Can Europe Make It?

How should we study Europe’s harmful migration policies?

Once a rather modest academic sub-field, suddenly, migration scholarship has burgeoned – to good effect?

Maurice Stierl
29 October 2020, 10.10am
Shipwreck. Forensic Oceanography image from Forensic Architecture.

Much has been written and said about the ‘New Pact for Migration and Asylum’, proposed by the European Commission only a few weeks ago. Within days, expert opinions were shared, with some echoing the EU’s optimism on this supposed “fresh start on migration”. Others were much more critical, arguing that this “pact against migration” would not address major architectural flaws in the migration and asylum system but instead exacerbate Europe’s de facto hostile environment policies, not least by facilitating returns and deportations, by militarising and externalising borders, and by further curtailing legal and safe migration routes to the union.

Besides the immediate commentary, scholarly takes on the ‘new pact’ will come in time. Presumably in about one or two years, the first peer-reviewed articles will appear in academic journals with assessments of these European policy propositions and their possible implementation and impact. Among them there will be an array of articles that seeks to offer, besides an analysis of policies, insights relevant for policy.

Policy-relevant migration scholarship has boomed since the ‘migration crisis’ five years ago, similar to the scholarly field of terrorism research following 9/11. Even if the aphorism ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ may contain some truth, the figuratively used notion of 2015’s ‘migration wave’ has disproportionally lifted a form of scholarship that purports to generate ‘actionable’ knowledge on migration for ‘evidenced-based’ policymaking. Once a rather modest academic sub-field, suddenly, migration scholarship has burgeoned in unknown popularity and whole new migration institutes, teaching and funding programmes, journals, and academic networks have surfaced.

Policy-making in the ‘real world’

I have critically explored this ‘migration knowledge hype’ in a recent study, and the growing intimacy between the worlds of migration scholarship and migration policy. Engagement between researchers and policymakers is commonly portrayed as a win-win situation where policymakers profit from rigorously produced evidence while researchers profit not merely from the prestige of having their work considered relevant ‘in the real world’ but also more concretely from gaining access to the realms of policymaking and government, greater funding opportunities, and thus growing research output and readership.

Overall, in the social sciences, policy-relevance has become strongly encouraged through the ‘impact agenda’. The supposed relevance that research has, thus its contribution to society, is mainly tied to a rather reductive understanding of impact: impact on policymaking processes. With other forms of impact being largely sidelined, researchers have come under pressure to demonstrate their research significance by placing policy considerations left, right and centre. Omitting the policy dimension would mean to significantly hamper the chances of grant success, and therefore, ultimately, reduce one’s ‘employability’.

Still, while this pressure on scholars is real and not negligible – I feel and at times succumb to it myself – what is our responsibility for the knowledges produced on migration? And how do the ways of researching change when the ultimate goal is to become legible and of use to policymakers?

Within the ‘migration discipline’, I suggest that the desire to become of relevance to policymakers has considerably impacted the ways in which research is conducted today. In order to become legible to policymakers, policy categories, definitions, assumptions, and needs have often become the bases for research. Rather than challenging the ways in which, for example, governments and international organisations have reinforced a radical (though de facto untenable) dualism between those considered to move ‘voluntarily’ (migrants) and those considered to move ‘involuntarily’ (refugees), much of policy-relevant scholarship has accepted and reinforced such dualism. And this despite the fact that international regimes of migration governance have increasingly illegalised and criminalised unauthorised human movement as a whole, gradually eroding long-standing conventions on protection and rights.

A state-centric gaze

Besides the (re-)production of migrant and refugee figures, legibility to policymakers has reinforced a state-centric gaze on migration and what has been referred to as ‘methodological nationalism’. Policymakers rarely challenge “the assumption that the nation/state/society is the natural social and political form of the modern world” – indeed, this assumption underwrites much of policymaking. While the propensity to see and think like the state is not uncommon in the social sciences as a whole, it is, or should be, of fundamental concern for a field of research that studies cross-border issues and migratory subjectivities.

While the propensity to see and think like the state is not uncommon in the social sciences as a whole, it is, or should be, of fundamental concern for a field of research that studies cross-border issues and migratory subjectivities.

In migration scholarship, the ‘do no harm’ principle is often regarded as a research ethos or ethics that guides, or at least should guide, the study of migration. Importantly, this principle has sought to generate greater sensibility around issues of consent, access, confidentiality, asymmetrical relationships, privacy, and so on when engaging with often-vulnerable research participants. While ‘do no harm’ works as an important principle, I wonder whether it needs to be expanded and reconfigured to also encompass the potential of harm resulting from engagements with, and within, the migration policy world.

Although policy-relevant migration research is often portrayed as being value-neutral and unbiased, simply providing ‘facts’ and scholarly insights on which policies can be built, any migration research is inescapably political, not least due to the current climate where ‘the’ migrant from the global south appears to have become the embodiment of all the fears and dangers in the global north, which has given rise to violent border practices that are part and parcel of the maintenance of what the French philosopher Étienne Balibar has called ‘global apartheid’.

Extending ‘do no harm’

It is an undeniable fact that EU migration policy is harmful. Merely over the past five years, the EU and its member states have created policies that have led to the systematic violation of human rights and the loss of innumerable lives. Unlawful mass interception and push-back operations in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas come to mind, which were the consequence of agreements with Turkey or the Libyan government of national accord.

Agreements on border externalisation in the Sahel region have likewise led to devastation along migration routes. Also, no one can ignore the situation in places like the Greek islands, with thousands locked into inhumane camps – the result of a European asylum system that attempts to lock people into the ‘first country of entry’. The list of Europe’s policies that have inflicted suffering is endless.

Instead of viewing policy-relevant scholarship as the only way to conduct impactful research on migration today, we need to seek out other avenues that challenge, rather than reproduce, the assumptions that underwrite Europe’s harmful migration policies.

Epistemic interventions and counter-empirics

One avenue that I outline in my article is the creation of ‘epistemic interventions’. By that I refer to attempts to find and interrogate the irresolvable contradictions and tensions that underpin European migration policy and that have given rise to an epistemic crisis.

For example, any attempt by European policymakers to neatly label people ‘on the move’ along pre-existing categories to create a verdict on whether someone ‘deserves’ protection or not is ultimately bound to fail – dualistic policy figures of migrants/refugees are based on a suppression of complex realities.

Similarly, attempts to distinguish neatly between smuggling (consent to move) and trafficking (coercion to move) are often little more than arbitrary exercises in light of the ways in which precarious migration and its facilitation manifest our radically unequal world. The “legal fetishism” that often underscores such policy categorisation, as the eminent scholar B.S. Chimni once noted, is not unpolitical or neutral – instead it seeks “to ‘discipline’ life and knowledge to realize dominant interests in society”. We have a problem when the migration discipline becomes implicated in this disciplining of migration.

Another avenue to follow to generate impactful research is to produce ‘counter-empirics’ in order to expose EUrope’s violent migration policies. Research-activist networks such as WatchTheMed or Forensic Oceanography have used such a disobedient gaze to localise pressure points in the EU border regime and have produced a range of counter-empirics in the form of reports, maps, and documentaries to both reveal and denounce the drastic violation of migrant rights in the Mediterranean region.


A third avenue is to work with or alongside activist networks that seek to directly counter-act the devastation that the European border regime constantly produces. Many of the actual bordering processes in the Mediterranean and the Sahara would remain unknown without them. Despite such impact in the ‘real’ world, activist engagement as a mode of critical knowledge production is widely frowned upon in the migration discipline. It is consistently accused of failing to constitute ‘real’ research, whereas policy-relevant research rarely faces such accusation, not least due to its claim to objectivity and value-neutrality.

Seeking to have impact on EUropean migration policy means seeking to partake in a political process that is driven by the overwhelming desire to govern, contain, and deter human movements from the global south. Scholarly knowledge production is not outside of these harmful processes and the border industry.

The pressure on knowledge workers to produce output of relevance for policy does not erase their responsibility to consider the implications of produced findings. There is a need to acknowledge that researching migration is never a neutral, objective, or unpolitical undertaking, in particular during this current and polarised political moment.

The full version of this piece was first published in the journal Environment and Planning on October 23 , 2020.

Drawing by one of the survivors of the shipwreck.
Drawing by one of the survivors of the shipwreck.
Forensic Oceanography. All rights reserved.
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