Erri de Luca
What does the term refugee mean to you?
Someone who would rather stay at home, but who must leave home due to compelling reasons threatening his life and that of others. I belong to a nation that in the 20th Century migrated to countries all over the world, trying to find refuge from extreme poverty. Many thus saved themselves and their families who had stayed in the motherland.
Is flight from poverty less legitimate than flight from war or political oppression?
No difference whatsoever as far as need is concerned, but the various motivations will bring about different behaviors. Someone who migrates due to extreme poverty wants to work and must work in the host country, while someone who migrates due to war only is only waiting for the time to go back. A country hosting refugees will benefit more from someone who migrates because of poverty, because it can take advantage of their extreme need to work.
And what about flight as a result of environmental problems?
The majority of people who have found themselves in a polluted area will stay there due to a lack of options. In Campania’s Terra dei Fuochi people die of cancer, but they don’t leave the area in thousands, and the same is true for Taranto, close to ILVA’s steel production plant. Only a few are aware of the danger and have the means to choose to relocate. Earthquakes do not bring about mass migrations, but camps instead.
When does one cease to be a refugee?
When they go back home. Or when they become a citizen of the new country, when they learn its songs, when their child is born in that land, when they start dreaming in the new host language.
Is there a natural right to asylum?
There is indeed a right of asylum in the History of the Mediterranean. The civilization of the Old Testament calls for the establishment of cities of refuge. The history of famines also tells the story of people who were welcomed in prosperous countries. Egypt welcomes Joseph’s brothers running away from prolonged drought. Ulysses is welcomed in his wanderings among the islands before he goes back to Ithaca. This ancient right of asylum is ratified in the Constitution of the European Union.
If yes: is this right unconditional, or can it be forfeited?
Criminal behaviour revokes rights and benefits.
Do you think that the number of refugees a society can absorb is limited?
The right of asylum is boundless and has no quotas. Tiny Lebanon welcomes more than one million Syrians, and so does tiny Jordan. You should know that only a very small number of people wish to leave their geographical area, look for another continent. Only 5% of world refugees will take upon themselves asylum requests in faraway countries. These are reasonable quotas European nations can easily meet.
If yes: where do you draw the line, and why?
In Italy the number of people granted asylum is low, also because we are a transit country. The majority of refugees who get here wish to go on to other countries.
Do refugees in your country receive fair treatment?
No. Even when they get a permit with a lot of effort, a mafia of subcontractors will speculate on the quota of funds granted for their livelihood.
Would cuts in the social security system in your country be acceptable to you if they were to facilitate the absorption of more refugees?
There is no such alternative. It would only be a kind of blackmail to make the population reject the refugee. Here in Italy there is no such thing as a minimum income for poor citizens guaranteed by the State. There is no social fund from which money can be taken and given to refugees.
What are the requirements for successful integration?
- on the part of the refugees?
- on the part of the citizens of the host country?
There is no directive, we move on by osmosis. Every town has its own opportunities to welcome refugees. Riace, a village in Calabria, makes empty houses available and employs refugees in socially useful jobs. A refugee needs a job, a house, a minimum income, and also to keep in touch with his or her homeland. These are basic needs that are met in different ways in different places. Opportunities rather than requirements to relate to your host. Therefore some places are able to take the opportunity while others are not. It is a fact that we are a land of passage and only a very small quota, less than 20%, will decide to stay.
Do you actively support any refugees?
Yes, I do spend time where they are staying, I listen and record their stories, I have given them steady jobs and helped them fulfil the process to get residence permits and legal protection rights.
How will the refugee situation in your country develop
a) over the next two years?
b) over the next two decades?
We will keep on seeing migratory flows passing through, neither helping them nor being able to discourage them. We will keep on being spectators of the worst marine transport of human beings in the history of the Mediterranean. We will keep on counting the survivors of shipwrecks and the rescue operations. Europe got itself in the position of enduring History rather than managing it. Italy is enduring the history of great migrations also because of its geography shaped like a bridge, like a long landing dock in the middle of the Mediterranean. I can’t see any evolution or any difference in two years’ time and in twenty years’ time. Only the bigger quota of new residents among us will change over those twenty years as a result of renewing births and replacing our barrenness.
Can you imagine a world without refugees?
If yes: what does it take?
Only through the suicide of humankind through some colossal catastrophe can I imagine a few survivors withdrawing into themselves and in their own place. Since the beginning of the Holy Scriptures the Deity has been telling humankind to multiply and spread over the faces of the Earth. We are a wandering and vagrant species, we look at the stellar space looking for a new Earth.
Have you or your family ever been refugee?
I was an expatriate worker in France in the Eighties, I belonged to the last trail of Italian expatriates of the 20th Century. My parents knew the escapes from bombed cities, a common experience of their generation.
Do you think you will ever be a one?
I don’t rule out forced exile from my future.
- If yes: why?
Motives could be political.
- How do you prepare yourself?
I don’t need luggage for a farewell to my place of residence. The things I need fit into a backpack.
- To which country would you take refuge to?
I would knock on France, the second homeland for many exiles, a country that in the past welcomed me as a worker, then as a writer, then as someone accused of a crime of opinion in Italy.
How much “home” do you need?*
My homeland is the dictionary of the Italian language.
*This question was taken from Max Frisch’s questionnaire concerning “heimat”.