Interview | Bridget Anderson on Europe’s ‘violent humanitarianism’ in the Mediterranean

Bridget Anderson, Professor of Migration at the University of Oxford, speaks to Ceasefire's Luke De Noronha about Europe's response to the Mediterranean crisis and how borders are 'a dystopian project whose enforcement exposes the horrific violence of the state.'

Interviews, Politics - Posted on Wednesday, May 27, 2015 7:44 - 4 Comments

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L: 3,200 people lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2014. With around 2,000 deaths already in 2015, this year looks likely to surpass that number. EU political leaders have responded with calls to smash ‘trafficking networks’. How should we interpret this response?

B: While this is framed as a problem of people coming over in boats, what we’re seeing in the Mediterranean is a symptom of far, far deeper problems, problems rooted in global inequality and injustice, neo-liberal capitalism, escalation of wars at Europe’s edges, and multiple crises in the nation state form and regimes of citizenship. It is about more than ‘immigration’. These are big problems that are just outside the domain of the current policy mind-set. Framing it as an immigration issue limits the potential responses to start with.

But policymakers are also reaping the whirlwind of nationalist sentiment that has in part been sown by politicians in an effort to deflect popular rage at the economic crash, so their room for manoeuvre is even tighter. This kind of violent humanitarianism has grown in recent years – we can think back to Kosovo, but before that colonial plunder was justified on the basis of ‘ending slavery’ – that was how King Leopold justified the invasion of the Congo, as an ‘anti-slavery’ mission.

L: That notion of ‘violent humanitarianism’ is interesting. It seems to sum up the EU’s perverse response pretty well. You mention slavery as well, and it seems the EU’s military response (i.e. its violence) is based, ostensibly, on combating modern-day slavery (i.e. its humanitarianism). There are a range of terms being bandied about in this debate – like slavery, trafficking, smuggling, and criminal gangs. What distinctions are being drawn with these different terms and should we be using them?

B: Yes these terms are being used interchangeably, even though in law they are not equivalent – so smuggling is supposed to be consensual, and trafficking not for instance. There’s a great deal of energy and time expended on why none of these things are the same, what the difference is between slavery and trafficking and forced labour, why smuggling isn’t trafficking and so on. And the distinction can matter when you’re in court. But I think we should avoid this kind of terminology. It is easy to agree that ‘trafficking’ is wrong, but then we find out that we all mean different things when we use the term. It also enforces a hierarchy of violence and of deservingness –  so ‘smuggled migrants’ don’t deserve compassion, whereas victims of trafficking do. The language is essentially depoliticising, it turns people into goodies and baddies, and diverts our attention well away from structural violence and the role of the state.

L: And what about the term ‘slavery’?

B: We’ve seen slavery taking over from ‘trafficking’ in the past couple of years. This has got a lot of traction and there are all kinds of people not normally sympathetic to migrants who get on the anti-slavery bandwagon – take Frank Field, who has argued that we must take a ‘moral’ stance on migration and look after our own poor first, has been a vocal supporter of the Modern Slavery Act. Slavery has a tremendous power. It recalls racism and transatlantic slavery in particular, and, of course, no one can be pro-slavery. But now EU leaders are piling in and saying that their punitive response to the Mediterranean is in the name of stamping out slavery! We’ve drafted a letter about this that was published on the Open Democracy website.

Even more hypocritically, the British government today announced that it will be confiscating the earnings of undocumented migrants as proceeds of crime. In practice (given that people don’t have bank accounts, are low waged, and often living hand to mouth) this means rifling through wallets and purses when people have been picked up and taking their money. State-endorsed wage theft. And then this same government expresses its abhorrence of slavery.

L: I know that you, and others, have argued that the language of trafficking and slavery obscures the role of immigration controls in forcing people to take these risky journeys. In the dominant narrative, histories of economic and political domination are effaced and the state disappears, only to reappear as an enforcer-cum-saviour. But this kind of aggressive, militaristic response to deaths at sea is hard to fathom, for me. This is quite new isn’t it? And similar patterns can be identified in South East Asia at the moment. What are the connections here, in terms of bordering and immigration control more broadly? And what is it about boats and the sea? A lot of questions there all knotted up, I apologise …

B: I’m not convinced it’s that new … the state always, ultimately, enforces with violence. Perhaps it is the militaristic element that is so shocking? But then think about the drones that are now used to surveil borders, the landmines that mark them, the watchtowers, the guns. They make immigration officers look positively user-friendly. Of course this matters, because border has a lot to do with spectacle, with being seen to be ‘doing something’.

States often say that this is to send a message to would-be migrants, but it is largely, I suspect, to do with sending a message to their own populations. In this case though I suspect that force has been ratcheted up because there really is concern about leaky borders, given the wars on Europe’s borders. There is a fear of the multitude, because of course all borders are porous; it is simply not possible to keep everyone out, and the more people come the more this is exposed.

I think that of course the spectacle of violence is tricky for liberal states, because it risks undermining the veneer of collected order. They have to be able to threaten violence, but whenever they use violence this undermines their moral standing. However, note that they are only proposing to use it to smash trafficking rings, i.e. it will be directed against evil traffickers, and it will just be unfortunate if other people become ‘collateral damage’ – but perhaps a price worth paying. Also the images of the people in the boats that are being peddled are largely of Black African men, even if there are lots of people from Iraq, Syria and Palestine, and of course children and women. Collateral damage is lessened, as you know, for Black men. Not to mention the twenty years or so we’ve had of humanitarian intervention that involves bombing people – including Libya of course.

The question about the sea is an interesting one, and I’ve been thinking about it in the past couple of weeks. I think maybe it’s partly to do with the question of sovereignty – if you’re not in your territorial waters then either you can act like a pirate, or you feel free to act in an ‘uncivilised way’. There’s something about civilisation going on but not quite sure what. And relatedly, I’ve always been struck when I’m on a boat at how organised it is. How everyone has to know their place, be in the right place, know who will tell you what to do, obey without question etc. because you’re in a confined space and the sea is wild. So I wonder what anthropologists could tell us about the boat space and how people are being organised when they move from one boat onto another ‘rescued’ boat, and the enforcement of order and hierarchy.

On the question of South East Asia, I find it incredible that the mainstream media are able to ignore the parallels between what is happening in the Andaman and what is happening in the Mediterranean. And I’m sure you’re right, it is more than parallels. ASEAN countries watch how the EU manages immigration very closely. What is happening off the coast of Italy and Greece legitimises Thai action, no question.

L: With all this bordering going on, it is hard to keep the faith. I want to end by asking you, and this is a searching question, whether you see spaces of hope for a future with less intensive and expansive borders (perhaps with none)? What potential is there for a future less gloomy?

B: We have to hope, or it really is hopeless. I think one reason it can feel hopeless is that so much political attention and work is directed at the level of the nation state. But it is the nation state that is ultimately what needs to be challenged. Of course the nation state is not going to quietly legislate itself out of existence. And while bordering has intensified, resistance has too.

Not so long ago to propose open borders or no borders was unthinkable. People didn’t even talk about it. Now it is out there – it is at least possible to begin to imagine it. It is also increasingly apparent that bordering is a dystopian project and enforcement exposes the horrific violence of the state. And there is a lot happening at local and even at city levels. Some people are not enforcing when they are required to, others are offering support, and (and for me this where the hope is) finding solidarity and common cause with migrants.

I think recognising that ‘migrants’ and citizens are not competitors for the meagre privileges of membership is where the most exciting work is being done. And the position of EU migrants offers significant potential for doing this. Finally I think that taking immigration into the heart of local struggles where it is not seen as an issue is really critical. So, I don’t know, say a fight about housing on a ‘British’ estate. Thinking about what migration means for solutions and ways forward is crucial, because if we don’t think about it at the start, then it will be introduced as a means of undermining organising and imagining new futures later on.

Luke de Noronha

Luke de Noronha is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at the University of Oxford (COMPAS). His research explores the deportation of ex-offenders from the UK to Jamaica. He is on Twitter @LukeEdeNoronha.

Bridget Anderson

Bridget Anderson is Professor of Migration and Citizenship and Deputy Director at COMPAS, University of Oxford. She is particularly interested in citizenship, nationalism, immigration enforcement (including ‘trafficking’), and low-waged labour, migration and the state. She has worked closely with migrants' organisations, trades unions and legal practitioners at local, national and international level.

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