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The Migration Apparatus: Security, Labor, and Policymaking in the European Union / Edition 1

The Migration Apparatus: Security, Labor, and Policymaking in the European Union / Edition 1

by Gregory Feldman Gregory Feldman
Pub. Date:
Stanford University Press
Pub. Date:
Stanford University Press
The Migration Apparatus: Security, Labor, and Policymaking in the European Union / Edition 1

The Migration Apparatus: Security, Labor, and Policymaking in the European Union / Edition 1

by Gregory Feldman Gregory Feldman
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Every year, millions of people from around the world grapple with the European Union's emerging migration management apparatus. Through border controls, biometric information technology, and circular migration programs, this amorphous system combines a whirlwind of disparate policies. The Migration Apparatus examines the daily practices of migration policy officials as they attempt to harmonize legal channels for labor migrants while simultaneously cracking down on illegal migration.

Working in the crosshairs of debates surrounding national security and labor, officials have limited individual influence, few ties to each other, and no serious contact with the people whose movements they regulate. As Feldman reveals, this complex construction creates a world of indirect human relations that enables the violence of social indifference as much as the targeted brutality of collective hatred. Employing an innovative "nonlocal" ethnographic methodology, Feldman illuminates the danger of allowing indifference to govern how we regulate population—and people's lives—in the world today.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804761079
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 10/19/2011
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Gregory Feldman teaches at the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University. He is a cofounder of both the Interest Group for the Anthropology of Public Policy and the Network of Concerned Anthropologists.

Read an Excerpt

The Migration Apparatus

By Gregory Feldman

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6107-9

Chapter One


What makes mass society so difficult to bear is not the number of people involved, or at least not primarily, but the fact that the world between them has lost its power to gather them together, to relate and to separate them. The weirdness of this situation resembles a spiritualistic séance where a number of people gathered around a table might suddenly, through some magic trick, see the table vanish from their midst, so that two persons sitting opposite each other were no longer separated but also would be entirely unrelated to each other by anything tangible.

Hannah Arendt 1958, 52–53


Officials from the immigration office of a wealthy European Union country's interior ministry have organized a field trip to one of its holding centers for " illegal" immigrants. They are giving this tour to some sixty of their counterparts from European and North African states. Together, they are trying to establish common migration policy guidelines through the Mediterranean Managed Migration Project (3MP). Visiting officials can compare their host country's practices in the reception and detention of illegal migrants to their own. "Residents," as the center's staff calls them, number up to 160 at a time and stay an average of thirty-five days before they are returned to their countries of origin. A green, metal, double-layer fence encloses the facility. The outer ring reaches about six meters high while the inner ring climbs to five meters. The center sits peacefully in a green leafy suburb, looking safe, secure, and humane even though its functionalist architecture differs awkwardly from that of the surrounding neighborhood.

On a warm, sunny day the center's staff greets these officials (plus one anthropologist) with a wine and cheese reception in a grassy space next to the main entrance. As the fortified center incarcerates mostly darker-skinned migrants from h poorer countries, this odd moment seems to fit Luis Buñuel's satirical film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Buñuel juxtaposes in a single frame polite members of the upper middle class, who enjoy fine dinners, teas, and other pleasantries, against an assortment of characters marginalized by global capitalism, Cold War geopolitics, and the French mainstream. The surreal and awkwardly close proximity of such disparate souls, like those gathered in and around the holding center, prompts reflection on how people who do not encounter each other immediately in their normal daily circuits are linked in unequal, far-flung, and highly mediated global power relations.

"What does the fence make you think of?" I ask an official, Maria, from a southern EU member state. "At least the surroundings are nice. In [my country] they are in tents," she replies regretfully. After this remark our hosts move us inside to the foyer, which features a portrait of the royal couple positioned on the wall slightly higher than eye level and facing the rows of chairs awaiting us. We are shown the same video that residents see upon their arrival at the center. It presents the state's options on how to "return" illegal migrants to their countries of origin. (As a Dutch official explains later, the term "deport" is not used in continental Europe, unlike in Britain, Canada, and the US, because of its association with Nazi deportations of Jews to concentration camps.) Each option involves increased levels of force. On one end of the spectrum is assisted voluntary return, in which removal is cooperative, comfortable, and comes with logistical and financial support from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In some instances, IOM provides returnees with financial assistance to start up new businesses back home. On the other end is a forced return for uncooperative migrants that could involve handcuffs, ankle cuffs, straightjackets, soft helmets, and police escorts on chartered flights with other illegal migrants. In between these two extremes, migrants might be kept in light restraints while seated between two security guards on commercial flights. The video concludes with the narrator clearly enunciating that one way or another, "you will be returned."

After the presentation, our guide leads us down a corridor to the main security control center, which is encased in thick, shatterproof glass and located at the intersection of the facility's two main residence halls. We pass through a double-doored air-locked chamber that separates the security center from one of the residence halls. Our group experiences a moment of claustrophobia when the opposing doors lock us inside the transparent glass. We comfort ourselves with nervous laughter until the doors open and we are let to pass into the residence hall. The residents' rooms are enclosed with heavy metal doors purposely designed like those used in prisons. While these doors cannot be locked, they do have a small viewing slot that can be opened from the outside to look in. Residents sleep four to a room on two bunk beds. Our guide explains that the staff chooses the roommates and tries to avoid creating "ethnic ghettoes" on the one hand and "cultural clashes" on the other. Residents' money is kept separate, though they can request it twice a week. They are allowed outside for just two hours a day within a fenced courtyard where they can play football, basketball, or just breathe fresh air. Volunteer "educators" organize leisure activities such as arts and crafts. A ping-pong table, foosball table, and punching bag are found in a recreation room. Instant coffee and a small, old television set are available in the cafeteria. Peering into this room, one cannot help but notice an English-language curse about the host state, beginning with F, carved into a Plexiglas window.

Residents get an identity badge containing a photograph and other personal information. When it is time to shave, they can exchange the badge for disposable razors, which are numbered and stored in the control center. If offsite medical attention is required, then a resident would be transported to the hospital in handcuffs and remain handcuffed during the visit. During the night prior to their removal, residents are kept in a separate medical wing in a locked room lest they make a last-ditch effort to escape. The security guards—one of whom has followed us throughout the tour—carry no weapons, but helmets and shields are available to them if necessary. Discipline is effected much more through containment than force, as our guide explains. Unruly residents can be placed in an isolated holding cell for up to twenty-four hours at a time. Most residents are men between twenty and forty years old. If appearances and statistics are reliable, then the residents mainly originate from sub-Saharan Africa and Muslim countries; a few individuals are from the former Soviet Union. While some residents ignore us, many stare at us with indecipherable smiles as we peep into their sleeping rooms and recreation room and shuffle past them in the corridor en masse. Others look on contemptuously. Yet, in contrast to the frequent stares from the residents themselves, the interior ministry officials in our group make no eye contact whatsoever with the residents. They quietly pass through the center and diligently study its infrastructure. Only the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) examines it with a methodical eye. At one point, as our group is crammed in the medical wing, he whispers to me to check if the bathroom in the isolated holding cell has a toilet. I cautiously stick my head in the door while no one is looking, then glance back at him to nod in the affirmative. He nods back, indicating that this center meets international standards.


This visit to the holding center offers rich leads for an ethnography of migration management. Readily available are the questions of how the residents negotiate their status as illegals while they face imminent return, or how residents and staff manipulate each other to work the center's regulations to their own advantage. Indeed, the center could show how the ascribed status of illegal migrant is performed and contested, as suggested by the migrants' glances, the curse carved into the cafeteria window, and the regimented daily routines. We see the Foucauldian details through which docile bodies are produced as well as the tactics with which residents resist the center's technologies of rule. Assuming long-term access is granted, the center offers the logistical benefit of providing a manageable space in which to conduct extended ethnographic fieldwork and the ethical opportunity to give voice to people marginalized by capitalism and the security state.

While these matters remain vitally important, this book's point of departure is found not in a moment of direct, tangible social engagement but rather in one of banal, aloof, social indifference and disconnection, which, arguably, are more common in the contemporary world order. The policy officials' strenuous efforts to avoid eye contact with the migrants are palpable, not to mention curious, as the latter are precisely the same people whom the former are paid to regulate and about whom they ostensibly possess expertise. Why do they pass up the opportunity to keep their expert knowledge up to date? Why don't they talk to residents and ask them about their lives if they are in fact there to see the proverbial "situation on the ground"? Why don't they even look at them? Their object of ethnographic expertise—the illegal migrant—is immediately available to them. These officials, of course, have nothing to gain by engaging the migrants face to face or by acknowledging their glances, sneers, and mysterious smiles. To establish contact with them would only expose to attack the moral arguments underpinning the officials' power position and that of the judicial, political, and economic systems they represent. They must instead maintain an invisible wall of silence.

Focusing on these nonconnections between people nevertheless bound up in the same social processes, this book's basic ethnographic questions are as follows: Where do these officials' moral arguments come from? How do they pertain to ongoing social, political, and economic processes? What assumptions do they hold about citizenship, territory, the individual, and the economy? How does today's European political economy make it convenient for them to construct migrants as particular problems requiring particular policy solutions? Most significantly, how do the myriad processes involved in these officials' daily work converge so as to form a decentralized apparatus of migration management composed of disparate migration policy agendas, generic regulatory mechanisms, and unconnected policy actors and policy "targets"? Ethnographers rightly stress the importance of face-to-face experience and tangible connections and conflicts in ethnographic fieldwork. Nevertheless, how do we deal with a situation in which policy officials patently ignore the migrants in their immediate presence? How do we manage a case where unconnected policy domains and sundry regulatory mechanisms fuse together but human connections (and conflicts) are rarely forged, are tenuous at best, or are structurally discouraged?

Herzfeld's (1992, 5–10) "secular theodicy" might explain the social indifference. Some officials blame the bureaucratic system in which they work for harmful decisions that they themselves must reluctantly make. The official at the outdoor reception, Maria, illustrated the point with the wistful remark that illegal migrants in her country are kept in tents. She expressed her regret about the effect of her own work on migrants, with whom she personally sympathizes (see Chapter 4). However, most officials (and particularly those who move high up the bureaucratic ranks) speak confidently about the moral clarity of the laws they uphold and the migration policies they develop. As one project officer for 3MP noted:

What I find normal is that if you break the law, then it's a problem. Since states have existed, they have guarded their borders. If [migrants] are recognized as guilty, the consequences should be applied. Of course, there should be proportionality and human rights, but in any case, [consequences] should be the case.

This frank remark suggests that something more than a helplessness to help must explain the indifference witnessed at the holding center. Moreover, a simple avoidance relationship like those described in classic social anthropology is an insufficient explanation because a ritual avoidance assumes a prior social connection and comes with the expectation of its restoration. In this case, no such connection existed before, during, or after the trip to the center.

Therefore, this book explores bureaucratic indifference by asking what mediates the policy official's view of the migrant; and what organizes people who are now "unrelated to each other by anything tangible" (Arendt 1958, 53). It starts from the position that modern mass society is held together by indirect human relations more than direct, organic connections between people. People historically have been connected through locally formed practices such as the exchange and barter of tangible goods; rituals and rites of passage involving social and bodily contact; visible acts of obeisance to elders; and public torture—a ritualized assault on the body—as a spectacular display of ancient, sovereign power. These types of connections are being replaced by relations that are indirectly mediated through abstract third agents such as: policy representations of the public; social norms against which we measure ourselves and our relevance to others; mathematical formulas that objectify populations in the course of public administration and corporate marketing strategies; and, of course, money, signifying exchange value.

In the context of EU migration management, I seek to understand how large systems of population regulation both constitute and materialize out of highly mediated relations and the near absence of connections between people. That exploration leads us to an ethnographic terrain, so to speak, that features much less of the face-to-face interaction among and between migration officials and migrants and much more of the vast, acephalous, and decentralized world of policymaking. In that world, most of the relevant policymakers, technocrats, and experts barely know each other yet speak a common language of migration management. Their policy terrain is where the migrant emerges as a knowable problem, thus sparing the official the discomfort of listening to migrants tell their stories in their own words. Policy officials do not learn what they must about the migrant through immediate personal engagement; instead, they "see" migrants through the mediated practice of policymaking, rendering the migrant an "object of information, never a subject of communication" (Foucault 1977, 200). Hence, the "migrant" is not policy officials' primary interest qua policymakers but rather is the object of the political economy that their policy efforts serve. Similarly, poverty and hunger are not the primary interests of World Bank officials but rather their primary business; as loan officers they do not fly around the world to meet itinerant laborers and street dwellers but rather ministers of industry and high-level corporate executives (Goldman 2005, xvi). In both cases, connection with the policy object—the migrant or the poor—is neither established nor desired.


Excerpted from The Migration Apparatus by Gregory Feldman Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Abbreviations xvii

1 Unconnected in the Acephalous World of Migration Policymaking 9

2 Right Versus Right: How Neoliberals and Neo-nationalists Dominate Migration Policy in Europe 25

3 Making Things Simple: Forms of Knowledge and Policy Coherence in the "Area of Justice, Freedom and Security" 56

4 Border Control: The New Meaning of Containment 78

5 Biometrics: Where Isn't the Security Threat? 117

6 The Right Solution, or, the Fantasy of Circular Migration 150

7 When There Is No There There: Nonlocal Ethnography in a World of Apparatuses 180

Epilogue: The Comparative Advantages of the Academic and the Policymaker 199

References 201

Index 221

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