Border Controls: Some Reflections from Stockholm

Guest post by Ruben Andersson, postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University, Sweden

There is no let-up in news from Europe’s frontiers. Early December saw the launch of Eurosur, or the European external border surveillance system, connecting member states’ security forces and the EU border agency Frontex into a powerful network-of-networks. At the same time as this tool to save migrants’ liveswent live, Spain was garlanding the fence around its North African enclave of Melilla with military-grade razor wire to keep increasingly desperate sub-Saharan migrants out. The political momentum after the Lampedusa tragedy this autumn may have dissipated, yet Europe’s border regime – in its multiple, contradictory guises – marches on. The question is, towards where, and at what human and financial cost? And how can ethnographic research get to grips with these developments?

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Melilla fence, Spain (Photo: R. Andersson)

The recently concluded international workshop on ethnographies of border controls, held at Stockholm University and organised by myself and Shahram Khosravi, reflected on both the nature of contemporary border controls and how to approach these ethnographically. It brought together pioneering scholars working on border controls, from the US-Mexico frontier to the Greek-Turkish borderland, with the intention of forging common agendas around the most potent divides of our time – much like border officers and migrants themselves are doing.

Border controls, the papers reminded us, are as much about defining and defending a self as they are about shutting out ‘the other’. We heard how elderly ‘Minutemen’ vigilantes at the US-Mexico border sought solace in the militarised borderline as former veterans – to the extent of enduring freezing night-time shifts in the desert, coughing into pillows so that the ‘illegals’ they watched out for would not hear them. We heard how Dutch bureaucrats, by focusing on the most minute of tasks involved in deportation, avoided seeing the human results of forced removal while maintaining a sense of self-worth and purpose. And we were reminded of the crucial economic dimension of border enforcement that politicians would rather conceal – that is, how international boundaries selectively filter rather than keep people out, thus fulfilling the demand for ‘cheap’ labour power craved by US and European employers alike.

Yet no one is ever in full control at the border. The fringes of Europe, we learnt, constitute a patchwork of overlapping regimes: of the EU and its neighbours, of belligerent or mutually dependent nation-states, of search-and-rescue areas and Mediterranean partnerships. And the interstices between these regimes produce frequent conflicts and contradictions – whether between the military and Frontex-supported police in the Greek-Turkish borderland, or between top-down EU agendas on surveillance and the priorities of frontline border guards. At the US-Mexico frontier, racked by drug wars and traversed by illicit flows, contradictions similarly abound, with Mexican border elites increasingly depending upon the fortified frontline for their sustenance or even survival.

As the workshop showed, it would be a mistake to focus exclusively on the show of force at the border to the detriment of bordering processes that are proliferating ‘inland’. From asylum tribunals in the UK to Finnish courtrooms and Dutch migration bureaucracies, snap decisions and unspoken assumptions or presumptions about guilt, trust and ‘believability’ constantly put migrants at risk of deportation or detention. On a higher level, the intricate human rights considerations triggered by tragedies in the Mediterranean prove a challenge for decision-makers and rapporteurs tasked with apportioning blame or suggesting ‘solutions’. Who – to put it crudely – is the perpetrator as a migrant boat sink, or when a deportee is abused upon their forced return? Focusing ethnographically on the sites of contestation between workers, migrants and paperwork – or between workers and their own dilemmas – brings rich ethnographic perspectives to this fraught political field, as workshop participants showed.

Another site for ethnographic intervention – and indeed the starting point of the workshop – is the very materials of border controls. The removal process, adapted to local ‘needs’ from Italy to Indonesia, depends upon intricate networks of technology, manpower and infrastructure: airport terminals, holding centres, deportation vans, trafficking questionnaires. One key element in this network – the deportation flight itself – presents specific possibilities of bodily comportment, of discipline and protest, precisely thanks to the constrained nature of the aircraft and the forms of concealment that it enables. In the workshop, we heard how a ‘diagonal’ take on such means and tools of migration enforcement might bring the study of border controls into dialogue with a much broader historical field. Otherwise the risk, as participants pointed out, is that the urgency of the systems currently rolled out across the rich world – from Arizona’s drones to Eurosur’s interfaces – can blind us to much longer processes of shoring up the self by keeping out ‘the other’. A lack of the long view may also make us, the researchers, unwitting participants in the industry built around border controls, with its constant disbursements of funds and its dazzling displays of sovereign power. After all, the radar screens, barbed-wire fences, drones and deportation flights conceal more than they show – not just the distressing sight of ‘disposable’ people carried towards an unknown fate, and not just the economically useful labour power of the border crosser, but also the very social relations and realities created in the shadow of technology, either in service or opposition to the border regime in its multifarious guises.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Andersson, R (2013) Border Controls: Some Reflections from Stockholm. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/reflections-from-stockholm (Accessed [date]).

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