Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Refugees and migrants - research objects and human realities - a reflection on ‘Queens of Syria’

By Eva-Maria Egger

Every day we hear and read about the horrific events in Syria, about refugees dying in the Mediterranean Sea, running from European police at borders, and still we cannot grasp that this is the reality of ordinary people.

What does it mean to be a refugee? What does it feel like to leave your home to be destroyed, not knowing when you will return - if ever - and what you will find left upon your return? How can you cope with the horrors you saw in war? When will you hold your children, your mother, in your arms again? What is it like to be constantly asked what it is like? Who will really help you? Who will let you into their country and into their home when you seek shelter? Articles and videos of journalists and researchers try to give answers to these questions. However, nothing compares to having a person look you in the eye and tell you their story.

In the theatre production Queens of Syria’ Syrian refugee women from a refugee camp in Jordan tell their stories, each one at her own pace, with her own voice, with her own strength and with all her vulnerability, and each one with the motivation that “I have a scream I have to let out. I want the world to hear it.” There is little that is this powerful to get a message across. There is little that is so purely human. There are few moments in which I felt so close, yet so distant to these women and their realities. One Syrian woman in the play said, that she wondered why telling her story in the form of a play would be of any use, but then she learned that the British really like theatre and that they take it very seriously. Thus, she understood that she would have to do theatre to make the British listen to her story.

As a migration researcher, this experience made me reflect on how we can communicate our research results. We should aim not only for methodologically and theoretically sound journal articles but also for ways that make everyone, from policy makers through to ordinary citizens and to researchers, understand that these topics are human realities. Thus, I am very excited to read the comic recently published by the Migrating out of Poverty consortium. It is one result from research our Sussex colleague Robert Nurick and Cambodian colleague Sochanny Hak conducted in Cambodia. The comic, Precarious Migration: Voices of Undocumented Cambodian Migrants, tells the story of irregular Cambodian migrants who move to Thailand in search of a better life and for a job that pays them enough to support their family, whom they’ve left behind. These people take risks that we cannot imagine, but the comic helps the reader to gain an idea of these experiences. In a few pages, in a few pictures, a range of emotions, from hope to fear, from desperation to relief, find their space. In this way, thousands of unheard voices, scarcely ever talked about in the news, are given the space to tell their story. And we, as researchers, and as ordinary citizens, get a little bit closer to their realities.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Book Review: Human Smuggling and Border Crossings

by Dorte Thorsen

Review of Human Smuggling and Border Crossings by Gabriella E. Sanchez
Routledge, 2015

Human Smuggling and Border Crossings successfully challenges the dominant discourse linking the smuggling of people with mafia-like criminal organisations, extreme violence, and greed. Gabriella Sanchez paints a picture of fluid networks of ordinary men and women who engage in the facilitation of extra-legal border crossings in the US state of Arizona as a means to tide over income gaps and to contend with―and oppose―structural marginalisation. Through a unique combination of deep knowledge of border control and law enforcement procedures from her work interviewing detainees for a county criminal court, critical analysis of court case files, and ethnographic field research, Sanchez unpacks the multifarious, minute activities making up border crossing operations. Her work is an important contribution to the emerging body of research highlighting the perspectives and practices of people facilitating border crossings.
The ethnography steadily digs into the global and local discourses surrounding smuggling and extra-legal border crossings, identifying flawed understandings and misrepresentations in order to promote particular policies. In line with critical scholarship on contemporary regimes of migration management, Sanchez notes that the focus on humanitarian crisis, violence, and death in border zones often results in decontextualized and ahistorical arguments, which fail to consider the effects of racialized, gendered, and classed inequalities. This, she demonstrates, is particularly problematic in the context of Arizona where racial inequalities date back more than a century and have been subject to various degrees of institutionalisation in labour and immigration legislation over time.

While the marginalisation of Mexican immigrants could promote the idea that they were prone to enter criminal activities to make a quick buck, Sanchez’s continued deconstruction of the myths surrounding smuggling puts that idea to rest well before it nestles. Her detailed analysis of people facilitating border crossings shows that they are a highly diverse group, and yet she effectively points out the commonalities pertaining to the division of labour along gendered lines. Although both women and men can operate as recruiters and coordinators, men are usually the ones engaged in the risky business of guiding migrants across borders and through desert zones and of driving them from one pick-up point to another or to the final destination. Women tend to work in safe houses where they provide care and support to migrants in transit and thereby fulfil an important role in maintaining the networks’ trustworthiness.

These insights are fresh. Digging deeper to understand the gender dynamics at play, Sanchez weaves in the structurally different positions and pathways of Mexican women and men in the US. She exposes that female border crossing facilitators are more settled in the Arizona border zone than their male counterparts, and that they therefore tap into different niches in the facilitation process. These niches reiterate gender inequalities in pay but not necessarily in social position. While racial stereotyping within law enforcement authorities renders Mexican men more at risk of having their papers checked, female facilitators and their families are, in fact, affected more profoundly in situations of detainment and deportation. For women, deportation entails separation from their children, whereas for men, whose families often remain in the country of origin, deportation doesn’t have the same effect.

Finally, challenging the idea that smugglers are part of criminal networks, Sanchez describes the flexible, social networks of relatives and acquaintances that characterise border crossing facilitation in Arizona. Most people don’t engage in these networks because of greed; rather, their participation is embedded in acts of solidarity and concern. Thus, relatives may encourage someone in economic difficulties to participate in a border crossing facilitation to tide over financial hardship, or facilitators may allow border crossers to work off fees they were unable to raise through other means. Relatively often, facilitators enlist border crossers to take on the role of a driver (i.e., to become part of the facilitation process) for a reduced fee. These practices manifest the fluidity and flexibility of border crossing networks in Arizona.

Human Smuggling and Border Crossings is a captivating and grounded account of how and why border crossing facilitators organise. Sanchez frames her analytical approach as part of the age-old agency-structure debate and turns to Bourdieu’s work to highlight how choices are made in the interstices of limits imposed by the habitus and people’s weaving around social and structural constraints in their struggle for social position. Yet, this debate isn’t picked up in her subsequent analysis. 

It would perhaps have been useful to her argument to offer further theorisation of the multiplicity of intersecting moral economies surrounding Mexican immigrants in the border zones of Arizona, and the social responsibilities and mutuality within the Mexican community at large and in intimate relationships. This angle might have brought out more succinctly the contractions within the migration management in Arizona, such as treating Mexican women and men differently, and of permitting irregular migrants some level of formalisation while denying them full legalisation. I would be interested in reading more about the ways in which norms and values linked with gender identities and class are effected by the processes of marginalisation in Arizona, and how people within the Mexican community related to race inequalities.

Sanchez’s narrative in Human Smuggling and Border Crossings is a noteworthy and timely contrast to mediatized stereotypes of human smugglers and thus an important contribution to understanding the effect of regimes of migration in the global north. This book will be of interest to advanced undergraduate and postgraduate students, academics, journalists, and people concerned with mixed flows of migration, border control and migration management. As the ethnography is presented without anthropological jargon, it is an uncomplicated introduction to the kind of detail and insights ethnographic studies offer.

(This blog is a re-posting of the review first published on Oxford's Border Criminologies on 22 July 2016)

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Thorsen, D. (2016) Book Review: Human Smuggling and Border Crossings. Available at: (Accessed [date]).