The messiness of research: My experience as a young female researcher at an Italian migrant detention centre

Francesca Esposito

This post is part of the joint blog series on ‘Gender and Migration’ co-hosted by Border Criminologies and COMPAS. Posts in this series will be published in both blogs every Friday until the end of June.

Detainees behind bar fences at Ponte Galeria, Rome’s Center for Identification and Expulsion (Photo: F. Esposito)
Detainees behind bar fences at Ponte Galeria, Rome’s Center for Identification and Expulsion (Photo: F. Esposito)

Incorporating a feminist perspective, many community psychology scholars have stressed the importance of adopting a reflexive practice based on the sharing of how we conduct our work in different contexts with diverse participants/collaborators, and how our own personal histories, values, and social statuses have an impact on the research process and outcomes. As Mulvey and colleagues highlight, these ‘messy accounts’ may help reveal whether and how our work is able to challenge power relations and inequalities, especially when we’re working with marginalized groups.

For me, reflexivity has been a necessary tool to navigate the complexity of my messy research work within Ponte Galeria, Rome’s Center for Identification and Expulsion (CIE), the main migration-related detention center in Italy. The tensions and vulnerabilities I was experiencing began to acquire meaning, revealing of the research process and its intrinsic power imbalances. Messiness, which should not be associated with noise, as articulated recently by Edison Trickett and colleagues, became a guideline.

Identity and status: Creating the insider/outsider

I’ll always remember the feelings that arose the first time I entered Ponte Galeria. It was 2009, and I was working for BeFree Social Cooperative, a feminist NGO in Rome engaged in combating violence against women. We got the chance to enter the CIE in order to meet the migrant women held there and provide them with legal and psycho-social advice. I remember the large and rusty entry-gate as well as the many gates (physical and symbolical) I had to pass through… It was an emotionally taxing―but at the same time enriching―experience that indelibly marked me. It taught me that ‘sisterhood between women,’ an ideal very dear to me as a feminist, can be difficult to achieve when other salient identities, apart from gender, are at play. In the context of the CIE, my identity as a white, native, member of the dominant group was especially important.

Main corridor of the female living unit at Ponte Galeria (Photo: F. Esposito)
Main corridor of the female living unit at Ponte Galeria (Photo: F. Esposito)

Some years later, I went back to cross that entry-gate, as well as the many gates beyond it, this time as a doctoral student engaged in a research project on life in migration-related detention that seeks to document the noxious effects of such oppressive systems.

Despite my professional background in the CIE, which has very much helped me to obtain research authorization and reduce the perception that I’m a ‘total outsider’ by the center staff, it hasn’t saved me from facing a variety of tensions and vulnerabilities. Staff members often look at me with suspicion and mistrust, making hard to create mutual engagement and collaboration at times. However, some members have been more open and collaborative than others: they have helped me ‘enter the field,’ becoming my gatekeepers.

My insider/outsider status continuously shifts across time, space, and relationships. Moreover, my gender identity, my age, and my professional status very much influence my positions within the research field as well as the relationships with different individuals and groups in the CIE. As a woman, I’m not allowed to access male areas without an escort of male security officers, being considered ‘vulnerable’ and ‘at risk.’ Like most detained women (except sex workers, Roma, and ex-prisoners who are considered to be ‘dangerous subjects’), I was considered ‘a potential victim’ and so ‘in need of protection.’ As Gabriella Alberti notes in relation to migrant women detained in Lesvos, Greece, ‘the regime of “gendered detention management”’ works to reproduce women’s vulnerability, while attempting to silence their voices as political subjects. My experience reveals the workings of this ‘technology of gender,’ using the words of Teresa De Lauretis. Furthermore, as a young professional, I was often mistaken for a student carrying out a master’s thesis; although irritating, such a ‘harmless status’―increased by the fact of being a woman―actually favoured the disclosure of confidential and controversial information by CIE staff, such as security officers.

Trust for trust: building relationships

Lateral corridor of the female living unit at Ponte Galeria (Photo: F. Esposito)
Lateral corridor of the female living unit at Ponte Galeria (Photo: F. Esposito)

My relationships with detained migrants are also personally challenging. My identity as a native-born Italian citizen, and my privileged status as member of the dominant group, has, at times, made it difficult to establish connections and relationships of trust. During the long conversations held in the ‘rooms’ or in the corridors of the CIE, migrants’ discussions frequently addressed the ‘injustice of being confined just for their migrant status,’ including me in the group of the oppressors, the Italians, who made them suffer ‘due to racism and xenophobia.’ ‘Italy wicked! This place is no good!’ a Nigerian woman once shouted at me, and saying it’s ‘because we are black, that’s why Italian treat us like this! Like animals!.’ It’s not easy to deal with the anger, frustration, and distress of people who identify you with the dominant group responsible for their suffering. Yet, it’s not easy to overcome their diffidence and mistrust―the main emotional dimensions within the CIE―and to build collaborative and open relationships. A key resonating questions is Why should you be different? It’s been hard for me to accept this, especially in the relationship with detained women, believing that, due to sharing the same gender identity, empathy and reciprocity were easy to create. With male detainees instead, apart from the constraints imposed by my reduced mobility in their areas and the challenges also faced with women, the main difficulty relates to their use of masculine power to challenge our relationship.

I’ve found that by being open, authentic, and honest about my experiences and identities, as well as about my research goals, it’s been possible to establish meaningful relationship with many detainees. Some wanted to know more about me to decide if and how to disclose information about themselves. In other words, they wanted trust in exchange of trust. For example, women often asked me if I was married, if I had children, where I was living. By sharing with them my own experiences, including migratory ones (I lived in London for almost a year and now I’m living in Lisbon), and struggles helped establish connections. Many were familiar with Lisbon and Portugal, having passed there for several reasons; the evocation of those places reminded them of moments of freedom and happiness. A Roma woman asked me, for instance, if and when I could go to Fatima’s sanctuary in Portugal, to light a candle for her to have other children. I also shared with them the information I had about rights, laws, procedures, strategies, and advocacy services available inside the CIE. Indeed, many detainees lacked this essential information.

During this process, which is ongoing, some relationships became so strong that they continue after detention. I’m still in contact with many men and women who keep me informed about their lives. New technologies help us a lot in this sense: Facebook and WhatsApp make it easier to share information regardless of where we are in the world. Moreover, with people who are still in detention, we communicate using the telephone or via text message to keep in touch. (Unfortunately, there are no internet connections or computers available inside the CIE.) Some detainees/ex-detainees have become long-term collaborators, actively involved in the development of the research.

In the oppressive context of the CIE, I have learned that by being an honest and passionate witness, it’s possible to create meaningful human relationships. However, it’s necessary to engage in an ongoing exercise of reflexivity, to continuously reexamine and reposition myself and become more sensitive and able to navigate power differentials endemic in research relationships, especially in sites of confinement like this one. Fieldwork is messy and personal, hence, as feminists argue, political. The fact of being a young female researcher, and a free Italian citizen, shapes the research process and relationships, creating a unique research story.

To learn more about the topic of this post, please see my forthcoming article entitled ‘Practicing Ethnography in Migration-Related Detention Centers: A Reflexive Account,’ in the Journal of Prevention and Intervention in the Community, a thematic issue edited by C. Arcidiacono and M. Aber.

Author affiliation: Francesca Esposito, Doctoral Candidate in Community Psychology, ISPA-University Institute, Lisbon