Fighting Fortress Europe as/for Migrants and Refugees in Naples


Fortress Europe (and Italy in particular) simultaneously enforces a deadly racist border regime and profits from the capitalist exploitation of undocumented workers. In this article, the Naples Migrant and Refugee Movement chronicles their political organizing for the last five years. They demand the right for everyone to live where they want and dream of a world without borders.

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Grace and activists of the Movement during the “Black Sardines” demonstration to demand residence permits for all in Naples, on December 23, 2019. / Photo by Federica Gallo.

In 2016, Movimento Migranti e Rifuguati Napoli was born out of a dispute concerning the mismanagement of refugee and migrant reception centers. We witnessed the collusion between the Mafia and the State as the Italian reception system banned the lives of migrants arriving in Italy via the Mediterranean route. From this point on, Movimento Migranti e Rifugiati Napoli became a movement of anti-capitalist struggle and resistance that centers the migrant experience.

Our first meeting took place with a group of 10 Malians, who attended a demonstration with their suitcases and personal belongings after being expelled from a reception center for asking for their documents, as well as activists from Ex Opg Je so Pazzo.

This is how Controllo Popolare was born: actively denouncing the living conditions inside reception centers, which are managed by private cooperatives who are often colluding with systems of organized crime. We uncovered extremely precarious situations, overpopulated dormitories, dilapidated buildings, and no service provision around medical, psychological, Italian schools, and legal assistance. This became the catalyst of our core activity as a movement — providing the missing services within these centers, such as Italian language classes, outpatient clinics, and free legal aid. These services connect people to operators, mediators and lawyers to help them navigate the police and hospital institutions. Controllo Popolare is creating sustainable systems where migrants and refugees have agency over the conditions that affect their daily lives.

Through the implementation and provision of these services, those of us who are not migrants themselves have come into direct contact with the reality of life for migrants within a discriminatory and oppressive system…

Through the implementation and provision of these services, those of us who are not migrants themselves have come into direct contact with the reality of life for migrants within a discriminatory and oppressive system — from racialized labor conditions, to the denial of the right to health and housing.

An important date of our movement was March 1, 2017, on World Refugee Day, when a demonstration was organized by a group of migrant activists still residing in so-called “reception centers.” They took to the streets for the improvement of life conditions in these centers, and to demand residence permits for all. Through organized struggle and denunciations we managed to close down some of these reception centers and grow politically together with other migrant activists.

As far as residence permits are concerned, our struggle continues. Over the years, the Italian State has enacted a series of discriminatory and exclusionary laws (such as Decreto Minniti and Decreti Sicurezza) that continue to affect the possibility of residency in Italy for migrants. This in turn obstructs several basic rights within the country, including access to health services, which at a time of great global crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic is especially necessary to protect the entire community.

Meanwhile, the fight for the residence permit is also the fight for a decent wage. But how can one exist in the workplace when one is invisible on the territory?

Responsibility lies with the whole of Europe collectively and the economic agreements between nation states that are paid with human lives. In fact, Italy to date continues to finance the Libyan coast guard that is guilty of murder, rape and violence, that together with political propaganda increases the number of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea.

The years 2018 and 2019 were characterized by a very important phase of mobilization that led to our first important victory, on the increased validity of temporary residence permits. With the growth of the Movement, we have been able to form a vocal and visible political body in the media that has become a beacon for the struggles of all. This has allowed us to reach even those who ignore the problems that exist societally and contribute to the development of the country.

Too often in the media do we hear the toxic narrative of the migrant who begs and suffers, but realities such as our Movement are proof of an organized community that fights, resists, demands its rights, and does not give in to the blackmail of institutional racism. From being the political object of electoral propaganda, our activists have regained possession of the word migranti and have become the active subject.

For us, 2020 definitely was the most critical and emergent year. While the pandemic has brought about new forms of collective care and community, it has also highlighted social stratification. The management of the health emergency was once again characterized by privilege and inequality, which allowed only a portion of society access to medical treatment and care.

While politicians were telling us to stay at home, migrant workers without employment contracts were forced to continue working, families in need could not make ends meet, the most fragile could not receive medical care or covid-19 tracking swabs. As a Movement, our work had to be both social and mutual at this point. The legal desk continues to assist people online, and through donations we organized the distribution of food to Italian and migrant families — because the anti-capitalist struggle is primarily a class struggle that sees the precarious unite in the overthrow of the system.

Following the first lockdown last year, the Italian government enacted an amnesty to regularize workers without a contract through a work contract and residence permit. We immediately denounced this amnesty as a “scam” as we realized that this measure was only taken in favor of employers, rather than of us, workers. Instead, we demanded residence permits for everyone, permits that are not stipulated by a labor contract. Furthermore, employers should be the target of regulation, not exploited workers. We predicted that the amnesty would fail, and indeed only just over 1,500 applicants out of 20,000 have been summoned in Naples to date. At this rate, it will take more than four years to process these applications, years during which workers will continue to be exploited by employers. After many assemblies and meetings, we took to the streets on June 17, 2021, where women led the march to the prefecture of Naples with our rallying cry: “Our Lives Can’t Wait Any Longer.”

Those who had taken some of the most complex and vulnerable paths of migration has certainly been women, almost all of them from Nigeria and all of them victims of trafficking and debt-bonded prostitution. The difficulties faced by these women are particularly challenging as they do not relate to the processing and release of documents, but are more concerned with their freedom of work, social and family life, whilst often facing violence from their own community and local criminals.

Institutions, once again, are absent and their existing tools that could contribute to the self-determination of multiplying marginalized people are insufficient and inactive. These factors fuel the exploitation of migrant women who must pay debts to traffickers who had brought them to Italy, economically support their family in their country of origin, as well as their children born in Italy. These same children, despite being born and raised on Italian territory, are not recognized as citizens. In acknowledging these particular circumstances, the community created by our Movement has grown, evolving to fight sexism and the objectification and exploitation of bodies.

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Ousman and activists of the Movement during a Black Lives Matter demonstration for George Floyd in Naples on June 8, 2020. / Photos by Elena De Santis & Ex Opg Je so Pazzo.

We ask for freedom for our brothers, sisters and siblings, we ask for documents to get us out of invisibility, in order to work safely, to protect us from blackmail in the workplace and from being unreasonably fired from a job.

Without a doubt, our activities as comrades are based on daily resistance work and continuously confronting the injustices that are repeated in institutions, in the streets, and in homes. To us, fighting means to be vigilant and active for the rights of all. We are free people across race, gender, sexuality, ableism and we want to live as such. We ask for freedom for our brothers, sisters and siblings, we ask for documents to get us out of invisibility, in order to work safely, to protect us from blackmail in the workplace and from being unreasonably fired from a job. We seek documents that allow us access to treatment in hospitals and to attend school, documents to recognize children born in Italy, and documents that can allow all people to travel across European countries. We demand from the Italian State the respect for democracy and its own Constitution. If the COVID-19 pandemic has not woken up the institutions, then it is up to us to mobilize, to fight, to claim our rights, and to resist. ■