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Book Review: Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migration at the World’s Deadliest Border



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Guest post by Polly Pallister-Wilkins, Assistant Professor, Department of Politics, University of Amsterdam. Polly is on Twitter @PollyWilkins.

Review of Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migration at the World’s Deadliest Border by Maurizio Albahari

Given the increasing attention of civil society, politicians, and policy makers to the deaths of people on the move at and beyond Europe’s borders, Crimes of Peace by Maurizio Albahari is a welcome addition to the growing body of academic literature that’s trying to make sense of the intersection of territorial sovereignty, border control, and humanitarian reason. Here, the book title Crimes of Peace requires both some explanation and offers a neat insight into what the book is trying to capture. ‘Crimes of peace’ is taken from the work of Italian psychiatrists Franco Basaglia, the ‘man who closed the asylums,’ and Franca Basaglia Ongaro, who used the phrase crimini di pace to talk about how the pre-emption of potential threats, crime, and deviancy generates actual crimes by the very institutions tasked with care. These crimes come into being through administrative mechanisms of institutional violence and the academic disciplines that structure and lend them legitimacy. For Albahari, ‘crimes of peace speaks to the ambitious, laborious, and resilient administrative, political, and ideological work of maintaining a “system” that has proven crumbling and volatile and that keeps proving unjust, violent and unequal’ (p. 21).

Beautifully written and loaded with the thick description of the anthropologist, the book offers readers a substantive ethnography of the policing of Mediterranean migrations and, in so doing, a sociology of the state itself. Policing in Albahari’s evocative prose concerns not only the practices of law enforcement officials but also the presence of many other diverse societal actors, ranging from the mayors of coastal towns to the Catholic Church and to individual citizens in the military-humanitarian border assemblage. This thick description works to provide a complex genealogy through which we can make sense of the present. Albahari’s research over two decades provides us with a map, tracing how the military-humanitarian border assemblage has come into being, while showing clearly that this genealogy is perhaps longer than many scholars assume. In addition, and as the author himself argues, such ‘rigorous and honest description is analysis’ within anthropology and sociology (at least) and ‘makes pointing to additional explanations superfluous’ (p. 25). Moreover, and this is where I think the book really comes into its own, such rigorous, honest, and unrelenting description, and the careful and repeated cataloguing of deaths, drownings, indifference, negligence, and absence, does more than work as an analysis of a violent military-humanitarian border regime; it acts as a political denunciation that is impossible to ignore.

One of the book’s most welcome contributions is the way Albahari takes us back to the 1990s and Albanian migration to Italy, reminding us that the events of today and their responses are rooted in much longer practices, sensibilities, and politics. What is particularly interesting here―and what runs through the narrative of the book as a whole―is the identification of two themes that have echoed down the decades and will seem very prescient to those who have been studying the recent ‘migration crisis’ and the respective Euro-Mediterranean response: (1) the care and control nexus―or what Albahari calls military-humanitarianism―and (2) the focus on smugglers as responsible for the suffering of people on the move. The author shows us how these two complimentary themes of border policing have genealogies that stretch beyond the ‘recent’ crisis. In so doing, the idea of crisis itself repeatedly comes into question, with Albahari concluding that ‘emergencies do not last two decades. The political priorities, active policies, and structural negligence that perpetuate them as such do’ (p. 203).

Both military-humanitarianism and smugglers as the perpetrators of violence both operate, it becomes clear, through Albahari’s rich description of crime of peace after crime of peace, to render invisible both the experience of people on the move themselves and the violence of territorial sovereignty itself. The agency of people on the move in producing the Euro-Mediterranean as a political space, like waves continually reshaping a beach, is a continuous force as powerful as any member state policy or European directive regarding some new technical mechanism for border control. In addition, the violence of territorial sovereignty, while never discussed in the theoretical detail I’d expect from, say, a political geographer, is nevertheless shown by Albahari to be at the heart of the emergencies by a continuous and unrelenting focus on the victims and a sort of academic cataloguing as bearing witness that in turn becomes an accusation.

Albahari goes beyond this cataloguing, however, by showing how the violence of territorial sovereignty works with what he calls ‘sovereignty as salvation’ where sovereignty’s power to save exists alongside, within, and because of sovereignty’s violence. It’s this sovereignty as salvation that underpins the military-humanitarianism of the Mare Nostrum mission, for example. Meanwhile, the absurdity—for want of a better word—of this assemblage is brought into stark relief through Albahari’s conclusion that questions whether ‘legal, political, symbolic, and physical partition of people can actually be accomplished, humanely or otherwise’ (p. 196). However, a critique of state sovereignty isn’t enough for Albahari. A crime of peace is founded on political and ideological work and, drawing on Arendt here, this work harms and isolates us all as it erodes the socio-political sphere of life. Liberty, then, is only liberty when it’s experienced collectively, when it’s held in the ‘company of equal others’ (p. 201). This book is an important and critical appeal that suggests we should save others not only out of some moral duty to a universal humanity, but also out of a duty to ourselves.

While being of most obvious interest to scholars of migration, humanitarianism, and Europe’s border regime, Crimes of Peace should also appeal to those interested in critical questions of sovereignty and what is means to be a human in the twenty-first century. The book has a very clear geographic focus on the southern Mediterranean and Italy in particular, yet speaks to questions and themes that we see emerging elsewhere as sovereign actors attempt to control territory alongside mobile populations. As such, it provides a useful ethnography of the evolving humanitarian border and will be of interest to all those who wish to explore the intricacies of such an assemblage.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Pallister-Wilkins, P. (2016) Book Review: Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migration at the World’s Deadliest Border. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/06/book-review-1 (Accessed [date]).

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