Hospitality as a discourse for managing the inclusion of migrants within Southern European States and societies

The Cambridge dictionary defines the word “hospitality” as “the act of being friendly and welcoming to guests and visitors,” and gives the following example – “The local people showed me great hospitality.” In fact, when one talks about “hospitality” the concepts that immediately spring to mind include “friendship,” “generosity,” “warmth,” “kindness,” and “welcome.” When one thinks of irregular migrants crossing borders to reach Europe, on the other hand, their arrival is more likely to be associated with concepts such as “crisis,” “human trafficking,” “burden,” “security risk” and “charity.”

How is it, therefore, that notwithstanding the unbridgeable difference between the extension of a warm welcome to a guest in your home, versus saving, processing and detaining irregular immigrants, the same language of hospitality is used in both?

When migrants are saved at sea, often after many nerve-wracking hours stranded while different countries argue as to who is responsible to save them, they are “welcomed” by soldiers, police officers and several border workers and put through a “series of impersonal, bureaucratic, and securitized procedures often framed in a crisis and/or emergency culture” (DeBono 2019). The experience could not be more different than that of a real guest who is welcomed with open arms and generosity, and yet the language used is nonetheless one of hospitality.

“In Malta, the terminology used is either in the Maltese language or in English: nilqaghhom (we receive them), niehdu hsibhom (we take care of them), and in English ‘welcome’, ‘reception’, ‘guests’ (or residents)”

Dr Daniela DeBono (2019)

DeBono (2019) makes an interesting observation – “The system includes singular acts of solidarity, encounter, and hospitality by individuals operating within it, carried out either spontaneously or out of rebellion. However, the system itself is not constructed to be hospitable or to allow acts of hospitality by others.”

The Ceuta Case Study

Her remarks are borne out by the story of Luna Reyes, a Red Cross volunteer who was filmed hugging a weeping Senegalese man who had just been brought to safety in Ceuta in May 2021 (Kassam 2021a).

The clip was shared online by the press, and it provoked a massive outcry after far-right nationalists targeted Reyes with a torrent of insults and threats. Several people sought to counteract the abuse with messages of support for the young woman, and of course politicians also took the opportunity to have their say.

“We will not allow hatred to win. Those of us who see this embrace as a symbol of the best of our country outnumber the others.”

Rita Maestre, a councillor for the city of Madrid (Kassam 2021)

“#Gracias Luna for representing the best values of our society.”

Nadia Calviño, Spain’s Minister of the Economy (Kassam 2021)

“Much more than a photo. A symbol of hope and solidarity.”

Yolanda Díaz, Spain’s Minister of Labour (Kassam 2021)

What is truly telling, however, are the concerns expressed by Luna Reyes when interviewed on RTVE. 8000 migrants had crossed into Ceuta over a period of 36 hours, of which 5600 were immediately sent back. Reyes was concerned that the exhausted Senegalese man she had hugged was one of them.

So as politicians spoke of “the best values” and “solidarity” of Spanish society in a coordinated chorus of virtue signalling, what was happening on the ground in Ceuta demonstrated a much less hospitable truth.

The army and police were deployed to patrol the border and prevent further arrivals, while armoured vehicles lined the beaches in a show of force designed to deter and more migrants from attempting to swim around the breakwater and into Spanish territory (Kassam 2021b). Actions, as they say, speak louder than words.

The use of the hospitality paradigm, therefore, might at first appear to be paradoxical, but in fact there is a logic to its use. As Herzfeld points out, “the bestowal of hospitality is not only a privilege, but one that confers a reciprocal obligation to offer respect.” (Herzfeld pp. 80, 81). This becomes evident when one considers the “codes” or the “natural law” of hospitality, as defined by Julian Pitt Rivers (1977).

“A guest infringes the law of hospitality:

If he insults his host or by any show of hostility or rivalry; he must honour his host.

If he usurps the role of his host. He may do this by presuming upon what has not yet been offered, ‘by making himself at home’ … If he makes claims or demands, he usurps the host‘s right to ordain according to his free will, even where custom lays down what he should wish to ordain. …

If, on the other hand, he refuses what is offered he infringes the role of guest. … Any refusal reflects in fact upon the host‘s capacity to do honour; and this is what the guest must uphold. Therefore he may be expected to give thanks and pay compliments in order to stress that he is conscious of the honour done him…”

Julian Pitt Rivers 1977 p.515

The “codes of hospitality” (Pitt Rivers 1977) also highlight the temporary nature of the guest’s visit – “A limit is frequently set upon the time such a guest is expected to stay and, even when this is not so, it is always recognised that it is an abuse to outstay one’s welcome.” (Pitt Rivers 1977 p.516)

When taking the above into consideration, one realizes that the discourse of hospitality, particularly when used by politicians, acts as a form of dog whistle which when decoded by their target audience, their constituents, reveals a much less hospitable truth.

In fact, if one translates the discourse using the codes as defined by Pitt Rivers, one ends up with the following:

  1. The migrant is a guest and the host country is not their home.
  2. The host country is providing shelter because of the generosity of its people, and not because the migrants have any rights.
  3. Migrants should be grateful for the help they are given. They should never complain, because if they do so then they are insulting the host country.
  4. The migrant is not entitled to permanent residence and will return to their country of origin as soon as possible.

The Language of Hospitality as used in Malta

On the 25th February 2014 Maltatoday (Pecorella) published a report about unrest at the Hal Far Migrant Detention Centre, sparked by the arrival of four Maltese members of parliament on a fact-finding mission for the social affairs committee’s sub-committee on migration.

This is an excellent example of how the language of hospitality can be weaponized when “guests” are seen to be in breach of the “codes of hospitality.”

In this case, the migrants were protesting their extended detention in what was described by several humanitarian organisations, including the Archdiocese of Malta, as “crowded, insanitary conditions, with almost no opportunity for recreation or constructive activity, hardly any contact with the outside world, limited access to open air, and a severe shortage of basic material necessities” (2019 The Ongoing Detention of Asylum Seekers).

However, notwithstanding the declarations made by the NGOs, which were reported in the press, many Maltese were infuriated to hear that the migrants had dared protest, illustrating exactly the type of reaction described by Pitt Rivers when a “guest” makes claims or complains. The following is a sample of the comments posted by readers under the abovementioned news report (Pecorella 2014).

“Just send them all back to their own countries and let them enjoy their freedom there. This is the ingratitude they show after saving them from drowning.”(sic)

“Is this the kind of respect that you show to a Nation thats (sic) is doing all that it can to help you out.”

“Trouble makers (sic) should be deported. They should have stayed in their country of origin.”

“Here we go again. Putting our policemen/women and AFM personnel in harms (sic)way and why? Because of some ungrateful opportunists that do not appreciate the Maltese hospitality. … Don’t let these few ungrateful, opportunists take advantage of our hospitality. if they do not [like] Malta they can always go back to where they came from.”

As Pitt Rivers (1977 p. 516, 517) explains, and the comments shown above illustrate, reactions to any “infringement of the code of hospitality destroys the structure of roles [between host and guest] … failure to return honour or avoid disrespect entitles the person slighted in this way to relinquish his role and revert to the hostility which it suppressed… Once they are no longer host and guest they are enemies, not strangers.”

In such a context the discourse of hospitality becomes a stick with which to beat up the ungrateful foreigner, as well as a justification for the immediate expulsion of the unworthy guest, whilst absolving the host of any dishonour that would have been associated with inhospitable behaviour, for after all it was the guest who broke the codes, and not the host.

Hospitality for Migrants in Greece

As discussed above, the implied impermanence of a guest’s stay is at the heart of the language of hospitality when used in relation to migrants. Rozakou (2012) describes an event to launch a “protipo kendro ipodhohis ke filoksenias lathrometanaston” (model reception and hospitality centre for illegal immigrants) on the island of Samos in 2007. The Greek minister of the interior and public order makes a clear reference to hospitality.

“[This is] a project that makes us proud of the level of filoksenia (hospitality) that our country offers to illegal immigrants who stay here until their return to their country of origin.”

Prokopis Pavlopoulos (Rozakou 2012 p. 562)

The facility he was inaugurating, however, was not a hotel or some other type of facility which offers a true welcome.

It was in fact a detention centre for undocumented migrants, as remotely located from everyday life in Greece as possible, on an island located closer to the Turkish mainland than that of Greece. As you can see, his words also highlight the temporary nature of the immigrants’ stay, making it clear that they would be sent back as soon as possible.

Welcoming Migrants in Italy

This same use of hospitality terminology, camouflaging a reality of confinement in remote locations, can also be seen in Italy, where detention centres are called Centro di Accoglienza Straordinaria (Centre of Extraordinary Reception). Workers at the border and in the centre use terminology such as ospiti (guests), ospitare (host) and accogliere (to welcome) (DeBono 2019).

“My friend, he escape and he told me that it took him more than four hours to arrive to the first city [Agrigento]. He escape because here you know we are in prison when we do not give the fingerprint, but I give my fingerprint and still I am in prison because I get too little money to travel to the city and I cannot work or do something. I am not a guest, I am like a prisoner.”

Ahmed, Sudanese migrant (DeBono 2019 p. 2)

According to Pitt Rivers (1977 p. 513), hospitality creates an unequal power dynamic between host and guest – “It is always the host who ordains, the guest who complies” – or to use the words of Michael Herzberg (p. 77) – “The very clemency shown to the stranger is the mark of his total subordination.”

This power dynamic is particularly evident in agriculture and construction, where the locals abuse the precarity of the migrants’ situation when negotiating terms and conditions for employment. One chilling example of this rampant abuse in Malta is the case of 32-year-old Lamin Jaiteh from Ghana, who fell two storeys while working on a construction site and was then dumped like garbage on the side of the road, to be rescued by strangers (Abela 2021a).

A Cycle of Abuse and Exploitation

Is Sicily and Southern Italy, the abuse is even more pronounced, evoking a sense of déjà vu for those who understand the history and power politics of the region, going all the way back to 1071, when the Normans first arrived in Sicily and Count Roger introduced a feudal system, granting lands as fiefs to noblemen in return for their allegiance and military support.

The feudal barons struggled to find sufficient workers for their estates, so workers were persuaded to move from the cities and the coastal areas to new, isolated settlements on the feudal estates. In addition to Sicilians, there were also several immigrants displaced by wars in foreign lands who settled in these communities, along with people from countries such as Greece who were “imported” by the barons, who paid for their passage on the understanding they would then work on their estates (Blok 1988).

These workers lived in remote hamlets, forced to travel great distances between different plots of land, and were terrorized and exploited by gabellotti and campieri who extracted several payments from them and loaned them money at usurious rates of interest, creating a defacto system of indentured slavery (Blok 1988).

“society was divided into two parts: on the one side there was a dominant class, on the other the dominated classes; and that the means that the first had to dominate, a means largely recognized by law, was force”

Franchetti & Sonnino 1876

In an ironic turn of events, landowners in Sicily are once again struggling to find workers to cultivate the fields and bring in the harvest, creating an opportunity for the mafias of Southern Italy to return to their roots as tyrants and enforcers of field workers through a gangmaster system called caporalato.

This time, however, the workers are not poor Italian peasants but desperate migrants with no option other than to accept whatever employment they are offered, no matter how abusive. In order to ensure a steady stream of workers, the mafias have become involved in the Centri di Accoglienza per Richiedenti Asilo (CARA – welcome centres for asylum-seekers), where once again the language of hospitality is used to camouflage detention facilities.

The mafias have thus secured a steady stream of men and women desperate for any form of employment by getting involved in the provision of board and lodging for asylum seekers who are flooding into Italy, while at the same time benefiting from lucrative arrangements which enable them to siphon money from the Italian State through massive public contracts.

“The mafia in the south controls the reception of immigrants. Centres for asylum-seekers have processed hundreds of thousands of immigrants, and the mafia is often part of the management.”

Leonardo Palmisano (Jones & Awokoya 2019)

The CARAs accommodate thousands of migrants, charging the state a daily rate of €35 for adults and €45 for minors. The centres controlled by the mafia inflate the numbers and provide abysmal lodgings and food to maximize their profit margins.

In 2017 an investigation in the CARA Sant’Anna in Calabria concluded that the Arena mafia has embezzled over €33M from the state – while feeding residents very little food, a lot of which was expired. The resulting indictment described the centre as “a cashpoint for the mafia” (Jones, Awokoya 2019).

The previous discussion regarding the gratitude that these immigrants are expected to display and the fear inculcated in them as to the repercussion of any complaints, even when fed rotten food, is likely one of the reasons why this type of fraud went undetected for years.

When the migrants are recruited by the mafias, they enter the caporalato system and are moved to isolated worker ghettos, ferried around in lorries by caporali (gangmasters) to different agricultural estates to harvest crops such as oranges or tomatoes.

“They are living in dirty old houses that the Sicilians built a century ago – abandoned houses, informal settlements or old warehouses, without drinking water and, in many cases, without bathroom facilities. Many are asylum seekers recruited directly from the reception centres, and they work for up to 12 hours a day in the suffocating heat, for just €20 – and it kept going during coronavirus. It didn’t stop.”

Ahmed Echi, Sicily coordinator for Emergency, a non-profit running a mobile health clinic (Yeung 2020)

As they say, history has an uncanny way of repeating itself.

Just like the feudal lords only dealt with intermediaries like gabellotti, the farmers of today deal directly with the caporali, negotiating the lowest labour costs possible, without ever interacting directly with the workers.

This enables them (and the organisations who purchase their produce) to stay one step removed from the uncomfortable reality that these rates are only possible because of the exploitation of the weak and the vulnerable. When questioned about their supply chains, companies buying the fruit and vegetables retain a veneer of plausible deniability about the defacto slaves involved in harvesting the produce.

In the feudal system, the gabellotti used to line their pockets by providing the seed required by the peasants for cultivation, imposing a high rate of interest by using different measures when giving out the loan and collecting the payment – the difference between the amount of seed loaned and the amount of seed repaid was known as the addito (addition) (Blok 1964, p. 61).

The caporali have taken a page out of the gabellotti’s book. They charge migrants astronomical rates for transportation and other essential items like food or water. Typical charges are €3.00 to get on a dangerously overloaded lorry to get to work, €3 to €4 euro for sandwiches or a drink, and €20 to be taken to hospital if injured or sick (Jones, Awokoya 2019). As a result, the migrants end up owing the caporali money, and are caught in a never-ending cycle of exploitation and abuse.

“I came here to find a job, because I was unemployed. … I came just for that, but I didn’t find a job… and I have also some debts now … now we were trying to work in the tomato harvest… I hope that the situation can go better… I went to work and I collected 12 boxes for € 4 Euros each… a pack of cigarettes costs 4 Euros, a sandwich in the field costs 3 Euros and an orange drink costs 4 Euros. At the end of the working day I found myself with 36 Euros…”

Fouad, a 44-year-old Tunisian (Perrotta, Sacchetto p. 93)

The threat of violence is always present. If any of the workers rebel or speak up for better conditions for themselves and other workers, retribution swiftly follows.

This is what happened to Adnan Siddique, a Pakistani migrant who was stabbed to death in 2020 after acting as a translator to help other migrant workers report the abuse they were suffering at the hands of the caporali.

“The gangs were angry with him because they wanted him to stop his involvement in the complaints. And from there, because of the words he spoke, his ordeal began – until, after a year of threats, he was murdered.”

Piera di Giugno (Yeung 2020)

The Exploitation of Migrants in Malta

In Malta we do not have a full-blown system of caporalato, however one would have to be blind not to notice that every morning several migrants stand by the roadside in Marsa waiting for building contractors or farmers to pick them up and take them to work on construction sites and fields all over Malta, and the press have featured several stories highlighting the exploitation of these workers.

Instead of stepping in and setting up a framework that matches these migrants with people who require workers, and ensuring they are treated and paid adequately, in 2020 the Government of Malta made the position of several migrants even more precarious by changing the Specific Residence Authorisation policy, in a move which led to many migrants becoming undocumented.

This means that they could no longer work legally and also lost access to healthcare and other basic rights. In addition, the government introduced a “Safe Countries” policy that stripped the rights of asylum seekers from certain countries deemed “safe” to work legally.

At a protest in Valletta on the 4th October 2021, migrants protested about the new policies.

“We are humans not cheap labour,” (Abela 2021b) they chanted, as they walked down Republic Street in Valletta.

Speaking to the Times, Katrine Camilleri, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service pointed out that the changes recently introduced by the government were creating a “huge pool of exploitable labour”. Referring to the exploitation and inhuman treatment experienced by migrants such as Lamin Jaiteh she asked, “How can we say it’s unacceptable. If it’s unacceptable, do something about it because there are things that can be done about it.” (Abela 2021b)

Final Thoughts

The above shines a light on the harsh reality hidden, and to a certain extent made possible, by the use of hospitality as a discourse by the State. While uttering empty rhetoric of hospitality designed to indicate that the country is meeting its moral obligations, the State turns a blind eye to the abuse of migrants who have been put with their backs against the wall, afraid of the repercussions should they complain about the situation they find themselves in, or the fact that their rights, as defined by international humanitarian laws, are being trampled upon.

It is impossible not to conclude that there is an element of complicity between the state and the people who are perpetuating this abuse, because no action is taken to monitor what is happening on the ground and stop the exploitation.


(2020) “Updated Migrants’ Policy will lead to increased Social Exclusion, Poverty – NGOs”, The Times of Malta, 25 November.

(2019) “The Ongoing Detention of Asylum Seekers at Safi Barracks and the Initial Reception Centre,” Archdiocese of Malta website, 9 September

Abela, K. (2021a) “Migrant Worker Allegedly Dumped on Roadside after Building Site Fall”, The Times of Malta, 28 September.

Abela, K. ( 2021b) “’We are Humans, not Cheap Labour’: Migrants hold Protest in Valletta”, The Times of Malta, 4 October.

Blok, A. (1988) The Mafia of a Sicilian village, 1860-1960: A Study of Violent Peasant Entrepreneurs, Waveland P.

Debono, D. (2019) “Plastic Hospitality: The Empty Signifier at the EU’s Mediterranean border”, Migration Studies, 7(3)

Franchetti, L. and Sonnino, S. (2006) La Sicilia nel 1876, 1a edizione electronnica edn. Firenze: Vallecchi, stampa; Firenze.

Gambetta, D. (1993) The Sicilian Mafia :The Business of Private Protection, Harvard U.P.

Herzfeld, M. (1987) “”As in your own house”: Hospitality, Ethnography, and the Stereotype of Mediterranean Society”

Jones, T. and Awokoya, A. (2019) “Are Your Tinned Tomatoes Picked by Slave Labour?”, The Guardian, 20 June.

Kassam, A., (2021a) “Spanish PM vows to ‘restore order’ after 8,000 migrants reach Ceuta”, The Guardian, 18 May.

Kassam, A. (2021b) “Spanish aid volunteer abused online for hugging Senegalese migrant”, The Guardian, 20 May.

Pecorella, R. (2014) “Shots fired during Hal Far protest”, Maltatoday, 25 February.

Perrotta, D. and Sacchetto, D. (2015) “Migrant farmworkers in Southern Italy: Ghettoes, Caporalato and Collective Action,” International Journal on Strikes and Social Conflict, 1 (5).

Pitt-Rivers, J. (2012) “The Law of Hospitality”, HAU Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 2(1), pp. 501-517.

Rozakou, K., (2012). “The Biopolitics of Hospitality in Greece: Humanitarianism and the management of refugees,” American Ethnologist, 39(3), pp. 562-577.

Yeung, P. (2020) “A Brutal Murder Has Highlighted the Exploitation of Migrant Workers in Southern Italy”, Vice World News, 11 August.

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