top of page

The European Union’s conflicting mobility policies

Who ends up where screenshotS.jpeg

This map follows the journeys of ten undocumented migrants interviewed by the  author, showing how they navigate borders and arrive in the Netherlands in the pursuit of a better life. Map created by Sven Schellekens.

Attempts to restrict mobility are as old as the governance of polities. However, attempts at mobility control do not prevent migrants from practising the act of movement. Internal border controls within the European Union have ceased as part of the Schengen Agreement, which allows for the free movement of people across borders. This has significant consequences that affect cross-border mobilities. The disappearance of internal border controls produces a geographic space in which EU citizens can freely move without being monitored by the state. Of course, this also contributes to undocumented migration, offering the opportunity to travel between Member States to claim asylum.

These migrants are ‘living Europe’.[1] By ‘living Europe’, I mean that migrants who enter the EU and try to claim asylum in a Member State view the EU as a post-national entity. Each Member State presents a new opportunity to claim asylum and start a new life. If their application is rejected, migrants simply move across borders and try again. This makes clear that ‘Destination Europe’ is a geographic space divided into several national entities in which migrants can move from one nation to another. However, a structural problem arises due to conflicting policies. According to the Dublin Regulation, asylum seekers have to claim asylum in the Member State they initially entered the EU. This leads border States (for instance Italy) to carry a lot of the heavy weight of the issue of undocumented migration.

As routes, vehicles, and modes of transportation are a central theme in this issue, this article will emphasise the technology undocumented migrants use to navigate borders. It is in the interest of migrants – and their smugglers – to stay out of the state’s grasp until they reach their destination. Therefore, they continuously attempt to remain undetected. Migration officials detect new routes and modes of concealment, which compels migrants to adopt new strategies. Routes of migration change over time as a consequence. This article views mobility from a migrant perspective. Through the story of Nashir, an undocumented migrant from Eritrea whom I interviewed for my master’s thesis, it identifies the ways undocumented migrants navigate borders under the unstable and transforming circumstances of border control. Nashir’s story shows us how entering the EU is made difficult and how, once migrants are in, their mobility is governed by conflicting policies.

Born in Eritrea in the late 1980s, Nashir left his native country for Ethiopia as a three-year-old orphan. Later, he moved to Sudan to attend university, then left for Europe in 2015. His journey took him through the Sahara desert into Libya, where he was in transit for two years. After several attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea, he reached Italy in 2017. His journey continued through France, Germany, and back to France, where he decided his next destination would be England. In the port of Calais, Nashir and some fellow migrants boarded a lorry trailer believing that it would take them across the Channel. However, the lorry was bound for the Netherlands, where Nashir currently lives in an asylum seeker centre, awaiting the outcome of his application process. 

Because undocumented migrants navigate a geographical terrain they are unfamiliar with, they heavily rely on the use of technology such as smartphones. Nashir’s journey illustrates how he uses his mobile phone as a tool with which to mobilise contacts, arrange transportation, transfer money, and find a job while in transit. During the initial stages that took him from Sudan to Libya, Nashir called smugglers (or brokers, as he refers to them) to arrange for transportation.

First, when I got to Libya I paid for a driver. When I reached there, there was an agreement for when I reached Tripoli. I would pay the money after I arrived; transfer it to someone in Sudan. I arrived in the town of Sabhā. After I stayed there for three days, I called a person who I trust, who I know. He went to the broker, paid the money and after they received the money then they made me free and took me to Tripoli.

Mobile phone use has become central in migrants expanding geographical networks and diminishes the dangers of crossing hostile natural environments, such as the Sahara desert, although hazards are still numerous.[2] Also, the internal coordination among smugglers on routes taken is handled more effectively thanks to these technological developments.

Communications over long distances play an important role when navigating the Mediterranean Sea. While en route, migrants need to learn how to operate technology they have no experience with. In this manner, information acquired through long-distance communication technologies can become confusing or unreliable. Nashir tells about how he got aboard a vessel that was heading for international waters, equipped with a radio transmitter. Their smuggler instructed him and fellow migrants to stay in contact through radio, communicating their position to see whether they have already reached international waters.

There was a time we lost connection. We lost our fuels. The boat was just a small plastic boat. We were on there with about 120 people, 110 I think. Finally, our radio signal works. We were just at a dead point. Everybody was getting thirsty and got ill. And finally the radio works. Then the broker called to us. He asked us for our location, just latitude, longitude, I don’t know. He gave us a number and said, ‘Stay there and I will send you someone to rescue you’. After thirty or forty minutes, the rescue organisation comes to save us. The helicopter comes first and then the boat. That’s the story.

The fact that there is a vast body of water where reception is poor is one more risk for migrants traversing the Mediterranean Sea. On top of these hazards come inexperience with naval navigation and the complexity of navigation instruments they have to operate, such as compasses and radio transmitters. In Nashir’s case, the line between what has and what might have been marks the difference between the continuation of his journey and the loss of his or his travel companions’ life.

Nashir’s story is a showcase of the dangers migrants face when they try to reach ‘Destination Europe’. The EU’s overall migration policy is focused on preventing migrants to enter. It is hazardous to navigate the EU external borders, but once they are in, migrants are ‘living Europe’. The Schengen Agreement’s open borders do not physically confine their movement, so migrants have opportunities to claim asylum in different Member States. However, something odd changes at this point: the Schengen Agreement and the Dublin Procedure together fortify their mobility. Many wish to reach Northwestern Europe because there are more employment opportunities there and asylum reception is relatively more welcoming. Some have family members who they wish to reunite with. However, the Dublin Procedure’s effect is that migrants have to return to the external border States, because that is where they first entered. They remain on the move and are ‘living Europe’. It is this process of governing the movement of undocumented migrants that lets Member States exercise control over mobility. The Schengen Agreement and the Dublin Regulation together create a limbo of mobility: these policies, while not absolutely prohibiting their mobility, deny migrants the human right of residence within the borders of a state. 


Notes and references

[1] For additional reading on ‘living Europe’, see Joris Schapendonk, ‘The multiplicity of transit: the waiting and onward mobility of African migrants in the European Union’, International Journal of Migration and Border Studies 44, no. 4 (2017): 208-227.

[2] For additional reading, see Max Leonard Schaub, ‘Lines across the desert: mobile phone use and mobility in the context of trans-Saharan migration’, Information Technology for Development 18, no. 2 (2012): 126-144.

Sven SchellekensS.jpg
Sven Schellekens

Sven Schellekens recently graduated with an MSc degree in International Relations at the University of Amsterdam. He intends to pursue a PhD to further research on undocumented migrants and human smugglers. Sven likes to engage with academic questions that revolve around the perspective of ‘the outsider’ in order to look at the state and its policies. His thesis on how undocumented migrants navigate borders tells the experiences of ten undocumented migrants who ended up in the Netherlands. Through his work, he hopes to give a voice to migrants, especially the ones who are not heard at all.

puerro largo.png

You might also like...


White spaces, black spaces: Transport, bordering and subjectivity between Zimbabwe and South Africa


What to watch: La Cocina de las Patronas


Family reunification within the European family

bottom of page