‘Why should we speak with you?’

Ruben Andersson

An interview with Ruben Andersson on his book Illegality Inc, an ethnographic account of Europe’s efforts to halt irregular migration along Spain's borders with Africa.

Image from the cover of Illegality Inc. Image via the author with permission from the publisher.

Interview by
Keren Weitzberg

Ruben Andersson is an anthropologist and associate professor at Oxford University who works on migration, borders and security with a focus on the West African Sahel and southern Europe. His book, Illegality, Inc.: Clandestine Migration and the Business of Bordering Europe, is an ethnographic account of Europe’s efforts to halt irregular migration along the Spanish-African borders. He spoke with Keren Weitzberg, author of the book We Do Not Have Borders: Greater Somalia and the Predicaments on Belonging in Kenya for Africa Is A Country.


KW

Tell us a bit about yourself, your book Illegality Inc., and your latest project.

RA

I have been working for many years on border security ethnographically, looking at how Europe is dealing with irregular migration. I have focused particularly on migration from West Africa towards Spain and on border security in West and North African countries, where Europe has invested heavily in controlling migration. To do this work, I traveled along migration-control trails from Senegal and Mali to Morocco and the Spanish coast and visited European and African policing headquarters. I also followed border guards and aid workers, and listened to migrants themselves and the stories they told about the “business of bordering Europe.”

More recently, I have been working on another book, which is coming out next year, called No Go World, which also addresses the question of migration. No Go World examines how Western interveners are focusing their attention on “trouble spots” and “danger zones” in areas like the Sahara Desert, which are seen as focal points for problems of migration, terrorism and instability. These areas may be on the margins of our map, but they are becoming more and more central to our politics and to how Western interveners engage with the poorer parts of the world.

KW

Illegality, Inc. is an incredibly timely book, which you began long before the so-called European “migrant crisis” of 2015. In that year, there was a marked increase in the number of migrants trying to enter Europe both overland through Southeast Europe and across the Mediterranean Sea. The numbers have since dwindled considerably, but the issue of migration still dominates politics and headlines in Europe. Can you explain what originally drew you to the topic of irregular migration? And to the route between West Africa and Spain, which is increasingly in the news of late as other channels into Europe are cracked down upon?

RA

More than a decade ago, I became interested in this particular route, partly because I knew Mali quite well and already had a strong interest in that part of the world. It is also easy to forget that there was a European “boat crisis” (as it was called) back then. In 2006, more than 30,000 West Africans arrived among sunbathers to the Spanish Canary Islands in wooden fishing boats. Even back then, in other words, migration from Africa was in the news and very much sensationalized. (30,000 people is not much considering overall migration flows into Europe, which are counted in the millions per year.) As I was watching the news, I wanted to know what was going on and felt there was a need to see the issue from another point of view—the point of view of the people traveling along these routes. So that was my starting point, ethnographically: to join these migrants and try to understand their journeys from the inside out. Though my project ended up being much more about control efforts, border security and what the Europeans were doing in this part of the world than about the migrants per se.

KW

Could you tell us more about your methodology? Why did you end up focusing more on European actors rather than the migrants themselves?

RA

Usually, as an anthropologist, one tries to understand a certain social world from the “inside.” As I started my fieldwork in coastal Senegal in 2010, I was confronted by migrants who had been deported from Spain having arrived in fishing boats onto the Canary Islands. They had a very acute understanding of the various sectors [working on migration], including us, as academics, who they saw as making a livelihood from their misfortune. They would confront me and say: “Why should we speak to you? We’ve seen so many researchers already. There have been so many NGOs coming here. There have been EU and Spanish politicians. What do you have to offer us?”

Their perspective encouraged me to shift my gaze away from the migrants themselves (whom everyone seems to be obsessing about, even though the number of people arriving on these routes to Europe is relatively statistically small most of the time). Instead, I began to focus on a much wider and more powerful set of actors who had invested heavily in controlling migration to Europe: the border guards, the media, the aid sector and the defense industry. So, to me, working ethnographically on this issue meant taking seriously the analysis of the migrants themselves, who were on the receiving end of these controls and this attention.

KW

And based on this research, what do you think are the most misunderstood aspects of “illegal” and subterranean migration flows from Africa?

RA

Where to start? There is such a range of misunderstandings and such a lack of knowledge both within media debates and within policy-makers’ framings of the issue.

First of all, we cannot simply apply the label “illegal” to various kinds of movement within the continent. At the crossroads of Niger and Libya, for instance, the EU and its member states have invested heavily in migration controls. They have pushed the government of Niger to put in place draconian anti-smuggling laws, sending in soldiers and so forth. But Niger is a country where West Africans are legally free to move under regional ECOWAS protocols (much like the EU Schengen agreement). The label of illegality places all migrants from West Africa under suspicion and can negatively impact highly productive and positive forms of mobility.

Another example is the coastal West African country of Mauritania, which has long attracted itinerant workers from countries further south who work in fishing, mining, service and other sectors. From 2005-2006, the country came to be seen as a hotspot for boat departures towards the Canary Islands and became the focus of European border-policing efforts. Yet, as the number of migrants headed for Spain eventually dwindled, Mauritanian law enforcement began rounding up people who had been working in the country for years. Government forces were trying to bulk up their quotas in the fight against “illegal” migration in order to show they were worthy of more funding and support from the Spanish government.

Another misunderstanding, as this Mauritanian example shows, is the idea that all Sub-Saharan African migrants in countries like Libya and Algeria are on their way to Europe. For years and years, we’ve been hearing that these migrants need to be blocked through joint EU efforts with North African countries. However, countries like Libya and Algeria have long been important migrant destinations in and of themselves. Many migrants have no clear idea where they will end up when they set about their journeys. Many simply want to go to, say, Libya and work. And then they find themselves in impossible scenarios (facing repression, criminality, etc.) and see no other option but to continue on to Europe. In other words, we cannot assume that everyone traveling along these routes, which are now being cracked down upon, are going to European countries. Yet it is often politically expedient—both for organizations with a stake in migration control (international organizations, law enforcement, etc.) and for European politicians—to play up the numbers.

So, we have a much more complex regional and historical picture of mobility, which policymakers risk undermining through a very short-term and blinkered idea of fighting “illegal” migration.

KW

In Illegality, Inc., you focus on border guards, the media, the aid sector, and the defense industry—those with power over border security. Did you envision this as a project aimed at “studying up”?

RA

Yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to do. And that’s what I’m continuing to do in my most recent project studying international interveners involved in the enforcement of peace-keeping, counter-terrorism and migration controls.

KW

Tell us a bit more about this new project, No Go World?

RA

This project was inspired by what I was observing in Mali. Mali had long been a focal point for European attempts to control migration onwards to Europe. With the start of the conflict in 2012, Mali was becoming (in the eyes of interveners and the media) a “hotbed” of terrorism and instability, even earning the label “Africa’s Afghanistan.” I wanted to understand how interveners were grappling with the various risks and problems, as they saw it, in conflict zones like Northern Mali, which saw a large French military intervention followed by a UN peace-keeping operation.

Much like my first project, however, I faced an obstacle to actually doing the fieldwork. In the case of my first book, this obstacle came from migrant deportees confronting me, asking me “Why should we speak with you?”, which led me to reformulate my project. In this case, the obstacle stemmed from the security risks involved with travel to Mali. The Foreign Office advised against any travel to this part of the world. There was a lot of university discussion of risk management and whether researchers such as myself could actually go to these areas at all. And I thought: Well, this obstacle to access is, in fact, interesting in itself.

KW

So you made that (the obstacle to access you faced) into the object of ethnographic study?

RA

Yes. The dilemma I was facing was the same dilemma that international actors were facing. Peacekeepers were bunkering up, staying away from the front lines (at least the more well-equipped Western forces). Military forces were intervening via drone technologies and proxy forces. Media organization were keeping their core staff away from the front lines, sending instead under-equipped freelancers. Aid organizations were using West African workers rather than sending staff from further afield. Everyone was dealing with the dilemma of how to enter these seemingly remote, marginal areas. Yet, these regions were increasingly seen as key to controlling perceived transnational threats to the West (whether from migration flows, terrorism, political instability, or the drug and contraband trade).

No Go World, my forthcoming book, examines Mali comparatively, also looking at other areas, such as Libya, Somalia, and Afghanistan. There are forms of remote control developing in these “no-go” areas, which often amounts to little real control at all. And I think this says quite a lot about the current geo-political moment. Western powers are reconfiguring their relationship with poorer and formerly colonized parts of the world around the fear of transnational threats of one kind or another.

KW

And one of those fears is migration, as you point out. To conclude, what would you recommend that researchers who are interested in migration and refugee issues in Africa focus on? What topics do you feel merit greater attention?

RA

One thing that we should be wary of is the intense media and political focus on certain kinds of migration, which risks redirecting our research. Maritime migration from Africa to Europe is a case in point. Do we need more studies on this kind of migration? This is what policymakers are focusing on, and this is, to some extent, what policy-relevant funding calls are asking for. But should we follow their lead? I think not.

I think we should instead pay much more attention to the kinds of mobility that are important to people’s everyday lives, such as habitual cross-border movement and trade. We need to arrive at a much deeper understanding of the role of movement in people’s lives, including how dreams and desires for mobility interact with immobility of different kinds. In this way, we can turn the table on the official gaze and on public debates surrounding African migrants, who are often seen as “problems” in official European discourse and policy.

And finally, we must keep shifting our gaze, to not look simply at migrants themselves, but at the powerful sectors that work on migration and the actors who shape our understanding of migration. Researching these actors, which is a way of “studying up,” is also very important.

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