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Illegality, Inc.: Clandestine Migration and the Business of Bordering Europe

0 Comments 🕔12.Mar 2015

Shocking, yet incomplete, counts estimate that since 1988, some 20,000 people have died in their attempts to enter Fortress Europe. Audiences around the world are by now familiar with the highly reported images of drifting boats overflowing with African migrants trying to reach European shores. These images capture only a fraction of the reality of migrants’ experiences and the control of international migration. In Illegality, Inc. Ruben Andersson embarks on a needed and timely pursuit to show readers the story behind these spine-chilling images that reach their TV screens and newspaper pages.

Many ethnographic studies focus on migrants’ lived experiences to expose larger implications and diverse facets of migration. Without losing sight of the migrant, Andersson takes a different route and focuses on the observers of migration and the day-to-day operations of making “illegal immigrants,” in this case West Africans. He succeeds in giving a detailed and powerful account of what he calls the “illegality industry” at Europe’s southern external border, between West Africa, the Maghreb, and Spain. Fears of immigration flourish at borders around the world, generating massive fortifications and means of surveillance. At Europe’s southern border, however, these fears are contradicted by the actual small numbers of immigrants trying to cross either by sea or by land. The underlying question of the book stems from this contradiction and reveals why massive investments in the fortification of Europe’s southern border are being made despite the statistically insignificant number of migrants trying to cross this border.

The “illegality industry” is the core concept around which the main argument of the book is skillfully crafted. Andersson’s choice of the term illegal/illegality might seem problematic, especially considering the criminalization of migration in many parts of the world. He is aware of the point made by theorist Nicholas de Genova that regardless of the labels attributed to migrants, i.e., illegal, irregular, or undocumented, they all reflect state-centric approaches to migration. Nonetheless, Andersson follows anthropologist Sarah Willen who espouses the ethnographic use of “illegality” for “the cross-contextual applicability of the term, its substantial material consequences, and its impact on migrants’ own experiences of everyday life” (n. 36, p. 292). As such, Andersson employs the term illegality in conjunction with industry to go beyond state-centric approaches to migration. Illegality industry succeeds in conjuring the multiple actors, not only the state, involved in the control of human movement. Moreover, it evokes the operations put to work within this industry, which becomes a productive and lucrative field within the larger migration industry. Andersson’s main argument is that this illegality industry produces what it aims to eliminate – more migrant illegality. In this process, more funding is invested in the industry, which maintains alive the security threat of the border and, as such, the need for defense.

The book covers the time span between 2005 and 2014 and is based on impressive ethnographic fieldwork conducted in what Andersson calls an “extended field site,” one site but many locales. This stretches across the entire Spanish section of the Euro-African border, from points of departure and deportation (Dakar and Bamako, to the Senegal-Mauritania border), to points of entry and reception (the Canaries and Andalusian coasts), to sites of blockage on migrants’ way to Europe (Ceuta and Melilla, Oujda and Tangier in Morocco), and finally to command and control centers (Frontex in Warsaw, Guardia Civil headquarters in Spain). Moving between these locales, Andersson conducted hundreds of interviews with migrants, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international officials, border guards, Red Cross workers, and extensive participant observation among deported migrants in Dakar, in a Spanish migrant reception center where he was a volunteer, and among deportees and activists in Bamako.

Following the Introduction, the book is divided in three parts, “Borderlands,” “Crossings,” and “Confrontations,” consisting of seven chapters. The progression of the chapters roughly follows the migratory journey, via sea or land, with occasional stops at borders and detention and command centers. The book ends with a short conclusion and an appendix in which the author addresses the methodological considerations involved in the study of the illegality industry. Here he briefly reviews some of the literature concerned with methods of studying processes linked to globalization. He grapples with notions such as multi-sited research, methodological nationalism, interface analysis, and actor-network theory, and explains his choice of the “extended field site” method, which “allows for the tracking, tracing, and mapping of the system of the transnational illegality industries and the modalities of migranthood it produces” (p. 284).

In chapter 1, Andersson introduces his readers to Mother Mercy, a bereaved Senegalese mother, well-known to politicians and journalists. She started an organization after her son lost his life in the waves of the Atlantic along with another 80 friends trying to reach the Canary Islands on a fishing boat. Mother Mercy acts in the sensibilisation (sensitization) sector of the illegality industry, i.e., leading campaigns about the “risks of illegal immigration” aimed to deter people from attempting the journey to the Canaries. She is not the only actor in this sector. The deportation regime put in place by Spain, which increased sea and land patrols and deported those who attempted the journey, plays a similar role. For the deportation regime to function, Spain had to enter a collaboration process with Senegal, establish embassies across the region, increase development aid, and grant work visas. Andersson provides a sobering account of the consequences of the sensibilisation process and the newly formed relations between Spain and Senegal. The deportees, for whom the development aid and work visas were allegedly provided, did not benefit from any of these and tried to organize themselves hoping to get their share of the business. In their struggle, embodying the risk, the loss, and the failure of the journey, the deportees presented themselves to Western donors and politicians as the real illegal immigrants fighting against the same cause – illegal immigration. Ultimately, they contributed to the same system by acting as human deterrents, commodities for NGOs and authorities, as well as rich sources for journalistic and academic inquiries.

Chapter 2 takes the readers on a “fast-paced ride” from Madrid, where Spain’s border control operations are centered, to Warsaw, Poland, where the European Union’s (EU) border agency, Frontex, is located, to the coordination system created in the Canaries to halt migration, and back to Spain. Entering and examining all these spaces allows Andersson to reveal the elaborate border surveillance machinery and the industry created around it. He argues that the “novelty of the emerging Euro-African border lies in a gradual process of abstraction of both the border itself and the clandestine migrant who approaches it” (p. 67). He posits that this process depends on the European conceptualization of immigrants as a type of risk, i.e., security threat to the border, which allows the actors of the border to legitimize the ultra-expensive militarization and surveillance technology employed to keep immigrants outside the EU external border. Moreover, risk is not conceptualized only as a border security threat but also as a risk for immigrants’ lives. As a result, in the name of humanitarianism, Spain and the EU employ dubious surveillance and interception systems that expand beyond Spain’s territory. The fortification of the border, Andersson briefly mentions, points to the EU project of defining itself as a polity against a “constitutive outside” embodying the immigrants, as well as to Spain’s opportunity to assert its European identity by deploying humanitarianism, and technological and political command.

The first part of the book wraps up with chapter 3, which reveals the workings and consequences of the Frontex in West Africa. Andersson shows how the sophisticated Frontex apparatus of surveillance in itself fails to halt boat migration. In fact, the Frontex-subcontracted African police are what contributed to a halt in boat migration, however, not without consequences. For if boat migration stopped, this did not mean that migration attempts disappeared altogether. The sea routes have been replaced with even deadlier routes – those that cross the Sahara desert. For the West and North African police to have been efficient in stopping migration, Europe had to provide them with material incentives and financial compensations. This generated a need for an extension of migrant illegality, higher number of detainees, and a racialization dimension in the control of migration. As such, the local police and border controls succeed only in reproducing what they have aimed to combat.

The second part of the book (chapter 4), “Crossings,” examines the border as a spectacle in two acts: the first one taking place on the sea water border in the Canary Islands and the second one on the land border at Ceuta and Melilla. Andersson does a thorough analysis of the actors, i.e., Red Cross emergency teams, journalists, Spanish sea rescue service, security forces, playing in the border spectacle. By analyzing the visual economy created around them, he shows how the roles of these actors get mixed and blurred. Sea rescue operations of boat migrants result in a performance as spectacle as well as professional task, where all actors are transformed (border guards, for example, turn into humanitarians). In this spectacle migrants are transformed as well, and racially categorized. Based on observation from rescue operations, sub-Saharan Africans are deemed more obedient than North Africans and as such become the subjects of humanitarianism and travel the world via images, news reports, surveillance brochures, and documentaries. The second act of the spectacle is the ultra-militarized border in itself, where the main audience comprises the EU, which provides the money for this lethal fortification.

The third part of the book starts with chapter 5, which examines the situation of migrants who managed to cross the border, but have been trapped in the enclave of Ceuta. Migrants are no longer sent to mainland Spain and set free with an order of expulsion, but detained for indefinite periods of time. The Ceuta camp, as Andersson successfully shows, turns migrants not into refugees, the role they desire, but into “Europe’s most abject Other” – illegal immigrants. Some of them have been detained for as long as three years. Explanations for migrants’ detainment strengthen Andersson’s main argument about the illegality industry. The economic crisis in Spain is invoked as preventing their liberation. Moreover, their detention in a camp funded by the EU assures the continuation of business and jobs for the workers in the camp. Subjected to both charity and coercion, migrants start a protest against their confinement by occupying downtown Ceuta. As such, they enter the realm of politics as subjects making claims to a state that is not even their own. Through the protest they challenge the spatial order which has rendered them as invisible and separable, but they also came to embody Europe’s stereotypical fears of the savage dangerous Other.

In chapter 6 Andersson tackles the politics of time – a topic he also addresses in his recent article, “Time and the Migrant Other” – in Ceuta and Melilla to which migrants are subjected. He frames this as a “battle over time” involving not only residents, but also workers, police, diplomatic officials, media, and researchers. Stuck in an uncertain and endless present, migrants in these two camps are disciplined and unevenly transformed into “good immigrants,” marginalized useful workers, as well as welfare dependents, through a reward-punishment process based on the time spent there. In their waiting, however, migrants are not simple victims. They partake in this process and use their waiting time hoping to get access to Spain, to become invisible, or simply to be liberated. For the police, retaining migrants for indefinite periods of time and later deporting them plays different roles. One the one hand, it deters potential migrants from undertaking the journey to Europe, and on the other, it withholds capital from the alleged “mafia” who brought migrants there. Thus, for officials time translates into a deterrent of migration as well as capital taken away from smugglers.

The last chapter of the book takes the readers from Bamako, where deportees were stranded, to Dakar as the author follows a group of European activists, their local partner associations, and NGOs who were protesting against the EU border regime and its violence against migrants. The protest, however, proved only partially successful, as the groups involved had different grievances which made it difficult to define a common goal and attract a larger audience. The deported migrants, nonetheless, who came and testified as victims during the events managed to unite the groups. The aim of protesters to locate and rally at the border created by Frontex proved difficult but revealing. As the groups moved from Mali to Senegal the border was no longer “at the border” (p. 269), suggesting the difficulty of finding and confronting the ones responsible for the violence and tragedies occurring at these borderlands. The activists attributed the responsibility to Frontex, the Spanish police to smugglers, while the African police and migrants oftentimes attributed it to nature itself. Andersson argues that taking the illegal migrant and the Euro-African border as driving forces for their rally, activists contributed to making these two forces more real. Their protest, moreover, attested to the official obsession with illegality and its relevance for the relations between European and African nations. The book concludes with a brief reflection on the concept of the absurd, in its various meanings, used throughout the book to qualify the workings of the illegality industry.

Andersson’s imaginative use of theory combined with an analytical drive generated by his collaborators in the field allows him to make a novel and powerful argument about Europe’s southern external border. Each chapter of the book strengthens his argument with an in-depth empirical analysis and detailed information about the various actors and locales involved in the illegality industry. Although a strength, this richness of information can be at times difficult for readers to piece together in the big picture of immigration rendered throughout the book. Nonetheless, just like other contrasting images Andersson so vividly brings to life, this overwhelming amount of evidence stays in stark contrast with the total lack of information experienced by detained migrants in the camps. It can, moreover, reflect the overwhelming and sometimes devastating sea or land journeys taken by immigrants attempting to reach Europe. Interesting and pressing issues concerning sovereignty, the effects of the illegality industry on the relationships between European and African nations, as well as between West and North African countries, remain, and justly so, inchoate in the book. It is my hope that Andersson will elaborate on them in his future scholarly endeavors. The book is an excellent contribution to the growing corpus of literature on Fortress Europe and a must-read for anyone interested in the international politics of migration.

Reviewed by Elena Popa, Indiana University Bloomington

Illegality, Inc.: Clandestine Migration and the Business of Bordering Europe
by Ruben Andersson
University of California Press
Paperback / 360 pages / 2014
ISBN: 9780520282520


Andersson, Ruben. 2014. “Time and the Migrant Other: European Border Controls and the Temporal Economics of Illegality.” American Anthropologist 116(4): 795–810.

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