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Monday, 26 February 2018

(Ir)regular states of migration: Contested sovereignties on Europe’s margins

On Wednesday, 21 February Katerina Rozakou (University of Amsterdam) presented her paper ‘(Ir)regular states of migration: Contested sovereignties on Europe’s margins’. Franck Duvell (University of Oxford) acted as discussant. Rozakou’s presentation provided critical insights on sovereign power and state bureaucracies focusing on a moment of rupture –the “European migration crisis” and the “Greek crisis”. Rozakou provided a detailed ethnographic account of the situation in Lesbos island in the summer of 2015, in the midst of both “crises”, examining the role of state, supra-state, and non-state agents in governing irregular migration. In late August 2015, there was a backlog of 20,000 unrecorded border-crossers who were stranded on Lesvos, camped in parks, playgrounds, the port, sidewalks and on the streets. There were demonstrations where border-crossers pleaded to be allowed to get off the island. Border-crossers lit fires near the camps and on the outskirts of town. Their frustration targeted NGO and INGO personnel for failing to provide the aid foreseen in their mandates. Moreover, in the first weeks of the summer 2015 police officers and border-crossers alike accused the state but, by mid-summer, the UNHCR had acquired a status parallel to that of the sovereign state. And, like the state, the UNHCR was also considered absent. On 7 September 2015, after several days of intense negotiations, in a heated meeting between the alternate Minister of Migration and local authorities, NGOs and INGOs, the Italian UNHCR representative called for “exceptional measures”. She suggested border-crossers be allowed to travel without registration to avoid the escalation of riots. However, the pressure of the UNHCR to let border-crossers leave the island without any form of registration was resisted by government representatives. Even though records were often incomplete and the processes followed highly informal, the production of bureaucratic documents was seen as an essential and valuable aspect of Greek state and EU sovereignty. What is equally intriguing, according to Rozakou, is that, even though in the eyes of street-level bureaucrats this process was highly “irregular” – and, in the eyes of the border-crossers, often incomprehensible – both groups of actors demonstrated a remarkable commitment to it. Border-crossers waited patiently and state functionaries sat for long hours under the hot sun in order to perform their part in border bureaucratic practices.

Expanding on the 2015 summer incidents and further drawing upon extended fieldwork in Athens and Lesvos between 2014–2017 and ethnographic research since 2002 in Greece, Rozakou showed how “irregular” processes and incomplete records have been part of a bureaucracy that seemed to be crucially dependent on the production of documents. The production of documents related to an imagery associated with an ideal bureaucracy – a system of absolute knowledge, control and governance of populations – which remained powerful on the ground despite the fact that the actors performing it were aware of its futile character. As Rozakou explained, it was the fantasy of bureaucratic control that committed people involved in the registration procedure to perform bureaucratic procedures they considered irregular and futile.

Duvell praised the paper for the breadth of its scope and highlighted its critical significance as an in-depth ethnography on the exercise of power, in a field of study that has tended to focus on top-down policies and not on the people who perform them on the ground. Duvell argued that that the accounts presented showcase the process of securitization of EU migration policy and he elaborated on the role of street-level state functionaries through Goldhagen’s concept of the willing executioner. In addition, he highlighted the significance of the wider political and discursive context within which they operated. With the EU and its public opinion putting significant pressure on Greece to get matters under control, the street-level state functionaries in Lesvos were faced with an impossible task. The fantasy of bureaucratic control simply helped add a regular frame to what was an in essence an irregular movement. Rozakou noted that, in order to have a better grasp of the wider context, one also has to take into account Greece’s financial dependency. In the European hierarchical scheme, the North was attacking the South for its supposed inadequacy and insufficiencies. Police officers, in defending their position, contested the dominant scapegoating of Greece. While Greece was accused for failing to safeguard Europe’s borders, they claimed that, together with other South European countries, it was in fact carrying the burden of immigration for all of Europe.

Manolis Pratsinakis (Onassis Fellow, DPIR, Oxford)

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