Post by Giuseppe Campesi and Giulia Fabini. Giuseppe is Associate professor in Law and society at the Department of Political sciences, University of Bari “Aldo Modo”. Giulia is Research fellow in Criminology at the Department of Legal studies, University of Bologna. This is the fifth instalment in the themed series on Policing, Migration and National Identity.

Photo credit: Giulio Piscitelli, for the New York Times.

The management of human mobility in Italy has traditionally been associated with the functions the police perform as guarantors of public order and security. Yet, and in spite of the consensus gained by political parties promoting an explicitly anti-immigration platform in recent years, the rates of deportation enforcement have always been conspicuously low in Italy. Building on our previous research, which suggested that in such a context of factual “undeportability” the police “manage illegality” instead of removing migrants, in this paper we explore the role of immigration detention in managing illegalized migrants. In particular, we argue that immigration detention may be used selectively by law enforcement agencies as a flexible preventive control tool to manage the most ‘problematic’ populations in urban areas.

Our study is based on an analysis of 383 return decisions and 281 orders of detention (and alternative measures to detention) included in 426 files relating to judicial hearings held in January-March and October-December 2015 in Bari (which hosts one of the nine Italian detention centres) and Bologna (where the detention centre ceased operating in April 2013). 

Our data shows that the police make use of a ‘rhetoric of dangerousness’ as a justification for detaining migrants. Through an in-depth analysis of the return decisions and the orders for detention, the research aimed at deconstructing the discursive strategies employed by law enforcement agencies in order to reveal the precarious elements upon which the figure of the ‘dangerous’ migrant is built. We found that the figure of the migrant who might be liable to detention is built on a combination of three different dimensions: their alleged dangerousness, social reliability, and econmic marginality. 

The ‘dangerous’ migrant is usually someone who has a criminal record, or a formal contact with the criminal justice. This is the case even though the vast majority of the crimes linked to migrants are petty offences commonly related to subsistence (such as drug dealing, theft, stealing and robbery). The emphasis is placed on the description of migrants’ supposed ‘criminal profile’, made by using stereotypical formula emphasizing the alleged ‘social marginality’ of someone ‘who lives on expedients, or on the proceeds of criminal activities’ (Prefecture of Aquila), has not exhibited ‘any will to integrate’ (Prefecture of Modena), has shown ‘propensity for crime’ (Prefecture of Perugia), ‘a nature prone to crime’ (Prefecture of Terni), or ‘a strong tendency to commit crime’ (Prefecture di Bologna). 

The ‘unreliable’ migrant at risk of absconding has already attempted to circumvent controls or hinder the deportation machine by violating the terms for their voluntary departure or the entry-ban, or providing false identity in the past. Interestingly, one of the most important factors to assess the risk of absconding is the ‘absence of will to return to the country of origin’, usually inferred by the statements made by migrants themselves at the time of their arrest. 

The ‘marginal’ migrant is characterized by their lack of accommodation and stable employment, as well as inability to provide adequate financial guarantees regarding their eventual voluntary departure. In the vast majority of assessments of the risk of absconding, immigration law enforcement agencies combine elements of the unreliable and the marginal thus producing a kind of recursive reasoning. Ultimately, migrants are unreliable because they lack employment and a stable residence where the police can contact them, and marginal because the lack of personal documents prevent them accessing regular employment or stable accommodation.

Our research showed that immigration detention has been used as an instrument for ‘social defence’ to neutralize those migrants that law enforcement agencies perceived as the most dangerous illegalized migrants. This model for managing illegality has proved effective in a season when the number of illegalized migrants on the Italian territory was decreasing and immigration detention was presented as an instrument of selective control, especially to incapacitate ‘bad’ illegalized migrants while disciplining the ‘good’ ones with the threat of detention and deportation. 

Nevertheless, one might question how the deportation policies and the use of immigration detention will be affected by the recent increase in the number of illegalized migrants, originating from the Security Decree enacted in September 2018 by the then Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. Many indicators suggest that the public opinion perceives a growing overlap between illegalized migrants and asylum seekers, while the restrictive turn in asylum policies is explicitly connected with the fight against ‘clandestine’ migration. The risk is that Italy might shift from a policy of selective control of illegalized migration to a more extensive use of immigration detention to control the thousands of asylum seekers expelled from the reception system.

Any comments about this post? Get in touch with us! Send us an email, or post a comment here or on Facebook. You can also tweet us.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Campesi G. and Fabini G. (2020). Immigration detention as social defence: Policing “dangerous mobility” in Italy. Available at: [date]