In the aftermath of the fire at the Napier barracks in Kent, asylum seekers’ unsanitary and unsafe appalling living conditions were revealed once again. The overcrowding and poor hygiene made it impossible for people to remain safe during the Covid-19 pandemic. Similar conditions were earlier found by Red Cross at Penally barracks, Wales, where 200 asylum seekers were housed. Medical care was also lacking in both places. Asylum seekers have protested repeatedly and some went on hunger strike, to no avail.
The housing of asylum seekers in overcrowded and poorly-facilitated barracks and hostels by profit-making contractors is the trademark of anti-asylum, anti-migrant policies seen across Britain and Europe. Brexit or not, Britain has a lot in common with the continent in terms of hostility to “outsiders”.
Europe’s colonial legacy ensures the lasting racial arrangement of space: people from former colonies are being allocated living space segregated from society in postcolonial Europe.
Italy’s allocation of space
In Italy where I researched working and living conditions of migrant workers for my book Ciao Ousmane, what always stood out was the extent to which segregation exists and is still practised. The Italian state and society has not broken away from its colonial past, the legacy of which carries on in the form of anti-migrant racism in public life as well as institutionally. White Italians and “outsiders” (asylum seekers and migrant workers) occupy two parallel worlds. The former are active citizens, while the latter are the passive object of political discourse and are forced to be indebted to their “host society”.
The racial categorisation and allocation of space is the norm, evident across regions. Cities and provincial towns are inhabited by white Italians while African workers (most of whom were/are asylum seekers) are kept out, living in subhuman conditions in rural ghettoes. There are the rural encampments in Campobello di Mazara, a west Sicilian town that has always been one of the most important stops in the cycle of seasonal labour in Italy, producing its world-famous Nocellara del Belice olives. Also the tent city of San Ferdinando, Calabria, which was demolished in 2019, and the various encampments in rural Foggia, of Puglia, the largest ones being Borgo Mezzanone and Gran Ghetto.
The majority of the residents of these rural ghettos are sub-Saharan African workers. They have been through the asylum reception system and are nicknamed the ‘CAS people,’ after the Centro di Accoglienza Straordinaria (Extraordinary Reception Centre). Many workers are also former asylum seekers from the secondary-level shelters and the under-aged from the minor centres. They left the asylum reception system for a variety of reasons: some because their shelters closed down, others were asked to leave when reaching eighteen or failing to receive humanitarian protection. Sub-Saharan African workers are at the bottom of the hierarchy: they are usually paid between €15 and €20 on average (off-season rate) in agriculture.
They become agrarianised: their employment options are limited to agriculture; they are heavily exploited, entrapped in poverty and destitution and denied any prospect of social mobility.
The ghettoes, designed to be tucked away from society, indicate to the general populace that the “outsiders” are out of sight and no longer an immediate “problem”. Their invisibility placates racist minds. To maintain that invisibility, abandonment by the state is always accompanied by state intervention, in the form of demolition, eviction and constant police raids and harassment. According to sociologist Loïc Wacquant, University of California, the political nature of a “ghetto” is a racialised space produced by a combined absence and presence of the state. Oscillating from total abandonment to criminalisation, this is how Italy forms and maintains ghettoes for its asylum seekers and migrant workers.
In Campobello, “the housing situation of migrant workers has evolved from the total absence of institutional interventions, up to the institutional management of the only spaces made acceptable,” and the illegalisation of informal settlements, all of which ignores workers’ voices, according to sociologists Martina Lo Cascio of University of Bergamo and Valeria Piro, of University of Padova.
Mohammad, a Gambian worker and former asylum seeker in Campobello who I knew, tried to break through this racial arrangement of space but couldn’t. He asked why African workers cannot live amidst the townsfolk and why they are prevented from renting in town. “If local farmers see me as a ‘good worker,’ what is stopping local society from seeing me as a fellow resident?” He did not want to feel like a commodity to be used when needed and discarded when not. He felt in need of some recognition that he was just like them: human.
“If local farmers see me as a ‘good worker,’ what is stopping local society from seeing me as a fellow resident?”
Racialised space: agrarianise
In Spain and Italy where the depopulation of villages began in the 1960s to 1970s, regeneration projects that take asylum seekers away from towns and cities and place them in remote areas has also led to their agrarianisation.
There are similar hosting schemes in Austria, Sweden, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands, where migrants are brought to live in rural areas. The racial arrangement of space in these schemes ignores the disparity between the village and the asylum seeker/migrant worker, the former benefiting from regeneration (with funds from such projects renovating the village often in the name of “integration”), while the latter are demobilised by isolation and have no choice but to work in agriculture.
Based on enduring racism, rooted in colonialism, segregation by way of the urban-rural divide keeps asylum seekers and migrant workers in their subordinate place and drives them to work and live in desperate and often dangerous conditions. Segregation ruins lives. Many people have been killed as a result.
These are our neighbours
In Britain, it has also led to many deaths. Sixteen asylum seekers died in the six months before the Covid-19 lockdown. 29 asylum seekers died in Home Office accommodation in 2020.
Last year also saw the deaths of three asylum seekers in Glasgow: Mercy Baguma from Uganda died next to her toddler; Badreddin Abadlla Adam, from Sudan, suffered from mental illness and was shot dead by police after injuring people in an attack in the Park Inn Hotel, Glasgow.
And there was Adnan Olbeh, a Kurdish Syrian man, who died in his room in the McLays asylum hostel where he was placed by private contractor Mears in May 2020. A month before his death, he was one of hundreds of asylum seekers evicted from their flats and transported in vans to hostels by Mears, under the Home Office directive in response to the pandemic. “Adnan can be seen as a victim of the hostile environment policy of the UK Home Office,” wrote John Grayson, for the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). “He was killed by the state.”
When Home Secretary Priti Patel declared that “the damage at Napier barracks is deeply offensive to the taxpayers of this country,” we know that what is offensive is this government’s housing arrangements of asylum seekers, which reveals the segregationist purpose and intentions of its policy direction. We must fight against it every step of the way.