Venice’s long history as a sanctuary city for migrants is under threat

‘Venice Inflatable Refugee’, an artist’s project displayed in Venice in 2016. Dirk Knot/Schellekens

In an incident that profoundly shocked the city of Venice, and Europe more broadly, a young Gambian asylum seeker was left to drown in a canal late January, as onlookers stood by. His tragic death highlights the desperation of migrants across Italy.

It echoes the case of a young woman from Côte d’Ivoire, who died of thrombosis in a centre for migrants near Venice at the beginning of 2017. Several occupants had protested against living conditions in the centre, which was originally built for 540 people but actually housed 1,400 at the time of the incident.

Similar events have been cropping up regularly in Italy, demonstrating that places such as Venice, which used to be centres of welcome for migrants, are increasingly failing them.

In 2016 alone, more than 181,000 migrants arrived in the country, including numerous unaccompanied minors. Of these, 133,727 (77.7%) were housed in temporary structures; 14,015 in induction centres; 1,225 in so-called hot spots; and 22,971 in centres that are part of the national asylum system.

The situation has become critical due to lack of funding and an approach favouring containment.

A sanctuary city

Since 2015, “sanctuary cities” have been cropping up across Europe.

In these places, local authorities are taking charge of the conditions and methods for integrating migrants, in order to counterbalance the fact that governments are shirking their responsibilities.

Also known as asylum cities, cities of welcome and solidarity cities, sanctuary cities include Glasgow, Barcelona and Madrid.

The concept is not new. In 1996 French philosopher Jacques Derrida explicitly called on local authorities to come together and renew their traditions of hospitality.

And Venice, in particular had developed its own tradition of hospitality before other new sanctuary cities emerged.

Refugees from Padua arrive on Dorsoduro Island (circa 1684) in a fresco by Antonio Zonca in San Zaccaria church, Venice. Didier Descouens/Wikimedia, CC BY-NC-SA

The Balkan precedent

According to migration expert Christopher Hein, Italy welcomed 80,000 refugees during the Balkan wars. More than 70,000 people were granted visas on humanitarian grounds, 57,000 of those between October 1991 and October 1995. He wrote:

Just 2,000 were housed in state run accommodation … All of the others relied on the hospitality provided by town councils, private organisations, parishes, pilgrim centers, and other non-government institutions.

Around 500 migrants from the Balkans settled in Venice in 1992 and 1993. Confronted with the proliferation of makeshift camps, the local authorities quickly organised the new arrivals in the city (which then counted around 310,000 inhabitants), while seeking to provide more extensive support.

This show of solidarity stands in stark contrast to the current situation. Violence in Syria and broader geopolitical instability are constantly swelling the ranks of exiled populations, who are looking to the European Union for help. Yet the EU appears to be limiting its approach to crisis management and control. But alternatives forms of hospitality have been developed by local authorities and ordinary citizens.

‘Emergenza’ in Venice

In the 1990s, the first difficulties with ex-Yugoslavian migrants arose from material, sanitary and sociocultural issues. In response, the Venice town council set up public meetings to discuss ways to welcome and live alongside new populations, calling for suggestions from the community.

This bottom-up approach contrasted with a quantitative and faceless institutional approach to humanitarian crisis management. As Beppe Caccia, the deputy mayor for social affairs at the time, explained in 2004:

The ‘Emergenza’ refugee management strategy was always intended to be long term and forward thinking. The goal was to help these people integrate into society.

Thanks to support in finding schooling, employment and housing, the majority of people in the induction centres gradually settled down in the region. When the Italian government, whose military was still engaged in former Yugoslavia, declared that the emergency was over and cut funding to the programme, the Venetian town council decided to keep it going, using its own budget.

The Fontego Project

This experiment led the town council to refine its integration methods over the course of the 1990s and the 2000s. In 2001, Venice launched the Fontego Project — three centres that could house around 110 people.

Upon signing a contract with the council, asylum seekers were granted a six-month stay and given medical treatment, administrative support, and training in order to help them integrate and create ties with the local community. They participated in music and theatre workshops, the opening of an “Exile cafe” and the Mostra del Cinema.

The Fontego Project evokes Venice’s tradition of hospitality. The name itself is indicative of an open desire to evoke a rich past.

From an architectural standpoint, the Fontego is typical of Venetian lodging. Dating back to the 13th century, Fonteghi provided temporary accommodation to foreigners, especially merchants.

Fontego dei Turchi, a typical ‘palazzo’ that housed travellers from the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century. Didier Descouens/Wikimedia, CC BY-NC-SA

Conjuring this proud tradition is an attempt to add legitimacy to a more recent commitment to welcoming migrants by grounding it in the city’s cosmopolitan past.

According to a mix of history and legend, Venice was founded in 421 in the lagoon by people we would now call refugees from coastal communities, fleeing hordes of “Barbarians”.

In telling its own story, however, the city has been forced to acknowledge the contradictions inherent in the organisation of public space and the life of a community confronted with outsiders. Let us not forget that, in 1516, it was Venice that gave us the term “ghetto”, now used to describe systems of control and confinement in urban spaces.

The central square of the Venetian ghetto, another way Venice ‘welcomed’ foreigners. Didier Descouens/Wikimedia, CC BY-NC-SA

The crisis approach

So how did we end up where we are today, with migrants drowning in the canals of Venice, rather than being welcomed by the city?

Starting in 2010, financial difficulties began to plague several Italian cities. Coupled with a “crisis” approach to managing new arrivals, especially from 2011 onwards, the Venetian integration initiative stalled.

The rollback was completed in June 2015, when the new mayor announced on the day after his election that he intended to “put a stop to migration”. In December 2016, he also pushed for the establishment of a “citadel of poverty” to contain homeless people.

The independence of cities is being gradually eroded by a federal management policy, with the “Lampedusa model” being the most striking illustration.

Cities are still suffering from the tensions created by a topdown federal control approach to humanitarian crises, where people become collateral damage.

Given the disparities between the powers and goals of local and national institutions, a socially conscious solidarity between cities could well be the way to find sustainable alternative solutions.


Translated from the French by Alice Heathwood for Fast for Word.