Barbara Pinelli presents her paper 'Violence, surveillance and agency experiences of the women refugees in the Italian reception camps' in Parallel session IV(C) of the conference Examining Migration Dynamics: Networks and Beyond, 24-26 Sept 2013
This paper focuses on the relation between agency and the process of becoming refugees. In the last four years, I have carried out an ethnographic research in southern Italy refugee camps organized by the Italian government for the detention and control of undocumented migrants, in order to document the violence experiences of women asylum seekers who have reached Italy after spending a period of time in Libya, and crossing the Mediterranean Sea. These women have endured terrible abuses in their trajectory toward Europe; once inside the camps, they are subject to forms of moral and institutional violence, surveillance mechanisms, that shape their subjectivities as women and refugees. In particular, they are exposed to the disciplinary regimes of the camps and the imaginary of assistance culture that perceive them only as victims, female subjects to be emancipated and devoid of any agency. In this paper, I will show how refugee women are not mere bodies to be educated, controlled or emancipated: I will describe the weight of the memory of violence and of the power abuses experienced in the arrival context, paying attention on how women refugees have coped with these burdens, how they read the power networks they were involved in or the gap between refugees' self-perceptions and imaginary produced by the system of protection. I will refer to the issue of subjectivity (as multi-positioned and an ongoing process) as an important key for exploring both signs suffering, and the dimensions of agency, desire (to reconstruct a new life) and hope for the future, and the practices performed by women asylum seekers to reconstruct their existences after the flight. My intention is to show how the recognition of agency has an important political valence when ethnographic research involves subjectivities affected by violence and living in extremely marginal conditions.