In 2015, over a million refugees fled to Europe to escape human suffering, brutal violence, and persecution that transpired within Syria. Defenseless against the brutality of ISIS and the Bashar al-Assad regime, hundreds of thousands of people risked and continue to risk their lives on long treacherous journeys, ultimately in pursuit of asylum. This influx of refugees has provoked Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II, as European Union (EU) member states struggle to find a solution to its growing problem. Many countries remain overwhelmed by the influx of asylum seekers, as they are already dealing with their own domestic issues. Levels of protection fluctuate from country to country, causing asylum-seekers to experience different treatment. In the absence of a European-wide procedural basis and standards of legal interpretation and safeguards, refugees are left at the government’s discretion. Today, refugees are still deprived of rightful legal protection, as the Italian state has enabled the transformation of refugees into a commodity and the process of asylum into a business among opportunistic entrepreneurs.
My senior thesis examines how, through biopolitics, neoliberalism has reshaped humanitarian aid efforts and thus created a market for the commoditization of refugee bodies in connection to the revitalization of abandoned small Italian towns. In the first part, I analyze the ways in which the media depictions fabricate a narrative that makes refugees susceptible to the growing trend of fraudulent humanitarian relief projects. This then legitimizes neoliberal practices as entrepreneurs and officials commodify refugees through these initiatives. In the second part, the thesis gives visibility to the refugees’ own voices and perspectives, as media depictions veil the corruption that circulates within humanitarian initiatives. In the wake of the largest refugee crisis since World War II, there has been a growing trend among politicians and community leaders across the impoverished southern region of Calabria, Italy embracing the responsibility to both create and manage cooperatives for refugee accommodation. Major media sources like Al Jazeera and National Geographic paint poignant portraits of the families that have taken refuge in these tiny villages. Although the media coverage of these humanitarian relief efforts is heartfelt, as they provide unique depictions of freedom and solidarity, they emerge at an unusual time as anti-refugee sentiments and initiatives have heightened across Europe. Based on first-hand refugee perspectives via photovoice, Syrian refugee families illustrate a counter-story of the media’s depiction of refugees as beneficiaries of these “generous” cooperatives. This research project challenges the misconceptions of cooperatives and their benefits, in addition to contesting the false depictions of refugees benefitting from these initiatives