• resistance;
  • Agamben;
  • holding centres;
  • dailiness;
  • Italy


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Camps and Bare Life
  4. Resisting the Impossible?
  5. Dissent and Coping Strategies
  6. Testimony as an Act of Resistance
  7. Concluding Remarks
  8. References
  9. Biography

The present article looks at the politics of the camp and investigates the way in which detainees claim their right to a political and meaningful life against bare life. The question I look at is whether bare life might be resisted from within camps and how this resistance should be conceptualised. How are we to judge resistance? According to the modalities through which resistance is enacted? Or according to the subjects involved in those acts? Or indeed according to (political) outcomes? This article starts by scrutinising Agamben's Homo Sacer and its understanding of camp and bare life. It claims that more attention should be given to the way in which acts of open dissent blend with coping strategies, to the point of making some dissenting acts almost imperceptible. Special attention is given to the concept of dailiness, as articulated in the work of De Certeau, Scott and Bleiker, as well as to Isin's concept of ‘acts of citizenship’ and to the way in which such acts are performed in an attempt to disrupt sovereign violence.

The politics of the camp and the ‘war on refugees’ (Fekete, 2005, p. 65) have received great academic attention during recent years as the number of people detained, deported, violated and found dead along the borders has risen dramatically. For instance, across the Mediterranean Sea alone, some 1,500 people have gone missing or lost their life during the past year (UNHCR, 2012; see also Andrijasevic, 2010). Many of those who managed to cross the Southern European borders, after dreadful journeys, have experienced not the freedom of Europe, but the camps of Europe (see Detention centres for those seeking asylum and/or better living conditions have slowly become an integral part of the new ‘biopolitics of otherness’ (Fassin, 2001, p. 4), whose only concern is to control, contain and punish undocumented migrants at all costs (Bigo, 2007; Bosworth and Guild, 2008; Bosworth and Kaufman, 2011; Wacquant, 2009; Walters, 2002). In this respect, Matthew Gibney (2008) is certainly right in affirming that a ‘deportation turn’ is dominating Western practices, making current ‘politics of mobility’ highly contested (see Squire, 2011). However, prevalent exclusive policies – which aim to produce processes of illegality and deportability (De Genova, 2002; Peutz, 2006, 2007) – have not remained unchallenged. Public protests, building occupations, hunger strikes and body mutilations are some of the modalities through which non-status migrants are contesting and resisting dominant politics of aliens (see Bailey, 2009; McGregor, 2011; McNevin, 2011; Nyers, 2008a; Puggioni, 2006). It is precisely these practices of contestation that are the focus of this article, which aims specifically to investigate the way in which the violence of detention facilities is resisted. Departing from Giorgio Agamben's (1998) theorisation of the sovereign-power/camps/homo sacer triad, the present article will look at the way in which detainees have constructed and articulated dissent. In particular, it will investigate the way in which detainees claim their right to a political and meaningful life against bare life and dehumanising processes (see also Benhabib, 2004; Bosworth, 2011a, 2011b; Cornelisse, 2010). The camp is thus understood not exclusively as a space where the violence against the Other is acted and legitimised by sovereign power, but also as a space of dissent and contestation. Attention will be especially given to detainees' vocal articulation of their emotions, thoughts and verbal protests against the camp. Internees' claims that their human rights should be respected against abuses and arbitrary violations, and that the lack of visa documents does not make them less human, and thus less political, are important claims which make use of the very same rights-based language that dominates Western politics. Those claims are important reminders to the sovereign entities that the political capacity to act and speak cannot be simply defined according to nationality laws. And this is precisely what some critical citizenship scholars have started to question. As well articulated in Engin Isin and Greg Nielsen's edited volume (2008), there is a need to break from the traditional focus on (migrants') status and (citizens') habitus, and to investigate the way in which practices of citizenship constitute new subjectivities. It is thus through practices – that is, through acting as if citizens – that individuals perform political acts, independently of their formal membership. If the capacity for acting and speaking as political subjects determines detainees' political standing, then detainees' practices, rather than their nationality (citizens vs. foreigners) and resident status (regular vs. irregular), should be given greater consideration. An analysis of the capacity of the excluded to speak and act politically, irrespective of their nationality, will contribute to the ongoing debate surrounding the question of agency and the constitution of political subjectivities in relation to the present politics of aliens.

This article will begin with a close scrutiny of Agamben's Homo Sacer (1998), whose analysis has stimulated an animated debate on biopower and exceptionalism (see Aradau, 2007; Biswas and Nair, 2010; Dillon, 2007; Mitchell, 2006; Walker, 2006), as well as a great interest in the transformation of political life into bare life (see Darling, 2009; Diken, 2004; Edkins, 2000; Gregory, 2006; Minca, 2006; Perera, 2002). The authors of this latter set of accounts suggest that the ontology that emerges inside camps is the sovereign ontology, which does not account for any possibility of human agency and political dissent from within (see Ziarek, 2008). As William Walters puts it:

Agamben's line of thinking, seems to lead us away from a dynamic, agonistic account of power relations, and instead fosters a rather one-sided and flattened conception of migrant subjects. Things are always done to them, not by them. Only occasionally are they granted the capacity to act, and then in desperate ways (Walters, 2008, p. 188).

Without denying the importance of Agamben's work (1998) and his account of the ‘spatialization of violence’, I agree with Nikos Papastergiadis (2006, p. 430) that his model ‘confines political contestation to the realm of state-centric sovereignty, and presents the camp as a sealed and impermeable space’, a space that closes off any possibility of dissent. The impossibility of contestation inside detention, and thus the victory of sovereign power over bare life, should not be read as the negation of any dissent tout court (see Edkins et al., 2004; Enns, 2004; Huysmans, 2004, 2006; Panagia, 1999; Prozorov, 2005). The question that I am looking at is not simply whether bare life might be resisted, but whether bare life might be resisted from within camps and how this resistance should be conceptualised. How are we to judge resistance? According to the modalities through which resistance is enacted? Or according to the subjects involved in those acts? Or indeed according to (political) outcomes? The way in which we define resistance is a crucial point on which to reflect, as it shapes our analysis of resistance as well as our ability to recognise acts of resistance when we encounter them. Our ability is especially tested when looking at dissent and resistance inside camps. The location of struggle – the detention camp with its biopolitical connotation – as well as the subjects of the struggle – the undocumented, the non-rights-holders – makes any analysis of resistance complex.

The article will be divided into three main parts. First, it will focus on Agamben's conceptualisation of camps and bare life as well as on some of the literature that has incorporated an Agambenian approach to the analysis of camps. The article will therefore question whether camps might be resisted. Finally, some voices from the Italian context will be included. In particular, the stories of some people held under detention, who have succeeded in making their voice heard, will be considered. Given the difficulties in getting the authorisation for accessing Italian camps – the so-called CIE: identification and expulsion centres, previously known as CPT1 – the voices quoted here are drawn from secondary sources, though the sections selected were taken from direct quotations. I have specifically selected those testimonies coming not from failed asylum seekers but mostly from migrants, who have lived in the countries for many years, possessed jobs and had family there. Little has been taken from the Italian reports that have recently been published. Although they offer a detailed analysis of the (non-)life inside camps, little space is generally given to detainees' voices. Their attention is rather focused on reporting and denouncing abuses in breach of international conventions and/or national legislations (Amnesty International Italia, 2005; Jesuit Refugee Service Europe, 2010; MEDU, 2012; MSF, 2004, 2010).2

Camps and Bare Life

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Camps and Bare Life
  4. Resisting the Impossible?
  5. Dissent and Coping Strategies
  6. Testimony as an Act of Resistance
  7. Concluding Remarks
  8. References
  9. Biography

Although much has been written on Agamben's Homo Sacer (1998), it is worth recalling its main points on camps and bare life. Instead of defining the camp according to the technologies of power displaced in the Konzentrationslager, his work focuses on the politico-juridical mechanisms that created the legal preconditions that made the camp possible (p. 166). What he has thus investigated is not the rationale behind those atrocities, but rather the legal procedures that permitted the deployment of such a totalising power that could legitimately transform individuals into living dead (Agamben, 1998, p. 171). For Agamben, only the introduction of the state of exception and of martial law could have made such atrocities possible. It was the proclamation of the state of siege – and the consequent suspension of some fundamental rights – that provided the juridical foundation of the camp (Agamben, 1998, pp. 166–9). Agamben reads the camp as the state of exception par excellence, in which political life coincides with bare life, that is, a life stripped of its political attributes. What makes a camp a camp is not necessarily the violence perpetrated inside but rather its politico-juridical framework. Thus the camp becomes not only the space where the exception becomes the norm, but the space where the sovereign power may dictate arbitrarily which politics of life to apply and, hence, a space where the distinction between human and inhuman seems no longer to make sense. It is at this point that the sovereign-power/camps/homo sacer triad becomes clear. The sovereign has the power of proclaiming the state of exception, the most extreme example of which is represented in the politico-juridical structure of the camp. It is here, in the camp, that the sovereign deploys its power to transform political life into bare life, into a life that Agamben identifies in the figure of the homo sacer.

Drawing on Pompeius Festus' De verborum significatione, Agamben (1998, p. 71) reviews the archaic figure of homo sacer in order to assess his ‘essential function in modern politics’. The notion of homo sacer is drawn from Roman tribunitian law, according to which ‘[t]he sacred man is the one whom the people have judged on account of a crime. It is not permitted to sacrifice this man, yet he who kills him will not be condemned for homicide’ (Agamben, 1998, p. 71, emphasis added). In light of Festus' definition, Agamben reads this figure as someone whose life is not worth living because of his double exclusion: exclusion from the ius divinum and exclusion from the ius humanum (Agamben, 1998, p. 73). However, it is the sovereign power – whose original and fundamental activity is the production of bare life – that can decree, at its will, which life is worthy of preservation and which is not. For Agamben, there is no difference between those who have been sentenced to death and those who have been interned inside camps, ‘as for both their life may be eliminated at any time without any crime’ (Agamben, 1998, p. 159). However, while the life of homo sacer is considered not worth preserving only after a judgement has been made, those interned in current camps are treated as if they were homines sacri irrespective of the crime committed, if any. Here again Agamben's attention is on the sovereign authority and not on the juridical status of the two groups. Although recognising the implications of the immunity granted to anyone who might kill homo sacer, according to the Roman tribunitian law, the juridical transformation into homo sacer takes place because of some possibly serious crimes upon which he has been judged. If this is the case, it is not the arbitrary power of the sovereign that transforms a man into a sacred man but, in a sense, he himself who transforms his own life into bare life by committing a serious crime. Thus, the figure of the homo sacer seems best represented not so much by refugees, irregular migrants or Guantánamo Bay detainees – as some scholars argue (Edkins, 2000; Gregory, 2006; Nair, 2010; Perera, 2002; Rajaram and Grundy-Warr, 2004; Tagma, 2010) – but by those criminals condemned to death because found guilty of a serious crime. As with homo sacer, it is their unspeakable and unbearable crimes that have transformed their political life into a juridical worthless life; as with homo sacer again, the executioners will not face prosecution for having terminated their life. Thus, the issue of arbitrariness – on which most of the literature on exceptionalism and bare life has been based – should be given more critical attention. From my reading of Homo Sacer, the issue is not simply, as argued by Peter Fitzpatrick, that:

Bare life is … definitely apart from the law. It can, and indeed can only be, taken away without the law's authority or mediation. … Killing him does not involve the law. His life and its loss entail, or no longer entail, the mediations of the law (Fitzpatrick, 2005, p. 49, p. 54, emphasis added).

The issue is not so much whether the killing is mediated by the law – which was the case with homo sacer, as the judgement represents precisely such a mediation – but that the sovereign power has the authoritative ability to decree the state of exception. It is through the state of exception – which is ‘definitely apart from the law’ – that any life might be transformed into bare life, and treated as if a homo sacer. The arbitrariness of a political act follows the state of exception: whatever happens in the exception is arbitrary. Therefore, it is not the camp per se that transforms political life into bare life, but it is the politico-juridical condition of the camp that makes it possible. However, even if the politico-juridical structure dictates the way in which the excluded bodies are produced by the sovereign authority, such a production does encounter reactions, even violent reactions, which should be accounted for.

What are, then, the relations inside camps? What kind of life becomes possible under detention? And more importantly, is it possible to resist the state of exception that dominates current detention centres? From my reading of Agamben's Homo Sacer, resistance inside camps is ruled out. The exclusive focus on sovereign power's ability to produce bare life makes homo sacer's potential resistance against subjugation impossible. As well articulated by Andreas Kalyvas, in ‘assimilating political relations to a single master concept, that of sovereignty, Agamben can no longer localize the contingency of political and social struggles. … His approach … assumes an almost totalistic, agentless history’ (Kalyvas, 2005, p. 122). Thus, the centrality given to sovereign power helps us neither in understanding and evaluating possibilities of dissent from within, nor in looking at micro forms of resistance. And the case of the internment of some 17,000 Albanians in August 1991 in the stadium of Bari (Italy), as recalled in Agamben's work (1998, p. 174), might be used as an example. Some 1,900 Albanians – not mentioned in his book – vigorously refused forced repatriation and fought violently against the police, to the point of compelling Italian authorities to respect the principle of non-refoulement (La Repubblica, 1991). The Albanian case, as well as the many (global) protests that are becoming a daily occurrence within detention centres, seems to suggest that the transformation of political life into bare life is not an instantaneous and unproblematic process (Bailey, 2009; McGregor, 2011; Nyers, 2008b; Owens, 2009, 2011; Ramadan, 2013). Even in the Nazi camps, where ‘the most absolute conditio inhumana that has ever existed on earth was realized’ (Agamben, 1998, p. 166), acts of dissent and insubordination did take place, and camps' spatiality was crucial in encouraging actions, reactions or inactions in each camp (see Crome, 1988; Fenélon, 2008; Langbein, 1994; Len, 1988; Marrus, 1995; Stadtler, 1975). As well illustrated in Imre Kertész's (2002) Essere Senza Destino (Sorstalanság, literally Fateless) – a semi-autobiographical story of Gyurka, a fifteen-year-old Hungarian Jew, who experienced the camps of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Zeitz – each camp was different. As he himself acknowledged, ‘quite naturally’3 life is ‘easy’ only in the working camp, whose ultimate aim is completely different from that of the others (Kertész, 2002, p. 98). Gyurka's detailed description of the three types of camp – and especially his slow journey from life to a living death – offers a glimpse of these differences in terms of human/inhuman relations, local practices, internees' resignation and even medical attention. The narrative of Kertész's novel changes completely in the final part, which describes Gyurka's entry into a hospital facility inside the camp, a space that seems an ‘other’ space, a space of colours and humane relations, a space where doctors and medical attendants demonstrated special care and even a humane approach (Kertész, 2002, pp. 161–98). This example can be read not simply as an illustration that life in the camp depends on ‘the civility and ethical sense of the police’ (Agamben, 1998, p. 174), but more importantly that neither camps' detainees nor camps' administrators are ‘always willing instruments in the production of the repressive space’ (Papastergiadis, 2006, p. 438). And this is precisely what is also happening in relation to Italian detention centres. Acts of protest are not simply coming from detainees – although they have been the most active – but also from some members of the police, doctors and lawyers who have been involved in detention centres, either as insiders or as outsiders. Their works have proved, at times, crucial in denouncing abuses, assisting asylum seekers and the undocumented and ensuring their rights were respected (see Melting Pot Europa and ASGI portals).

Resisting the Impossible?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Camps and Bare Life
  4. Resisting the Impossible?
  5. Dissent and Coping Strategies
  6. Testimony as an Act of Resistance
  7. Concluding Remarks
  8. References
  9. Biography

Given the violent spatiality of the camp, does resisting its violence amount to resisting the impossible? The work of Jenny Edkins and Véronique Pin-Fat represents a good starting point for our analysis, as they themselves asked a similar question: can ‘sovereign power … be challenged at all'? (Edkins and Pin-Fat, 2005, p. 2) To begin with, Edkins and Pin-Fat developed their analysis by focusing on a very specific event: the protest, including hunger strikes and some instances of bodily mutilation, that Abbas Amini initiated in May 2003 in opposition to British asylum politics (Edkins and Pin-Fat, 2005, pp. 1–2). The protest lasted only a few days. As Amini explained during an interview, he gave up his actions because ‘the pressure on me was so huge that … I thought there was no hope’ (Edkins and Pin-Fat, 2005, p. 2). According to the authors, the relevant event was not so much the courage in contesting and challenging UK asylum politics – even if for a very short period of time – but Mr Amini's decision to desist from his dissenting (re)action. Edkins and Pin-Fat's focus was not on resistance per se, but on the effectiveness of resistance. The key question that they looked at was not whether sovereign power could have been challenged, but whether it could have been successfully challenged, and whether such challenge could have impacted on national politics. As they put it, ‘To what extent are actions of the type we have elaborated likely to be effective? Are they anything more than individual acts of protest that can have little impact on collective politics?’ (Edkins and Pin-Fat, 2005, p. 22) The focus on outcome has led Edkins and Pin-Fat to understand the relations inside detention centres as dominated not by relations of power but by relations of violence. However, the way in which they adopted the Foucauldian distinction between relations exerting power and relations founded on violence (Foucault, 1994, p. 342) seems somewhat problematic. The claim that camps – including today's detention centres – are dominated not by relations of power but exclusively by relations of violence against which no contestation is possible seems to disregard many (successful) protests. To use their own words:

Certain, albeit limited, parallels can be drawn between detention camps and the concentration camps, if only in the sense that both can be identified as examples of modes of being where there are no power relations and resistance is impossible: sites that mark a state of exception (Edkins and Pin-Fat, 2005, p. 17, emphasis added).

Resistance, for Edkins and Pin-Fat, is impossible, because the necessary precondition for any resistance – freedom – is missing. But what is the freedom to which the authors might be referring? Should confinement be evaluated only by considering the physical condition of constraint? Or should we look at confinement by way of evaluating also the conditions of evasion? According to Michel Foucault, individuals are free so long as they are able to act otherwise. Slavery itself is founded on relations of violence unless there exists ‘some possible mobility, even a chance of escape’ (Foucault, 1994, p. 342). Thus, Foucault's distinction between power exercised over free subjects and power (i.e. violence) exercised over men in chains seems founded not so much on the technologies of violence as on the possibilities of resisting those very technologies. The abolition of slavery, or at least old forms of slavery, was achieved precisely because of ‘some possible mobility’, some ways of escape, which originated even in daily and apparently insignificant acts that were not necessarily connected to successful political outcomes.

Despite Edkins and Pin-Fat's (2005, p. 17) argument that ‘resistance is impossible’, because relations of violence always already dominate inside camps, the authors discuss two modalities of resistance (see also Zevnik's [2009] critical account), which consist, first, in a refusal to ‘draw the line’ or make distinctions between forms of life of the type upon which sovereign power relies; and second, in what we call the assumption of bare life, that is, the taking on of the very form of life that sovereign power seeks to impose (Edkins and Pin-Fat, 2005, p. 3, emphasis in original).

Edkins and Pin-Fat read lip, mouth and ear sewing as ‘examples of challenges that assume bare life’, in the sense that these acts are read as representing simply ‘a re-enactment of sovereign power's production of bare life’ (Edkins and Pin-Fat, 2005, p. 20). Mr Amini's act of sewing his mouth, causing others to speak, is not seen as an act of dissent in a proper sense because, by resorting to such a gesture, he ultimately accepted ‘the very bare life that sovereign power impose[d] on him’ (Edkins and Pin-Fat, 2005, p. 20).

My reading of detainees' acts departs from this understanding. The acts of sewing lips, ears and eyes, as well as going on hunger strikes and/or remaining silent during the period of detention, are interpreted differently. Making oneself voiceless and agentless – or more generally embracing sovereign power logic – might also be read as a strategy of apparent conformity and/or as a modality that denounces the very same violence enacted by the sovereign. The appeal to principles of human rights, equality and justice, which are some of the key claims under detention, might be read not only as an acceptance and reaffirmation of the dominant order – and thus of the sovereign logic – but also as a strong claim against the inconsistency, illegitimacy and even illegality of some of the sovereign acts (see McNevin, 2011; Swyngedouw, 2011). As articulated by some voices against Italian CIE, what is resisted is the logic of the state of exception, and thus the arbitrariness (also in drawing lines) of the sovereign acts. For instance, the historical success of anti-slavery, anti-colonialism and women's movements was also due to the use of the dominant language and principles, which were instrumental in demonstrating their arbitrary application according to different groups, ethnicities and/or territories. What is suggested here is that acts of dissent and resistance might not take the form of an open and declared dissent that is easily recognised, and also that these acts should not be judged according to immediate outcomes. As well articulated by Louise Amoore (2005), while some forms of resistance are clearly identifiable as such, others are not. As she put it:

We tend now to clearly identify street demonstrations, protests and internet activities' websites, for example, with a form of trans-border ‘anti-globalization’. Yet, resistance may not be quite so easily classified in this way. Much less visible have been the ordinary and commonplace acts of resistance that blend into people's everyday lives so that they become almost indistinguishable from coping strategies, compliance, co-option or acceptance (Amoore, 2005, p. 1, emphasis added).

Perhaps a look at dailiness, as already proposed in the work of Michel De Certeau (1984), James Scott (1990) and Roland Bleiker (2000), might help us to read acts inside detention differently and to focus our attention on ‘acts of citizenship’ – and thus on political acts – rather than on the status of the subjects (Isin and Nielsen, 2008). As well articulated by Walters (2008, p. 192), ‘the emphasis on acts serves to draw our attention to moments of interruption: instances when something, however small and seemingly marginal, is changed, possibly for the first time’.

Dissent and Coping Strategies

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Camps and Bare Life
  4. Resisting the Impossible?
  5. Dissent and Coping Strategies
  6. Testimony as an Act of Resistance
  7. Concluding Remarks
  8. References
  9. Biography

The work of De Certeau (1984) offers a very interesting analysis of the way in which the subalterns and the excluded attempt to subvert dominant systems from within, a subversion that does not always, and necessarily, presuppose its rejection or radical transformation. The important contribution that De Certeau's work provides is its focus on less visible anti-disciplinary practices whose modes of operation aim to conform to rules ‘only in order to evade them’ (De Certeau, 1984, p. xiv). More specifically, De Certeau investigated the way in which ‘users – commonly assumed to be passive and guided by established rules – operate’ and particularly the way in which ‘users who are not its makers’ manipulate a given system (De Certeau, 1984, p. xi, p. xii). The focus on the concept of users might provide a new perspective from which to understand the politics of the camp and its counter-practices. The concept of ‘users’, in particular, refers to everyone who is inscribed within a specific socio-economic order, irrespective of his or her political status. If we focus attention on the concept of users – and not so much on the political ascribed capacity of the users – we will be able to uncover a plurality of subjectivities that should no longer be seen in negative terms as ‘wasted’ or ‘liquid lives’ (Bauman, 2004, 2005). Moreover, the concept of users facilitates the investigation of specifically those people who have experienced subjugation, exclusion and/or invisibility but who nonetheless engage with dissenting practices. What interests me here is uncovering the way in which camps' forced users resist processes of invisibilisation and denounce serious abuses. This is done through a variety of modalities enacted according to the way in which the spatiality of each camp is perceived and lived. A look at everyday practice inside camps enables the uncovering of the way in which the so-called ‘public transcripts’ and ‘hidden transcripts’ (Scott, 1990, pp. 1–17) are lived, and the way in which detainees resort to both. Given the violent spatiality of current holding centres, there is a need to focus on the open and visible acts against the constituted power and its representatives, as well as to uncover what happens in the ‘private’, away from official control. Those who do not hold power are not necessarily powerless, though they might perform their assigned (passive) role for strategic reasons, and not simply because they have accepted their condition of subjugation. Such is certainly the case with many detainees who have remained silent throughout their period of detention until they believed it was time to react. The stories of Carlos and Lilia are good examples of precisely this strategy.

Carlos spent 60 long days in the Bologna centre, and at the end of his last compulsory day of detention, he was taken to Milan airport, together with two Ecuadorians. He waited until he was in the aircraft to start shouting and expressing all the anger that he had kept inside during the previous two months. He shouted loudly for 30 minutes, with the result that he was removed from the aircraft, while his two silent companions were sent back. As he puts it:

I do not want to go away. … I have family here. I do not want to go to my país. … I have shouted … because it is unfair to be locked for two months in a prison … and afterwards they take you away. … If they were to take me away, they should have done it after five days. … it is unfair. … About us, they think that we are thieves, we are criminals. But we have not come here for killing anyone, … I have done nothing! I have not robbed anyone, I have not killed anyone (Rovelli, 2006, pp. 38–9).

Right until the end of his detention Carlos refrained from reacting or participating in the many protests that occurred inside the centre. His anger, frustration and desperation, as well as his determination to resist unjustifiable treatment – being detained without having committed a crime – came out only at the very end. His reaction emerged once he finally believed that it was time to do something. This is precisely what he learned inside the centre: one might protest inside the camps, go on hunger strike, shout inside the aircraft, claim a different nationality and/or inflict injuries on one's own body in order to be taken to hospital.

Lilia's story is very similar to Carlos', in that she also remained silent during the whole period of detention and started reacting just before being forcibly expatriated. Lilia initially refused to take the flight ticket. A second attempt was made to force Lilia to board the aircraft the following day, and on this occasion she kept screaming: ‘I do not go away’. What was unacceptable to Lilia was the way in which she was treated:

I couldn't understand why they took me away like a criminal. … Early one morning, they came and took me to the airport. … I screamed, ‘I do not go to Moldavia, I am Russian; my passport is a fake, I am Russian.’ … I am Russian and I would not go even if I were Moldavian (Rovelli, 2006, pp. 88–9).

These two examples indicate that this lived and violent experience creates possibilities of acting otherwise and establishing a ‘network of an antidiscipline’, as suggested in De Certeau (1984, p. xiv). The camp is thus read as a site where camps' forced users learn, share and exchange modalities of operating for resisting camps' violence. Success is not evaluated here according to immediate outcomes, and thus according to policy changes. Simply the recognition that acts of dissent contest dominant politics of aliens should already be considered as a success. As Bleiker puts it in his discussion of the way in which Prenzlauer Berg's poetic dissent contributed to the disintegration of the East German regime, what matters is the way in which:

forms of dissent have the potential to transgress boundaries and engender human agency, not by directly causing particular events, but by creating a language that provides us with different eyes, with the opportunity to reassess anew the spatial and political dimensions of global life (Bleiker, 2000, p. 45).

Dissent against detention might therefore provide a different perspective from which to re-conceptualise dominant politics of aliens, and thus dominant politics of citizenship. A look at camps, not from a sovereign power perspective but through the lens of migrants' lived experience of detention, might offer new insights from which to read the politics of the camp.

In short, hunger strikes, the sewing of lips, mouths and ears, the writing and dissemination of poems (see Al Assad, 2002; Boujbiha, 2002), shouting at airports and the forging of identity documents, as well as the courage to denounce camps' violations, abuses and injustice, are important acts of contestation and defiance – and definitely not ‘individual acts of desperation’ (Ellermann, 2010, p. 409) – which attempt to make use of all available gaps in the system for protesting, resisting and uncovering camps' violent spatiality.

Testimony as an Act of Resistance

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Camps and Bare Life
  4. Resisting the Impossible?
  5. Dissent and Coping Strategies
  6. Testimony as an Act of Resistance
  7. Concluding Remarks
  8. References
  9. Biography

A recurrent claim that emerges from a close reading of detainees' stories is a strong desire to defend and reaffirm their human rights and their belonging to a common humanity. Why have we been treated like criminals? What recourse is left to people who are made voiceless? Who can defend us here? Should not human rights be respected in Europe? These represent some of the questions which the Others (together with a few nationals) have the courage to ask (see Their voices and actions denounce the many abuses, acts of violence and unlawful treatments that have been challenged, though not always successfully. The many written protests articulated in official letters and addressed to local authorities offer a picture of the climate of violence under detention as well as the determination not to remain silent in the face of abuses. The following excerpt from the letter written in May 1999 by Stefca Stefanova, and subscribed to by many detainees from Eastern Europe, held in Milan, is a good example:

I and all those who have subscribed with me to this article have witnessed an awful drama … a man climbed up to the roof, he wanted to hitch up because they wanted to take him back to his country. His wife and his child, born in Italy, were watching him and crying on the other side of the barbed wire. An act which cannot be forgiven to those in charge of this camp. … the people who arrive at such a point of desperation are not suicidal people but have been encouraged to commit suicide. Foreigners come to Italy looking for a better life, for a job, to be able to take care of his/her family, … where are all these possibilities? I wish that all those who read this will understand that it is hell here. In all my life I have committed no crime for me to deserve being jailed and treated as a thief or killer, to be beaten inside these police headquarters. Where can I denounce this? Who might protect me? Who am I here? An animal, like all foreigners who are here in Italy without documents because they do not have the money to buy them. Who are those legal tutors who might jail unprotected people who … do not harm anyone? … We are human beings, like all of you, and we ought to have the very same rights. We live in the very same world, but then why? For being mistreated by you and being locked up in a camp as was once done by Hitler with the Jews! … The difference between his camps and these centres in Italy is that there they were killed, and we are sent back to our countries. And the close resemblance is the hate against people who are different from you (Stefanova, 1999).

What often tends to remain uncovered in current analyses of detention is that many of the actions and verbal protests inside detention centres are conscious acts of political dissent against unjust and unacceptable illiberal politics (see also McGregor, 2011; Rygiel, 2011). This is especially the case for those who have found themselves in possession of irregular status because of the flexible economic market that encourages illegal procedures, such as the absence of regular employment contracts (see Quassoli, 1999; Reyneri, 1998, 2004; Schuster, 2005). The testimonies provided below offer us a quite different story of what happens under detention and the courage that foreigners have in denouncing those abuses, which are either removed from public scrutiny or are not seen by public eyes for what they are: unjustified and unjustifiable violence. The stories of Said and Sajjad are exemplary. Both of them were determined to speak up after having assisted against the violence of the Italian police, which was confronted on many occasions with strong resistance. While Said refused to be silent and to leave his children, born in the country, and the city of Bologna after fifteen years (Rovelli, 2006, pp. 44–9), Sajjad could not remain mute after the terror, violence, body mutilations and brutality that he and many others suffered in the Regina Pacis CPT in Lecce (Southern Italy) (Rovelli, 2006, pp. 74–82). Both Said and Sajjad used the same ‘weapon’ against abuses: their voice, a voice that was articulated through legal procedures, which is precisely what the abusers found intolerable. As Said put it:

those who are voiceless are left with one option: scream louder and this is unacceptable for those in command positions. … One guy did not want to stop screaming, he could no longer remain silent: he has been living in Italy for years, he is Moroccan but his children were born in Italy, they are Italian afterwards, and now he is expected to remain silent and let them deport him …, it was not possible without any resistance. … As for the screams, it is the only way of affirming our existence: to resist, even if resistance is doomed to fail. … I believe that it was a well-prepared action [the police's violent repression] … to give an example to the guests held in the CPT … that in that place only the police establish the rules. We, clandestini, … ought only to suffer, because, as the police affirm, we do not possess any right to incriminate them (Rovelli, 2006, pp. 45–8).

While Said denounced the many abuses perpetrated by the police to the Italian court, Sajjad did not stop there. His understanding of human rights and his sense that he had a duty to inform Italian people of what was happening in the country was compelling. Although both of them were well aware that they were fighting against a system that was trying to silence them, the strength of their action was precisely the use of their voice against intolerable abuses within a system that kept reminding them of the need to respect the law. The issue of the absence of any crime is reiterated in Sajjad's story:

I thought that, in Europe, not only human beings but also animals had rights. … It is not like that, we have been incarcerated without having committed a crime. … I am frightened. … However, … I have the responsibility of reporting, public opinion has to know. You see, nowadays I work with an association, I have been to schools and universities for giving testimony. Nobody ever knows what a CPT is. … this is why it is my responsibility to keep reporting. … I do not recall a time, even once, … during which Father Cesare entered in the room without generating terror. Much worse than a prison. … A butchery. The walls are blood-soaked: detainees break glasses, mutilate their body, crash their head against the walls, they do everything they can to hurt themselves and be taken away from that place. However, nobody ever takes them to the hospital (Rovelli, 2006, pp. 78–80).4

The horrors of the CPT of Regina Pacis were also experienced by Montassar. His dreadful description demonstrates the level of arbitrariness and violence prevalent in the Lecce camp (see also Perrone, 1999; Puggioni, 2006). But Montassar's story also offers an important testimony of the courage and determination of many to resist that violence, a violence that became even more intolerable once it was discovered that a Catholic priest, Father Cesare, was the person primarily responsible for that horror.5 As Montassar puts it:

I entered the Regina Pacis on the 24th October. I was beaten on the morning of the 23rd of November. … I have seen people being slapped by Father Cesare. … I cannot stay here. I have to escape. We try to escape … we are forty. … I am captured. … The police (carabinieri) drag me before Father Cesare. … I refuse to glance down, he takes me by my hair, … my head hits the wall, once, twice, three times; it is as if my eyesight was crashing, … the blood drains out my face, … I feel more blood coming out, … and a pain pervades the whole of my body. … I open my eyes, … a doctor bends toward me, looks at me and says: ‘He has to go to the hospital, … we cannot leave him here’. … I am taken, later, to hospital. ‘What happened?’ … The centre's collaborator, a Moroccan like me, … says: ‘He fell down the balcony’. … I do not speak Italian, but I do speak French, and the wording sounds alike. ‘No,’ I tell the doctor, ‘Je ne suis pas tombé,’ … I have been beaten. I make them understand gesticulating too (Rovelli, 2006, pp. 95–8).6

All these examples suggest that the spatiality of the camps is much more complex than is often assumed. Despite the many horrors and violations arbitrarily perpetrated inside detention, the bearing of testimony and/or the denouncing of the many abuses to the juridical authorities do give some hope that the logic of exception – embedded in current politics of the camps – can be contested. Thus, these stories might also be viewed as representing some ‘countertendencies that make it possible to think about the future in more optimistic terms’ (Laclau, 2007, p. 17).

Concluding Remarks

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Camps and Bare Life
  4. Resisting the Impossible?
  5. Dissent and Coping Strategies
  6. Testimony as an Act of Resistance
  7. Concluding Remarks
  8. References
  9. Biography

What this article has tried to argue is that detention centres are not always sites already inhabited by bare life. Not only does an analysis of the violence of the camp uncover a very specific biopolitics against aliens, it also uncovers the many acts of resistance that are too often neglected. The many modalities through which the violence of the camp is contested do encourage a different perspective from which to look at current camps. More specifically, camps' forced users have not simply resisted bare life, but have made important claims against camps' violence by reminding sovereign representatives of their obligations. Not obligations towards their nationals to protect the country against unwanted fluxes or guests, but obligations to respect core principles of the Italian Constitution and of the European Convention on Human Rights. These claims were particularly strong when made by long-term residents in Italy, who found themselves undocumented due to the change in legislation and/or in their economic status. In this respect, camps are understood not as sites where sovereign power might enact any form of abjection and get away with it, but rather as sites in which internees make use of a language of rights against the sovereign language of the exception.

Contrary to dominant narratives, camp internees are not exclusively newcomers; some have lived in Italy for a long time, and it is their presence that makes the spatialities of the camp much more complex than is often assumed. If a newcomer might remain silent – lacking the linguistic-legal knowledge, the connections in loco or the courage to speak up – the same does not necessarily hold true for those who find themselves in a camp after living on Italian soil for many years. However, quite surprisingly, dissent inside camps has not always been constructed on an absolute rejection of the camp per se, as for instance articulated in the slogan ‘né qui né altrove’ (neither here, nor elsewhere) (Mezzadra and Neilson, 2003) and in the noborder network. On the contrary, as the Italian case illustrates, many verbal protests are constructed on the idea that the penalty inflicted, whose inhumanity contradicts European liberal democratic principles, was not proportional to the offence committed, that is, the irregular entry or stay. The few stories recalled here have not specifically contested the existence of camps for the undocumented, but rather have contested the economic-bureaucratic system which easily transforms regular migrants into irregular ones, as well as a politico-legal system that tolerates abuses and violence in detention in complete disregard of basic human rights and dignity. All the stories share a common intent: to refuse to accept deportation passively without resisting unacceptable migration policies, which target irregular migrants and not the many Italians who hire them irregularly and do not respect the rules. This contradiction is even more unacceptable for those who have been living, with their families, in Italy for years and are constantly reminded by Italian politicians that immigration policies are intended first and foremost to ensure a respect for the rules. Undoubtedly, more research needs to be done on this reality in relation to the Italian case, which on the one hand produces processes of illegality and deportability and on the other punishes some migrants who have found themselves trapped within this system.


I would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers for the constructive and detailed comments they made on the previous version of this article. Special thanks go to the editors of Political Studies.

  1. 1

    In Italy, there exist three different types of centre, whose names and functions have been recently changed: (1) CIE: identification and expulsion centres; (2) CARA: reception centres for asylum seekers, previously known as CID; and (3) CDA: reception centres for migrants. The most problematic centres – which are also the focus of my analysis – are the CIE, formerly known as CPTA, centres of temporary stay and assistance, or CPT. The CPT, instituted in 1998, was initially intended for those who received an expulsion order (decreto di espulsione) due to their irregular presence in the Italian territory (Act no. 40, 6 March 1998, ‘Disciplina dell'immigrazione e norme sulla condizione dello straniero’, Gazzetta Ufficiale, no. 59, 12 March 1998). Originally, the forced holding period – a maximum of 30 days – was not a compulsory measure, and forced deportations were rarely carried out (see Galieni and Patete, 2002; Sciortino, 1999). The so-called Bossi-Fini Law (Act no. 189, 30 July 2002, ‘Modifica alla normativa in materia di immigrazione e di asilo’, Gazzetta Ufficiale, no. 199, 26 August 2002) introduced stricter and more repressive provisions on detention and permit renewal, and stricter sanctions in case of non-compliance (Nascimbene, 2003; Schuster, 2005). The forced trattenimento (holding) in the centres has been made compulsory, the length of confinement in the CPT and the interdiction against re-entry have been doubled, and finally re-entry during the interdiction period is to be punished with up to five years' imprisonment and a criminal conviction. The forced detention period has been recently increased from a maximum of 180 days, which was the period set in 2009 (Act no. 94, 15 July 2009, ‘Disposizioni in materia di sicurezza pubblica’, Gazzetta Ufficiale, no. 170, 24 July 2009), to a maximum of eighteen months (Decree-law no. 89, 23 June 2011, ‘Disposizioni urgenti per il completamento dell'attuazione della direttiva 2004/38/CE sulla libera circolazione dei cittadini comunitari e per il recepimento della direttiva 2008/115/CE sul rimpatrio dei cittadini di Paesi terzi irregolari’, converted into Act no. 129, 2 August 2011, Gazzetta Ufficiale, no. 181, 5 August 2011). Currently, there are some 26 centres, half of which are identification and expulsion centres, located in different Italian regions (Ministero dell'Interno, 2012). According to the law, each detainee should receive a copy of the Carta dei Diritti e dei Doveri (Charter of Rights and Duties) which, as reported a few years ago by Doctors Without Borders (Medici Senza Frontiere, 2004), is commonly disregarded.

  2. 2

    I wish to thank Sara Prestianni from Migreurop for drawing my attention to some of these reports.

  3. 3

    All the translations from Italian into English are mine.

  4. 4

    Sajjad was eventually taken to hospital and, due to his health problems, was later granted refugee status.

  5. 5

    Father Cesare and some of his collaborators have finally been taken to court thanks to detainees' denouncements and the help of doctors and lawyers who assisted detainees in the legal proceedings (see Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno, 2004; Il Manifesto, 2003, 2004; Leccesera, 2003; Quotidiano di Lecce, 2003).

  6. 6

    Montassar was eventually given a temporary permit of stay on ‘justice grounds’, for bearing witness in the Italian court against Father Cesare.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Camps and Bare Life
  4. Resisting the Impossible?
  5. Dissent and Coping Strategies
  6. Testimony as an Act of Resistance
  7. Concluding Remarks
  8. References
  9. Biography
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  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Camps and Bare Life
  4. Resisting the Impossible?
  5. Dissent and Coping Strategies
  6. Testimony as an Act of Resistance
  7. Concluding Remarks
  8. References
  9. Biography
  • Raffaela Puggioni is Teaching Fellow in International Relations at the University of Nottingham, Ningbo Campus, China. She is the author of various articles and chapters on Italian asylum politics and refugees' protection and integration. More recently, she has looked at the question of dissent and bodily resistance beyond the Agambenian concept of bare life. Raffaela Puggioni, School of International Studies, University of Nottingham Ningbo China, 199 Taikang East Road, Ningbo 315100, China; email: