Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Researching Migration Policing



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3 Minutes

Guest post by Leanne Weber, Larkin Fellow, Department of Criminology, Monash University, Australia

I was prompted to write about researching migration policing by the call to arms posted on this site by Bethan Loftus on the 18 June 2013. As I begin, what comes to mind are recent revelations about young people mistakenly imprisoned in the Australian state of New South Wales (NSW) for breaches of parole. What links this seemingly unrelated story to the operation of internal border controls in Australia is the reliance on suspect databases holding information obtained from third parties, and the cavalier manner in which judgements are made concerning ‘reasonable cause’ to detain. The Palmer and Comrie Inquiries into the wrongful detention, and in one case deportation, of two Australian citizens found that immigration officials regularly acted on ‘referrals’ from police without adequate checking and safeguards, just as police are now being accused of doing in relation to young offenders.

As immigration enforcement becomes more police-like and responsibility for order maintenance is distributed across a wider range of institutions, there is enormous scope to apply methodologies developed for the study of policing to the border control context. Hence, the call by Loftus for more empirical research applying ethnographic techniques to the diverse agencies now involved in controlling borders. The aim of this research note is to identify some of the work that is already emerging in this area, and suggest some particularly fruitful lines of enquiry for criminologists interested in studying the policing of borders.


To begin with, my own research on migration policing in NSW, recently published in the Routledge Studies in Criminal Justice, Borders and Citizenship series, illuminates inter-connections between migration policing agencies using a nodal governance framework. The research reveals immigration and policing agencies to have very different organisational incentives in relation to the detection of ‘unlawful non citizens’. However the work does not provide a sustained study of organisational culture of the kind envisaged by Loftus. My emphasis is on breadth rather than depth in data collection and, in any case, access to front-line field officers was denied me by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. This points to a common barrier for would-be ethnographers, namely the lack of an established research culture amongst border enforcement agencies, and their sensitivity to external scrutiny.


Although the cultures of migration policing agencies may differ, many important concepts, methodologies and theoretical frameworks applied to policing research are likely to be transferrable. Alongside key writing on border control by Mary Bosworth, Elspeth Guild, and Juliet Stumpf, my study drew on police scholarship from Ian Loader, Neil Walker, and PAJ Waddington on the role of police in democracies; and from Clifford Shearing, Les Johnston, Jennifer Wood, Lorraine Mazerolle, and Janet Ransley on nodal governance and third party policing. My earlier work on discretionary decisions to detain asylum seekers by immigration officers at UK ports applied concepts such as ‘prosecutorial momentum’ borrowed from the classic work of McConville, Sanders and Leng, to explain organisational incentives that encouraged decisions to detain.

One example of a true ethnography of border control is the study by anthropologist Josiah Heyman of border patrol agents of Mexican heritage working on the US-Mexico border, published in Current Anthropology. Within a criminological tradition, Joanne van der Leun’s 2003 study Looking for Loopholes is exemplary in applying a range of sociological methods to research the responses of specialist alien police, local generalist police, and other service-providing agencies to legislation aimed at increasing the detection of undocumented migrants in the Netherlands. In the US, Marie Provine and others have charted the role of police as they become enmeshed in unprecedented ways in local level enforcement of federal immigration laws. Australian criminologist Sharon Pickering is exploring the ‘micro-politics of border control’ in Australia, Greece and at the US-Mexico border, including an ethnographic study of how Australian Customs officials negotiate non-traditional roles as front-line interceptors of asylum seekers arriving by boat. And a team led by Katja Franko Aas is studying the connections between crime control and migration control, including interviews with Norwegian border police seconded to front-line roles in the Mediterranean with the European border control agency FRONTEX.

This brief review suggests a promising agenda for the empirical study of migration policing. From a criminological perspective, some important themes that unite the study of traditional policing and border control include surveillance, the application of intelligence-driven and risk-based techniques, the increasing use of information technologies, reliance on information exchange and partnerships, and the enduring importance of occupational culture as a factor shaping the decision-making of agents involved in the exercise of significant coercive power.
Interested in more on policing borders? See this recent blog post by Bethan Loftus on the Border Criminologies blog.
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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Weber, L (2013) Researching Migration Policing. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/researching-migration-policing (accessed [date]).

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