Distressing news reports from Europe keep coming in. A dozen migrants died here trying to make their way from Africa, a few hundred there. Italy claims it’s outmatched and needs European Union support. Spain says it’s interested in a humanitarian response. Meanwhile, I imagine the ghost of Muammar Gaddafi wryly admonishing its former European powers with an “I told you so” years after warning that his fall would mean Libya would no longer apply a heavy hand to keep migrants in Africa.
Lost from this conventional account are the many people who are directly engaged in the migration process. From prospective migrants to immigration detention staff, migration depends on the work of numerous interested parties. Two new books go a long way to disclosing the many obscure pieces of the migration process to and in Europe.
Ruben Andersson’s Illegality, Inc.: Clandestine Migration and the Business of Bordering Europe (University of California Press 2014) is a wonderfully readable, extremely well searched, and immensely helpful contribution to migration scholarship. It is the rare author who can combine the writer’s fluid prose with the scholar’s deep analysis, but Andersson, a post-doctoral fellow at the London School of Economics, does just that.
Clandestine migration doesn’t just pop into migrants’ heads. It’s not just a product of micro-level social networks where one person leads another ad hoc. Instead, he explains, it’s an interconnected network that involves formal and informal processes, governmental and nongovernmental entities, for-profits and non-profits, individuals acting alone and in coordination with others. There are the coordinators who gather interested migrants into groups to start the long journey northward, there are the African police forces that patrol beaches and borders looking for potential or actual migrants, and there are the migrants who gather and organize literally feet from Europe’s southern edge in Spanish enclaves cut from Moroccan territory.
Perhaps most importantly for Western audiences to be reminded, there are also many European parties involved. European border agents under the guise of the EU’s Frontex border enforcement unit monitor radar that constantly watch the Mediterranean, Spanish police guard newly constructed fences, and Red Cross officials provide relief services.
Everyone takes a different role, but, Andersson argues convincingly, they are all equally responsible for creating an “illegality industry” (p. 15). Together—and only together—do these actors create the concept of migrant illegality, the process of clandestine migration, and the deadly consequences that dot the headlines.
One part of that illegality industry takes center stage in Mary Bosworth’s Inside Immigration Detention (Oxford University Press 2014). A criminologist at Oxford and Australia’s Monash University where she directs the outstanding Border Criminologies blog, Bosworth is one of the foremost scholars on the penalization of migration.
In her latest book she paints a complicated portrait of the United Kingdom’s immigration detention regime. As she recounts, immigration removal centres, as they are called in the UK, are simultaneously spaces that are highly regimented and where variation reigns supreme. Detention centers, she writes, “are a threshold to another country, the staging zone for another life” (p. 135), yet their operations sometimes differ tremendously. The facilities intake processes, clothing detainees are required or allowed to wear, housing decisions, and security measures implemented frequently differ.
These insights are valuable, especially to those of us in the United States and elsewhere who are not personally familiar with the UK’s detention practices. As with Andersson, however, Bosworth’s greatest contribution is in revealing the experiences of those directly involved in immigration detention—guards and detainees. She describes both with the sympathetic pen of someone who spent almost two years inside detention facilities speaking with and observing the people who live and work inside. Perhaps because of that she is able to tackle head-on the conventional portrayal of detention centers as overrun by authoritarian guards who frighten detainees into submission. Staff, she writes, “struggle to understand their job and its purpose” (p. 213) and sometimes “call into question their job and their sense of self” (p. 205) out of empathy for the migrants and disappointment in the legal processes.
On their part, detainees frequently “challenge their detainee identity” by resisting facility dictates in ways that are sometimes mundane (e.g., wearing formal attire) and sometimes extraordinary (e.g., sewing one’s lips shut) (p. 90). All of this contributes to making detention sites “uncertain and inconsistent places” to be sure (p. 161), but also spaces that “have a meaning of their own” in which human relations and power are constantly negotiated and renegotiated (p. 221).
Though their books have very different focuses, Andersson and Bosworth both take readers to locations that, for most of us, are off-limits either formally (detention centers) or practically (West African migration hubs).
This is not an easy task. Andersson regularly returns to the role that academic researchers play in creating, shaping, and propagating our research subjects and the conditions in which they live. We too are part of the illegality industry that he writes about. Perhaps it is enough reassurance that Andersson and Bosworth both entered their field sites with care, free of the bravado of the much-derided (appropriately so) Orientalists of generations past. Or maybe that doesn’t matter since they, like me, have built livelihoods and staked reputations on our understanding of other people’s predicaments. That, of course, is a core feature of academic inquiry of all types, not just migration scholarship. I’ll leave further discussion of that question for a later day.
For now, it’s enough to close by recommending both books. In them, Andersson and Bosworth have made lasting contributions to migration studies and, let’s hope, to the future form of migration and its policing.
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