Migrant Bodies at the Mediterranean Borders of Europe

Syrian migrants/refugees arrive from Turkey on boat. Shutterstock

Critique internationale recently published a special issue coedited by Marie Bassi and Farida Souiah, entitled Corps migrants aux frontières méditerranéennes de l'Europe (Migrant Bodies at the Mediterranean Borders of Europe), Critique internationale , n° 83, April-June 2019. They have agreed to answer our questions.

First of all, would you mind coming back to the development of Border Studies? How have they contributed to a different approach to the European Union’s policies for the control of human mobility?

Border Studies are a subfield of social sciences that questions and therefore tends to denaturalize borders. Research that is done in this perspective analyses the way security-oriented migration policies—like the ones implemented by the European Union and its member states—shape borders. Most of the time, there is not one single border between two territories, but many which extend in both time and space and do not apply to everyone equally.

Control policies not only alter the scope of the borders’ temporality and spatiality, they also have many contradictory and ambiguous effects. They stimulate migrant smuggling networks and irregular migrations, which they are meant to prevent. But most of all, they increase the dangerousness of migration routes. Border Studies reveal the lethal nature of the border regime implemented not only by the EU, but also in many other places such as at the border between the United States and Mexico.

What are, according to you, the effects of intertwining—in discourses and representations—surveillance and border control operations with search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea?

Analysing the Mediterranean maritime space allows us to show how humanitarian and security policies are both interdependent and intertwined when it comes to migration issues. Since the early 2010s and the increasing visibility of shipwrecks, media attention and political discourse has focused notably on scenes of rescue and humanitarian actors. The notion of surveillance and control at the borders has widened to include search and rescue operations. Even when it comes from actors who elaborate and implement security policies, the institutional language has also included this “humanitarian narrative”.

However, focusing on rescues contributes to shifting the attention from the regime of control of mobility that is promoted and carried out by states. Additionally, the recent prevalence of discourses relating to rescue seems to mark a shift from the image of individuals fleeing war and violence—and therefore having rights—to that of passive victims of shipwrecks waiting to be rescued. Through this humanitarian/security interweaving in the Mediterranean Sea, the same people are subject to apparently contradictory mechanisms. They are the targets of security measures (controlled, detained, sorted), the object of humanitarian concerns (rescued, placed in centres), and they are labelled differently during their migration paths: asylum seekers, illegal migrants, undocumented migrants, “dublined”, rejected asylum seekers, removable foreign nationals, and so on.

Can you explain what Forensic Architecture is ? Two contributors to this issue illustrate the methods and the inputs of this approach in analysing the lethal consequences of the illegalization of migrations.

Forensic Architecture is a multidisciplinary research group initiated by Eyal Weizman from Goldsmiths University in 2010. Using tools coming from various disciplines such as architecture and archaeology, this group seeks to investigate state violence. Forensic Architecture has a political aim: producing and presenting evidence of human rights violations. Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani, the two authors in this special issue who address this idea, mainly use oceanography in order to document and denounce the death of migrants at sea. They show that several actors—including states—are responsible for the multiplication of the number of deaths. People also die because of non-assistance practices in the maritime space.

Finally, how and why are the authors of this issue critical social scientists? And how does this position question the synergy and the limits between academic research and activism?

It is first of all due to their research topics and to the knowledge they produce that the contributors to this issue can be considered as part of a critical social sciences approach. They focus on subjects such as death by migration and reveal the structural violence of the border regime. We would however like to insist on the fact that each of them defines in their own way the links that exist between activism and academic research. The frontier can be more or less porous, and is subject to evolutions. Some circumscribe their activism in their civic life, others clearly place their research in an activist perspective and claim the transformative aim of their academic work.

The closeness between research and activism can limit the objectivation process or be an obstacle when documenting the contradictions and tensions spanning through the networks and groups the researchers are sometimes active members of. In this issue, the authors’ reflexivity has fuelled the discussion and reflection on synergies and limits between the two fields.

Interview by Catherine Burucoa

Access the Table of Contents and all abstracts (in French and in English)

Access the journal on Cairn (platform)

Photo by Nicola Economou/Shutterstock. Lesvos island, Greece - 13 November 2015. Drone / aerial images from above with Syrian migrants / refugees arrive from Turkey on boat through sea near Molyvos, on an overload dinghy.

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