Tag Archives: migration

The Weaponization of Killer Trucks: Vehicular Terror and Vehicular Crypts

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This text first appeared on the Border Criminologies blog and is re-posted here.

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (S.J.D Harvard Law School 2008) is a professor of legal sociology at the Faculty of Law, University of Oslo and a Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies at PRIO. Her work focuses on refugee resettlement, legal mobilization, humanitarian technology, innovation and accountability. She currently writes on the 22 July Norwegian terror attacks, humanitarianism and lawfare, and digital bodies in aid.

Photo: Kai Gradert/Unsplash

On October 23, 2019, 39 bodies were found inside a refrigerator lorry on an industrial estate in Essex. The vehicle was registered in Varna, Bulgaria, had entered the UK four days before and was driven by a man from Northern-Ireland. The victims – 38 adults and a teenager – were identified as Vietnamese. This incident is just the latest example of vehicle-induced migrant mass fatalities.

Are these deaths accidental, or a result of lethal intentionality and if so, who is to blame? To reflect on the violence and structured immobility practices that lead to these deaths, I take the colloquial term ‘killer trucks’ as my point of departure. I juxtapose the concept’s ordinary use –the deployment of trucks for vehicular ramming attacks – with the regular occurrence of large numbers of individuals being found dead inside trailers, trucks, lorries and vans. I contrast the concept of ‘vehicular terror’ with ‘vehicular crypts’, whereby the cargo areas of lorries and trucks become vaults facilitating stacked burials. I link the notion of a widespread weaponization– the process through which an object that wasn’t a weapon becomes one – of trucks to questions of how we estimate and explain harm and danger. In this post I argue that we must link weaponization, and the type of lethal intentionality embedded in the weaponization process, to broader legal and political structures.

In recent years, commercial transport vehicles have become securitized and reconceived as existential threats through their use in urban terror attacks. Their presence is perceived with suspicion and fear, as urban landscapes are remodeled through bollards and security fencing. In accounts of vehicle ramming attacks in Berlin, London, Nice, Stockholm and New York, the exterior of vehicles—cars, vans, trucks, motorbikes—are construed as having innate qualities of mass and speed that make them inherently dangerous and their presence potentially dangerous. While the use of trucks as conduits for explosives and driving into crowds with lethal intent are not new tactics, the lethality of recent attacks has engendered a narrative focused on the ‘the terrifying simplicity’ of these attacks: we ‘now live in an era of the weaponized truck’ whereby ‘Western audiences are witnessing a transformation of the objects of everyday life into tools of unpredictable violence’. 

I suggest that this narrative of unpredictable danger is ‘good to think with’ when it comes to critically reflecting on vehicle-induced deaths and the ethics of the classification of the dead. When looking at how trucks—by design intended to serve logistical purposes—become lethal objects, or ‘killer trucks’—attention to context is crucial. When accounting for the rise of the ‘killer truck’ as a weapon of terror and destruction, we must do so with a careful view to positionality, materiality and political context. We must ask: what is a weapon? What is weaponization of everyday objects such as trucks; and who is harmed through this weaponization?

My proposition is that these questions enable the deaths of a different set of victims to come into view: During terror attacks, it is the exterior capabilities of trucks and lorries that produce deadly impact. The weaponization of trucks can also be considered through the lens of interior materiality. Here it’s not a presence of lethal factors such as mass and speed but a lack –of human consideration and air but also of legality and mobility rights – that produce lethality. It also makes visible how it is not only instances of individual criminality but also legal regimes governing mobility which produce harm and danger.

The Essex case is not exceptional, but part of a global pattern whereby trucks have become deadly crypts for migrants’ bodies. Examples abound: In 2003, 17 ‘illegal migrants’ from Mexico, Central America and the Dominican Republic died through dehydration, hyperthermia and suffocation inside an airtight container of an eighteen wheeler. In 2008, 54 Burmese migrants suffocated inside a truck in Thailand. The surviving migrants were charged with illegal entry. In 2015, in an event known as ‘the Parndorf tragedy’, 71 people were found suffocated at the back of a Slovenian meat lorry outside the village of Parndorf in Austria. The lorry was used by a  Budapest-based trafficking ring which smuggled thousands of people from Hungary into Austria and Germany in 2015.

We must pay attention to how the ‘killer’ capabilities of material objects are configured through the regulatory sorting regimes aimed at people and mobilities. Crypts are ‘an extreme class of the artifacts that form the material culture of clandestine migration’, they are containers forming units with migrant bodies, representing ‘frequently nothing more than a transitional space within a load of cargo.’  Structural factors such as ever stricter and more punitive migration regimes and aggressive counter-terrorism measures force people into cattle trucks, meat trucks, refrigerator trucks, moving vans – and produce the dangers these individuals face inside these crypts.

An important source of danger is time: speed and risk are inherently interlinked and there are different levels of risk involved in distinct modes of transport. The fastest modes of transport – airplanes – tend to be the safest, while the slowest are generally the most dangerous. Trucks and lorries – relatively slow modes of transport –are part of what Ruben Andersson (2014) calls the ‘illegality industry’. The slowness entails migrants being helplessly stuck inside trucks following unpredictable itineraries and being parked or abandoned at remote locations along the routes.

In the Parndorf case, the driver had by accident sealed the doors, so no air could come in. Police telephone intercepts –recorded but not analyzed in time – showed that the Afghan ringleader had later ordered the driver not to open the doors while the migrants could be heard screaming in the back.  The charges in the Parndorf case included charges of human trafficking, torture and ‘homicide with particular cruelty’. According to prosecutors, refugees were ‘often carried in closed, dark and airless van unsuitable for passenger transport, in crowded, inhuman, excruciating conditions’. In June 2018, four human smugglers from Afghanistan and Bulgaria were jailed for 25 years in the Kescemet city court in Hungary.   

While Parndorf, and other smuggling cases resulting in mass deaths, relate to intentional killings carried out by organized crime, the lethal intentionality in these cases is not only that of not opening doors, checking that there is enough ventilation and maintaining a temperature adequate for human survival. When we think about killer trucks, the processes through which they are weaponized and notions of unprecedented danger, we must also consider that lethal intentionality is also what creates migrant crypts in the first place, and that it emerges at the interface of legal regimes governing offenses related to smuggling, trafficking, crime, terror – and mobility.

R.I.P., Europe

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This text first appeared as a Fieldnote from Lampedusa on the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI) webpage and is re-posted here. Antonio De Lauri is a Senior Researcher at CMI and co-Director of the NCHS.

Lampedusa, 9 October 2019, funeral ceremony for the 13 women who died at sea. Photo: Antonio De Lauri/CMI

Lampedusa, 9 October 2019.

A simple, moving ceremony for the people who died at sea on 7 October, took place today in the small island of Lampedusa. Only a few days ago Lampedusa commemorated the anniversary of the tragedy that occurred on 3 October 2013, when over 360 persons lost their lives in the Mediterranean waters when the fishing boat transporting around 500 people sunk a few hundred metres from the coast. Thousands of people have died in the Mediterranean Sea in the past few years in an attempt to reach Europe. What happened two days ago was only the most recent episode in this human-made, ongoing catastrophe.

According to the latest figures, at least 30 people, including an infant, lost their lives on 7 October. Many are still missing. All the 13 bodies that were initially pulled out of the sea were women. The survivors have only identified four of them.

Raised anchor in Sfax, the boat got into trouble a few miles from the coast of Lampedusa. The engine stopped working properly, and water started flooding into the bottom of the boat where a group of Sub-Saharan women were sitting with their children. The boat capsized when approached by the coast guard, pouring all the Sub-Saharans and Tunisians onboard in the water. Two Tunisian guys told me that, right before the boat capsized, they have been able to through a pregnant woman on the coast guard vessel. In the dark water, they said, it was chaos. “People who could not swim tried to grab us. They can pull you down, they make you drown,” one of them said. “The only thing you can do is to swim away and reach the vessel.” 

A sense of loss pervaded today’s ceremony. Not only for the persons who didn’t make, but also for the idea of Europe, itself drowned with those who believed in it. 

The anthropologist Laura Nader once asked: “Is there anything more fundamental to what makes humans human than ideas of right or wrong?” That is a good question. Every discussion about migration, borders and refugees seems to be dominated by pragmatic approaches: Is it convenient, in economic terms, for Europe to welcome high numbers of migrants? Are they really “high numbers”? Are protectionist national regulations in conflict with international law? Who is legally responsible for the boats filled with migrants in need of help in the Mediterranean? These are pertinent questions. Yet, they don’t address the core issue, which is rather a matter of right and wrong. I struggle with the thought of how anyone with a basic moral attitude towards humanity can think that it is right that some people have passports and are free to move around while others don’t even have a passport (or have a passport that “doesn’t count” in the international mobility) and are denied this basic right.

Open borders is the only possible answer to the current dismantling of the European project and, more profoundly, of ideals of solidarity, fraternity and equality. We need open borders simply because it is the right thing to do. It should not be contingent on an analysis of pros and cons, or on considerations of an economic, legal and political nature. The arrogant and violent language of a transnational class of political figures, the tyranny of financial capitalism, the disintegration of socialist ideologies, and the rising of a vulnerable underclass at the European level has transformed a matter of right and wrong into a battle among the poor. “Migrants steal our jobs”, “They receive more benefits than us”, “Italians first” (tragically reproducing Donald Trump’s deplorable motto “America first”). These discourses signal the victory of dominant classes over the subalterns. Local populations in hotspot locations like Lampedusa have shown great solidarity in the past years, often against the will of national governments. But anti-migrant sentiments seem to prevail all over Europe at this point in history. Qualitative studies have extensively demonstrated that irregular migration is a huge business for those in power and for criminal organizations. Whoever today reiterates ideologies of closed borders that hinders mobility becomes complicit in a business whose profit is made from human suffering and human exploitation.

It is always illuminating to try to explain complex things in simple ways. Now, try to explain the politics of borders to a child. How can we explain to a child that some people, who are in dire need, cannot cross a border to enjoy refuge and care in search for a better life? Unscrupolous pragmatists would say that you do that by explaining the child that we have to protect “us” first, that we have to secure jobs for ourselves first, and that this is “our land”. I have deep concerns about who that child will be tomorrow.

A simple, moving ceremony for the people who died at sea on October 7, 2019 took place today in the small island of Lampedusa. Only a few days ago Lampedusa commemorated the anniversary of the tragegy that occured on October 3, 2013 when over 360 persons lost their lives in the Mediterranean waters after the fishing boat that was transporting around 500 people began sinking a few hundred metres from the coast. Thousands of people have died in the Mediterranean Sea in the past few years in the attempt to reach Europe. What happened two days ago was only the most recent episode in this human-made, ongoing catastrophe. According to the latest figures, at least 30 people lost their lives on October 7 and 17 are still missing. All the 13 bodies that have been pulled out of the sea were women. Only four of them have been identified by the 22 survivors.

The boat got into trouble a few kilometres from the coast. The boat’s engine stopped working properly, and water started flooding into the bottom of the boat where a group of Sub-Saharan women who had boarde in Libya were sitting with their children (a group of around 15 Tunisians had joined later in Sfax).

A sense of loss pervaded today’s ceremony. Not only for the persons who didn’t make, but also for the idea of Europe, itself drowned with those who believed in it.  

The anthropologist Laura Nader once asked: “Is there anything more fundamental to what makes humans human than ideas of right or wrong?” That is a good question. Every discussion about migration, borders and refugees seems to be dominated by pragmatic approaches: Is it convenient, in economic terms, for Europe to welcome high numbers of migrants? Are they really “high numbers”? Are protectionist national regulations in conflict with international law? Who is legally responsible for the boats filled with migrants in need of help in the Mediterranean? These are pertinent questions. Yet, they don’t address the core issue, which is rather a matter of right and wrong. I struggle with the thought of how anyone with a basic moral attitude towards humanity can think that it is right that some people have passports and are free to move around while others don’t even have a passport (or have a passport that “doesn’t count” in the international mobility) and are denied this basic right.

Open borders is the only possible answer to the current dismantling of the European project and, more profoundly, of ideals of solidarity, fraternity and equality. We need open borders simply because it is the right thing to do. It should not be contingent on an analysis of pros and cons, or on considerations of an economic, legal and political nature. The arrogant and violent language of a transnational class of political figures, the tyranny of financial capitalism, the disintegration of socialist ideologies, and the rising of a vulnerable underclass at the European level has transformed a matter of right and wrong into a battle among the poor. “Migrants steal our jobs”, “They receive more benefits than us”, “Italians first” (tragically reproducing Donald Trump’s deplorable motto “America first”). These discourses signal the victory of dominant classes over the subalterns. Local populations in hotspot locations like Lampedusa have shown great solidarity in the past years, often against the will of national governments. But anti-migrant sentiments seem to prevail all over Europe at this point in history. Qualitative studies have extensively demonstrated that irregular migration is a huge business for those in power and for criminal organizations. Whoever today reiterates ideologies of closed borders that hinders mobility becomes complicit in a business whose profit is made from human suffering and human exploitation.

It is always illuminating to try to explain complex things in simple ways. Now, try to explain the politics of borders to a child. How can we explain to a child that some people, who are in dire need, cannot cross a border to enjoy refuge and care in search for a better life? Unscrupolous pragmatists would say that you do that by explaining the child that we have to protect “us” first, that we have to secure jobs for ourselves first, and that this is “our land”. I have deep concerns about who that child will be tomorrow.

Preventing the Work of Rescue Vessels in the Mediterranean Will Not Save More Migrants

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This text is based on an op-ed which was first published in Norwegian in Aftenposten 19 November 2019: Å hinder redningsskipenes arbeid vil ikke redde flere migranter. It has been translated by Fidotext and published on the PRIO blog, and is re-published here.

Ai Weiwei’s Soleil Levant – migrants’ lifejackets. This artwork in Copenhagen, by renowned Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, is made up of actual life jackets used by migrants crossing to the Greek island of Lesbos in search of safety or a better life in Europe. Photo: TeaMeister via Flickr.

The Norwegian-registered vessel Ocean Viking, operated by Médecins Sans Frontières, has recently been at the centre of a debate that has become dominated by one assumption: that search-and-rescue (SAR) operations are encouraging people to attempt to cross the Mediterranean.

The logic is problematic for several reasons, and I will try to address some of them: 1) the statistics suggest otherwise; 2) it ignores the wider picture – that a range of complex factors drive people to flee their homes, with some heading towards the Mediterranean; and 3) the theory is being used to legitimize non-rescue of boats in distress.

A temptingly simple explanation

The logic has a name, the pull factor – in other words, that SAR operations contribute to “pull” more people to attempt the crossing. The power of this idea lies partly in how it provides a simple and apparently clear-cut explanation for a complex problem — a problem that we otherwise have a hard time understanding, and even harder time addressing. It is also powerful because it is difficult to refute: it is hard to know exactly what makes people decide to embark on this dangerous sea crossing, and there are probably as many reasons as there are refugees and other migrants.

Old rhetoric

In 2004, Erna Solberg, then Minister of Local Government and Regional Development, argued against a local initiative in Trondheim, which sought to provide food and accommodation to asylum seekers lacking refugee status. Solberg claimed that the initiative would “in practice mean unfettered immigration by people from the Horn of Africa”. Today the idea that any measure intended to ensure a minimum level of subsistence for refugees or other migrants will help “pull” more people in the same direction pervades European policy on migration, from Greece and France to Norway.

The pull factor and SAR operations

In particular, the legacy of Italy’s Operation Mare Nostrum has served to boost the pull-factor theory about SAR missions in the Mediterranean. Mare Nostrum was established in response to a major shipwreck off Lampedusa in October 2013, which was described by high-ranking EU politicians and the Italian president as a “shame” for Europe. Mare Nostrum was run by the Italian navy as a “military-humanitarian” operation. The number of refugees and other migrants who attempted to make the crossing had already begun to rise before the operation started, and even while Mare Nostrum was saving tens of thousands of lives at sea, the numbers continued to rise.

Critics quickly concluded that the increase was linked to the presence of the SAR operation, and that Mare Nostrum was directly and indirectly encouraging more people to make the crossing. This allegation, which was seen at the time as controversial, has nonetheless become almost conventional wisdom in today’s policy-making.

What do the numbers tell us?

Several researchers have examined the statistical relationship between the numbers of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean and SAR capacity. One study, conducted by Elias Steinhilper and Rob Gruitjers, looks at the period between late 2013 and 2017. They divide this period into three periods: an initial period with high SAR capacity (October 2013 – October 2014); a subsequent period with low SAR capacity following the launch of the Frontex-led Operation Triton (November 2014 – May 2015); and a third period with high SAR capacity (Triton II with increased SAR capacity, plus more vessels operated by NGOs). The numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean began to increase before Mare Nostrum was implemented, and continued to increase after it was shut down and throughout the period of low SAR capacity. In fact, the numbers increased most sharply during the period of low SAR capacity, rather than during the two periods with high SAR capacity. This same period also saw the sharpest increase in the number of drownings, compared with the periods before and after.

Another, still ongoing, study conducted by Matteo Villa at ISPI in Milan, is examining the number of migrants leaving Libya in 2019 compared with the availability of SAR vessels on the actual dates the migrants’ boats left shore. The findings show that the likelihood of boats leaving Libya is not affected by the availability of SAR vessels, but rather by wind and weather conditions. Figures from the IOM and UNHCR show that so far this year, on average, 31 migrants leave shore on days when SAR vessels are operating, against 41 migrants on days with no SAR vessels.

A narrow perspective

Even while these figures sow doubt about the existence of any direct link, it is important to point out that the theory itself, assuming that the availability of x number of SAR vessels affects the number of people attempting the sea crossing, is built on a problematic premise. The thinking is based on a very narrow perspective, which views SAR vessels as a unique factor in a world where the availability of more or fewer SAR vessels is the sole factor influencing an apparently inexhaustible number of migrants ready to attempt the crossing. The wider picture, with its multiple factors that either hinder migration or make it possible or necessary for people to leave their homes, is too complex to understand and too difficult to do anything about. This line of thinking posits NGOs’ activities as the simple explanation for an otherwise incomprehensible situation, and thereby also the factor that needs to be addressed in order to resolve the situation.

Humanitarian rhetoric used to legitimize not saving lives

The main problem with this hypothesis however is not only that it appears to be unfounded and based on a narrow perspective, but that it is being used to legitimize both the closed ports and an active policy of not coming to the rescue of vessels in distress. There is in fact a duty, enshrined in the international law of the sea, to provide assistance to vessels in distress and take the rescued to a safe harbour.

Regardless of one’s political standing, it is no easy matter to argue against saving lives at sea. That is also why many of those advancing this argument. are trying to prove that SAR operations will “entice” more people to attempt the crossing, and thereby putting more migrants at greater risk. As such, the policy of non-rescue is presented as a policy that protects more people from drowning.

But hindering the operations of SAR vessels will not save the lives of more migrants, and it will also not address the complex causes of displacement and migration.

Europe’s new border guards

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Gunnar M. Sørbø is a social anthropologist, former director of the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), and former Chair of the Board of the NCHS.

This text is based on an op-ed which was first published in Norwegian in Bergens Tidende, 5 May 2019: Europas nye grensevakter.

Are we supporting a development which ultimately sends even more refugees towards Europe?

DOUBLE-DEALING: To a large extent, militia groups allied with the regime in Khartoum have exercised migration control in Sudan. They patrol the border to Libya claiming to stop migrants from traveling north, while simultaneously smuggling people into Libya in cooperation with actors on the other side of the border, writes Gunnar M. Sørbø. Photo by Physicians for Human Rights, USA

More than a million migrants crossed the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Europe during the 2015 refugee crisis, the vast majority arriving either in Greece or Italy. The following year the European Union entered the so-called “EU-Turkey Deal”, a statement of cooperation between European states and the Turkish government. The agreement was meant to ensure that migrants and refugees arriving in Turkey, most of whom were fleeing Syria, would remain there, and that migrants making it to Greece would be returned to Turkey.

From a European perspective, the agreement with Turkey has been successful. Only about 360.000 migrants and refugees arrived by sea in 2016. The arrivals were distributed quite evenly between Greece and Italy, the two European countries that received most of the migrants leaving Northern Africa. To ensure that the flow of people would be further reduced, the EU as well as several singular European countries made similar bilateral agreements with Libya, and later with countries in the Sahel region south of Libya: Sudan, Niger and Chad.

Norway is among the European countries which has intensified its focus on the region over the past few years. As with other countries, the motivation behind the increased support has not been limited to stopping large-scale migration, but also to stop the spread of Islamic terrorism. This type of terrorism affected Norwegians directly in 2013 when an attack on the Norwegian energy company Statoil’s gas facility in Algeria resulted in the loss of Norwegian lives.

In Libya, the EU made an agreement with the government in Tripoli. At the time, the Libyan authorities had limited territorial control and depended on various militias for survival. Presently, they are fighting the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, who is based in the eastern part of Libya and is supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Libya has faced political destabilization since the former head of state Gaddafi lost power and was killed in 2011.

Thus, Italy suggested to create checkpoints along the border in southern Libya, an area controlled by militias often in conflict with each other. The countries south of Libya also tend to have problems controlling their border regions, yet authoritarian heads of state have promised to exercise migration control in exchange for much needed financial support from Europe.

This type of “outsourcing” means that Europe has become entangled with some unusual border guards that are difficult to control.

In Sudan, the task of controlling migration has to a large extent been handed to militias allied with the regime in Khartoum. These are the same armed groups that were responsible for excessive use of force displacing large groups of people from their homes during the Darfur crisis of 2003-2004. They patrol the border to Libya claiming to stop migrants from travelling north, while simultaneously smuggling people into Libya in cooperation with actors on the other side of the border.

The same armed forces (Rapid Support Forces – RSF) have also been active at the border between Sudan and Eritrea. Studies conducted through a joint effort by universities in Sudan and the Chr. Michelsen’s Institute/The University of Bergen show that migrants from Eritrea, Syria and other countries continue to journey through Sudan. However, the migrants are paying a higher price than before, taking new routes, and doing so at a greater risk.

While Sudan has received support from the EU for “managing” migration, the regime’s brutal policies and the country’s wrecked economy are contributing to a steady flow of Sudanese people wanting to leave their own country. In 2014-2016, 9,300 Sudanese arrived in Italy, and in 2017, twenty per cent of those granted political asylum in France came from Sudan.

A report from the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands (“Multilateral Damage”, 2018) confirms some of the tendencies we have observed in Sudan. Firstly, new migration routes have emerged, more dangerous and secretive than before, and therefore also more expensive and criminalized. The total number of migrants making the journey has decreased, but evidence suggests that the number of migrant deaths has increased.

Secondly, the overall stability in these countries is threatened as the number of ungovernable militia groups grow. Some of these armed groups profit from stopping migrants, others from smuggling migrants northwards, and a considerable number practice both. In Niger, the ban on migration has disturbed the fragile balance that was established when the Tuareg and Tubu rebels in the northern part of the country entered a peace accord with the government.

The local economy has deteriorated, and new militias have emerged in the border regions. A common denominator for all these countries is that armed groups outside of the state’s control are becoming more powerful and constituting a security threat.

Political developments in Sudan during April and May 2019 have led the RSF leader Hemetti to power as second-in-command in the Transitional Military Council (TMC), now participating in talks with the protesters about a new government. In Libya, both parties in the war for the capital Tripoli are depending on alliances with militias. Many of them are keeping migrants and refugees in custody and subjecting them to torture and extortion, before a small number – barely 500 in the first three months of this year – gets transported en route to Europe.

In a desperate plea for help from the EU, the Libyan Prime Minister is threatening that up to 800,000 people will cross the Mediterranean if Libya were to face political collapse. This is most likely an overstatement, as there are probably not that many refugees and migrants wishing to reach Europe from Libya right now, and because transportation by sea is arranged by mafia-like organizations that may be dissolved if the political chaos in the country is amplified. Nevertheless, the prime minister’s statement speaks volumes about the vulnerability of the agreements that have been made.

Most European countries are aware of the risks associated with “externalizing” border control, but across Europe the field of migration is characterized by realpolitik. Lowering the number of migrants and asylum seekers reaching Europe has become the overarching objective.

We are seemingly becoming less concerned with the policies’ unintended consequences. This is probably caused by European migration policies claiming to answer all our concerns: not just migration, but also security, political stability and terrorism – based on the assumption that human trafficking, drug trafficking, arms dealings and terrorism are driven by a conglomerate of mafia-like organizations and that these are hurting local communities in the affected regions.

However, most people involved in migrant smuggling do not view themselves as criminals, and their activities may also create positive ripple effects in many local communities across border regions. 

Before the overthrow of Gaddafi, when many migrants from other African countries went to work in Libya, assisting migrants was part of the formal economy. Now, the practice is considered criminal. This may result in participants formerly engaged with assisting migrants moving their affairs elsewhere, for instance into activities eroding the state’s control such as revolt and terrorism.

Many European politicians probably recognize that the agreements that are being made strengthen forces we would rather not be associated with, whether this is an increasingly authoritarian president in Turkey or militia groups in the Sahel region. Yet, the question we must ask ourselves is whether this policy is sustainable in the long run. I am here thinking not only of the immense human suffering caused by such policies, but also whether we are supporting a development which will ultimately push even more people in the direction of Europe.

Penal Humanitarianism: Projecting European Penal Power Beyond Europe (Part IV)

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This is the fourth post in a six-part series on ‘Penal Humanitarianism’, edited by Kjersti Lohne. The posts center around Mary Bosworth’s concept and Kjersti Lohne’s development of penal humanitarianism, and how penal power is justified and extended through the invocation of humanitarian reason. The blog posts were first posted on the “Border Criminologies” blog, and are re-posted here. Drawing on the case of Niger, this post explores some of the processes through which the EU projects penal power beyond Europe and its allegedly humanitarian rationale.

Projecting European Penal Power Beyond Europe: Humanitarian War on Migrant Smuggling in West Africa

The European Union (EU) and its member states are increasingly pushing countries in the southern (extended) neighbourhood to criminalise unwanted mobility, and bolstering their internal security apparatuses and borders. The objective of this ‘internal security assistance’ is to combat transnational security threats and illicit flows of goods and people allegedly en route to Europe. Based on my doctoral research, which has included fieldwork in Niger, Mali, Senegal and Brussels, this post reflects on the EU’s increasing tendency of crime control ‘at a distance’ in West Africa.

Women’s meeting in Niger. Image by Stein Tønnesson/PRIO

Penal power is the power to render an activity criminal and to enforce criminal law, which is neatly entwined with a state’s sovereignty. For instance, Vanessa Barker writes how the reinforcement of national borders within Europe can be seen as a recent expression of state-craft where penal power is particularly salient. Yet Mary Bosworth argues that humanitarianism allows penal power to travel beyond the nation state, as can be observed in cases such as England’s aid to the building of prisons in its former colonies to which it can transfer and expel prisoners from these countries. Developing Bosworth’s concept of ‘penal humanitarianism’ further, Kjersti Lohne shows, through the supranational case of the International Criminal Court (ICC), how the power to punish is particularly driven by humanitarian reason when punishment is disembedded from the nation state altogether.

This blogpost examines some of the processes through which the EU projects penal power beyond Europe and its allegedly humanitarian rationale. I draw on the country case of Niger, which is also an example often used by the EU to showcase a well-functioning partnership in stopping migration to Europe through criminalisation and ‘breaking the business model of human smugglers.’ In this case, penal power is not actually detached from the state. While the EU is both a supranational and inter-governmental entity, I argue it could also be seen as something like ‘pooled European penal power’. This European penal power works through a third state by bolstering this state’s own penal power, without being entirely able to control how this power is in turn utilised in practice. So what is the relation between sovereignty and penal power when the EU border is externalised to West Africa?

European penal power in West Africa

West Africa, and the Sahel region that cuts across the Sahara Desert, have become a priority to the EU and its member states in terms of controlling unwanted mobility. Conceptualising security threats as flows of illicit or dangerous commodities and people crossing borders and spilling into Europe, the EU is now seeking ‘partnerships’ with African regimes to build barriers further south. Substantial efforts are being put into shaping West African penal codes and reinforcing criminal justice and security apparatuses to deal with illicit flows. In order to incentivise an actual change, EU aid and budget support, on which many West African countries depend, is increasingly made conditional upon the adoption of security strategies, the reform of internal security forces and the securing of borders.

One such example is the EU’s much celebrated ‘partnership’ with President Issoufou of Niger. In 2015, conspicuously coinciding with the European ‘migration crisis’, Niger adopted a law criminalising ‘migrant smuggling’. The EU assisted Niger in drafting the law and provided advice, training and capacity-building for its enforcement. This was done, among other, through the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) mission EUCAP Sahel Niger, and through projects financed by the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. EU aid to Niger continued to grow, and in December 2017 the European Commission announced 1 billion euro in support by 2020, as Niger had demonstrated ‘strong political willingness and leadership’ to confront challenges. Indeed, in 2016 Nigerien authorities started rigorously enforcing the law, selectively in the northern town of Agadez which had figured in the international press as the hub for migrants travelling to Libya and Algeria. Since then more than 130 ‘migrant smugglers’ have been arrested and their vehicles seized, and the number of migrants crossing into Libya registered by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is reported to have dropped. The Niger migrant smuggling law and its enforcement is seen as so successful that the EU wants to replicate it in other Sahel countries as well.

Penal humanitarianism at Europe’s extraterritorial border

The rationale behind the EU’s fight against ‘migrant smugglers’ in Niger is framed as a humanitarian obligation: stopping migrants from travelling through Niger equals saving them from dying in the hands of evil people smugglers or in Libyan detention camps. This is not very different from Libya further north, where the EU’s training of the ‘coast guard’ is justified by saving people from drowning in the Mediterranean. Nor is it very different from the EU’s external borders where, according to Katja Franko and Helene Gundhus, the discourse of protecting the human rights of migrants permeate the borderwork of Frontex officers.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) in Niger and the local population in Agadez are strongly opposed to the criminal category of ‘migrant smuggling’ as it relates to Nigerien reality. Guiding people through the desert has been a noble, traditional role for centuries, and now-called migrant smugglers are not ‘organised crime syndicates’ as the European Commission assumes (also see Sanchez, 2015). Moreover, CSOs claim the new law is de facto suspending the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Protocol on free movement for ECOWAS citizens, which most of the migrants are. Intra-African migration is a crucial livelihood strategy in a region fraught with periodical extreme drought and climate change. Research also documented severe de-stabilising effects of the law enforcement as the economy of the region of Agadez collapsed, leading the local population to lose their livelihoods, fuelling economic frustrations and anger, and increasing armed banditry and general insecurity.

Conclusions

The case of EU policies in Niger corroborates the argument that penal power can take on a humanitarian rationale when it travels. This seems to be particularly the case when criminal justice, migration control, international development and foreign policy intersect. Complicating the relationship between sovereignty and penal power, Niger’s sovereignty is both hollowed out by mediating European ‘pooled’ penal power and at the same time boosted by the co-option of aid into President Issoufou’s personal goals. What is certain is that the security of Europe does not equal the human security of migrants or local Nigerien communities, nor does the latter equal the security of the Nigerien regime.

Penal Humanitarianism: Moral Discomfort at the Border (Part III)

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This is the third post in a six-part series on ‘Penal Humanitarianism’, edited by Kjersti Lohne. The posts center around Mary Bosworth’s concept and Kjersti Lohne’s development of penal humanitarianism, and how penal power is justified and extended through the invocation of humanitarian reason. The blog posts were first posted on the “Border Criminologies” blog, and are re-posted here. This post delves into how individuals tasked with carrying out state policies on border control react to direct encounters with human suffering, and the implications such interpersonal encounters may have on border studies as a whole.

Moral Discomfort at the Border: Understanding Penal Humanitarianism in Practice

A growing body of recent scholarship has pointed out the intricate connections between the exercise of penal power and humanitarianism in general, as well humanitarianism at the border (see e.g. Fassin; Bosworth; Lohne). This research has shown the centrality of humanitarian ideals and language within different penal sites and programs such as prison building programs abroad, the International Criminal Court and various border control practices. Humanitarian ideals are exposed as central to governmental discourses, disembedding penal power from the nation state, and often used to legitimize highly controversial border practices as matters of saving and protecting lives or promoting human rights.

Catania, Sicily, April 23 2015. Over 220 people arrived at 8am by ship at the Sicilian port. Catania RC set up a clinic to offer medical treatment, psychosocial support and counseling along with fresh water and shoes for migrants.
Image by IFRC.

Mary Bosworth, for example, observes that ‘human rights rhetoric and practices can justify the exercise of coercive state powers, even if their supporters wish it were otherwise’. In these contexts, humanitarianism is understood to function as a smokescreen and a technique for glossing over the ethically problematic and messy realities of border control. As Didier Fassin suggests: ‘Humanitarianism has this remarkable capacity: it fugaciously and illusorily bridges the contradictions of our world, and makes the intolerableness of its injustices somewhat bearable. Hence, its consensual force.’ In this post, we wish to contribute to the debate by drawing attention to the somewhat neglected aspects of humanitarianism in practice.

In our own work, we have analysed the deployment of humanitarian language and the discourse of human rights in Frontex operations. The precarious situation at Europe’s external borders is creating an irresolvable tension between the interests of European states to seal off their borders and the respect for fundamental human rights. The paradox of the centrality of ‘saving lives at sea’ in EU policy documents illuminates the disconnection between the performative aspects of humanitarianism and its operational use. The study revealed obvious contradictions and disjunctions between the objectives of state security and a lack of concern for migrants’ vulnerability, transferred into member states’ national risk assessments indicators.

However, we also uncovered the centrality of humanitarian sentiments in the narratives of police officers tasked with performing everyday border control. Indeed, the interviews with Frontex officers revealed a rather complex picture. While the humanitarian discourse clearly does a certain kind of performative ‘work’, it also seems to be to some extent internalized and appropriated by actors on the ground. Many officers talked with deeply felt seriousness and compassion about providing clothing and medicine for cold, wet and sick migrants. Some experienced the situation to be so serious that they drew analogies to the WW2. As one experienced officer described the situation in Greek detention centres: ‘It was like watching, it is terrible to say that, but it was like watching a war movie from 1943. Simply like that. Coming close to concentration camps.’ The controversial concentration camp analogy is, therefore, not only used by impassioned outside critics, but also by people within the system.

Although these stories of compassion and concern can be understood as a form of narrative self-legitimation work in a system which suffers from acute deficits in legitimacy (Bosworth; Ugelvik ), we would like to suggest that they also do a more complex work which may merit further analytical attention. In our study, compassion was often expressed as a result of having a more direct and closer contact with human suffering, which led the officers not only to sympathize with migrants, but also to see them in a more positive way and as more trustworthy. One officer described:

You get a slightly different understanding, because you get so much closer to the person, the credibility of the person standing before you is much stronger. I have registered asylum seekers [in Norway] until I’m exhausted (…) All of them are saying the same. (…) While here, you do have real people standing in front of you, telling a trustworthy story (Police Officer, de-briefer, PU6).

Here, compassion may still have performative and self-legitimating aspects (not least in relation to the interviewers), yet it is also an emotion which arises due to the physical closeness to suffering, resembling ‘the living presence’ of the Other described by Emmanuel Levinas. This presence is experienced and is different from, and not reducible to, words and ideas. As one officer said: ‘you see the hopelessness in it. I have in a sense understood it for several years, but now I can see the reality of what they are talking about’ (PU4).

We would like to suggest that such sentiments of understanding, compassion and a wish to help, which arise from direct, on the ground human encounters (although related) should be distinguished from the performative aspects of humanitarianism visible particularly in political discourse and policy documents. They demand a more nuanced understanding of the meaning of humanitarianism within border studies and an acknowledgement of the ambivalent feelings and moral discomfort inherent in  doing border work. This discomfort is dealt quite differently by individuals performing border control and is felt more acutely by some than others. Nevertheless, amplified by intense public critique, moral discomfort seems to be an inherent part of doing border control and can in some cases lead to outright resistance.

For example, our interviews with police officers performing border control in Norway demonstrated clear disagreement in how the police should use their newly acquired right to conduct border checks. Random territorial control of foreign citizens in the city center and targeted controls of families in detention centers were criticised for being immoral and inhumane. There was also a resentment of using deportation numbers as official performance targets for police work. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ divisions, which are frequently talked about in relation to migrants, were thus also created within the police force. As one officer from Oslo Police District described:

Well, it can be said that internally, within the police, there are different understandings of how to apply immigration law. It is just as well if this came out. Some look at this from an ethical perspective – that is us – while others are more concerned with performance targets and such. And the ethical side thinks that performance targets are a wrong way of doing the work, and admits that this is a sensitive field to work in, while it seems to me that the others, the other side, have not reflected on this well enough. I know that within the Police Immigration Unit there are disagreements as well.

Border studies have, so far, paid relatively scarce attention to such internal resistance and the moral and ethical discomfort of performing border control (see Bosworth for valuable exception). By seeing humanitarian rationalities primarily as a way of cementing and legitimizing the status quo, we may be operating with a rather one-dimensional understanding of humanitarianism and failing to differentiate between different aspects and actors. While one of the main strengths of studies of humanitarianism has been to connect broad policy issues to questions of morality and emotion, this slippage may be also one of its main drawbacks due to the obscuring of on the ground inter-personal dynamics. Moreover, the field may be slow in recognizing resistance, and potential for it, coming from within the system. Consequently, a question can be asked whether border studies may be poorly equipped to fully understand the dialectics of change arising from the moral discomfort of doing border work, as well as liable to reproduce its own ‘us’ and ‘them’ divisions.

What Shapes Which Migration Flows We Study?

Written by Marta Bivand Erdal, Research Professor, PRIO & Board Member, NCHS

How might declonising the academy intersect with academic everyday practice, for instance in the context of migration studies? As efforts to decolonise the academy are gaining force, not least in universities in the United Kingdom, such as at the School of Oriental and African Studies, questions about how this timely intellectual scrutiny can or ought to affect academic everyday practice should be pondered. Especially in relation to how the ‘decolonise academia’ initiatives help foster greater knowledge and understanding, thus stimulating and furthering academic inquiry.’

Map of the British Empire from the India & Colonial Exhibition in London, 1886. PHOTO: The British Library

When we discuss decolonising the academy, we are talking about power, and more specifically power hierarchies. So, we are discussing unevenly distributed power when it comes to defining knowledge, which inevitably leads to skewed knowledge, to incomplete knowledge.

Empires in the plural

We know of the British empire, and the colonial enterprises of the French, Spanish or Portuguese, and later on the Americans. In the context of Norway, we also recognise the more complex imperial histories involving both the Norwegian state’s approach to the indigenous Sami populations, and Norway’s union first with Denmark, then Sweden, leaving Norway an independent state only from 1905. Yet, there is still reason to expand on this plurality of empires – historically and geographically.

References to Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Heart of Darkness are frequent, especially in the literary quarters of ‘post-colonial’ theory, including Edward Said. Conrad’s novel was published in 1899, and was at the time a quite radical critique of imperial practice, drawing on Conrad’s own experience as a sailor in the British empire. The book later received criticism for dehumanizing descriptions of Africans in what was then the Belgian colonised Congo, by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, and not without reason.

However, my point with drawing attention to Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ is to underscore the need for scrutiny of the roles of empires in the plural – where Conrad serves as a useful example. He was born in Poland, at a time when the country did not exist on the European map, but rather had been divided into three and absorbed among other by Russia. He was born into a family where both his mother and father were active in the Polish underground as anti-tsarists activists. His parents died early and he left Poland at 16.

How is this relevant for a discussion on decolonising the academy taking place in Norway? First, in recognizing the many different empires and colonisations which exist historically and geographically. Notably in relation to Norway’s neighbour, Russia and its region. Second, to critically assess the role of language in knowledge production and communication, also in relation to colonisation. For, how much do we know, today in Norway, of knowledge production and academic exchange, in Russia, or in the larger region which was under heavy influence of the Soviet Union until less than 30 years ago? And if we are not well-versed here – why not? And by extension; which imperialisms come to matter in efforts to decolonise the academy, and which perhaps do not?

Which international migration flows are studied, and why these?

Whilst the interest in the academic study of international migration is growing, the interest in international migration in Russia and its neigbouring countries is disproportionately small, that is, in the English-language migration studies literature. This is despite the fact that international and regional migration in Russia and its neighbouring countries, by any measure, is a huge contemporary phenomenon. Why? And does this not intersect with issues of defining which knowledge is of interest and relevance?

In migration studies more broadly, questions of power of definition and of colonial legacies, frequently come to the fore. Not least in relation to race. But also in the ways in which colonial legacies matter for migration management policies around the world. Despite the fact that global interconnections and interdependencies are obvious in migration studies, there are unresolved issues and dilemmas insufficiently reflected upon. For instance, in relation to who is an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ and how researcher positionality impacts findings. It continues to be a challenge that rigid boundaries between “the majority” and “minorities” are taken at face value, obscuring the multiple ways in which power-hierarchies matter in processes of knowledge production and knowledge communication. These are fundamental questions, where matters of power are at the core.

For justice, for knowledge

Finally, from the perspective of research being conducted at an institute such as the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), what might the practical implications of reflecting on decolonising the academy be? As a start, recognising that there can be no peace without justice, and that this, arguably, ought to also involve equitable processes of knowledge production. Here, the obvious backdrop is the extreme imbalance in wealth, whereby academics based in Norway, for all the challenges which exist here, with temporary contracts, among other, are super-privileged in the global context. How then to adopt academic everyday practices which can in anyway contribute to processes of knowledge production that are more equal?

One place to look, is to the ways in which we engage in research collaboration with international partners. Who do we work with and how? Whatever the structural constraints which are there – in the short term – are there things which can be done in order to make such research collaboration practices more equal? And within this – how do we productively engage with conceptions of the world which are – or appear to be – fundamentally different to our own? A first basic step is to recognise that we need to ask ourselves these questions, and to invest time and energy in doing so.

By engaging actively in academic everyday practices that are built on principles of co-production of knowledge – however that translates in different fields – we not only do our small bit to contribute to more equal knowledge production, hence to justice. We also contribute to knowledge production, which through being more equal, can contribute to a global body of knowledge that is more complete.

This blog post was orginally posted on the PRIO blog

PoC: Protection, displacement and return to Somalia – Whose responsibility, whose rights?

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How do people find protection in a world that increasingly attempts to govern their movements – in particular those that cross international borders? This larger question inspired me to compare measures and understandings of protection for Somali refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). While I had not conducted research on the situation of Somali IDPs before, I have published extensively on the situation of Somalis in regional refugee camps – for example in the monograph Transnational Nomads and latest blog Finding protection from violent conflict and famine?

The current interest of a number of states in commencing the return of refugees to Somalia, as well as to relocate and return IDPs in urban areas in Mogadishu and Hargeisa, directly affects the protection of the individuals involved. The, arguably premature, focus on stabilization seems to be guided by a wish to claim success of international reconciliation efforts and a justification for returning large numbers of refugees and asylumseekers from places like Kenya and Sweden. Yet such pressure to return greatly runs the risk of destabilizing processes in Somalia while offering no guarantee that those being returned will find any kind of protection. Though it is unlikely that a country like Kenya is going to follow through statements that it will ‘relocate’ half a million refugees from Dadaab to IDP camps in ‘liberated’ areas, there is a much greater risk that funding for assistance in Dadaab will increasingly dry up, encouraging a ‘voluntary’ return from the camps. A number of these issues are also analyzed in a recent report entitled Hasty Repatriation.

As my recent fieldwork in Nairobi brought to light, attempts to govern mobility do not just take place through border control and immigration measures, but also through humanitarian policies and practices. The importance of such policies and practices is particularly visible in Somalia’s current ‘transitional phase’, characterized by an increased focus on return and a shift from an emergency approach to stabilization programming. This shift is accompanied by talks of relocating funding from Kenya, Somaliland and Puntland to South/Central Somalia, where insecurity is still rampant and the newly established government faces considerable challenges. PRIO’s collaborative partner, the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS), is conducting data collection in Mogadishu and Hargeisa to explore the implications in Somalia.

As humanitarian policies and practices affect protection and displacement, before flight as much as after, it is crucial to underscore that mobility remains one of the most efficient ways in which those affected by violent conflict can protect themselves. Consider Mohamed Shukri’s story. When I spoke with him in Nairobi, early 2009, he told me he was pressured by his family and friends to leave Mogadishu for many months, but stayed on until July 2008 when two of his close friends and colleagues were assassinated. He realized it was no longer safe for him either. Just like his friends, he had been very outspoken on human rights abuses by all parties involved in the conflict, and was likely to be targeted. He was able to leave Somalia and lived in Nairobi for a while – until he deemed it safe for him to return to Mogadishu.

Not only individuals like Mohamed, who because of their activities or individual characteristics are persecuted in their own country, protect themselves through fleeing. Civilians who get caught up in violent conflict and suffer its effects do the same. As Mohamed’s story shows, this is not necessarily a decision easily taken. Fleeing involves new security risks, while it forces people to leave behind what is dear to them. It also entails moving towards an uncertain future in exile without many of the resources to cope with that uncertainty. While in exile, return decisions are constantly considered and weighed against the security situation for the individual or family concerned, and other relevant factors.

Mohamed’s story highlights none of the practical difficulties of leaving a conflict zone, as he had the necessary contacts and money – now occupying a senior position in Somalia’s newly established government. Yet many who decide to move from an area or country in conflict face considerable obstacles, leading researchers to conclude that refugees are often stuck in situations of ‘involuntary immobility’. Warring factions restrict people’s mobility for strategic reasons, as al-Shabab has been doing in the areas it controlled. Governments in the region and beyond attempt to govern migration, concerned with large-scale movements from conflict areas and fearing various spill-over effects. As such, the question of how people find protection in a world where states play a role in governing mobility – through border control and immigration measures as well as through their humanitarian policies and practices – remains highly relevant. And the current situation in Somalia clearly highlights, this question needs to be addressed not just before and during flight, but also during displacement and upon return.