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Illegal who? Why it matters how we think about undocumented migration

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Boats on the beach in Hammamet, Tunisia. Picture by Flicksmores on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Migration has become a buzzword in contemporary policy discourse that is linked to framings of crisis (migration as a problem to be solved), the securitisation of borders (we are reminded of Ursula von der Leyen thanking Greece for being Europe’s ‘shield’ against migration) and increased measures to externalise the control of migration. Migration is understood as something exceptional, something out of the norm. We can think of the maps that the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (better known as Frontex) produces for their quarterly risk assessments. Here, Europe is shown as devoid of human movement while the red arrow (depicting undocumented migrations) seems to disrupt the natural order of geographic stasis. Movement to Europe from elsewhere seems like the exception to the settled norm. The definition of and focus on undocumented migration on the map is not an objective observation, not a neutral mirror of the world, because categories (such as citizen/non-citizen, legal/illegal, orderly/undocumented) are themselves not neutral or objective. As postcolonial scholar Edward Said points out, the very act of categorisation is a political act.


Refugees, labour migrants, family reunion, undocumented migrants, student migrants – categorisations play an important role in states’ ways of governing mobile populations. These categories create socio-economic and political realities for people by establishing their legal status. However, exclusively focussing on and thinking through these categories can overlook the entanglements and overlaps between those categories. For example, the person who migrates to reunite with their family members and also enters a country without authorising documents, or the student migrant who is also persecuted in their country of origin for their sexuality. Further, this view naturalises migration-related differences. These differences are pushed on through categories such as ‘second-generation immigrant’ in the United Kingdom or a person ‘with a migration background’ in Germany. These categories are also reproduced in migration scholarship, as these terms are often used without a sufficient discussion of the politics behind them. The ‘migrant’ is cemented as an exceptional figure and with exceptionalism, there come calls for governance.


Governing mobile populations through categories builds on a hierarchy of who is deemed most deserving and who is deemed least deserving. United Nations documents are scattered with the group ‘women and children’ when identifying those most in need of protection. This definition of who is seen to be most in need and most deserving of protection excludes other people (we can think of men who are more likely to be combatants). Deservingness is based on the idea of passivity and victimhood. At the same time, we are reminded of headlines of queue-jumpers and the use of the term ‘economic migrants’ to deny someone from being welcomed. Juridical distinctions (the child, the refugee, the labour migrant, the highly skilled labour migrant) come together with ideological hierarchisations of deservingness. Migrations that occur outside the reasons deemed right are being criminalised and met with enforcement measures such as detention and deportation. This raises the question of how we can understand undocumented migration outside of the categories of state governance and its tendency to essentialise people’s lives and experiences. How can we think about migration differently, in a way that does not reaffirm the logic of the state? Let us use the example of harga, the burning of one’s identity documents for migration clandestinely, to examine movement outside of the regulation of states. 


The term harga (from the Arabic word حرق meaning ‘to burn’) is used in Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Morrocco and points to a practice that envisions a different mode of mobility from the one that is governed through identity papers and visas. While the Schengen Convention introduced free movement within the European Union, it made migration from outside the EU more difficult and more selective, only granting visas to highly skilled and highly educated people. This makes it virtually impossible for those without higher education or the money to pay the visa fees. Harga disrupts the reliance of people’s movement on the authorisation of nation states. Refusing to go through the official channels of state-regulated migration, harga points to the other possibilities of mobility: more than an act of destruction that opposes states’ regulation and bureaucratic procedures, it is also an act of transformation. It does not rely on the facilitation of migration by the state and through passports, visas and fingerprints, but instead thinks mobility in relation to neighbours moving together and fishermen enabling passage (that are only legible as ‘smugglers’ to the state). Borders and surveillance are rethought through connections and clandestine communication.

In shifting our focus to the practice of harga (rather than the categories of ‘undocumented migrants’ or ‘economic migrants’), we depart from state-centred epistemologies that focus on the identification of governable groups of people. This helps us understand migrations not as straight arrows as they are depicted on Frontex’ risk assessment maps but instead to look at the entanglements and overlaps, and the complex mobilities and immobilities that migratory journeys can entail.

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Hannah Schütt

Hannah Zoe Schütt is a master’s student at University College London studying Global Migration, and a communications manager with the Sea-Watch Legal Aid Fund. Her dissertation explores the Black geographies of the Mediterranean Sea through case studies from Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Greece. Some of Hannah’s research interests include South-South migrations, resistant spatial productions and the criminalisation of migration.


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