Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Introducing 'Felt Externalisation': Exploring the Human and Environmental Impacts of EU Borders


Ahlam Chemlali
PhD Fellow at Aalborg University and Danish Institute for International Studies


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Ahlam ChemlaliVisiting Scholar at UCLA and PhD Fellow at Aalborg University and DIIS – Danish Institute for International Studies, Department of Migration and Global Order. Her research interests focus on borders, violence, gender, death, and externalisation. 

This post is part of a collaboration between Border Criminologies and Geopolitics that seeks to promote open access platforms. As part of this initiative the full article, on which this piece is based, will be free to access here for the next month.


Picture of a boat
The ‘boat graveyard’ in Zarzis close to the fishing port. Many of them from Libya, the white boat in the foreground says ‘Al-Hurriya’, which in Arabic means freedom. Picture by Ahlam Chemlali. November 2021.

“This is something we feel. We feel it every day. But It’s not just the people who are suffering. This is causing an environmental crisis. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

 The above passage from Samir, a Tunisian fishermen I met during my fieldwork, is at the core of what eventually led me to develop and propose the concept ‘felt externalization’ in recent article published in Geopolitics. In the paper, I analyze the ripple effects of European border externalization policies in Tunisia, by foregrounding Tunisian fishermen, marine life, and two migrant cemeteries in Zarzis, in southern Tunisia. The article unpacks how externalization translates into human rights abuses, environmental crises, and death, and how these become distinctly intertwined.

 In my paper I use the concept fast and slow violence by Rob Nixon (2011) as a component of ‘felt externalisation’ to frame the temporality of the lived and felt effects. The ripple effects I see materialize in three interconnected ways: 1) through the fast violence at sea between the fishermen and the Libyan Coast Guard; 2) through the slow violence of environmental degradation and fishery in crisis; and 3) through the increasing militarized and contentious sea, resulting in growing numbers of migrant deaths and bodies washing ashore along the Tunisian coast, transforming the space itself into a makeshift migrant cemetery.

 ‘Felt externalisation’, I argue, is when policies become intimate, become lived and experienced on a granular level. I argue the fishermen experience, live, and innately feel these policies, on their bodies, in their minds, in their sea and in their town. As I got to spend more time with the fishermen it became clear that the felt externalisation not only impacted their livelihoods, from which they have been excluded due to rebordering of maritime borders, but also their present and future. Felt externalisation transcends time, the physical and visible, and inhabits the mind and emotional life of its objects. The fishermen’s experiences of trauma, fear and anxiousness are a felt externalisation, as Amin told me after being kidnapped by the Libyan coast guard: “I fear going out to the sea now, imagine that, something I have done since I was a kid.”

fishermen at sea
Fishermen at sea. Picture courtesy of Samir.

While studies on externalisation usually focus on the policies and processes – macrostructures from above, the concept ‘felt externalisation’ is an attempt to turn it around and instead study it from below, the microlevel encounters and everyday experiences. These experiences operate through what I frame as ripple effects of externalisation. By looking at the actors, the environment, and spaces, both on land and on sea, it becomes clear that the ripple effects of externalisation work through different scales and layers. At times, it manifests as a very real corporal, felt effect, when bodies float into the hands of the fishermen. And at other times, it appears as a growing, creeping fear of going to sea, because of the very real risk of violent encounters with the Libyan coast guard. These manifestations or rippling contributing factors, not only impact their daily lives, but also make it difficult to sustain their livelihoods further impacting their families and ultimately community.

While the fishermen experience immediate and highly visible fast violence at the hands of Libyan armed groups at sea; they also at the same time witness the everyday, unspectacular but nevertheless damaging slow violence of environmental degradation. This not only impacts the marine life, ecosystems and consequently the livelihoods that depend upon it, but also contributes to an uprooting and disruption of a deep-rooted fishing culture, handed down from father to son. Far beyond the immediate physical loss of boats, equipment, and crew, also comes the loss of the youths who migrate, of generational knowledge, and of culture across generations. In a sense a loss of both the past and the future is taking place at once.

Sea Sponge, the national treasure, or Sfinz as they call it in Tunisia. Picture courtesy of Samir.
Sea Sponge, the national treasure, or Sfinz as they call it in Tunisia. Picture courtesy of Samir.

This makes externalisation a very lived and felt experience beyond the physical and observable. Something that is felt, both slowly and fast. In the extreme end of this temporal ‘violence continuum’ you have death, as another visible and traumatic lived experience, which the fishermen both encounter at sea, and on land, in the growing cemeteries of Zarzis.

Picture of Samir and Sponges. Picture courtesy of Samir.
Picture of Samir and Sponges. Picture courtesy of Samir.

Fishermen also feel the impact of externalisation under water. Samir, an expert diver, and proud sponge fisherman was for 37 years the go-to man for finding the national treasure, the sea sponge or Sfinz as they call it in Tunisia. But all the motorboat movement, port congestion has impacted the small fish and algae systems underwater. Combined with a gradually warmer sea, these have killed the sponge industry that Samir worked in for decades. He shows me pictures on his phone, of him on a boat wearing scuba diving gear and surrounded by huge sponges. ‘These are old pictures,’ he says while he flicks through them. Sponges are one of the oldest forms of life on the planet, and as Samir points out ‘they are living breathing creatures.’

 ‘Felt externalisation’ is a way to go beyond the policies, the visible, and spectacular and instead capture the everyday, the slow, granular, and felt experience of border externalisation, be it fear, collective trauma, environmental degradation, or the smell of death.

 While the concept of ‘felt externalisation’ was borne out of my fieldwork experience in a small fishing town in the southern sphere of the Mediterranean, it extends beyond the particular and might help us understand broader processes of the ripple effects of border externalization, with particular emphasis on the human and environmental consequences. The fact that fishing industries disappear, that young people disappear, that hope disappears, and that loss and grief are felt across time and space, is not a trend only taking place in Tunisia – it is also taking place in large parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Thus, in the age of border externalization, Zarzis and Tunisia becomes a canary in the coal mine for other ‘third countries’, who are made to suffer from violence, trauma, death, and environmental crisis, in the name of ‘secure borders.’ 


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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

A. Chemlali. (2023) Introducing 'Felt Externalisation': Exploring the Human and Environmental Impacts of EU Borders. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/06/introducing-felt-externalisation-exploring-human-and. Accessed on: 27/05/2024

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