Friday, 18 December 2015

Meandering journeys through restrictions and intersecting regimes of mobility

By Dorte Thorsen

Contemporary policy regimes in Britain, and in Europe in general, aim to manage migration through the separation of what are perceived as productive and desirable forms of migration and what are seen as threatening or undesirable forms. Such perceptions are not objective. As migration scholars Nina Glick-Schiller and Noel Salazar[i] point out, they normalize the movements of some people, while criminalizing and entrapping the ventures of others.

So much attention goes into this separation currently and produces a deeply problematic conflation of refugees and migrants that not only runs the risk of violating the rights of refugees but also of forgetting to assess whether the criteria for separating one category from the other are apposite. If you read Dew’s story, you get an idea of the level of ambition, the large sums of money spent to pursue that ambition and the ingenuity demonstrated by many migrants to find solutions. Their perseverance begs the question why people with so much ambition and capacity to cope with difficult situations belong to the category of undesired migrants.

With the exception of a narrow range of professions, migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are increasingly excluded from established and legal transnational mobility flows, not just to the global North but also to the stronger economies in Asia and the Middle East, and to African states that have aligned their mobility regimes with those of the European Union.

Restrictions on foreign nationals’ mobility and settlement are not a new phenomenon in Africa. For decades migrants have been labelled as irregular migrants, their local mobility has been curbed and expulsions of migrants have been articulated as part of national security concerns during conflict or crisis or as part of broader efforts to curb migration. Migrants across the continent have experienced having their identity papers and residence cards inspected at random by state authorities and others, who regularly demand levies whether the papers are incomplete or not.

‘Irregularity’ and ‘illegality’ then is more than a question of preventing undocumented migration; it is a political construction used to criminalize and exclude certain groups of migrants, and to fuel a growing industry in itself of equipment and personnel to separate the desired migrants from the undesired ones.

European funding and technical support for border control and for pre-departure prevention of irregular migration now extends beyond North Africa to African states known as sending countries. As a result mobility patterns have changed in three important ways. First, previously established migration routes towards North Africa have become more difficult and dangerous to traverse for migrants who are seen as potential irregular immigrants to Europe. Second, migration has been rerouted from both long-established and more recent places of destination to a much broader range of locations. Third, journeys require increasingly ingenious ways of circumventing border control, and they entail considerable danger of being delayed or blocked at all stages of the journey. Contingencies shape migrants’ trajectories as they navigate the closure of imagined possibilities, insecurities where they are stuck, and the opening of never-thought-of opportunities.

When potential and actual migrants seek to overcome these politically erected barriers to realize their aspirations for the future, breaking the law is not at the heart of their strategies, even if they do clash with international legal systems. Rather, the use of forged papers, carefully constructed applications for visas or asylum, and the clandestine crossing of borders, contest the power of documents.

They challenge what Yael Navaro-Yashin[ii] has termed the material culture and ideological artefacts of modern states by ignoring the veracity and indispensability of such documents. In the regimes of mobility advocated and practiced in the global North, such disregard is perceived as the crux of illegality and not only individuals are criminalized: where corruption allows for the purchase of false papers, sometimes directly from the issuing state institutions, states too are criminalized and branded as conservatories of kleptocracy and bad governance.

The politics at play here entail the juxtaposition of a singular understanding of documents associated with the modern state with an imaginative understanding of how converging regimes of mobility open new spaces, in which enterprising individuals can make an acceptable living as migrants or non-migrants, inside or outside the continent.


Dorte Thorsen is the Theme Leader for Gender and Qualitative Research at the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium. Her research interests include child and youth migration and, since 2012, the lives of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa living in Morocco.

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