Refugee technologies and mobility into Europe
Location 112b
Date and Start Time 02 September, 2016 at 14:00
Sessions 2


  • Lino Camprubi (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science) email

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Short Abstract

European countries offer technological solutions to the "immigrant crisis", from fences to the EuroSur system. Refugees and migrants have their own technologies of mobility, such as cell-phones and maps. This track explores the mutual adaptations of the technologies used in each side of the border

Long Abstract

The reverses of Europe's "migrant crisis" are Libya's and the Middle-Eastern refugee crisis and the structural economic scarcity of the African region. Similarly, technologies deployed by European countries to manage the crisis also have their reverse. Networks that facilitate mobility into Europe challenge networks of surveillance and systems of razor-wire fences. At both sides of the border, these two broad and non-monolithic families of networks are presented as a response to a counter-network. By focusing on "refugee technologies", this track aims at providing a better understanding of this mangle of networks.

In early 2015, Libyan refugees were dying in the Mediterranean by the hundreds.The situation got even more pressing with refugees fleeing Syria by the hundreds of thousands. This challenges previous legal, institutional and moral assumptions. FRONTEX, the EU agency devoted to managing the borders with non-Schengen countries, has oscillated between strategies of rescue (the Italian-led Mare Nostrum) and strategies of surveillance and expulsion (EuroSur). Now, the Schengen agreement itself seems vulnerable. In turn, migrants and smugglers have revised their routes, means of transportation, strategies of counter-surveillance and even rhetorical technologies.

Putting technology at the center of the refugee crisis will add complexity to the usually shallow interpretations of this humanitarian drama. By revealing the co-evolution of the networks for mobility and blockade, we will show that practical socio-technical arrangements render established categories of analysis insufficient. This will allow for new voices to be heard and possibly will open the door to imagine different futures.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.


From Waves to Walls: Imagining the Mediterranean Sea as a Humanitarian Space

Author: Eva van Gemert (University of Amsterdam / Erasmus University Rotterdam)  email

Short Abstract

This paper looks at the humanitarian imagination of the Mediterranean Sea as a spatial technology. In the humanitarian borderscape, existing borders are transcended in the name of humanity, and in- and exclusion takes place on the basis of compassion, making the ‘human’ a contested concept.

Long Abstract

Since 2015, over one million people have crossed the Mediterranean Sea. While the majority made it to the European shores, over two thousand people drowned along the Central Mediterranean route. Arrival and death have become intertwined in what has been named Europe's 'refugee crisis'. While the arrival of 'refugees' resulted in tightening the EU's regime of border control; non-governmental organizations intervened as well, moved by the moral appeal to 'save lives at sea'. This paper analyzes the response as a spatial technology that translates humanitarian imaginations into border control strategies. The research question is: How is the Mediterranean Sea imagined as a humanitarian space? The analysis focuses on four actors operating in, and thereby on, the sea, including the EU's border patrol agency FRONTEX; the non-governmental humanitarian organization Médicins sans Frontières (MSF); and two private rescue initiatives, including the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), and SeaWatch. Based on a visual and content analysis of the online activities, or 'digital space' through which these actors present themselves and their interventions, it is shown how a humanitarian imagination is effectively mobilized not only as a politics of life, but also as a claim to space. The humanitarian borderscape draws upon saving lives as the highest moral imperative, opening up a space that transcends and dismisses existing borders in the name of humanity. In doing so, a regime of border control is performed, in which in- and exclusion takes place on the basis of compassion, and the 'human' becomes a contested concept.

Some thoughts on barbed wire in Fortress Europe

Authors: Jaume Sastre-Juan (Universidade de Lisboa)  email
Jaume Valentines-Álvarez (NOVA.ID.FCT NIF: 513 010 661)  email
Ferran Aragon  email

Short Abstract

Despite the fact that electronic systems of surveillance are being implemented, old technologies such as barbed wire are still core elements of Fortress Europe. This paper draws reflects on the role barbed wire is playing today in the borders of Europe.

Long Abstract

The photograph which was awarded the 2016 'World Press Photo of the Year' prize depicts a man passing a baby through a barbed wire fence at the Serbia-Hungary border. Despite the fact that electronic and high-tech systems of surveillance and control are being implemented with the aim of preventing the movement of people from Siria or Afganistan, old technologies such as guns, tear-grenades or razor-wire fences are still core elements of the technological system that sustains Fortress Europe. This paper draws on the insights of historians David Edgerton and Reviel Netz in order to historicize and think about the role that the technologies for the prevention of motion through pain are playing today in the borders of Europe. Even though it doesn't usually appear in the innovocentric lists of the most significant technologies of the twentieth century, barbed wire has been part of the technological landscapes of the Western world since the late nineteenth century, from agricultural lands to battlefields and concentration camps. According to Netz, the control of space through the mass violence of barbed wire over the flesh of humans and animals is the key to understanding the ecology of modernity. Drawing on Edgerton and Netz, this paper will address barbed wire's contemporary agency in European borders.

Lampedusa: Picture stories from the edges of Europe

Authors: Estelle Blaschke (University of Lausanne)  email

Short Abstract

The artistic research project "Lampedusa: Picture stories from the edges of Europe" aims at looking beyond media stereotypes of the current refugee crisis and investigating image circulation and image politics.

Long Abstract

In November 2010, a research group travelled to the Italian island to meet and interview people who produce pictures related to migration, each of them having different functions, and different agendas. Residents of the island, photojournalists, co-workers of the identification camp, representatives of local and international organizations such as the Italian coastguard, the Red Cross, UNHCR all generate pictures for various purposes: for the documentation and legitimization of their work, for internal training, for the press or as personal memories. This spectrum of actors involved in the social, bureaucratic and political context of migration each described their own viewpoint, thus proposing very different narratives. The talk will consist of a media lecture performance which will discuss the collected material as well as present extracts of recordings from the EU monitoring agency Frontex. Growing more and more prominent in European politics over the last years, Frontex plays a crucial role in border monitoring and refugee detection over the Mediterranean sea . Using a plurality of imaging technologies in combination with digital cartographic systems, the agency's work allows for a new level of surveillance. Digitally exchangeable data provides border control offices with a wide set of different data formats such as satellite, drone radar or optical imagery as well as moving image material. Frontex' mission aims at the standardization and proliferation of European border policies and procedures. At the same time, the agency plays an important role in advancing the technological devices for surveillance.

With facebook through the Balkan: Social media and the autonomy of migration

Author: Maria Elisabeth Ullrich (University of Bonn)  email

Short Abstract

On their way to Europe, refugees use facebook for communication and information. This paper explores how STS helps to conceptualize the role of social media within critical migration research, specifically with respect to the “autonomy of migration”.

Long Abstract

When Hungary closed its border for refugees in September 2015 the migrants quickly changed their route to central Europe. Their flexible reaction on border policies can be explained by an intensive use of social media for communication. On facebook and elsewhere, refugees shared their experiences on the Balkan route in real time via videos, photos, key names or contacts and give advice to "followers". So while technologies obviously contribute to migrant agency, the critical research on migration has not yet fully integrated insights from STS to better understand the notion of "autonomy of migration". The latter refers to the refugees' ability to be highly self-determined and flexible actors during their journey. My argument here is that technologisation has a direct influence on migrant agency. STS should be brought together with critical migration studies to examine how social media can support refugees within their migration process through networking, information sharing and contact to supporter groups. This paper shows how the use of social media contributes to migrant agency by organizing the escape and movement, overcoming controls and surveillance and realizing asylum rights.

Detection systems: Submarine surveillance, environmental monitoring and immigration management.

Author: Lino Camprubi (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science)  email

Short Abstract

This paper is about the many lives of detection systems in the Mediterranean from the Cold War to the present. Looking at the evolving uses of sonar and satellites puts technology at the center of current migration issues.

Long Abstract

This paper is about the many lives of detection systems in the Mediterranean from the Cold War to the present. In particular, it focuses on sound surveillance systems and radars technologies as they went from tracking Soviet submarines to monitoring a changing environment to, finally, maps migrant boats and populations.

The top-secret Sound Surveillance System consisted of underwater arrays of hydrophones installed in the bottom of the ocean to detect all ships passing through particularly sensitive areas, for instance the Strait of Gibraltar, which the US Navy feared Soviet submarines could use to sneak into the Atlantic. After declassification, marine biologists put it to a new use: tracking whale populations as they traveled through the world ocean. Moreover, in order for this detection system to be effective, knowledge about the ocean environment and its effect on sound propagation needed to be developed. Thus, anti-submarine warfare and environmental monitoring became deeply entangled in the Mediterranean.

Together with sonar, radar and satellites also have a longer military history that enabled them to generate big data about local and global environments. Nowadays, national and international agencies like FRONTEX deploy those same technologies as part of large systems of detection. These systems constitute a new technological barrier based on the ability to process and image big data.

A compassionate border: hospitality and the asylum procedure.

Author: Maja Hertoghs (Erasmus University Rotterdam)  email

Short Abstract

Based on an ethnographic study of the asylum process I argue that a liberal humanist compassion for ‘the refugee’ is translated into a set of legal practices performed in a detention centre for ‘asylum seekers’. I focus on practices of conditional entrance and on the enactments of a national border.

Long Abstract

This paper is part of an ongoing ethnographic study of the Dutch asylum process. Asylum practices revolve, for an important part, around separating the 'deserving refugee' from the 'undeserving non-refugee'. I explore how expert practices, the sites and objects of the asylum procedure form a (national) border performance and performativity and, consequently, work to produce specific imaginaries of national belonging.

With this paper I focus on the effort and time spent before an official asylum decision is made: on the work of persons applying for asylum to convince immigration officials and asylum lawyers of their deservingness, and on the work of lawyers and IND officers to legally deliberate over a person's deservingness. The paper argues that a category of (liberal, humanist) 'compassion' -for the refugee- is translated into a strict set of legal practices and routines performed in a detention centre for 'asylum seekers'. Compassion forms a condition of entrance, of hospitality and, importantly, compassion itself becomes a highly conditional 'mould' of deservingness, one to fit or fail. The paper zooms in on how the legal form of refugee is practiced, performed, recognized, suspended, suspected, and, in the end, decided over. With that I argue that a rationalized form of compassion opens up two possibilities, one of 'welcome' and one of 'unwelcome', of a harsh non-hospitality. I argue that conditional compassion and its selective 'welcoming' produce a continuously repeated national border: a border shouldered by a detention centre, embodied by asylum applicants, and enacted by its bureaucrats and legal 'experts'.

Smart borders: re-making borders through technology

Author: Gemma Galdon Clavell (Eticas research and Consulting)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores how social values and guarantees for fundamental rights can be designed into technological solutions, while at the same time identifying what will be the crucial choices that will shape not only the future of our borders, but also the permeability of our societies.

Long Abstract

Since 9/11, airports and border crossing areas have become critical infrastructures and, some may say, states of exception. Enhanced security measures have turned airports into dense data ecosystems. Passenger purchase and travel details are shared, often across borders, among authorities and operators (e.g. PNR), automated border gates (e-Gates) respond to biometrics-enabled identity documents (2nd generation e-Passports), and "no fly lists" and other watch lists rely on the interoperability of these and other databases. At the same time, new forms of mechanical sorting arise, which reinforce social divisions.

In the European Union, a "Smart Borders Initiative" is currently being discussed. The project intends to expand and harmonize automated border crossings (ABC) at the EU level, develop plans for a Registered Traveller Programme (RTP) to facilitate border crossing for pre-approved third-country nationals, create an Entry-Exit System (EES) to identify over-stayers, and propose an amendment to the Schengen Borders Code. In parallel, biometrics are being deployed to register and track refugees as they enter and settle I the EU.

This paper uses the experience of working with the industry-led, EC-funded ABC4EU project to explore how social values and guarantees for fundamental rights can be designed into technological solutions, while at the same time identifying what will be the crucial choices that will shape not only the future of our borders, but also the permeability of our societies. Drawing on focus groups, technological auditing and societal impact assessment methods, the interaction between the legal, the ethical and the technological at the border is explored.

Mobile phones and other information practices among undocumented migrants at the US-Mexico border

Authors: Ricardo Gomez (University of Washington)  email
Verónica Guajardo (University of Washington)  email
Bryce Newell  email
Sara Vannini (University of Washington)  email

Short Abstract

Information is critical when embarking on migration journeys, particularly for irregular or undocumented migrants. To complement the picture of migration into Europe, we explore the use of mobile phones and other information practices among undocumented migrants at the US-Mexico border and in the US.

Long Abstract

Embarking on a journey of migration is an information-rich activity: planning, traveling, and settling require seeking, using and sharing information. This is particularly salient for irregular or undocumented migrants, who choose (or are forced out) to move under particularly hard circumstances, not having proper documentation. We studied the information practices (seeking, using, sharing information) among undocumented migrants at the US-Mexico border and among established (undocumented) migrants in Seattle, Washington. Their experiences and behaviors can complement the experiences of refugees and other migrants in Europe.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.