“Why don’t you move onwards?”: The Influence of Transnational Ties and Kinship Obligations on Eritrean Refugees’ Feeling of Being Stuck in Italy

Milena Belloni


This chapter analyzes Eritrean refugees’ secondary mobility from Italy. Although Eritreans have in the last decade been granted asylum in Italy, most of them intend to move onwards. This mobility orientation has mainly been explained as the result of limited integration opportunities. However, the social and cultural factors underpinning this desire have rarely been investigated. Drawing from ethnographic research with Eritrean refugees in Italy and in their home country, this chapter shows that my informants’ migration-related decisions and perception of being “stuck” in Italy stemmed from a transnational flow of images, expectations, and aspirations linking Eritreans abroad and their kin back home. While being in contact with their co-nationals who have reached their final preferred destination, usually a northern European country, Eritrean refugees in Italy are linked to their families back home by a more or less implicit system of expectations. These include not only remittances, but also beliefs concerning the most suitable final destination for migrants. Families, thus, I argue, play, even if from afar, a crucial role in Eritrean refugees’ mobility patterns. 


Eritreans endure long and difficult journeys to reach Europe; however, the first European country they reach is rarely the one they desire to settle in. In particular, in the last 15 years with the rise of the Libyan corridor and the fall of others (Ciabarri 2014), Italy has increasingly become the first European country reached by Eritrean asylum seekers. In spite of the legal protection to which they usually have easy access in Italy, Eritreans rarely want to stay there for good. Most of them, if not apprehended by the authorities upon arrival, try to avoid the identification procedure and move onwards to other countries, preferably Scandinavian ones, such as Norway and Sweden. This is particularly evident in recent data: in 2015, over 39,000 Eritreans landed on Italian coastlines, but only about 730 sought asylum there.[1] The rest probably moved onwards to other countries, or at least attempted to do so. 

Drawing from my ethnographic work with Eritrean refugees in Italy and in their home-country (Belloni 2015), this chapter analyzes the social and cultural factors underpinning secondary mobility within Europe. The literature on secondary movements has mainly highlighted that these internal European migrations are mainly the result of the gap between reception conditions and integration measures in different European countries (e.g. Brekke and Brochmann 2015). However less attention has been given to the role of values, beliefs, and expectations which underpin this flow. Here, I argue for the importance of analyzing the role of grassroots factors in understanding my informants’ persistent desire to move onwards from Italy, in spite of policy obstacles, such as the Dublin Regulation, (see pg. 239, n7). In particular, this chapter describes how my informants’ migration-related decisions and perception of “stuckedness” in Italy stemmed from a transnational flow of images, expectations, and aspirations linking Eritreans abroad and their kin back home. Without neglecting the difficulties in integrating in Italy with limited institutional support, my point here is that my informants’ motivation to move was also the result of a “cosmology of destinations” (Belloni 2015) which refugees in Italy share with their families back home. As a consequence of many decades of forced migration from the country, large strata of the Eritrean society[2] have developed a hierarchy of possible migratory destinations classified along different lines, such as the deemed availability of economic and educational opportunities and freedom (Belloni 2015). This cosmology prescribes the goals of the migration journey and associate positive value to specific destinations and to those who are able to reach there. These symbolic structures and implicit norms are somehow resilient to policy obstacles and push Eritreans onward even in presence of meaningful integration chances. 

After revisiting the debate on refugees’ decision-making, transnationalism and family moral economies, the context of Eritrean migration to Italy is outlined. While socioeconomic integration and contacts with Italian society are limited, the daily lives of the refugees I lived with in Rome, Milan, and Genoa (2012) are deeply embedded in a transnational field of relations. On the one hand, they are often in contact, by telephone, visits, and internet social networks, with those kin and friends who have reached their final preferred destination, usually a northern European country. Through them, Eritreans in Italy come to know about the opportunities available in those countries (mainly social assistance) and the perception of the differences between “here” and “there” continuously reproduces their mobility aspirations. On the other hand, Eritrean refugees in Italy are linked to their families back home by a more or less implicit system of expectations (2013). Italy is not perceived as a final destination not only by Eritrean refugees in Italy, but also by their families back home, who wish for their sons to settle down in other countries more northwards. Moreover, the limited opportunities available for their socioeconomic integration in Italy do not allow many Eritrean refugees to support the families back home as wished. 

The ethnographic material I analyze in this chapter is part of a larger research aimed at investigating the factors of Eritrean geographic mobility at each stage of the migration process (Belloni 2015). Here, I mainly focus on the fieldwork I conducted among Eritreans beneficiary of national or international protection in Rome, Genoa, and Milan between 2012 and 2013 and with their families in Asmara in 2013. My informants in Italy were mainly men in their twenties and thirties, who had come through Libya between 2007 and 2010. All of them had been fingerprinted and for that reason had felt they remained stuck in Italy. I followed my informants in their everyday social activities, shared their dwelling spaces, and collected their stories. I also lived with a group of Eritrean refugees in a squat, one of many informal housings which Eritreans have gained access in Rome (Belloni 2016b). In Eritrea, I lived with Gabriel’s family (my informant in Milan). While sharing the everyday life of my host family and of its young members (mainly girls in their twenties), I also conducted periodic home-visits with the families of other informants whom I previously met in Italy. Hence, I explored the two sides of the story behind my informants’ migration and the cultural and familial understanding of their children’ trajectories.

Investigating Refugees’ Secondary Mobility: a Multi-local Perspective on Transnational Moral Economies

The study of refugees’ onward mobility in Europe has been widely investigated from different perspectives. In the last two decades, there have been a number of macro-level studies, which attempted to assess the role of different cultural, socioeconomic, political, and linguistic factors in directing refugee flows to a specific country. While stating that refugees have limited possibilities of choice, most of these studies had a hard time identifying which factor weighs more in refugees’ decision-making (Havinga and Bocker 1999). More insights have been gained from studies based on ethnographic and biographical approaches. These have analyzed how migrants and refugees decide to move onwards once they have already lived for a certain amount of time in one country (Andall 1999; Schuster 2005; Van Liempt 2011; Toma et. al. 2015; Lindley and Van Hear 2007). They tend to look at onward movements as adaptive strategies to cope with a number of economic, legal, and social restrictions in the first country of emigration. For instance, Van Liempt (2011) describes how Somalis who have lived in the Netherlands for several years decide to move to the UK as a response to perceived better job opportunities, family ties, and possibilities to practice Islam. While highlighting the wide range of factors impacting on situated decision-making process, these studies tend to emphasize the practical hardships experienced in the first migration country and the agency of migrants (Schuster, 2005) in pursuing onwards mobility. 

Other studies have investigated onward mobility from a transnational perspective. Although the transnational perspective is relatively peripheral to refugee studies, it has become increasingly crucial to understand refugees’ integration patterns, aspirations, and movements (Cheran 2006; Horst 2006a; Brees 2010; Al-Ali et al. 2001). For instance, Horst (2006) illustrates the importance of analyzing the flow of ideas, images, and money coming from developed countries to those Somali refugees living in Kenyan camps longing for onward mobility. Koser and Pinkerton (2002) evidence the role played by informal social networks in circulating information about possible destination countries and direct the choices of prospective asylum seekers. In the same vein, and specifically to the case of Eritreans from Italy to Scandinavia, Brekke and Brochmann (2015) argue that aspirations to move onwards emerge from the perception of the inequalities between those who manage to get asylum in northern Europe and those who are stuck in Italy. These perceptions are partly the result of objective disparities and are partly produced by the transnational flow of information, images, and aspirations between Eritreans in different locations. In this sense, I find a transnational optic to be especially important to understand secondary mobility of refugees in Europe. 

Analyzing the transnational dimension of Eritrean refugees’ lives in Italy is important not only to understanding their attempts to move onwards, but also their perception of “being stuck.” As it is described later, this feeling is connected to transnational web of expectations and aspirations that link them with families back home and co-nationals in other countries. However, the studies mentioned above on refugee transnationalism usually consider only the links between two sites, typically the destination and the home country (Al-Ali et al. 2001), or the home country and the expected areas of transit (Brees 2010), or the area of transit and the preferred destination (Horst 2006a). This bi-focal perspective does not enable to understand how refugees participate in different transnational flows which link them not only with those co-nationals who have reached their expected final destinations, but also with their families back home. As I mentioned elsewhere (Belloni 2016a), home-driven expectations are as crucial as the attractive images from Europe for understanding Eritreans’ desire to migrate and to move onwards. Such a multi-local focus, as I argue in the next sections, is of paramount importance to grasp Eritrean refugees’ motivations to continue their journeys from Italy. 

Although the influence of families on migration decisions has been widely investigated in labor migration, it has rarely been considered as important factor in refugees’ movements, even less so in secondary and tertiary mobility. Moreover, even in the labor migration literature it is unusual to find studies which document the direct influence of families on migratory decisions of individuals who are already abroad. However, a wealth of case studies is available on the moral economy of migrants’ remittances, kin obligations, and gifts exchange in transnational families (e.g. Philpot 1968; Parry and Bloch 1989; Carling 2008; Baldassar and Merla 2014; Tazanu 2015). Among these, the ones specifically focusing on refugees tend to highlight the burden of economic obligations towards those left behind even in the context of forced migration. Lindley (2010), for instance, reports Somali refugees in London receive calls of kin and friends requesting economic assistance. Similarly, Peter (2009) documents how Congolese in Johannesburg are haunted by fear of being ostracized by their home communities if they miss sending remittances home. These studies are relevant in the case of Eritrean refugees in Italy who often find it impossible to fulfill their family expectations and thus have to bear a high social price. Considering moral economies underpinning Eritrean migration is thus crucial to understand their determination to move onwards in spite of policy obstacles and their sense of feeling “stuck.” Before moving onto the transnational moral dimension of my informants’ everyday life in Italy, however, I will briefly outline the characteristics and the asylum context of Eritrean communities in Italy, below. 

Eritreans in Italy: Limited Integration Measures and a Divided National Community

Since 2000, Eritreans have been among the national groups with a strongest record of immigration to Italy via the Mediterranean route. The presence of Eritreans in Italian asylum and migration statistics—their total number is about 13,500 (UNCHR 2015)—has been increasing since the beginning of the 2000s.[3] According to official figures,[4] Eritreans have one of the highest rates of recognition among the applicants in Italy (around 95–98%).[5] 

According to the Dublin Regulation, asylum seekers have to present their asylum applications in the first European country they reach. That country will be responsible for processing their application. This implies that asylum seekers should be identified—which mainly consists of registering the fingerprints of asylum seekers in the EURODAC database. This identification is particularly feared as it is the basis on which other European countries may reject individual asylum applications.[6] For instance, if an Eritrean who has been identified in Italy seeks asylum in another European country, (s)he is to be returned in Italy, excluding exceptional cases.[7] 

Regardless of the efforts to homogenize the European asylum system through several directives on the grounds and procedures for legal protection, as well as on reception standards for asylum seekers and refugees, disparities and unbalances across Europe are still extremely, and unsurprisingly, evident. In particular, whereas asylum seekers and refugees in Italy receive little institutional support and face several economic challenges, in Northern European countries they enjoy several social benefits, such as pocket money, housing facilities, and other forms of assistance. This gap in assistance mirrors deep-rooted imbalances across welfare regimes (Brekke and Brochmann 2015). 

The Italian reception system is widely stratified and varied. Several systems have been implemented to address asylum flows since 2000, with shifting balances in the role of local and central authorities, civil society, and private actors.[8] This has produced extremely diverse reception conditions according to the period, the region, and the actors involved. Although regional differences in the assistance of refugees are not negligible and services provided could significantly vary from case to case, in general terms the Italian reception system has been scarcely effective in accompanying asylum seekers and refugees through their local integration process (Hein 2001; Ambrosini and Marchett 2008). 

Even ethnic networks have not been a factor enabling the integration of newcomers, as it could have been assumed by considering the literature on social networks (Boyd 1989; Koser and Pinkerton 2002; Palloni 2011). Although they have migrated to Italy since the 60s (especially in big cities, like Rome, Naples, and Milan [Scalzo 1984; Capalbo 1982]), the community is deeply divided along generational and political lines. As observed by Anna Arnone (2008) in her study on old and new generations of Eritrean migrants in Milan, those who arrived before 1993 are usually supporters of the ex-EPLF and current PFDJ government. For this reason, they rely on government propaganda and see those Eritreans who fled after 1993 as deserters and traitors. This internal cleavage within the Eritrean diaspora has been equally documented in other settings in Italy (Belloni 2015) and in other national contexts, such as the US and Germany (Hepner 2009; Conrad 2006; Woldemikael 2005). 

Due to limited institutional support and implicit conflict with older generations of migrants, many refugees had to discover their own way to find a shelter and survive in Italy (Puggioni 2005; Korac 2003). Their need for cheap housing has led to different practical arrangements in different contexts. In Genoa, my informants tended to share cheap flats in the area of Sampierdarena, an ex-working-class neighborhood at the periphery of the city, today mostly inhabited by immigrants (Gastaldi 2013); in Milan and Rome many started squatting abandoned buildings (Ministero degli Interni 2012; Manocchi 2012). The squats, where I conducted my research in Rome, were characterized by high-level socioeconomic deprivation, ethnic homogeneity, and limited contacts with local society (Belloni 2016b). The systematic separation of my informants’ dwelling places from the Italian society is important to understanding how the orientation to move onward is constantly reproduced (Belloni 2016a). Within such contexts, a feeling of being stuck while longing to reach other destinations is continuously strengthened.

Stuck in Transit? Perceptions and Practices of (Im)Mobility

The expression “stuck” has often been used to define those asylum seekers and migrants who, while being settled in transit countries, would like—but cannot—seek asylum elsewhere (Brekke and Brochmann 2015; Schapendonk 2012; Mathews 2011; Zijlstra 2014; Papadopoulou 2003). For example, Schapendonk (2012) has studied the West Africans who remain in Northern African countries while attempting to cross to Europe; Zijlstra (2014) describes the case of Iranians trying to transit through Turkey to Europe. Brekke and Brochmann (2015), in turn, have investigated the conditions for which Eritreans in Italy would like to move onwards to Scandinavian countries. “To be stuck in transit” conveys the idea that a status which should be temporary becomes permanent due to structural constraints to mobility. It also entails that precariousness and uncertainty become normalized, at least for some categories of people (Grabska and Fanjoy 2015). 

Although the studies on “being stuck” partly touch on migrants’ immobility, it is important to keep the two concepts separated. In fact, as Schapendonk observes (2012, 579), the perception of being stuck does not always correspond to a physical impossibility of moving. In this instance, migrants-in-transit that get stuck in Morocco are very mobile in their daily practices. They move camping arrangements to sleep at night and to escape from local authorities, they regularly cross the Moroccan-Algerian border to work, and some of them even go back to their homes. The distinction between the feeling of being stuck and physical immobility is relevant also for Eritrean refugees in Italy. 

Although the Eritreans whom I met during my fieldwork did feel stuck in transit, they were highly mobile. In spite of being fingerprinted in Italy, they had tried more than once to seek asylum in other European countries and had been returned; some of them had gone back to Africa to visit their families (in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan) or to get married with Eritrean refugees who were residing in Ethiopia, Sudan, Angola, etc. 

The case of Eritrean refugees in Italy illustrates that “to be stuck in transit” is not necessarily a physical condition. Rather, it points to an emotional and social condition, or to an existential perception of unsettledness. As Hage (2009, 97) observes, “a viable life presupposes a form of imaginary mobility, a sense that one is going somewhere.” When this sense of going somewhere is lost, individuals experience existential immobility—which he defines as “stuckedness.” According to Hage, most voluntary migration stems from willingness to react to this immobility. This is also the case for many of my informants in Eritrea, as I have explored elsewhere (see Belloni 2015). While they thought that their life in Eritrea was going nowhere due to the hopeless—as they perceive them—economic and political conditions of the country, they believed that the only way to construct a future was by leaving the country. Their reactions to the feeling of existential immobility was projected on a geographic scale of imagined opportunities, desires, and norms—the cosmology of destinations. However, the flight from their country and the arrival in Europe was often not enough to defeat existential immobility.

In a certain sense, the feeling of being stuck experienced by refugees in Italy is the perpetuation of what I encountered among a number of those young Eritreans in their homeland, in Ethiopia, and in Sudan. All of them felt stuck not only for their forced immobility, but also (and mostly) for the condition of eternal adolescence that stemmed from it (Vigh 2006; Treiber 2009). In practice, they were unable to provide for their families, form a new family of their own, and achieve a recognized social status in their eyes and in those of their community. As my 26-year-old informant, Ogbazgi, once told me, on his way from Genoa to Switzerland (his final destination): “I have been working in Italy for 5 years and still I cannot support my brother who is getting married in Eritrea, nor send money to my family. This is not good, I am not a child anymore.” 

Ogbazgi’s words meaningfully exemplify the feelings of many Eritreans in Italy. In spite of his willingness to support his brother’s marriage, the impossibility to do so after a 5-year-stay in Italy made Ogbazgi feel like a “too grown-up” child unable to meet his commitments as family breadwinner, even after having moved to Europe. The project to move onwards to Switzerland was then linked to his desire to improve his conditions so to be able to fulfill his family obligations and thus, hopefully, attain the status of respected man. 

The comparison between my case study and the literature (Mathews 2011; Papadopolous 2003; Grabska and Fanjoy 2015) also suggests that the condition of feeling stuck is also a psychological status with specific features. As observed by Papadopoulou (2003, 351), the perception of being stuck in transit implies limited engagement in the country of residence, and a strong emotional orientation towards the wished country of destination. This author argues that to be stuck in transit is somehow an essentially transnational stage, because migrants maintain cross-border ties with both their aspired destination and the homeland, while having little or no engagement with the receiving society. Similarly, the Eritrean refugees I met were highly connected with other Eritreans in other countries and in the homeland, but did not show any intent to engage in the place where they lived. Not only were social and economic contacts with the Italian society limited, but also their intentions of actually trying to get a job, to learn Italian, and to get regular housing were weak. For instance, when I asked Kibreab, a 29-year-old Eritrean living in a shantytown of Rome, why he did not work harder on his Italian skills, he answered: “. . .my mind is not settled. I cannot focus on studying. We have too many problems and our families back home are waiting for our support.” This was a common attitude among my informants in Italy. Although it is undeniable that the Italian context was challenging in many senses, one may wonder if their disenchanted attitudes did also contribute to their own marginality. The perception that it was possible to reach quite easily all the things they needed “somewhere close,” seemed to direct all their efforts toward the next attempt to seek asylum in another country, rather than in trying to find their way in Italy. 

Senay, my host in a Roman squat, is the most exemplary case of the condition of being in transit. He arrived in Italy in 2008. He tried to obtain asylum in Sweden, but he failed. He was sent back in 2011, about one year before I met him. After that, he did not look for a job. His stay permit—3-year-long subsidiary protection—had expired in 2012, but he said he did not want to renew it, as he was going to leave soon. He was working hard to renew his room in Metropolis in order to sell it to someone else before leaving to Sweden. All his time in Italy was spent planning his next journey to Sweden. This partly depended on his personal aspirations, but there was more to it. As his experience suggests, deciding if Italy is a destination or a transit country is not simply an individual exercise. Rather, refugees are embedded in a web of aspirations, expectations, and values that connect them with their diasporic community. The next section describes in detail how these norms and representations are maintained among Eritrean refugees in Italy by mutual relations and contacts with their kin and friends abroad.

Flows of Information and Images From the First World…

The feeling of being left behind is amplified by the continuous transnational flow of information, images, and people that connect those still living in Italy with those who have made it to the North. Despite their strong ethnic segregation, the Eritrean refugees whom I met in Italy were deeply embedded in transnational relationships with their kin, friends, and acquaintances in other countries. 

The transnational dimension of their daily lives is noticeable in their use of technology. As several studies have highlighted, technology is crucial to the transnational and local lives of migrants and refugees, as manifest in their use of mobile phones and internet social networks (Panagakos and Horst 2006; Harney 2013; Madianou and Miller 2012). For example, Alazar used to receive many calls a day from his friends still in Sudan, from others who had reached Northern Europe, from family members who worked in Israel, and still others in the USA. Senay was more active on Facebook: he used to spend a long time looking at the pictures of his friends who lived in other countries and chatting with them. Such a widespread flow of information and images elicits a feeling of disparity between the unlucky ones in Italy and the lucky ones who live elsewhere. It also produces of a sense of longing for further migration. 

Information and images from the first world reach Eritrean refugees in Italy not only through technology. As most of them have attempted to seek asylum more northwards, they have directly experienced the differences of being an asylum seeker in Italy and in a Scandinavian country, for instance. The case of Senay illustrates this experience well. Senay, had tried to seek asylum in Sweden and often remembered his days as an asylum seeker in Sweden as a beautiful period of his life. Once, while we were sitting in an internet café at the periphery of Rome, he started showing me his pictures when he was in Sweden: “You see Milena? I was fat at that time. It is because I was relaxed. I had such a great time there, I met my old friends from Asmara, and you see what a house we had?! Not like this squat where I live now.” Material comforts, such as housing, good furniture, and modern appliances, symbolize a “good life” in the eyes of many Eritreans and represent that modernity they have been striving for since they left Eritrea (Belloni 2016a). 

However, Dubliners—the ones returned to Italy under the Dublin Regulation—are not the only ones who come back to Italy. Whenever the Eritreans who have made it to the “first world” come back to Italy for holiday, they bring images and information which elicit the desire to leave among their “stuck” friends. This mechanism is similar to what has been described in areas of intense out-migration with the term of social remittances (Levitt 1998). Social, cultural, and economic remittances and summer visits of emigrants produce feelings of disparity and enhance desires of emulation which reproduce migration. In the Eritrean migration system, this phenomenon can be observed not only in areas of origin but also in so-called transit areas, such as Italy. 

…and Flows of Expectations from Eritrea

In the Eritrean context individuals and their families do not perceive emigration as only an individualistic search for better life prospects, but also as a strategy to ensure families’ wellbeing through remittances. In fact, individual refugees’ relationships with their families are embedded in a web of economic, moral, and cultural expectations concerning the destination of the migration journey, the kind of life they should have in that country, and the kind of support refugees will provide for those who stay back. Put otherwise, their cosmologies of destinations are shaped by kin-bound obligations, no less than by societally shared values and aspirations. Family expectations are high for those refugees that engage in onward mobility from the first country of asylum. They become even higher for those in Italy who are so close to reach the “first world,” but have not been able to reach it yet, as the next ethnographic example illustrates. 

Gabriel’s family hosted me for two months while I lived in Asmara. Here, I aim to address the family’s complicated relationship with him. Gabriel arrived in Italy in 2007, when he was 23. He stayed in a center for assistance of asylum seekers (CARA) in Crotone for a few months, the time necessary to be granted legal status. Then, as most other refugees in that period, he was sent out from the CARA and left on his own. He went to Rome, where he slept in a squat in Anagnina for a while, and then moved to Milan, where a friend of his had told him that there were more work opportunities. He remembered the period in Anagnina as a horrible nightmare. “Everything was dirty and we were sleeping on the ground. I hate Rome.” Even in Milan, he lived in a squat for a while in Porta Romana, until the squat was demolished. He had a small shop there—“I was doing good business there,” Gabriel used to tell me during our long strolls in Milan’s peripheries. After that he found a job in Rho Fiere, the industrial neighborhood in Milan and worked there for two years. However, when I met him in summer 2012, he had lost the job and he was in a legal dispute with his ex-employers, because, as he told me, “they owe me some money.” 

Gabriel loved Milan: the elegant shops of the center, from which he liked to buy expensive clothes and shoes, which made him feel like he had really reached the “first world.” Moreover, although he was often complaining about his co-nationals in Milan, the Eritrean neighborhood around Porta Venezia, where he used to eat his lunch or drink beers, made him feel at home somehow. He kept on saying that he could have found a job whenever he wanted in Milan, because he knew people and he was a hard-working man. However, his job hunt was continuously delayed: he was undecided whether to stay in Italy or move onwards. “My family think Italy is not good for me”—Gabriel used to tell me—“they want me to go to Germany where we have some relatives. . . but I wanna decide my life by myself.” 

At first, I did not give much importance to Gabriel’s statement about his family’s pressure to move onwards, nor to the effect of this unsolved conflict between individual desires and family obligations on his ambiguity of purpose. However, as soon as I entered Gabriel’s family’s house in Asmara, I realized that I had been wrong. After having let me through the door and accommodated me in the living room, Ester came to sit in front of me, briefly introduced herself, and welcomed me in the family. Then, after only a few minutes of conversation, she asked me why Gabriel did not move to Germany or some Scandinavian countries. She was worried about him and thought the situation in Italy was not favorable for her nephew. I explained to her that Gabriel was not allowed to seek asylum in another European country and that it was probably better for him to try his best to find a new job in Italy. However, she was not convinced. After a while, Yordanos, Ester’s eldest daughter, came into the living room. She had always been very close to Gabriel and he had told her about the hardships he had gone through in Italy. “I know it is not easy”—she said—“but we see other people who have settled down in other countries in Europe. Now they are doing well. We wish the same can happen to him.” 

It was interesting to notice that Gabriel’s relatives were aware that life for refugees in Italy was hard. They were not an exception. During my fieldwork in Eritrea, I was often asked: “How is the crisis going in Italy?” “Is it true that people cannot find work there?”; Aragay, one of my neighbors, told me, “everyone knows that our guys in Italy are living in a bad situation, work is hard to find and people sleep in the street.” Those Eritreans who had managed to go through Italy and were residing in other countries usually provided this information. The Eritrean national television also used to broadcast news about refugees’ hardships in Europe so as to discourage further irregular emigration from the country. 

However, awareness that refugees were facing hardships in Italy was not enough to exonerate them from blame. As families believed that other countries in Europe could offer young Eritreans more opportunities, they often complained about the fact that their sons had not moved to those “good countries.” Like Ester, Senay’s mother, Fiori, criticized her son for not trying hard enough to leave Italy while his brother had managed to reach Sweden. This was a common attitude towards those Eritreans who lived in Italy. My informants’ parents did not seem to know that their sons had already tried to move out of Italy. Senay, for example, had already attempted to seek asylum in Sweden, but he was sent back to Italy after a few months, when the Swedish authorities on the EURODAC found his fingerprints. 

Although families had general ideas about different opportunities in different European countries, they seemed to ignore other important, but more specific aspects of migrants’ lives abroad. In particular, they did not know about the Dublin Convention and the problems that refugees had to face once forcedly returned from Norway, Sweden, or other European countries back to Italy. On the contrary, young Eritreans seemed more informed on these issues; for example, many of them knew about the importance of avoiding fingerprints in Italy in order to seek asylum in other Northern European countries. However, even among them misinformation was far from rare. Some, for example, thought that after five years in Italy the fingerprints would be deleted from the EURODAC and people could move onwards to other European countries. Interestingly, some Eritrean refugees I met in Italy also shared this belief. 

Families’ expectations about their children’s onward mobility were not rooted only in the belief that Italy could not provide good conditions for settlement. They also mirrored the hope that migrant children would be able to support the family back home. Intergenerational solidarity represents a core moral value in Eritrea, as much as elsewhere; migrants are supposed to economically and practically support their old parents and their younger siblings. More specifically, among my informants, support was expected in two domains: economic remittances for everyday survival in Eritrea and assistance to other siblings who intend to migrate. As migration is widely considered “the best strategy” for individual social mobility and family survival, to support the emigration of relatives is perceived as the most important duty of those who have already reached developed countries. This is crucial not only to understanding family expectations and the pressure experienced by refugees abroad, but also to analyze the relational mechanisms which maintain the flow of refugees moving from Eritrea to Ethiopia, Sudan, Italy, and beyond. 

The fact remains that most of my Eritrean informants in Italy were not able to meet their families’ expectations, as they were also struggling to survive. This had significant implications for their family relationships and for the social status ascribed to them by their community of departure. 

The Price of Disappointing Family Expectations

Although my informants were willing to send remittances home, sometimes they simply were not able to because they did not earn enough for their own living. If a refugee is in Africa, his/her inability to send remittances is well-understood and pitied, because Africa is generally recognized—within the cosmology of destinations—as a place where living is hard, salaries are low, and personal development is prevented. However, once a refugee makes it to the “first world,” relatives’ expectations become higher. Although Italy was known as a hard place to live, its being a European country was enough to make those emigrants who were struggling there a target of blame by their families and the community at large, as I show by analyzing Gabriel’s case below. 

Gabriel’s sister, Lwam, and his family in Asmara were bitter about the fact that Gabriel had not sent money and presents home since his arrival in Europe. Although they knew life was hard in Italy, they still felt bad because he did not send anything through me. Lwam was often my interpreter during my home-visits to the families of my Eritrean informants in Italy, many of whom had not sent any “gifts” through me. These occasions reminded her of her own feelings of frustration for her brother’s lack of remittances. “For people here”—Lwam commented to me, once we had come out from one of our visits—“if someone migrates and cannot survive with his own means, but still waits for money from relatives, it is like he is dead. It is already a shame to live with family here in Eritrea, but you can accept it. But if you go abroad and you have to ask [money] to others, that is not life, it is death.” 

Her words powerfully define the price that an emigrant can pay if he disappoints social expectations. The risk of “social death” (Vigh 2006; Peter 2010) feared by those Eritrean refugees whom I met in Ethiopians camps (Belloni 2016c) increases for those Eritrean refugees who reach Italy but are not able to send remittances back home. Not only families but also the community at large would judge negatively refugees who do not help their families back home. That became clear to me when Lwam and I went to visit Tegesti, our neighbor, for a Sunday coffee. Her family had a kiosk of clothes at the market close to the medeber [caravanserai]. Her house was located just one street after the one where my hosts used to live. 

While we sipped our coffees, Tegesti started speaking about her two sons who had escaped from the country a few years back and were then working in Angola abroad. They were apparently doing well in Angola, but had not started yet to send remittances to the family. One son had left Eritrea three years before and started working in Khartoum as electrician. He was making good money but all the money he earned was spent to bring the younger brother out of the country. After his brother joined him they decided to go to Angola and started working in a supermarket. Tegesti was then hoping that her sons would start sending some money. As she said: “We cannot survive here without their help! 100 euro a month is 5,000 nakfa [Eritrean local currency] here! Life becomes easier if you can have that kind of money every month.” They asked me about Lwam’s brother, Gabriel. I said to them that he was fine. Then she exclaimed, a bit jokingly and a bit seriously: “It is not enough if he’s okay, because the family here is waiting for nakfa! Nakfa! Nakfa!” and then she rubbed her thumb and her index, “the money sign,” while looking into my eyes to be sure I understood it well. Lwam laughed bitterly. She clearly felt embarrassed due to her brother’s behavior and only Aragay’s mediation could ease the situation. Aragay said that everyone knew how hard life was for refugees in Italy, and thus somehow justified Gabriel’s incapability to support the family. 

From this episode at Tegesti’s, it is clear the high social cost which refugees may have to pay if they do not meet family expectations. In order to avoid paying this social price, Eritrean refugees keep trying to move onwards to other northern European countries, where they believe they will have enough money to help their families. Until they succeed, however, they have a hard time dealing with their families back home. 


Why do Eritrean refugees want to move onwards from Italy in spite of their stable legal status? From where does their sense of “stuckedness” stem? While answering these specific questions concerning Eritrean refugees’ orientation for onward mobility in Europe, this chapter has highlighted the role of transnational connections in understanding secondary movements in Europe and the feeling of being stuck in transit. Not only the social remittances coming from countries deemed to be more suitable destinations, but also the moral obligations towards kin in the home country and their expectations are crucial to understand why refugees and migrants may perceive themselves in transit and not at destination. Migration is, in fact, in Eritrea as in many other countries, perceived as a way to achieve self-realization, adulthood—declined along gender lines—and the improvement of one’s own family socioeconomic condition. Whenever integration difficulties do not allow meeting these widespread social expectations concerning migrants and their pathways, the desire for further mobility emerges again. Thus, the condition of “stuckedness” experienced by my informants, I have argued, does not simply mirror a physical condition—as many refugees are not able to seek asylum elsewhere due to policy regulations—but rather a feeling of un-accomplishment with respect to commonly shared goals of migration. 

The decision to move onwards thus is both a personal choice and the result of family pressure. By studying the transnational moral economies underpinning Eritrean forced migration, the chapter has pointed to the crucial role of families not only in the initial decision to move out from Eritrea, but also in refugees’ onward mobility. In fact, within the current asylum context in Europe, Italy has progressively come to be seen by Eritrean refugees as well as by their families and communities back home as a transit country. Those who are voluntarily or involuntarily living there occupy a somehow intermediate position in the widespread cosmology of destinations, and are often object of blame for their incapability to accomplish the ultimate goal of migration, i.e., reaching another European country more northwards and contributing to family wellbeing by remitting. Thus, the families and kin groups in Eritrea directly and indirectly influence the migration trajectories of Eritrea refugees in Italy, even though from afar.


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  1. A similar trend can be noticed in 2014: out of 34,329 arrivals only about 450 sought asylum in Italy. Instead, the data of 2016 show a dramatic increase in the asylum requests among Eritreans. Among the 20,718 Eritreans arrived in Italy, about 7,500 applied for asylum. Nevertheless, the gap between arrivals and asylum requests is still significant (these are less than one third of the total number of arrivals). This increase may be due to the implementation of the European relocation system which allows some nationalities of asylum seekers to be relocated from Italy to another European country. For further information on the European relocation mechanism see http://eea.iom.int/index.php/what-we-do/eu-relocation.
  2. The Eritrean population is highly diversified in terms of ethnic belonging, religious membership and geographic origin. Each group has had different exposure to international migration and has specific migration histories. Although many of my informants came from ethnic minorities, most of the findings I discuss here concern Tigrinya Eritreans, the most numerous ethnic group in the country.
  3. However, there has been a dramatic decrease in Eritrean arrivals between 2009 and 2010 due to the effect of the bilateral agreement between Libya and Italy (Paoletti, 2011) and the push-back policy of the Italian government at the time (Cuttitta, 2014).
  4. These estimates are calculated on the basis of the data from the Italian Ministry of the Interior available at http://www.ismu.org/irregolari-e-sbarchi-presenze/.
  5. The international acknowledgement that Eritrean applicants, if returned home, could face torture and persecution has led Italy, as well as most European countries, to grant legal protection (mostly in a “subsidiary” form) to the great majority of them.
  6. EURODAC is a European software system which enables European states to share biometric data on asylum seekers and illegal migrants. The Dublin Regulation and EURODAC are expected to prevent abuses of the asylum system, such as the submission of several applications by one claimant in more than one European country.
  7. See the text of Dublin III Regulation at https://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2013:180:0031:0059:EN:PDF.
  8. In several occasions, the SPRAR (System for the Protection of Asylum Seekers and Refugees) has been sided by other initiatives, such as Marconi system, the North African Emergency system, which have involved other private actors, such as hotel owners and other individuals involved in hospitality, in order to provide basic assistance to asylum seekers and refugees. Civil society associations and, especially, religious organizations, such as Caritas and the Jesuit Refugees Service have also played an important role in providing legal and practical help for refugees.


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