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Passeurs: Narratives of Border Crossing in the Western Alps


This article focuses on representations of passeurs: migrant smugglers across the French-Italian and Swiss-Italian borders. I analyze a heterogeneous corpus of novels, films, and essays published between 1990-2017 that refer to different waves of migration, from World War II to the contemporary migration crisis. I argue that these texts complicate and help question the current criminalization of migrant smugglers most often found in the media and political discourses. In particular, I claim that these discourses confuse or dismiss migrants’ experience of border crossing, as they neglect important ethical and legal differences between smuggling and trafficking, humanitarian actors and professional smugglers. The texts I analyze insist on these nuances, enriching our understanding of the human stakes of “illegal” migrations. Through the analysis of literature and film, I present figures of migrant smugglers who have operated illegally to facilitate migrants, but who must not be confused with human traffickers. For example, in his bio-fiction Il vuoto alle spalle (1999), journalist Marco A. Ferrari gives an uplifting, idealized portrayal of Ettore Castiglioni, an Anti-Fascist Alpinist active during World War II, who smuggled Italian Jews and political opponents to the Fascist regime to Switzerland, including the second President of the Italian Republic, Luigi Einaudi. Francesco Biamonti, who lived at the French-Italian border and was a prolific novelist in the 1980s and 1990s, insists on the professionalism of smugglers who have been traditionally present in the Western Alps. In particular, Biamonti stresses that good passeurs are those who never put the life of their clients (migrants) at risk. Novels such as Vento largo (1991) and Le parole la notte (1994) not only point at the negative effects of globalization in Liguria (Italy), but also lament Europeans’ lack of attention to and understanding of increasing migratory flows, well before the media started talking about a migrant “crisis.” Lastly, I present the work of journalists who occasionally performed the role of “humanitarian smugglers” and later reported their experience in written or cinematic form: Io sto con la sposa, by Gabriele del Grande, Khaled Soliman Al Nassiry, and Antonio Augugliaro (2014); Passeur, by Raphaël Krafft (2017). These works express the authors’ need to reconnect with the professional and anti-Fascist tradition of passeurs in the Western Alps, at a time when there is no alternative to “illegal” border crossing for too many migrants.



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