The 'Refugee Crisis'

An Introduction from the Editors
By Ladin Bayurgil, Patricia Ward and Jake Watson



As 2016 comes to a close, an unprecedented 65.3 million people are displaced, the most since the international refugee system began in 1951. Of those forcibly displaced, roughly 24 million are “refugees” (i.e., those who have crossed an international border and have received official designation under the UN’s Refugee Convention). The ongoing civil and proxy war in Syria has been the primary driver of this increase, with the number of registered Syrian refugees at the end of 2016 peaking at just over 4.8 million[1]. Not only is the scale of human displacement numerically unprecedented, but “Syrian refugees” have become the flashpoint for political upheavals and conflicts across Europe, the Middle East, and North America. Further, the geography of Syrians’ displacement has vividly exposed the deep and seemingly intractable problem at the core of the international humanitarian refugee system. Roughly 90% of Syrian refugees reside in counties that have either not ratified the UN Refugee Convention (Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon), or have ratified with geographic limitations specific to Europeans (Turkey). Conversely, ratifying states at the supposed “core” of the liberal humanitarian regime (e.g., UK, France, or the U.S.), have been reluctant to resettle refugees, and have instead focused energy and resources on keeping refugees in place in non-ratifying states[2].


The various socio-political dimensions of the human displacement caused by war in Syria has come collectively to be seen and understood within a “crisis” discourse. To a remarkable degree, the “refugee crisis” framing has become the singular lens through which not only the Syrian civil and proxy war is understood and experienced, but also a whole raft of other political ongoings (not least, the continued fractious fragility of the European political project). It seems, indeed, as if the refugee crisis has a life and agency of its own. As Janet Roitman has argued in her book “Anti-Crisis,” the crisis framing provides stakeholders (scholars, policymakers, NGO heads, pundits, and so on) the opportunity to make authoritative claims on questions such as migration, political organization, long-term solutions, and political order. In turn, these claims challenge or normalize certain interpretations of the problem, and advance certain solutions beckoning political futures.

We called for this special online symposium to tackle head on these authoritative claims, and seek to provide a much neglected critical, reflexive perspective on the purported crisis. Indeed, as well as camps, special humanitarian zones, multilateral agreements, and donation drives, the “refugee crisis” has been generative of academic panels, special sessions, expert seminars, and lecture series. Attending these academic events over the past year, one is struck by the unproblematic deployment of the dominant “refugee crisis” framing, as if this exists as a category of social and political experience in-and-of-itself; a category which if better understood in its own terms would provide the proper solutions and answers (a technical problem, requiring technical solutions). However, unproblematically adopting the language of states and international bureaucrats leads to a substantivist discussion of the current issue which reifies and normalizes the institutional and categorical systems which produce the refugee in the first place, concealing as much as they reveal. This symposium brings together three experts in the field of refugee studies and the politics of displacement, each presenting a critical vantage on the refugee crisis.

In her contribution, Yen Le Espiritu (UC San Diego) calls attention to the “ubiquitous pairing of refugee with crises.” Embodied in the figure of the desperate and abject refugee (Fanon’s “wretched” or Agamben’s life stripped bare), the militaristic interventions, forms of coerced extraction and accumulation, ethno-nationalist projects, and statist-conflicts which produce human displacement are concealed under a hegemonic humanitarian framing. Not only does this framing work to obfuscate, but it is productive also: seeing war and conflict through the humanitarian lens of refugees depoliticizes and further legitimizes state interventions in foreign affairs. As “out-of-place victims,” refugees also provide states a valuable resource, valorizing, through negative example, “the nation-state as the ultimate provider of human welfare,” and thus buttressing, as Lissa Malkki famously coined, “the national order of things.” In its resettlement program, for example, the US moves from an imperialist power to a liberal-humanitarian rescuer, thus celebrating and making meritorious the American political project. Espiritu thus calls for a critical refugee studies agenda which “flips the script, positing that it is the existence of the displaced refugee, rather than the rooted citizen, that provides the clue to a new politics and model of international relations.”

Starting with the centrality of “seeing” in the practice of statecraft and governance, Antoine Pécoud (University of Paris, France) draws attention to the politics of visibility and invisibility in the counting of migrant deaths. Uncounted and hence “invisible” to states and the broader public, migrant deaths began to be counted by civil society and activist groups. These counting operations, and the statistics they produced, provided a powerful challenge to states by directly linking migration policies and border security to human deaths. In his contribution, Pécoud charts the consequences of the integration of migrant death counting into the mainstream of migration management. The uptake of statistical collection by organizations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has led to an increased sophistication and precision of counting mechanisms, but a pacifying of the political critique, with the IOM focusing instead on making these deaths legible to states such that they can improve their response. Like Espiritu, Pécoud shows the complicated and convoluted mingling of humanitarianism with managed migration controls. Key sites of escalated border controls such as the Mediterranean, Black Sea, or British Channel crossing are converted into zones of humanitarian intervention (William Walters’ “humanitarian borders”[3]) in which states and state actors seek to prevent the death of migrants framed as victims of poverty and war, exploited by the unscrupulous traffickers and smugglers profiteering off of their desperation. Hence, Pécoud warns that the collection of migrant death statistics, once politically unsettling, “may now turn into a technical and depoliticized death-counting activity that coexists unproblematically with the very political context that creates the conditions for these deaths.”

Similar to Pécoud’s contribution, Martina Tazzioli (Swansea University, UK) draws our attention to the politics of visibility and invisibility in the management of asylum-seekers within the European Union. A core contribution of Tazzioli’s piece is in emphasizing the social and political struggle at the core of migration controls, which pits states and state-actors against the autonomous mobility of asylees seeking safety, security, family unity and betterment. Due to a persistent sedentary bias[4] in migration scholarship, this socio-political struggle is often downplayed if not completely ignored, where migration is simply seen as a problem which states necessarily have to find a solution to. In particular, Tazzioli draws our attention to the to-and-fro of internal forced transfers, deportations, and containment, which are preceded and followed by migrants’ autonomous movements (“secondary mobility”) undermining these state practices. Coupled with the invisibility of forced internal transfers, deportations, and nefarious agreements with non-EU third countries, this to-and-fro contributes to the hyper-visibility of “crisis,” in which migrants seem to be endlessly concentrating in hotspots of migration control across Europe’s interior, only to elicit, once again, the punitive practices to dispersal, detention and removal, and forced transfer. In her contribution, Tazzioli introduces her concept of “migrant multiplicities” as a way of explaining why states and state-actors engage in this process. Tazzioli argues that the principal aim is in splintering and fracturing the formation of asylees’ collective political subjectivities by multiplying legal categories, moving asylees around, and individualizing asylees’ journeys. Hence, similar to Espiritu’s forwarding of a critical refugee studies, Tazzioli calls for a “counter-mapping gaze on borders that refuses the spaces and temporalities of visibility set by states.”

In closing, each of the three contributions to this online symposium raise the thorny issue, which troubles critical research on migration more broadly, of how to navigate the conceptual terrain of refugeehood, a space so overly determined by categories made, deployed, and often violently, if insidiously, enforced by states, state-actors, and international bureaucrats. There remains vibrant debate about how best to even describe and conceptualize different forms of mobility: is the concept of forced migration useful[5], or does it flatten migrant experiences and rob agency[6]? How about divides between economic, voluntary, or humanitarian mobility? And should we use the term “refugee” at all in analyzing the politics and sociology of human mobility[7]? The categorical demarcations of mobility distribute, often arbitrarily and always politically and consequentially, resources and capital unevenly.  Critical scholars have hence been wont to eschew these dominant categories. The sheer exigency of addressing human displacement (an increasingly entrenched feature on the global order) however, keeps bringing scholars back to the dominant categories produced by those with political, categorizing power. In their own way, each of the three contributions to this online symposium offer meditation and reflection on this conceptual issue, framing the “refugee crisis” as a sociologically and politically emergent order. In doing so, we hope that this special symposium will inspire and provoke further critical scholarship on this urgently pressing issue.


[1] https://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sRxcj8ZIbI8

[3] http://williamwalters.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/2011-Foucault-and-Frontiers.pdf

[4] https://afrique-europe-interact.net/files/engl._migration_and_development_-_ob.pdf; https://www.imi.ox.ac.uk/events/theories-of-migration-and-social-change/castles.pdf.

[5] http://monthlyreview.org/2013/02/01/the-migration-and-labor-question-today-imperialism-unequal-development-and-forced-migration/

[6] http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/51909/3/Migrant_workers_in_the_ILO%2527s_GAAFL_Report_A_Critical_Appraisal_Rogaly_pre-publication_final_version.pdf; http://research.gold.ac.uk/710/1/ANTH_SHAH_2006a.pdf.

[7] http://ijrl.oxfordjournals.org/content/26/3/327.abstract;


In the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, reporters, politicians, and media commentators used the term “refugee” to describe the tens of thousands of storm victims, many of them poor African Americans, who were uprooted from their homes and forced to flee in search of refuge. Almost immediately, prominent African American leaders, including Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, charged that the use of “refugee” to refer to Katrina survivors was “racially biased,” contending that the term implies second-class citizens—or even non-Americans (Sommers et al. 2006: 40–41). For these critics, “refugeeness” connotes “otherness,” summoning the image of “people in a Third World country” who “carried the scraps of their lives in plastic trash bags,” wore “donated clothes,” and slept “on the floor of overpopulated shelters.” They charge that calling U.S.-born African Americans “refugees” was tantamount to stripping them of their citizenship—“their right to be part of the national order of things” (Masquelier 2006, 737).

As the Katrina controversy makes clear, the term “refugee” triggers associations with highly charged images of Third World poverty, foreignness, and statelessness. These associations reflect transnationally circulated representations of refugees as incapacitated objects of rescue, fleeing impoverished, war-torn, or corrupt states—a “problem” for asylum and resettlement countries. The voluminous scholarship on refugee resettlement and on refugee policies also construct the refugees as out-of-place victims and the nation-state as the ultimate provider of human welfare. In these studies, the rooted citizen constitutes both the norm and the ideal, whereas the refugee is once again described as uprooted, dislocated, and displaced from the national community. These studies thus treat state borders as geographical givens rather than territorial boundaries constructed by law and regulated by force.

As such, to “unpack the refugee crisis,” we first need to unpack the ubiquitous pairing of “refugee” with “crisis.” Academic and popular representations of wars participate in the making of the “refugee crisis” narrative when they emphasize, and even sensationalize, the most pervasive acts of acute violence—the bombing, burning, napalming, killing. Indeed, as Rey Chow (2006) has argued, Americans have increasingly come to “know” the world as a target—through the lens of U.S. military intervention. That is, when wars break out, foreign areas and peoples enter American mainstream public discourses, via media outlets and policy pronouncements, as embodiments of (naturalized) violence, crisis, and disasters. The emphasis on the spectacular—on the images and sites of analysis that are readily accessible and consumable, especially to American audiences—and the hyper-focus on the refugees’ suffering and needs (re)affirm the “refugee crisis” narrative, thereby precluding any critical examination of the global historical conditions that produce this “crisis” in the first place.


The Making of the “Refugee”

The “refugee crisis” narrative constructs the refugee as a problem to be managed by states via humanitarian organizations. However, historians, political scientists, and international relations scholars have emphasized the utility of the “refugee” category, especially in the twentieth century, for the practice of statecraft. They thus conceptualize the refugees not as a problem but rather as a solution for resettlement countries. As Nevzat Soguk muses, for all that states denounce refugee outflows as a problem, the precarious condition of “refugeeness” in fact provides “affirmative resources for statist practices,” fostering a better appreciation for what it means to enjoy state protection (1999: 16). Liisa Malkki (1995) argues that the construction of refugees as out-of-place victims reflects nationalism’s fiction of an unproblematic link between territory and identity and an idealized relationship between the state and its citizens. Viewing state borders as geographical givens, the “there’s no place like home” mantra implies that only those fleeing tyrannical governments would forsake their state’s protection to embark on a perilous path as refugees.

The figure of the refugee, as a socio-legal object of knowledge, has been metaphorically central in the construction of U.S. global power. During the Cold War years, “refugeeness became a moral-political tactic,” demarcating the difference between the supposedly uncivilized East and civilized West, and fostering “cohesion of the Western Alliance nations” (Lippert 1999: 305). This “moral-political tactic” was the impetus behind the production of the “refugee” as a sociolegal object of knowledge and management at the onset of the Cold War. In 1951, prodded by the United States, whose paradigmatic refugee was the Eastern European and Soviet escapee, the United Nations officially defined “refugee” as a person who harbors “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” This definition prioritized sufferers of state-defined political oppression over victims of natural disaster; it also sharply distinguished “political refugees” fleeing persecution from “economic migrants” moving in search of a better life, even when it is impossible to disentangle the two.

For the most part, state interests have determined whether, when, and where displaced persons receive the status of “refugee” in the West. During the Cold War, the term “refugee” became interchangeable with “defector,” as the “provision of asylum became a foreign policy tool” awarded by Western countries primarily to those who fled or refused to be repatriated to Communist countries (Gibney 2005: 25). The propaganda value of accepting refugees fleeing communism—deemed the living symbols of communism’s failure—was central to U.S. foreign policy goals, providing the nation with an alleged advantage over the Soviet Union. Along the same line, in response to the massive exodus of refugees from Southeast Asia in the late 1970s, the U.S. Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, which adopted the 1951 United Nations definition of “refugee” and established a uniform procedure for the admission and resettlement of refugees of “special concern” to the United States. Although the purported goal of the 1980 act was to drop any reference to communism and eliminate the previous geographic restrictions on granting refugee status only to Europeans, the actual admissions proposals for fiscal-year 1980 continued to prioritize refugees fleeing communism, with refugees from Southeast Asia being the main beneficiaries. In marked contrast, during this same period, because the United States was providing massive economic and military aid to the right-wing military regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala, the Reagan administration denied asylum status to hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans who were fleeing torture and persecution from these very regimes.


The U.S. geopolitical landscape has changed since the resettlement of the Southeast Asian refugees in the 1980s. In the post-Cold War era in which U.S. imperialism and globalized militarization take the form of endless wars on terrorism, the refugees produced by these wars, such as the Syrian refugees, are cast as threats to be eradicated, and not victims to be rescued. As Eric Tang argues, “Today’s refugees are construed as an entirely unique racial problem that reflects the public’s anxieties over national security and is managed by practices such as racial profiling, surveillance, and detention rather than humanitarian resettlement” (2015: 176). The November 2015 Paris attacks, which killed 130 people and injured another 368, unleashed a swift and vitriolic anti-Syrian backlash in the U.S., with many officials calling on the federal government to halt acceptance of Syrian refugees.  In the 2015 fiscal year, the United States accepted only 1,500 refugees from Syria. When images of desperate Syrian refugees trying—and sometimes dying—to reach Europe show up in the nightly news, refugee advocates began to call on the U.S. to significantly boost the number of Syrian refugees it accepts. Importantly, these humanitarian pleas for the U.S. to admit more refugees did not renounce but further confirm the U.S. status as a benevolent “rescuing” nation. The argument goes like this: The U.S. needs to welcome Syrian refugees because it “has historically been the world leader in recognizing the moral obligation to resettle refugees.”[1] For instance, Lee Williams, vice-president and chief financial officer of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, one of the nine national agencies that handle refugee resettlement in the U.S., opined, “Accepting refugees into the United States is one of our grandest traditions. And we’ve been doing it since the beginning even before we were a nation.”[2] International Rescue Committee program officer Rachel Unkovic similarly waxed nostalgia for a refuge-granting America: “The America that I grew up in is one that also raised refugee children.”[3]

As Laura Wexler (1992) reminds us, even when the socially stigmatized—the refugees, in this case—are the subjects of the stories, they do not play the leading roles; instead, they constitute the human scenery deployed to confirm the superiority of the white American middle-class way of life and the rightness and righteousness of “rescuing” projects. In this instance, the “persecuted and uprooted” narrative—that is, the “refugee crisis” narrative—works to confirm U.S. reputation as a benevolent nation that rescues the world’s displaced. Such conclusion enables and ensures the erasure of all evidence to the contrary—of genocide, (settler) colonialism, slavery, and wars—that has cumulatively established the United States as a refugee-producing rather than a refuge-providing nation.

Critical Refugee Studies

As “refugeeism” has become a prominent feature of our times, Trinh T. Minh-ha urges us to “empty it, get rid of it, or else let it drift”—to prevent the word “refugee” from “being reduced to yet another harmless catchword” (2010: 45). Toward this goal, I chart an interdisciplinary field of critical refugee studies (CRS), which conceptualizes “the refugee” not as an object of rescue but as a site of social and political critiques. This field begins with the premise that the refugee, who inhabits a condition of statelessness, radically calls into question the established principles of the nation-state and the idealized goal of inclusion and recognition within it. CRS thus flips the script, positing that it is the existence of the displaced refugee, rather than the rooted citizen, that provides the clue to a new politics and model of international relations. At the same time, CRS is attentive to the refugees’ rich and complicated lives, the ways in which they enact their hopes, beliefs, and politics, even when they live militarized lives. In short, CRS scholarship conceptualizes the “refugee” as a critical idea but also as a social actor whose life, when traced, illuminates the interconnections of colonization, war, and displacement.

Critical Refugee Studies has two main tenets:

1) Militarism and Migration: CRS pivots on a critique of the unique braiding of militarism and imperialism that underlies forced migrations on a global scale, then and now. It thus disrupts the myth of western “rescue and liberation” of refugees and exposes the connections between refugee flight and western interventions in “Third World” countries—via counterinsurgency actions, anticommunist insurgencies, terrorism counteraction, and peacekeeping operations. To make a case against U.S. militarism, one needs to expose the militarized violence behind the humanitarian ideas of “refuge(es).” As an example, in my work on Vietnamese refugees, I recast the U.S.’s most celebrated story of rescue—the April 1975 airlifting and routing of refugees from Vietnam to the Philippines to Guam and then to California, all of which routed the refugees through U.S. military bases on these sites—as a critical lens through which to map, both discursively and materially, the legacy of the military’s heavy hand in the purportedly benevolent resettlement process (Espiritu 2014). In connecting Vietnamese displacement to that of Filipinos, Chamorros, and Native Americans, and making intelligible the military colonialism that engulf these spaces, I expose the hidden violence behind the humanitarian term refuge, thus undercutting the rescue-and-liberation narrative that erases the U.S. role in initiating the refugee crisis.


2. Feminist Refugee Epistemology: CRS also shifts the reference point in refugee studies from that of state and policy makers and humanitarian organizations to that of the refugees and their children. In particular, it adheres to a feminist refugee epistemology (FRE), which takes seriously the intersection between private grief and public violence, and the hidden and overt injuries but also joy that play out in the domain of the intimate. Applying a transnational feminist lens to refugee studies, FRE reconceptualizes war-based displacement as not only about social disorder and interruption but also about social reproduction and innovation. Attentive to the gendered nature of agency, FRE prioritizes refugee women’s knowledge and emphasizes their creative, improvised, and experimental refuge-making practices. These social practices, which have emerged to tend to the ongoing wounds of war, flight, and resettlement, hold the potential for the radical remaking of a proper humanity, however tentative. Centering the more mundane, routine and open-ended dimensions of war and displacement, FRE re-conceptualizes time and space not as natural and fixed but materially and discursively produced, and unsettled and remade by the refugees. In so doing, FRE shifts the conceptual frame that privileges sedentarist orientations to one that explores the creation of meaning, identity, and community in the context of flux and disorder.

In sum, CRS insists that the ubiquitous pairing of “refugee” with “crisis” precludes a critical examination of the global historical conditions that forcibly displace and propel refugee flight in the first place. It also challenges liberal narratives of tragedy that represent war-displaced refugees as always-already suffering feminized bodies. Instead, CRS urges us to approach the question of displacement from the knowledge point of the forcibly displaced: to take seriously the hidden and overt injuries but also the joy and survival practices that play out in the domain of the everyday; and to mark the broken trajectories but also the moments of action—indeed, of creation—as refugees search for and insist on their right to more.

Yến Lê Espiritu began her academic career in 1990 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at UCSD. She has published extensively on Asian American identities and politics, gender and migration, and U.S. colonialism and wars in Asia. Her most current book, Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es) (UC Press, 2014) charts an interdisciplinary field of critical refugee study, which reconceptualizes “the refugee” not as an object of rescue but as a site of social and political critiques. In 2015, she received the UCSD Academic Senate Faculty Research Lecturer Award.




Chow, Rey (2006) The Age of the World Target: Self-Referentiality in War, Theory, and Comparative Work. Durham: Duke University Press.


Espiritu, Yen Le (2014) Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es). Berkeley: University of California Press.


Gibney, Matthew J. (2005) “Asylum,” in Matthew J. Gibney and Randall Hansen (eds.) Immigration and Asylum. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.


Lippert, Randy (1999) “Governing Refugees: The Relevance of Governmentality to Understanding the International Refugee Regime.” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political   24: 295-328.


Malkki, Liisa (1995) “Refugees and Exile: From "Refugee Studies" to the National Order of Things.” Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 495-523.


Masquelier, Adeline (2006) “Why Katrina’s Victims Aren’t Refugees: Musings on a ‘Dirty’ Word.” American Anthropologist 108: 735-743.


Soguk, Nevzat (1999) States and Strangers: Refugees and Displacements of Statecraft. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Sommers, Samuel R., Evan P. Apfelbaum, Kristin N. Dukes, Negin Toosi, and Elsie J. Wang (2006) “Race and Media Coverage of Hurricane Katrina: Analysis, Implications, and Future Research Questions.” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 6: 1-17.


Tang, Eric (2015) Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York City Hyperghetto. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.


Trinh, T. Minh-Ha (2010) Elsewhere, Within Here: Immigration, Refugeeism and the Boundary Event. New York: Routledge.


Wexler, Laura Wexler (1992) “Tender Violence: Literary Eavesdropping, Domestic Fiction, and

Educational Reform,” in Shirley Samuels (ed.) The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press: 9-38.


[1] http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/09/politics/us-syrian-refugees-pressure/

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/nov/19/syrian-refugees-in-america-fact-from-fiction-congress

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rachel-unkovic/america-syrian-refugee-crisis-vietnam_b_8252882.html





The Euro-Mediterranean region has become the biggest migrant cemetery in the world. Every day, crowded boats with migrants from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan or Eritrea try to reach European coasts; many of them sink and, while they are sometimes rescued, migrants’ dead bodies are found on Turkish, Greek or Italian beaches. Inside Europe, migrants take desperate risks to cross the continent by, for example, jumping dangerously on trucks crossing the Channel to reach England from the French town of Calais. It is estimated that more than 3,000 migrants have already died in 2016, a year that will eventually prove even more deadly than 2014 and 2015.[1]

Migrant deaths constitute a structural reality of the migration process. They are probably as old as migration itself – or as states’ attempts to regulate migration and block the mobility of certain categories of people. According to Nevins (2003), Chinese migrants died in 19th century’s California when trying to circumvent some of the provisions of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Today, casualties are also reported at the Mexico-US border, in the Horn of Africa, off the Australian coasts, in the Caribbean, and in many other part of the world (Weber and Pickering 2011). In a world in which access to mobility is a crucial, but unevenly-distributed, resource, migrant deaths constitute the most visible outcome of the physical and symbolic violence associated with migration.

In Europe’s current migration or refugee “crisis,” migrant deaths have become more and more visible. Some of these deaths inspire worldwide emotion, like Aylan Kurdi’s, a young Syrian boy found dead on the Turkish coast in September 2015.[2] Yet, most migrant deaths go unnoticed. They often occur in remote places, in deserts or at sea. Migrants travel clandestinely, and die just as clandestinely. And above all, in a postcolonial world, the deaths of migrants from the Global South do not receive much attention and often provoke only indifference or resignation, as if they were the unpleasant but unavoidable condition for states’ exercise of their sovereign right to control their borders.

It is in this context that civil society actors have sought to gather data and produce statistics on migrant deaths. In Europe, the first one to do so was the NGO United for Intercultural Action: since 1993, it has been releasing and updating a ‘List of deaths’[3], which now contains almost 23,000 casualties. In 2004, Le Monde Diplomatique, a leftist and anti-capitalist French newspaper, published the first map on migrant deaths at European borders[4], which has since then been regularly updated in cooperation with the NGO Migreurop[5]. The ongoing crisis has spurred new initiatives: one can mention the Italian blog Fortress Europe[6], the Watch the Med platform[7], the Dutch project on The Human Costs of Border Control[8], and a media initiative entitled The Migrants’ Files[9].

All these civil society initiatives aim at filling the void left by states. Indeed, migrant deaths are not considered by governments: states collect data on migrants who enter their territory alive; also, for epidemiological and sanitary purposes, they count the deaths that occur on their soil. But they do not document the deaths of migrants trying to reach their country. Not only does this have to do with practice and legal issues, such as the difficulty of identifying corpses, or the complexity of states’ responsibilities in in-between border zones like international waters; it is also due to states’ reluctance to acknowledge the dark side of their politics of migration control. In today’s crisis, for example, states never recognize their responsibility in the migrant deaths occurring in the Mediterranean; rather, they systematically blame “smugglers” and “traffickers” for embarking migrants on these dangerous journeys.

James C. Scott (1998) relies on the work of Michel Foucault to argue that it is through the production of data that states “see” reality. Faced with complex dynamics developing over vast territories, states need statistics to apprehend their population – and to govern it. Indeed, the words state and statistics share the same etymology. The corollary is that, without statistics, reality remains invisible. Certain issues will therefore be ignored, not because they do not exist, but because they are not documented. This constructivist approach also makes clear that not all aspects of social life are documented: certain topics are the object of scrutiny, while others are not - and such differences of treatment often have to do with politics in the broad sense, that is to say with what is deemed socially and politically relevant. Clearly, migrant deaths are on the hidden side: in the absence of data, they are invisible. Even when they are immediately observable, for example when corpses come ashore on beaches full of tourists in the Italian island of Lampedusa, they could remain anecdotal and isolated. Only statistics have the power to transform the multiplicity of disconnected local casualties into a global phenomenon that becomes the object of media coverage and political attention.

This is why civil society groups produce their own statistics. By producing knowledge on a topic ignored by governments, they aim to shed light on migrant deaths, at raising awareness among decision-makers and public opinion, and at fostering change in the politics of migration. NGOs do not only challenge states’ often monopolistic position in the production of statistics; in some cases, they also venture into actual life-saving activities - a field that is traditionally dominated by state actors. This is for instance the case of the German Sea Watch[10] project and the Maltese Migrant Offshore Aid Station[11], which operate with their own boats to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. Statistics and action thus come together: by making migrant deaths visible, NGOs also pave the way for policies that aim at saving these lives.

Like all statistics, data on migrant deaths are therefore highly political. This is also clear in another key aspect of any statistical activity, namely the definitions and categories that underlie data collection. Information must not only be collected; it must also be sorted and organized. In this respect, it is worth noting that there is no precise definition of what constitutes a “migrant death.” Statistics in this field are still in their infancy, and a single harmonized definition is not yet shared across different civil society actors. Many of the initiatives mentioned above focus on the Mediterranean and mainly count deaths at sea. By contrast, United for Intercultural Action adopts a larger definition that encompasses, for example, the deaths that occur far away from Europe (like in Sub-Saharan Africa), the deaths inside European countries (for example in detention centers), and even the suicides committed by desperate migrants at any stage of their journey. The argument is that all these migrants, however they die, are victims of the violence inherent to the politics of migration in Europe.

These differences in categories are of a crucial political importance because they come along with different interpretations of states’ responsibilities. Depending upon the category that is used, states’ role – and, accordingly, the way they should react to these deaths – are framed differently. In a narrow understanding, migrant deaths are the deaths that occur at sea and the key issue is to prevent them by humanitarian measures of rescue. This is what the Mare Nostrum operation, led by the Italian government between 2013 and 2014, was up to. Increasingly, border control initiatives have been relying on this humanitarian imperative: Frontex, for example, argues that its patrols serve both to control European borders and save lives[12] - thereby exemplifying what William Walters calls the “humanitarian border.” In this view, the culprits are the criminal networks of smugglers and traffickers, which need to be combatted - with the UN Security Council going as far as to authorize military action against their boats[13]. By contrast, if one enlarges the definition of migrant deaths to include all those who die inside Europe, the political implications are very different. The emphasis is then put on the way governments treat (or mistreat) migrants and on the structural anti-migrant violence that pervades not only border controls, but other aspects of immigration policy too (like readmissions or expulsions).

It is in this highly sensitive political debate that an actor of another kind has stepped in. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is a Geneva-based intergovernmental organization that provides services to states in a wide range of migration-related policy fields[14]. In 2013, it launched the Missing Migrants Project[15], which provides data on migrants’ deaths throughout the world. This project resembles earlier initiatives by NGOs: it provides a list of casualties, along with maps that localise the places where these deaths occur. In this respect, civil society groups have clearly set up a standard that now inspires the IOM. This organization also aims at intervening at the practical level, for example by providing information to the relatives of missing migrants or by contributing to the identification of corpses.

As an intergovernmental organization, however, the IOM is much more prudent than NGOs. It does not establish a direct causality between European policies and migrant deaths. Rather, it aims to develop a neutral “technical” expertise, which can improve knowledge on the topic more broadly: in its report, one can, for example, read that “while views may differ on how best to limit the number of migrant deaths, there is a broad agreement on the need for better data” (IOM 2014: 17). The IOM claims that it wishes to help states monitor the phenomenon: its role would be to provide them with accurate information, without interfering in the ways states will use this data and possibly elaborate policies to reduce migrant deaths. The IOM also believes that increased coverage of these deaths may help make would-be migrants more aware of the risks they take.

The IOM’s Missing Migrants Project may seem quite at odds with other activities by the same organization. Indeed, the IOM is active in the reinforcement of border controls throughout the world, including in the Euro-Mediterranean region. For example, it trains border guards in many less developed countries, while also facilitating the expulsion and readmission of undocumented migrants (Georgi 2010). These are precisely the kind of activities that incite migrants to take deadly risks. As such, the IOM exemplifies the confusion between control and humanitarian protection that characterizes contemporary migration politics. This leads this organization to borrow from civil society repertoires, but to do so in a way that depoliticizes their activities. While civil society counted deaths to make states accountable, the IOM sees this activity as a technical task with little or no political signification in itself. Yet, it is precisely because migrant deaths have become more and more politically visible that the IOM has felt the need to step into this activity – and to neutralize the political signification of these statistics.

Counting migrant deaths is an activity that may thus be at a crossroads. It was designed as a critical way of exposing the human costs of migration control, and of highlighting the flagrant contradictions between the values and principles of Western states and the actual outcome of their migration policies. It served as one of NGOs’ major tools in calling for political change. It may now turn into a technical and depoliticized death-counting activity that coexists unproblematically with the very political context that creates the conditions for these deaths. To some extent, this testifies to the success of NGOs’ efforts, which have long struggled to make this topic visible with very limited resources. Yet, it also challenges the raison d’être behind these statistics. By moving from the field of civil society to the intergovernmental realm, statistics become more detailed, but less challenging. Could it be that these numbers were finally becoming politically dangerous, and that they therefore had to be neutralized?

Antoine Pécoud is Professor of sociology at the University of Paris 13. Between 2003 and 2012, he worked as an international civil servant for UNESCO’s program on international migration. He holds a B.A. from the University of Lausanne (Switzerland) and a Ph.D. in social and cultural anthropology from the University of Oxford (UK).​




Georgi Fabian (2010) For the Benefit of Some: The International Organization for Migration and its Global Migration Management, in Martin Geiger et Antoine Pécoud Eds., The Politics of International Migration Management, Basingstoke, Palgrave, pp. 45-72.


International Organization for Migration (2014) Fatal Journeys. Tracking Lives Lost during Migration, Geneva: IOM.


NEVINS, Joseph (2003) ‘Thinking Out of Bounds: A Critical Analysis of Academic and Human Rights Writings on Migrant Deaths in the U.S.-Mexico Border Region’, Migraciones Internacionales 2(2): 171-190.


SCOTT, James C. (1998) Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale: Yale University Press.


Walters William (2011) Foucault and frontiers: notes on the birth of the humanitarian border, in Ulrich Bröckling, Susanne Krasmann et Thomas Lemke Eds., Governmentality: Current Issues and Future Challenges, New York, Routledge, pp. 138-164.


WEBER, Leanne and Sharon PICKERING (2011) Globalization and Borders. Death at the Global Frontier, Basingstoke: Palgrave.


[1] See for example https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/the-number-of-europe-bound-migrants-falls-but-death-toll-rises/2016/09/02/7a957b8e-6ef3-11e6-993f-73c693a89820_story.html

[2] See http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/04/world/europe/syria-boy-drowning.html

[3] See http://www.unitedagainstracism.org/campaigns/refugee-campaign/working-with-the-list-of-deaths/

[4] See http://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/cartes/mortsauxfrontieres

[5] See http://www.migreurop.org/

[6] See http://fortresseurope.blogspot.fr/

[7] See http://watchthemed.net/index.php/main

[8] See http://www.borderdeaths.org/

[9] See http://www.themigrantsfiles.com/

[10] See http://sea-watch.org/en/

[11] See https://www.moas.eu/

[12] See http://frontex.europa.eu/operations/types-of-operations/sea/

[13] See http://www.un.org/press/en/2015/sc12072.doc.htm

[14] See https://www.iom.int/

[15] See http://missingmigrants.iom.int/






On a weekly basis between August and October 2016, migrants apprehended at the border-zones of Ventimiglia and Como (Italian cities close to the borders of France and Switzerland respectively), have been bused back to the south of Italy, to the “hotspot” of Taranto[i]. Organized by the Italian authorities, these forced internal transfers have had two primary goals: deterring future migrations to Europe’s interior; and, “lightening the migrant pressure at the frontier.”[ii] Despite these forced transfers to Taranto, however, migrants find their way back to the French and Swiss border within days.  Thus, the hotspot itself has changed its function, from a chokepoint for identifying and selecting migrant entries to a site of containment for regulating the presence and unruly mobility of migrants who are on the territory.

Taranto represents just one of many containment “hotspots” within European border countries. This intervention subsequently attempts to engage current political and academic debates about the putative “refugee crisis” in Europe, focusing on the overt institutional strategies of the Relocation Program and on the more covert channels of forced internal transfers. Both forms of forced movement exist as tactics for disciplining—and controlling—what the EU calls “secondary movements.” Looking at the mechanisms for channeling mobility and regaining control over migrants’ autonomous movements is an analytic angle that engages with the “refugee crisis” narrative from the perspective of “border materialities;” i.e., the aim of this intervention is to grasp the spatial and political transformations within the micropolitics of migration controls as states seek to respond to “unruly mobility.”


Together with deportation, practices of forced internal transfer represent the underside of the EU’s managed migration system which ranges from student visas to circular and temporary migration programs. Forced internal transfers pivot around the Relocation System[iii] launched by the European Union in May, 2015, at the time of the EU Agenda on Migration. According to policymakers, the Relocation System establishes a sort of “burden sharing” agreement, in which 160,000 asylum seekers will be relocated from Italy and Greece to other EU member states. “Relocation” is a term that hints at the biopolitical engineering of migrant multiplicities[iv], which consists in sorting and partitioning migrants, allocating them to specific destinations or to distinct legal categories. The use of “relocation” further implicitly confirms that migrants should not—and cannot—choose where to claim asylum. Rather, it is the governing powers that “should be” the decision-makers of migrants’ mobility (Biao, Lindquist, 2014). 

Relocation has subsequently become normalized as a spatial measure for allocating and governing mobility at the policy level.


However, to understand the scope of the implications associated with relocation practices, we need to understand how this translates into the control of space in practice. In order to do this, we have to first closely scrutinize and unpack the laborious border operations that take place before and as pre-conditions to the act of relocating migrants. Sorting strategies that aim to divide up migrant multiplicities in order to prevent the formation of collective political subjects, for example, actually involve and give rise to a multiplication of relocation channels as a result of these exclusionary partitioning strategies. In particular, states try to block practices of mobility that do not take place according to the tempos and the conditions of institutional and legal channels. 


Yet, migrants’ autonomous practices of mobility to circumvent sorting practices should not be confused with autonomous spaces. On the contrary, what characterizes migrants’ movements are precisely the absence of a proper place, and the related necessity of finding cunning ways of moving across spaces. At the same time, relocation, as conceived by the EU, should not be conflated with mobility (whether controlled or not). Rather, relocation acts as a spatial trap for the “lucky” asylum seekers who are selected as eligible: indeed, it fixes precise geographical limitations, in the sense that “when an asylum-seeker is relocated to another EU country, they only have the right to legally reside in that country and cannot move on to another EU country without authorization.”[v] This measure of spatial containment is combined with a digital traceability that is posited as the pre-requisite for being moved and that consists in the obligation of being fingerprinted in the place of first arrival.

Relocation policies are also racialized through the establishment of a nationality-based criteria. This criteria establishes that “persons deserving of protection” are those who belong to nationality groups which have their asylum-claims recognized at least 75% of the time in the European Union. This means that demands for relocation are not processed on an individual basis, and that even the number of migrant nationals claiming asylum in the EU is irrelevant. This criteria has indirectly posited that Syrians are the only genuine asylum-seekers, and has had a deleterious implication for those from other countries. For instance, for many months Afghans and Pakistanis have been consistently ranked as the top two nationalities excluded for relocation in Greece. Their massive flight from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Greece is not considered a marker of their condition of insecurity and of their need of protection.


With the uneven benefits of the relocation system in mind, it can be seen that the relocation system, and the forced internal transfers which underpin and facilitate it, is not in fact about forward movements of migrants to countries of asylum, but rather containment, followed by relocation in the form of backward movements to the country of origin for those coded as “undesirable” through the relocation system’s nationality-criteria. More broadly, the goal of taking migrants in the opposite direction to their move is twofold: producing an effect of deterrence by discouraging migrants from trying again; and, making their journeys longer. Paradoxically, such a move back and the consequent retry tactic on the part of migrants comes to multiply secondary movements (the very practice EU policy is designed to deter) and thus multiply erratic geographies. Migrants are kept on the move: more than being stopped in their attempt to move to Northern Europe, they are in fact forced to restart, over and over again, their journey (Picozza, 2016). Nevertheless, it is important to remark that the outcome of these strategies for disciplining “secondary movements” is not only migrants’ hyper-mobility but also a multiplication of forms of containment. Spatially, these forms of containment are not restricted to the fences surrounding hotspots, nor are they restricted temporally to the time migrants are kept inside these hotspots; what occurs instead is what can be called “containment beyond detention” (Garelli, Tazzioli, 2016).

The insights provided here about the visible and institutional channels of regulated mobility, and on the more invisibilized and arbitrary channels of forced transfer, must be situated within a broader contested politics of visibility that sustains migration governmentality. As this brief commentary suggests, EU relocation programs not only create and elaborate visible infrastructures of mobility management and containment, but also “invisible” ones. The visibility of migrant spaces of transit and border-zones responds to what I would call a desultory temporality, meaning an intermittent visibilization of spaces of migration that does not depend only on border narratives produced by the media, and not even on numbers per se. Rather, what matters the most is the conceptualized potential weight of these numbers to EU actors. Through such an expression, I refer to the “troubling effects” generated by migrants’ very presence, and, more importantly, by the potential for collective claim-making of a migrant multiplicity as it threatens to realize its latent potential for collective political subjectivity, even if just temporarily. The “immediate” and fleeting visibility that usually characterizes borders and migration events involves the disruptive moment of migrants’ presence only.  


Take August 4, 2016, in Ventimiglia, for example: about 300 migrants move from a hosting center run by the Red Cross towards the French-Italian border, ten kilometers away from the city. There, they are blocked by the Italian police for about ten hours. Suddenly, however, about 140 of them managed to cross the border. Many newspapers and websites described the scene as migrants breaking through the Italian police and entering France[vi]. Yet, beyond the most visible scene, what occurred in this instance remains largely invisible and obscured. What in fact occurred, was that the French police immediately apprehended the 140 migrants and pushed them back to Italy. Yet, it is even harder to follow these opaque channels of deportation: all those migrants have been transferred to detention hotspots South of Italy (Taranto and Trapani), divided into small groups, and to date it remains unclear how many received a decree of expulsion.

In the light of these invisible channels of forced transfers and deportations, I suggest that we should mobilize a counter-mapping gaze on borders that refuses the spaces and temporalities of visibility set by states. This involves first of all looking at the spaces of control, mobility and containment that are generated through mobile bordering practices that are invisible on the geopolitical map and do not appear as territorial entities. Concrete examples are the cooperation between the EU and African countries in sea patrolling activities aimed at intercepting migrant vessels; the training provided by the EU to the border and coastal guards of non-EU “third countries”; as well as the donation of technical equipment (radars, fingerprinting machines, among others). Beyond analyses of these activities of cooperation, this counter-mapping gaze should examine the channels of deportations, transfers, relocations and data exchange that crisscross the European space and extend beyond it. The stretching of the EU border regime and its externalization cannot, in fact, be flattened to visible territories; in order for it to be seen, a map of the mobile spaces of control should be made.

Martina Tazzioli is Lecturer in Geography at Swansea University and Visiting Lecturer in Forced Migration at City University of London. She is the author of Spaces of Governmentality: Autonomous Migration and the Arab Uprisings (2014), co-author with Glenda Garelli of Tunisia as a Revolutionized Space of Migration (2016), and co-editor of Foucault and the History of Our Present (2015). She is co-founder of the journal Materialifoucaultian.




[iv] By “migrant multiplicities” I mean group of migrants that are temporary and subjected to process of partition by authorities. As I explain elsewhere (Tazzioli, 2016), what distinguishes migrant multiplicities from other kinds of group formations is the divisible and temporary dimension.



This symposium brings together three experts in the field of refugee studies and the politics of displacement, each presenting a critical vantage on the refugee crisis.

For the most part, state interests have determined whether, when, and where displaced persons receive the status of “refugee” in the West.

CRS thus flips the script, positing that it is the existence of the displaced refugee, rather than the rooted citizen, that provides the clue to a new politics and model of international relations. At the same time, CRS is attentive to the refugees’ rich and complicated lives, the ways in which they enact their hopes, beliefs, and politics, even when they live militarized lives.

In a world in which access to mobility is a crucial, but unevenly-distributed resource, migrant deaths constitute the most visible outcome of the physical and symbolic violence associated with migration.

Yet, most migrant deaths go unnoticed. They often occur in remote places, in deserts or at sea. Migrants travel clandestinely, and die just as clandestinely. And above all, in a postcolonial world, the deaths of migrants from the Global South do not receive much attention and often provoke only indifference or resignation, as if they were the unpleasant but unavoidable condition for states’ exercise of their sovereign right to control their borders.

Together with deportation, practices of forced internal transfer represent the underside of the EU’s managed migration system which ranges from student visas to circular and temporary migration programs.

A Critical Refugee Studies Approach to the ‘Refugee Crisis'

By Yen Le Espiritu

The Politics of Counting Migrants’ Deaths in the Mediterranean

By Antoine Pécoud

An Introduction from the Editors

By Patricia Ward and Jake Watson

Moving Migrants Around, Moving Migrants Back: Counter-mapping Channels of Relocation and of Forced Transfer across Europe.

By Martina Tazzioli

Nevertheless, it is important to remark that the outcome of these strategies for disciplining “secondary movements” is not only migrants’ hyper-mobility but also a multiplication of forms of containment. Spatially, these forms of containment are not restricted to the fences surrounding hotspots, nor are they restricted temporally to the time migrants are kept inside these hotspots; what occurs instead is what can be called “containment beyond detention” (Garelli, Tazzioli, 2016).