Jus Sanguinis and the politics of belonging: the case of Italy

Over the summer, debates have taken place over which title would be most appropriate to attribute to those individuals who reach, legally or otherwise, the shores of Europe, after having fled from their home countries. The debate has been particularly contentious since the policies on migration are based exactly upon “the name” with which individuals are legally classified, materially affecting the life and the future of each subject who is transitioning across the borders and to the space of Europe.

Italy provides a particularly sensitive context of the politics of naming for those who arrive via the sea. While it is necessary to acknowledge the effort in mobilising solidarity and action on behalf of refugees, the persistence of a form of institutionalised discrimination against “the foreign” is still particularly strong. This especially visible only in the political and media discourse in the Italian cultural scene, which either ostracises the refugees as an economic and social plague, or as a problem too big for Italy to face without due support from the European Union. While this polarisation of opinions is due to the extreme politicisation of Italian media, none of the different political and media affiliations has ever offered due repect to the deep emotional, physical and psychological displacement that individuals who are forcibly “un-homely” undergo. As expressed in the tragic and poetic words of Shire in his work “Home”:

“No one leaves home unless home chases you (…)

No one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land (…)

no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck

feeding on newspaper

unless the miles travelled means something more than the journey”.

Regarding the discriminatory implications of the politics of naming for “migrants”, Judith Butler (1997) focuses on the role of the “power of the name”, or the “name of power”, for identity and representation. For her, language offers a double bind: on the one hand, the power to name oneself as a sexual, gendered, racialised individual belonging to a specific social group has enabled minorities to gain a political voice, becoming a legitimate part of democratic institutions; on the other hand, Butler argues that language “traps” subjects within identity categories that do not capture the more complex reality of their social existence. In line with this reasoning, the name “migrant” has been claimed as unable to encompass the enormous amount of fear, risk, physical and emotional distress that those individuals go through, in their escape from a home which has become unbearably dangerous for themselves and their families. Through persistently deploying the name “migrant”, racialized political discourses have fertilised, across all European states, the tendency to “other” refugees as threatening and dangerous individuals, rather than human beings in the difficult situation of having to flee from impossible life conditions (Al-Jazeera, 2015).

These institutional forms of racism are not only visible in the Italian political discourse, but are further legitimised by a number of laws and legal measures that define Italian citizenship in line with the rules determined by jus sanguinis. That is, the name of “Italian-citizen” can only be conferred to those who have some biological tie to Italy. The decision to adopt the jus sanguinis pertains, paradoxically, to a time of great emigration of the Italian population during the 19th and 20th century; in fact, Italy has become a destination for immigration only in a relatively recent past, while historically the migratory flows were predominantly in exit, towards other European countries and the Americas. However, today this law inadequately accounts the changing nature of Italy and its demographic nature. The situation is particularly difficult for second generation migrants, that is, those born in Italy from “foreign” parents: while they are legally allowed to remain in Italy until the age of 18, after that the process of naturalisation for Italian citizenship becomes overly complicated, if not impossible, for many.

The Italian government seems reluctant, now more than ever, to grasp the major changes that are occurring in the Italian demographic constitution. With a stagnant political spirit, Italians seem to refuse to face the inadequacy of their legal system, which legitimises a colonial regime of citizenship based on essentialist understandings of race and of nationality, and which does not account for the constant movement of people across its borders. The cultural implications of this refusal are enormous, fertilising racist and xenophobic attitudes that alienate those who are perceived as “others”, going against any proclaimed “politics of hospitality” founding the European spirit of solidarity and openness to the other and to differences. This violent rhetoric is well expressed again by Shire:


dirty immigrants

asylum seekers

sucking our country dry

niggers with their hands out

they smell strange- savage

messed up their country and now they want

to mess ours up

how do the words

the dirty looks

roll off our backs

maybe because the blow is softer

than a limb torn off

or the words more tender

than fourteen men between

your legs

or insults are easier

to swallow

than rubble

than bone

than your child body

in pieces”.

Why would Italy, which is historically a diasporic and divided nation, enhance and support a discriminatory citizenship regime which attributes to these foreign pejorative names? While it is often assumed that colonial times are over and gone for Italy, which also has a quite limited and heterodox colonial history in comparison with major colonising nations such as the UK, the resistance of the jus sanguinis shows the persistent impact of the premises upon which the colonial enterprise was based. That is, the supposed political, economic and biological inferiority of the colonised. This not only justified an economic division of labour and flow of resources and knowledge in favour of the coloniser nations, but also sustained a specific cultural imaginary in which the “time” and the “space” of the colonisers were inherently superior, “with more dignity” (to refer this directly to the line of reasoning of the Enlightenment philosopher Kant) than those of the colonised. Because of the legitimacy of this line of thought, which is reinforced and reflected by the jus sanguinis, since it confers the privilege of being recognised (“named”) as an Italian and European citizen only to those who are biologically tied to the racialized and gendered space of postcolonial Italy, Italy remains, culturally, ideologically, politically, and also legally, an exclusive space of privilege for those who have been historically designated to belong to the racialized and gendered name of “Italians”.

Moreover, the exclusive politics of the “name of the citizen” also influence normative understandings of “home”. While in Italian “casa” refers to an entity that is geographically, somatically and linguistically stable, “home” is in Arabic is derived from the etymological root “bata”, meaning “becoming”, “being”, but also to a place in which one comes to rest, a sense of homeland and a milieu in which one’s being is realised, and whose loss is related to a sense of deep existential anxiety. The silence in the political and media discourse, in Italy and elsewhere, of the “language of the migrating individual” renders those who have transited across the borders not hearable for those who are “at home” within Europe. Nonetheless, an ever-growing body of migrant literature has emerged on the issues of belonging, home, and silence. In the words of Homi Bhabha, those in a condition of “un-homeliness” communicate through silence a home that has been left behind, that is forever lost. Nonetheless, any language, including the one of silence, condemns the un-homely individual, who has no linguistic, geographical nor material home, to the realm of social death, being unrecognisable and un-name-able. This form of linguistic dispossession of the grammar of “home” is due to the impossibility of existence of a home in the first place for those seeking refuge:

“I want to go home, but home is in the mouth of a shark

home is the barrel of the gun

and no one would leave home

unless home chased you to the shore

unless home told you

to quicken your legs

leave your clothes behind

crawl to the desert

wade through the oceans



be hunger


forget pride

your survival is more important.

No one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear

saying- leave, run away from me now

I don’t know what I’ve become

but I know that anywhere is safer than here” (Shire, 2015).

The sense of precariousness, of the danger of remaining in the silence of the un-name-able, is at the basis of the existential condition of those who flee, being in a condition of forced exile and displacement, and have materially, geographically and linguistically lost their home. The incommunicability of their experience of emotional and physical distress is not easily name-able, and should not be reduced to a set of dry debates over the “right name” under which they should be recognised in order to be “hospitable”.

In an attempt to unfold the fragility and vulnerable character of the Palestinian existence, Ghassan Kanafani ends his novel “Men in the Sun” (1963) with the dramatic cry of the driver, who rhetorically asks to the three dead bodies representing three subsequent Palestinian generations “why they had not knocked on the side of the tank” in order to save their own life from suffocation. The incommensurable difference between the experience of forced displacement, of risk and fear of one’s life and the desperation that motivates people to embark in such dangerous journeys should be respected as such: un-name-able. The driver will have no answer. Any attempt to reduce this difference to a homogenous and intelligible reason, or “name”, for the economic purpose of colonial linguistic existence, risks to produce further ethical violence and to fertilise the already extreme politics of racialised and gendered citizenship in Europe.

Rachele is an Italian graduate student, she has studied philosophy and Sociology at Sussex and then went on to do her MSc in Gender and Development at the LSE. She’s now applying for PhDs, with her main focus being on postcolonial literature, political philosophy and critical theory. On the side, she also plays and coaches basketball, and some of her work is now revolving around gendered paradigms in sport!