Working in Immigration Detention in Italy: Navigating the Tensions Between Security and Humanity, Repression and Compassion, Inside and Outside



Time to read

3 Minutes

Post by Francesca Esposito and Silvia Scirocchi. Francesca is a Doctoral Candidate in Community Psychology, ISPA-University Institute, Lisbon

Ponte Galeria, Rome (Photo: Mario Badagliacca) \n

Previously run by humanitarian agencies (Red Cross and Auxilium), since December 2014 Ponte Galeria is managed by a partnership of the French company Gepsa

Female dining hall of Ponte Galeria (Photo: Mario Badagliacca) \n

As our findings suggest, external service providers, namely, human right advocates, volunteers of faith-based organizations and religious congregations, lawyers, and journalists, also have to navigate tensions, challenges, and dilemmas in carrying out their work in detention. Whilst, in general, they do not perceive detention in a positive way, and in some cases they even manifest an overtly abolitionist position, they choose to carry out their professional activities inside these institutions. In doing so, they work both to provide individual support to detainees (moral, legal and psychosocial aid), and to change the system and its rules. Understanding their mission to be a political one is what actually drives them to keep offering their services in such a coercive site in spite of the numerous challenges they have to face (restrictions concerning access to the centre and detainees, lack of information and collaboration on the part of police and, at times, of the managing body). Many of them, especially human rights advocates, are critical of their presence in detention, expressing concerns about their indirect ‘complicity’ with the operation of the detention system (see also Kotsioni). These concerns are also echoed by anti-detention activists, some of whom regard their choice of ‘entering inside’ as having the de facto effect of legitimising the detention institution.

Such tensions have implications for the relationship that these independent professionals develop with detainees. Due to their limited time and resources, they are only able to provide support that benefits a small number of people incarcerated in Ponte Galeria. Therefore, they are constantly confronted with the uneasy task of deciding whom to help or not. Whereas not responding to detainees’ needs causes professionals stress and frustration, the opportunity to ‘save’ someone from deportation and to help them be released and start a life in Italy, is what provides them with the energy and motivation to continue their work. In many cases, their relationship with detainees continues outside the gates of Ponte Galeria, and at times even develops into friendships.

The library in Ponte Galeria’s female living unit, used by human rights advocates (Photo: Francesca Esposito)\n

As several scholars have highlighted, especially with regards to refugee camps and reception centres for asylum seekers (see, for example, Agier; Fassin; Harrel-Bond), an increasing intersection between control and assistance characterises the enforcement of migration policies. The Italian case, where immigration detention centres have been officially described as ‘places to provide assistance to migrants while in the process of being deported’ (Campesi), while entrusting their management to private entities with a humanitarian background, is emblematic in this regard. In particular, it is indicative of how a humanitarian discourse has been used to mask the fragmentations, power inequalities, and colonial legacies on which contemporary practices of border control, such as immigration detention, are grounded in Italy. This discourse further contributes to normalise the inherent violence of these institutions in the eyes of the broader public (see Cadeddu; Di Cesare). In so doing, it fosters a politics of compassion rather than of justice, and a fantasy of redemption aimed at feeding Western White morality.

When analysing this model of humanitarian government, we, at the same time, should always remember that inside these institutions there are people, detainees as well as professionals. People who have aspirations, desires, values, goals and emotions. They are the ones who experience the material effects of the detention regime, while also being part of its reproduction. As such, understanding their experiences, in their complexities and contradictions, is important in getting the full grasp of how the regime works. As argued by Agier, it is indeed from this ‘attention to detail, to the grain of dust that jams the machinery, the recalcitrant words of individuals about roles assigned to them’ that we can actually ‘learn and transmit most.’ We hope that this blog post provides a platform for the ‘recalcitrant words’ of those who, in a variety of ways, find themselves carrying out professional activities in these sites of confinement.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Esposito, F. and Scirocchi, S. (2017) Working in Immigration Detention in Italy: Navigating the Tensions Between Security and Humanity, Repression and Compassion, Inside and Outside. Available at: (Accessed [date]).

Found within

Detention centres; immigration detention; border control


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