- Link to the scientific book: Belloni M., The Big Gamble. The Migration of Eritreans to Europe, University of California Press (2019).
"Le altre scienze" – "The Other Sciences", in English – is our podcast with questions (and answers) on politics and society. It's in Italian.
Since this 6th episode is particularly relevant, we wanted to share it with a broader audience.
Please read below the English transcription of this podcast interview with Milena Belloni, professor of Migration and Global Mobility at the University of Antwerp.
GR: Welcome to a new episode of "Le altre scienze": the NaspRead.eu podcast with questions and answers from the world of social and political sciences. A greeting from Giulia Riva. Today we are with Milena Belloni, an ethnographer who teaches at the University of Antwerp about migration and global mobility. Welcome Milena.
MB: Thank you very much, Giulia. Good morning, everyone.
GR: You are the author of a text - downloadable for free by anyone interested in finding out more - for the University of California Press, entitled 'The Big Gamble. The migration of Eritreans to Europe'. So today we are talking about migration. The Meloni government these days is discussing an African plan to 'help them at home', which also includes communication experts to inform migrants about what risks they run. Is this so? I mean, that's the point, they don't know what they risk?
MB: In my book, I have precisely tried to explain why people embark on these journeys of hope: do they know the risks? And if they know them, how do they evaluate them? In particular, I focused on the case of Eritrea: trying to reconstruct the context, the perspectives, the imaginaries, the reasons why tens of thousands of young men and women left their country and then from the neighbouring countries - then Ethiopia and Sudan - embarked on very dangerous journeys across the Sahara, the Mediterranean, and Europe.
I have often asked the question: do you know the risks? Do you know about the dangers you might incur?
This question was perceived as almost insulting because many of the people I addressed had suffered bereavements themselves. Mothers who had lost children, people who had lost siblings - in the Mediterranean, in the Sahara, or fleeing from the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia – so the answer was 'Of course, we know the risks. We know them well.
Another example that people know the risks well and yet are ready to embark on these journeys was when I was in refugee camps in Ethiopia. There I often met boys who had been victims of marauders: who had imprisoned them, tortured them, and even ransomed their families for thousands of euros. These boys, who showed me the marks of torture on their bodies, would tell me, 'Sure, we know the risks. Look at this. However, we have no other option but to risk it again'. And soon they would start again their attempt to escape from Ethiopia and try to reach Europe, one way or another. So the problem does not seem to be informing as much as creating alternatives to irregular migration.
GR: Your book is entitled The Big Gamble. Does it make sense to talk about the Migrants' Journey as a gamble?
MB: Migrants in Eritrea often spoke from their perception of feeling like they were in a lottery. Of the fact that their attempts to overcome borders and obstacles of all kinds were like bets. The bets of gamblers in which, indeed, fate and destiny certainly played a role. From this analogy, I have also tried to draw out the mechanisms of this migration that, in short, are often not talked about. And that is the fact that migrants, like gamblers in a certain sense, have to put in, have to invest a lot of resources. And they have to invest them not just once but several times, because this journey is not a journey from A to B, from a departure to a destination. But they are very complicated journeys with, many pauses and restarts. After many attempts, often failed, they try to leave Eritrea. But often they are imprisoned, brought back.... People try to leave Ethiopia, but often even there, they are imprisoned and brought back to the starting point.
So, it looks like... Again, there is an analogy here with a sort of game of the goose. This continuous and repeated investment of resources also leads to the perception that there is no other way out but to keep going. Studies on gambling have uncovered a mechanism called entrapment. Players feel compelled to keep playing because if they do not win, if in the end with these repeated bets, the game is not successful, all their investment is lost. This is somewhat the usual mechanism that also happens to migrants.
After having invested not only economic but also psychic, moral, and emotional resources in this great Journey - which as we have said is not one but multiple - the only way to make all these efforts make sense is to arrive in a safe place for oneself, but also a safe place from where one can contribute to the family's wellbeing, to the wellbeing of the family that has been left behind. To a place where you can make sense not only from an individual point of view but also from a family point of view, of this great investment that has been made so far.
GR: Regarding this - you have already answered us partially - you talked about resources: not only economic but also psychic and moral. We see people arriving. But for one person who arrives, dozens leave. And for one person who leaves, there are perhaps thousands who stay. Is it the choice of the individual, of the single person, to embark on the Journey?
MB: Many people can leave, many people cannot even leave. The ability and willingness to embark on certain journeys also depend on the economic possibilities and connections individuals have. Primarily on the ability to pay, often, facilitators of irregular migration. And transnational connections with family, friends, and communities who possibly live in Europe - rather than in America, Canada, or the United States - and who can partly, at least, finance this journey.
So on the one hand we have to see migration - as you say - not as an individual choice, in the sense that it is a dynamic that involves families if not communities. Moreover, looking at migration from this point of view also allows us to understand not only why people flee, but also why people stay. So it leads us to change our point of view and question why people stay, despite constant instability, violence, despite conflict. And at this point, it is interesting to see that the asylum system as it is constructed, the global asylum system as it is constructed, really offers very few possibilities to those who flee their country.
There are three solutions when it comes to refugees: return to their homeland; local integration in the country where they arrive, usually neighboring countries (and countries that are usually low-income, poor, have various other problems besides receiving many refugees); and resettlement to third, industrialized countries, such as Canada, the United States, and Europe.
What is interesting to say is that only less than 1% of the world's refugees can be resettled so the other two solutions - local integration and repatriation - seem to be the most widely used. However, repatriation, too, is an extremely difficult solution to achieve because often the crises from which these people come are permanent crises, i.e. situations of chronic political, economic, and social instability, from which people flee and to which it is very difficult to return. And local integration is extremely complicated by the fact that these people often arrive in low-income countries and therefore do not have the possibility of accessing the labor market, do not have the possibility of continuing their education. All their civil, social, and political rights are extremely limited. So it is interesting, on the one hand, to understand precisely this system of immobility, which in a way has become the norm in the global asylum system rather than the mobility system. At this point, individual and family strategies of migration are a response to this system, which gives no long-term perspective to refugees.
GR: Because in reality, correct me if I'm wrong, we are dealing with people who take on the expectations and perhaps the lack of possibilities of those around them, but who give them this chance to leave. So it also becomes more difficult to do something that perhaps, how should I put it... it happens all the time to start something without having a clear idea, perhaps, even of the consequences. But in most cases, we have the opportunities in our daily lives to possibly rebalance - in itinere - costs and benefits. If one embarks on journeys, on the Journey understood as that of migrants, is this option valid, i.e. to be able to go back?
MB: This whole organization of the Journey in a sense transnational because it includes both the families who remain behind, the migrants on the journey, and the family relatives who have already arrived at their destination, is part of a kind of transnational moral economy that binds these people and defines their obligations and imaginaries too. Dreams. Possibilities too, as resources are transmitted through these connections.
GR: In all this, does it make a difference to be male or female?
MB: It makes a difference to be male or female, it makes a difference to be old young, it makes a difference to be black or white. It makes a difference to be highly educated or not. Every migrant brings with him or her a complex matrix of racial, class, and gender categorizations, which may expose him or her more or less to danger and vulnerability during the journey.
I met women who had certainly been exposed to great violence. But also men. Let's say that in this Journey it is difficult to make it to the end without having been victimized in some way, in some sense.
GR: You have been in the field. You have been to Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. Also in the camps in Italy. Is there anything that has impressed you the most, that has stayed with you the most?
MB: Living for two years in close contact with people who are engaged in migration - in the sense that they are not only migrating but are constantly thinking about migration - so about how to go further, how to try to accumulate the resources to escape from Eritrea rather than Ethiopia rather than Sudan rather than Italy (because we know that Italy is also not the preferred destination of many migrants, certainly not the Eritreans I dealt with) changes you. It changes the way you also perceive this talk about migration, being in contact with these people, who are people who have now also become friends. I didn't become friends with everyone, but among the people who helped me carry out my research I certainly maintained many friendships: so, let's say, the way of looking at migration as a flow changes.
You look at migration as people who are often your age... Many of my interlocutors were my age, they had dreams and desires that were similar to mine. And the desire perhaps to start a family, the desire to study. Let's say, it gives a human face to this migration that is often represented as - precisely - numbers, as flows, as a mass invasion. It gives it back a human face. I hope that through my book people can access an idea of migration, of what it means to travel, of what it means to escape from a country like Eritrea, different from what they can find in the media, on television, and in newspapers.
GR: Thank you Milena Belloni for being with us, and to those listening, see you next time on 'Le Altre Scienze'.