the racialized and gendered name of “Italians”.

Moreover, the exclusive politics of the “name of the citizen” also influence normative understandings of “home”. While in Italian “casa” refers to an entity that is geographically, somatically and linguistically stable, “home” is in Arabic is derived from the etymological root “bata”, meaning “becoming”, “being”, but also meaning a place in which one comes to rest, a sense of homeland and a milieu in which one’s being is realised, and whose loss is related to a sense of deep existential anxiety. The silence in the political and media discourse, in Italy and elsewhere, of the “language of the migrating individual” renders those who have transited across the borders not hearable for those who are “at home” within Europe. Nonetheless, an ever-growing body of migrant literature has emerged on the issues of belonging, home, and silence. In the words of Homi Bhabha, those in a condition of “un-homeliness” communicate through silence a home that has been left behind, that is forever lost. Nonetheless, any language, including the one of silence, condemns the un-homely individual, who has no linguistic, geographical or material home, to the realm of social death, being unrecognisable and un-name-able.

“I want to go home, but home is in the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl to the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important.
No one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying- leave, run away from me now
I don’t know what I’ve become
but I know that anywhere is safer than here”
(Shire, 2015).

The sense of precariousness, of the danger of remaining in the silence of the un-name-able, is at the basis of the existential condition of those who flee, who are in a condition of forced exile and displacement, and have materially, geographically and linguistically lost their home. The incommunicability of their experience of emotional and physical distress is not easily name-able, and should not be reduced to a set of dry debates over the “right name” under which they should be recognised in order to be “hospitable”.

In an attempt to unfold the fragility and vulnerable character of the Palestinian existence, Ghassan Kanafani ends his novel “Men in the Sun” (1963) with the dramatic cry of the driver, who rhetorically asks the three dead bodies of Palestinians generations “why they had not knocked on the side of the tank” in order to save their own lives from suffocation. The incommensurable difference between the experience of forced displacement, of risk and fear of one’s life, and the desperation that motivates people to embark on such dangerous journeys should be respected as such: un-name-able. The driver will receive no answer. Any attempt to reduce this difference to a homogeneous and intelligible reason, or “name”, for the economic purpose of colonial linguistic existence, risks the production of further ethical violence and the fertilisation of the already extreme politics of racialized and gendered citizenship in Europe.


Butler, J. (1997) Excitable Speech. A politics of the performative. London: Routledge.

Kanafani, G. (1998) Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories. London: Lynne Rinner Pub.

Shire, W. (2015) Home. [Online] Accessed on: November 1st, 2015. Available at http://seekershub.org/blog/2015/09/home-warsan-shire/

Image from: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/news-room/20131018IPR22667/Migration-EU-must-act-to-prevent-further-tragedies-says-Parliament