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Towards an Anthropology of the Cosmopolitan Condition
Michel Agier


From the Introduction: The Migrant, the Border and the World

Since the late 1990s, migrants originating in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya, Sudan or Eritrea, more recently joined by young Palestinians from Lebanon, have found their way to the port of Patras - a small Greek town on the shore of the Ionian Sea, and the point of departure of cargo boats for Venice, Ancona and Bari in Italy. What the migrants are after here is a crossing to Europe. This is what I saw one February day in 2009, a few metres from the border control.

A group of some twenty Afghans are walking along the edge of the road outside the port. They are waiting, as they do every day, for the lorries moving slowly towards the port, to be loaded into the holds of ships that take them and their goods to Italy. When one of these lorries arrives the young people start running, a couple of them try to open the rear doors of the lorry and, if they manage to do so, hold the doors open while still running as one or two others hurriedly try to climb up. Some shouts, sometimes laughter, as this inevitably becomes almost a game. Certain drivers, annoyed by this daily exercise, sadistically play at accelerating and braking to make the climbers fall off. Stationed on the roadside is a police car, in which four policemen continue to chat as they observe the young people running a few metres away. Finally, on the other side of the road beyond a patch of grass, there is a prestige apartment block whose entire ground floor is occupied by a plate-glass window. Behind the glass you can see a fitness centre, its various apparatuses positioned so that while using them you can see what is happening outside. Side by side on the exercise bikes and treadmills are a dozen people pedalling or running on the spot while placidly watching the young Afghans in their chase behind the lorries. In their field of vision they also have the port, the ships and the sea in the distance - and very likely the police car stationed on the roadside as well.

No word is exchanged between the young Afghans and the fitness practitioners, nor is there any direct contact between the police and these migrants or refugees; the police just study their movements, trying to pick out those in the huddled group who will manage to climb up on the lorries so that when these are on the port parking lot they can make them get out, after crossing the barrier that serves as a border but still in a standby situation awaiting embarkation. There are only looks, with perhaps a few glances exchanged. And the accel­eration and braking of the lorry drivers, which tell the young Afghans that they have indeed been seen and that their lives are fragile.

This silent scene has three places, three actors and three gazes. What the sum total of this symbolizes above all is a (non-)relationship and a kind of concentrate of the state of the world.

Blocked at the border

Whether running or strolling, in their wandering these young Afghan migrants embody a new figure of the foreigner, zigzagging between prohibitions. For, if the policemen who watch them seem calm, this is because the port is surrounded by a complex system of very high fences, because the lorries are minutely inspected on the parking lot before embarkation, and because on arrival in Italy those who have succeeded in crossing will be seized and sent back on the return boat. They will find themselves back in the Patras encampment. So it is harder for them to cross than for the goods under which they try to conceal themselves - a fact that we already know, though in a rather abstract way, when we compare the free circulation of goods and capital with the much harder, and sometimes even impossible, circulation of persons.

In July 2012, two dead migrants were found at the port of Venice after a forty-hour crossing in a container lorry in the hold of a ship; they had died of asphyxiation after hiding their faces in plastic bags to conceal the traces of respiration that the police 'see' with the aid of breathing detectors.1 Some crossings are successful, despite every­thing (a handful by sea, others by land routes that are longer and more exhausting), which sustains the desire and energy of those who remain blocked at the border.