Stefania Bernini, contemporary historian, studies large-scale social, political and cultural phenomena, through the analytical lens of 'family'. Graduated in Contemporary History at the University of Florence under the supervision of Paul Ginsborg, her research focuses on post-war Europe, with a large part of her work being dedicated to the study of how emigrant minors can affect the global economical and sociocultural context, both in the countries of departure and in those of arrival. Forced deportation, welfare and family-state relations are elements that seem extremely interconnected.
Bernini began working at Ca’ Foscari in 2017, as co-coordinator of the Master’s Degree in Crossing the Mediterranean: Towards investment and integration; she then extended the scope of her studies to contemporary society, in particular to families that have been divided by recent migrations.
“In the current political debate, what surprised me the most is how little attention is given to families, even when dealing with the topic of unaccompanied minors – she states – Yet, the relationship between migration and family is important; migration has a huge impact on families, as well as on the life of the minors themselves; but family (in the numerous configurations that this idea might take in different cultural context) has a huge impact on migration practices. And the relationship between family and migrations is obviously fundamental in the arrival countries, where, particularly for minors, a series of welfare and protection measures should be activated to substitute or supplement the protection that, in other circumstances, would be naturally offered by the family network.
After World War II, Europe ended up with millions of children that had been separated from their families, especially in Middle-Eastern European countries. This became the center of a political and cultural debate. Nowadays, Italy hosts about 11.000 foreign unaccompanied minors. In both cases, Italy was a country where people transited.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m working on two projects at the moment. The first one concerns the connections between family, sexuality and nation and the way in which this historically complex relationship is being revised in new populist movements, even in regards to the migration phenomenon.
The second projects concern the figure of the unaccompanied minor in the Mediterranean, from World War II to the present days. Who are the unaccompanied minors? How have they been seen, defined and treated over time? But most of all, how do they depict themselves? How do they define their own experience?
There is still a very strong tendency to talking on behalf of minors, treating them as if they didn’t have a voice. Children and young refugees or migrants are often labelled exclusively as ‘vulnerable’. They are the ultimate victims. The photograph of Alan Kurdi, which managed to capture the international attention in 2015, was an example of that vulnerability. Yet, many other stories tell us about kids that not only manage to survive, but also help others to survive, starting from their families. For a long time, even historians treated the history of childhood essentially like the history of adults who look at kids. My attempt here is trying to rethink how we write the stories of unaccompanied minors, starting from their own voices.
Who is the unaccompanied minor today?
Each story is unique. Data tells us that it’s mostly males, 16 to 17 years old, but data doesn’t give us the full picture of reality. Many kids who arrive in Europe from Africa or Syria have grown up as little migrants and refugees. In many cases, they were separated by other relatives as an effect of migration control policies. Recent images of the children that were taken away from their mothers at the USA -Mexico border have caused a public outcry. But less evident separations happen every day in Europe and Italy. It is maybe worth remembering that when someone says “we only accept women and children”, they are creating separations that will be very hard to mend in the future. It is rare for foreign minors to come to Europe alone, in most cases they found themselves alone at some point of their interminable journey. The family of origin has to anxiously wait for a call that may never arrive, without knowing what is going on or if and when this forced separation will end. Family reunification procedures work very poorly.
Italy has recently approved the new decree law on security and immigration. How will it affect migrant minors?
Theoretically, minors should not be affected by the 'Salvini decree' [Italy’s Minister of the Interior - Ed.]. I, on the contrary, believe that they will be seriously damaged by this course of action, which essentially labels all migrants as dangerous by default. First of all, the elimination of humanitarian reception will have repercussions on both young people and adults, and it is not clear yet which will be the actual consequences on the family reunification operations. The debate that sparked between a number of Italian mayors and the government has highlighted new vulnerabilities and risks brought about by the “security decree”
But there is also another aspect that I personally find very alarming, which is the wide-spread stereotype of the young migrant male as a dangerous predator. There’s a strong racist connotation in the idea of the migrant as an invader, which will surely have consequences for minors as well. The transition to adulthood is a delicate time in life. When they turn 18, young migrants will cease to benefit from those protection mechanisms that international treaties grant to minors, thus shattering the continuity of their path to integration.
The new decree is based on the us/them logic, a binary, simplistic vision of reality with the aim of creating an enemy. But other initiatives of the government have played along with this dualist logic. Think about the current debate on the access to basic income. When your answer to the lack of funds is to exclude “non-Italians”, you’re just using welfare policies to further reinforce the opposition between “us” and “them”, which in turn generates inevitable tensions and makes the management of a complex society even harder.
What changes occur in the society from which migrants depart and what happens in those where they enter?
You often hear people say, mainly in an attempt to exploit the situation, that we have to “help them in their homes” and that when young and able-bodied people start to leave a country, they only weaken it. This is a superficial representation of reality and obviously meant to manipulate the masses. Those who are willing to look at this migration phenomenon from a broader perspective know that the economic and social dynamics generated by this process are much more complicated; from money transfer to the so called 'remittances' (which Southern Europe has immensely benefitted from in the past, especially Italy), to the transfer of knowledge and competences and the development of entrepreneurial paths. It is false to that the emigration process only debilitates the resources of a country. Saying that immigrants only cause problems for destination countries is also an unfounded statement.
Let’s think about Italy and back to the family. We have one of the lowest birthrates in the world and an unequal welfare system, where in many instances, older people ensure the financial well-being (and, more often than not, the mere survival) of young people. It is evident that a society in which grandparents become the preponderant social group has no great future prospects, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “natality support” became a recurring topic in the political debate. Unfortunately, the present political climate has contaminated the issue of family support with nationalistic and xenophobic ideas, artificially opposing the “Italian birthrate” to the presence of young and adult migrants.
Think about the conflicts that have sparked in many Italian cities due to the treatment of ‘foreign” (as in not born from Italian parents) children, like the case in Molfalcone, where kindergartens decided to impose a limited number of spots for ‘foreigners’. It’s crucial to look at these episodes not only as mere news, but also as red flags for an idea of citizenship that emphasizes cultural and racial traits, in stark opposition with a universal view of human rights.
In modern societies, welfare policies have a great potential for inclusion or exclusion. A welfare approach that can look at the plurality of families, from the differences in language and culture to those in gender, could achieve inclusive policies that can grasp the complexity of contemporary societies. Handling immigration correctly, without reducing it to a matter of national security, could have positive social repercussions.
Unfortunately, the current trend is travelling in the opposite direction, with a dangerous inclination to go back to the idea of family and nation as biological entities, exclusive and sealed up. Our difficulties in seeing new Italian citizens as a resource stems from here.
One of the main topics of debate is the distinction between refugees and ‘economic migrants’
According to our Minister of the Interior, the distinction seems very easy to make. In reality, it’s a very complex matter, because in the present, more and more people find themselves in situations that belong to both the conditions. The world is not the same as it was in 1951, when the definition of refugee first appeared in international law. Alexander Betts has effectively defined as “survival migrants” those that might not be necessarily fleeing from war or political conflict but they are still seeking shelter from life endangering situations, like environmental change.
With that being said, it should be noted that we have done very little when faced with obvious and unambiguous situations, like the war in Syria, with blatant violations of humanitarian duties all across Europe.
Let’s talk about gender inequalities. Do you think there are equal career opportunities for man and women in science?
Before obtaining this position at Ca’ Foscari, I worked in the UK, Australia and Poland. I had the chance to experience different academic contexts, all characterized by different levels of support for women in scientific research. I believe it is fundamental to promote policies that support women in research, but it’s not enough. Let me go back for a second to the topic of family. In the countries where I’ve previously worked, I was always surprised by the different ways in which men and women talk about the repercussions that having a family had on their professional lives. Men often talk about the positive and stabilizing effects that family and kids had on their research career; for many of them family and home are still the comforting place they get to come back to after work.
Instead, many women are faced with the challenge of keeping together family time and research, caregiving responsibilities and professional life. This is obviously a sweeping statement. I know many couples who split their family duties in half. But since I deal with families, it’s inevitable for me to think about how we can improve the current situation, especially in a country like Italy, where welfare policies remain weak and unbalanced.