Spaces of transit, migration management and migrant agency

Rethinking the 'crisis' narrative among the stories of transit, refuge and hope.

Leonie Ansems de Vries
30 September 2016


Parliament Square in London is transformed into a 'graveyard of lifejackets' using 2,500 lifejackets worn by refugees crossing from Turkey to the Greek island of Chios. PAimages/Philip Toscano. All rights reserved.On their long journeys, people seeking refuge in Europe pass through and stay in various places of transit.

These can be informal spaces such as railways stations, parks and makeshift camps or institutionalised spaces such as reception centres, detention centres and hotspots. These are places of passage and temporary residence, of welcome and solidarity, and of detention and rejection.

People might be detained in a hotspot upon arrival in Italy or Greece; they might seek shelter in a makeshift encampment or an abandoned building for a few days whilst planning their onward journey, or be held up there for weeks or months due to the closure of the border.

Spaces of Transit

Our research project Documenting Migration takes the notion of spaces of transit as a starting point to make sense of has been misnamed the ‘European migration crisis’ and to challenge a number of prevalent conceptions about the ‘crisis’, not least the notion of ‘crisis’ itself. This conception is grounded in an understanding of migration that starts with states and territories – what has been called ‘methodological nationalism’ – rather than with mobility.

In addition, migrants (and I include all migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in this category) are often depicted as passive victims, objects or commodities rather than as people with political agency, and with their own histories, experiences, skills, ideas and dreams.

Finally, the focus on spaces of transit sheds light on the relationship between, on the one hand, the journeys of migrants and their quest for mobility and, on the other, migration management practices designed to obstruct and regulate movement, and that are becoming increasingly coercive in nature. In particular, in the past year, we have witnessed increasing police violence, the denial of effective access to the asylum system and the destruction of living spaces in both informal and institutionalised spaces of transit.

Spaces of transit are the kinds of informal and institutionalised places that people seeking refuge pass through and stay in. Whilst the focus here is on Europe, such spaces are, of course, not confined to Europe, nor are European migration management policies for that matter. In fact, the longest and most dangerous parts of many migratory trajectories take place outside of Europe, whilst EU migration management has been exported to Africa and the Middle East by means of, for instance, detention centres, surveillance, border controls and deterrence policies.

Spaces of transit in Europe vary in character and have changed over time. Some spaces are temporary, existing only for a few days or weeks, such as informal camps at railway stations, whilst other makeshift spaces persist despite the threat of eviction, for instance the so-called ‘jungle’ in Calais. The hotspots in Italy and Greece are the most prominent institutionalised spaces of transit, although they are better described as spaces of identification, sorting and detention, as discussed below.

Challenging the ‘crisis’ narrative

How does the notion of transit challenge the narrative of crisis? The idea of a migration or refugee ‘crisis’ has been one of the most popular ways of describing the arrival of migrants in Europe in the past few years – it has been adopted by scholars, policy-makers and politicians alike, not to mention the media. This is a problematic narrative for a number of reasons. I will focus on two related issues, firstly, the kinds of policies the crisis narrative enables and, secondly, the question of what kind of crisis it is.

Firstly, the idea of ‘crisis’ is easily identified with ‘threat’ and ‘emergency’ – indeed, the issue has been framed in terms of a security threat and the need to ‘defend’ Europe. In such circumstances, it is argued, exceptional measures are required. A number of such measures, which are at odds with democratic principles, are characteristic of the EU’s response to the issue. These include the creation of hotspots detaining all irregular arrivals to Italy and Greece and the pushing back of people at sea under the EU-Turkey deal. The problem with this security and emergency narrative is that it takes away attention from the humanitarian and political issues at play. Moreover, it enables breaches of fundamental rights of people on the move.

And this relates to the second point: if we do want to speak of a ‘crisis’ at all, its manifestation is not the security threat posed by the arrival of people but one of people prevented from moving to and across the EU in search of international protection and better opportunities. The ‘security crisis’ narrative has led to the proliferation borders, yet it is these borders that created the crisis in the first place. The blocking of safe and legal routes into Europe and the obstruction of journeys across Europe, or indeed the pushing back and circulation of people within Europe, is directly related to the long, fractured and dangerous character of migration trajectories. It has also led to the emergence of informal camps characterised by dire humanitarian circumstances.

Thus, the reason for the existence of informal spaces of transit such as the camps in Northern France is not the overwhelming number of people on the move but rather their inability to cross the border. In short, the narrative of crisis carries the danger of presenting border controls as the solution rather than part of the problem by negating the role of bordering policies in the co-production and re-production of insecurity. In addition, it renders rights violations invisible.

Violence, destruction…

Such rights violations are prevalent in both institutionalised and informal spaces of transit as migration management policies have become increasingly coercive in the past year. During our research, we have witnessed and listened to accounts of police violence, the destruction of living spaces and the denial of access to rights, including the right to claim asylum. The hotspot mechanism is a case in point.

Set up by the EU as a tool for the better management of migration, hotspot centres have been in operation in Italy and Greece since the summer of 2015. In effect, hotspots are sites and mechanisms of identification and sorting – i.e. the swift division between those eligible for protection and those who are not at the point of arrival in the EU.

This is a division between transit and eligibility for relocation on the one hand, and rejection and deportation on the other. It is the latter function of rejection that is becoming increasingly prevalent in the operation of the hotspots as is manifest in a number of practices, including the separation of people on the basis of nationality rather than individual circumstances, and their rejection and expulsion on this basis, which amounts to being denied the right to ask for protection. It is also manifest in forced identification procedures – and lack of information about these procedures –, as well as the forced detention of all irregular arrivals in conditions of indignity. Civil society organisations are often denied access to the sites where these procedures take place, which renders rights violations difficult to monitor.

Although developments in informal spaces of transit have differed in a number of respects, these sites have also been marked by increasing police violence, often justified on the basis of the criminalisation of migrants without legal status; the detention of migrants on shaky legal grounds; and, more generally, the development of arbitrary practices and procedures that change over time and thus create intense and prolonged uncertainty for migrants.

The so-called ‘jungle’ in Calais offers one of the most prominent examples of heavy-handed and arbitrary police interventions in an informal space of transit, although certainly not the only one. As Marta Welander and I report in another article, daily police attacks on the camp from December 2015, which involved teargas, rubber bullets and water cannons, were followed in January and February 2016 by the eviction of large parts of the settlement, including the destruction of living spaces and community, religious and educational buildings.

Whilst this is a clear and well-known example of the production of the ‘crisis’ through violent bordering practices that prevent people from moving, in this case to the UK, less well-reported are spatial strategies of dispersal and circulation that accompany these more traditional border mechanisms.

That is to say, people are not only prevented from moving from one country to the next, they are also forcefully moved through push-backs between states and circulation within states. Migrants described to us trajectories that involved, for instance, being pushed back across the border from France to Italy.

Others had been taken from the Calais camp to a detention centre in the South of France and, upon release, travelled back to Calais, some of them repeating this circular journey more than once. Other migrants were placed in reception centres outside urban areas as part of a governmental strategy of dispersal, however, they swiftly returned to informal residential spaces in the city due to the isolation of the countryside.

…and solidarity

That such practices of eviction, destruction and dispersal do not solve the ‘crisis’ but create and re-produce it becomes apparent when considering the effects: these migration management practices do not stop people from moving through and staying in informal spaces of transit, rather, it worsens their hardship by creating and environment of violence and precariousness.

Yet, these spaces are not defined solely by violence, hardship and poor living conditions. Two other aspects that also define informal spaces of transit such as Calais are, firstly, the agency of migrants and, secondly, solidarity and welcoming. Speaking to migrants across Europe, one is struck by their continued efforts to move on despite bordering practices, to live their lives in dignity, and to build communities, even if some are at the brink of exhaustion.

Equally striking are the practices of solidarity and welcoming on behalf of volunteers, activists and civil society organisations. Although such practices are not without their own tensions and complications, if the narratives and policies of ‘crisis’ have brought forth something positive, it is the emergence of a movement of individuals, groups and communities supporting migrants across Europe.

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