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Open Access Publications from the University of California

From Dreams to Deportations: The Case of Tunisian Irregular Migrants in Italy After 2011

  • Author(s): Khedher, Rayed
  • Advisor(s): Hale, Sondra
  • Slyomovics, Susan
  • et al.

This dissertation contributes to the study of transnational migration and human mobility by ethnographically documenting the lives of 60, male, Tunisian, irregular migrants—part of a mass migration of 30,000 people—who fled the 2011 Tunisian uprising by crossing the Mediterranean Sea and landing in Italy where they created, according to Italian authorities, an “emergency situation.” Although most of these migrants intended to use Italy as a gateway to other countries, such as France and Germany where they already had established social networks, many found

themselves stuck in Italy where they were considered “illegals” under Italian law. A number of them faced human rights abuses such as deportation back to Tunisia, suffered violence and oppression at the hands of the Italian police and Italian society at large, and were stigmatized as “potential criminals” and “hidden terrorists” by both state and non-state actors, i.e., employers, media and the larger public.

Using narratives and oral histories from the study population, this research explores 1) the processes of criminalizing and dehumanizing the migrant “Other” such that violence perpetrated against him is permitted and rationalized; 2) the irregular migrants’ experience, discussion, negotiation of, and resistance to, their socially constructed “illegality” and “criminality”; and 3) the trends in anti-migrant violence and oppression and their consequences for the migrants’ identities, survival strategies, and daily struggles. Transnational migration scholarship and its idea of the “permeability” of national “borders” as shifting political spaces provided a theoretical foundation for this multi-sited research. The project transcends geographical boundaries to reach a macro-level understanding of the study population and to demonstrate the processes through which transnational movements are produced, forged, and maintained. The relevance of this research cannot be overstated as political turmoil in the Middle East continues, and irregular migrants and refugees pour into Europe. Thus, although the number of Tunisian migrants to Italy has significantly dropped since the 2011 uprising, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been landing on Italian southern shores since 2015 when Syria entered into a civil war.

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