Dr. Alessandro Corso is an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow at ODID, Oxford University. He has conducted ethnographic research in the Mediterranean, with a particular focus on Lampedusa (southern Italy) and the phenomenon of forced migration in Europe. His research offers a comprehensive, ethical, critical, and phenomenological analysis of the effects of undocumented migration on the everyday lives of locals, migration workers, and migrants themselves.

Ethnographic excerpts from fieldwork in Lampedusa (2016-2017)


“Theirs are the bodies of defeat, bodies of pity, bodies of suffering. They are bodies of need, bodies of silence, bodies veiled by the taboo of exploitation, torture, violation of human rights, by the inhumanity of humans. And these bodies are captured by photographic machines, videos and careful eyes that observe, quickly, from one detail to another…” (Fieldnotes 26/09/2016).

The back hole

Behind the First Welcoming Center, nearby the dormitories, there was a hole through the high fences’ metal net that was left there and never repaired. According to most people I spoke to on the island, the hole allowed the detained migrants to get out of the First Welcoming Center and come back in, freely. This was the official story, as Nino told me, to further add that no one cared much about whatever would have happened to the guests. Their physical, as well as mental conditions, did not concern police and military agents monitoring the island. If some migrants wandered around, ‘it was not their business’, repeated Nino, ‘because officially, these migrants escape from the back of the Centro (FWC).’ Theirs was an apparently free walk through Via Roma or by La Guitgia beach, constantly watched by the police force, but practically left and euphemistically abandoned to themselves.

Life Underwater

During the warm season, migrants with chemical burns on their legs and their bottom touched land to then be urgently transferred to the Poliambulatorio for medical treatment. Many of the undocumented had lost their lives through the Mediterranean Sea crossing (Frontex 2017). Among the dead, some bodies were never found, but at times, migrants’ corpses were washed ashore, as it frequently happened in the Tunisian coasts of Zarzis (Lageman 2016). Other times, they were caught in fishing nets by the fishermen of Lampedusa or those coming from Mazzara del Vallo, who often used the island as a base for fishing (Enia 2018).

“My PhD thesis, titled ‘Lives at the Border: Abandonment and Survival at the frontier of Lampedusa’, is an ethnographic description of the contemporary struggles that undocumented migrants, migration workers, and locals experience within the contemporary and ongoing phenomenon of forced migration in the Mediterranean. Research was based on eleven months (March to October 2016 and January to April 2017) of ethnographic fieldwork on Lampedusa and oral history accounts, interviews (structured, semi-structured), archival research and observation among locals, migrants (mostly coming from The Gambia, Ghana, and Eritrea) and migration workers.

My PhD thesis, which I will aim to turn into a published academic book, reveals how life on the island of Lampedusa is entwined with a self-reproductive system which generates more suffering, anger and incomprehension among migrants, migration workers, and locals, allowing the business of undocumented migration to grow. It also explores how ordinary people on the island respond when faced with difficult borderland situations, including via contradictory gestures of individualism and mutuality, indifference and love. My work has been strongly influenced by Giorgio Agamben’s work on states of exception and the homo sacer, Nicholas De Genova and Ruben Andersson’s critical work on border studies, and Michael Jackson’s existential anthropology.”