Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Book Review: Illegality, Inc.: Clandestine Migration and the Business of Bordering Europe



Time to read

3 Minutes

Guest post by Paul Mutsaers, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Tilburg School of Humanities, the Netherlands. Paul has recently published his book, A Public Anthropology of Policing: Law Enforcement and Migrants in the Netherlands. You can follow him on Twitter @MutsaersPaul.

Review of Illegality, Inc.: Clandestine Migration and the Business of Bordering Europe by Ruben Andersson (University of California Press, 2014).

In this impressive work of outstanding scholarship, Ruben Andersson confronts us with an anthropological description and analysis of the purging and externalizing business of bordering Europe and the ascendancy of an illegality industry that keeps ‘clandestine’ migrants in check. As a true to form anthropologist, he takes us to the Frontex headquarters in Warsaw, detention centers in the Canary Islands, the Dakar-based stop-boat-migration-collective of Mother Mercy, deep into the bowels of the Guardia Civil headquarters in Madrid, and to a café in Tangier. He provides the reader with the anthropological imagination needed in order to understand what’s happening in these different locales.

Through a multifocal range that goes beyond the authorial perspective, by giving voice to migrants, aid workers, police officers, security guards, defense contractors, policy makers and politicians preoccupied with the Euro-African borderland, Andersson makes it plain that all of these people live in the same temporal structure and that all are actively constructing different modalities of migranthood. He avails himself of the old anthropological tendency to place the ethnographer and his or her readers in a privileged time frame while banishing the others to a stage of lesser development (see also Mutsaers 2015).

By taking an insider’s perspective, Andersson is able to understand that the specter of clandestine migration haunting Europe is, in actuality, largely produced by the superpowers that seek to ‘control’ it. That is to say, he argues that his book ‘foregrounds productivity, or how the multifarious agencies purportedly working on “managing” illegality in fact produce more of it, like bickering workers on an assembly line’ (p. 15). This productivity has at least two dimensions. In its most concrete form, there’s the externalization of border control: Europe subcontracting migration controls and thereby threatening relations between African countries (those who tend to ‘let go’ and those who have to ‘keep out’) as well as within them. The case of Mauritania’s black (heratin) and white (bidan) communities are a case in point: due to subcontracts, Europe is losing control over border policing, which results in blatant forms of racial profiling on the spot―or as Andersson calls it, ‘adding a tinge of illegality to the politics of skin color’ (p. 116). In other words, the strategy of subcontracting directly fuels tensions within and between African countries. In all likelihood, this stimulates (illegalized) migration. Additionally, there’s the role of language in the production of illegality. Andersson gives several examples of police attachés, officers, and security guards who look at migrants as if they were illegal in every fiber of their body. ‘Le migrant, il est un grand menteur,’ says a French police attaché (p. 111). This reminded me of an interview I had with the Dutch Alien Police. One officer talked about Nigerians as ‘Liegerians’: all of them are assumed to lie. They have become the embodiment of illegality, fraudulence, and fakeness.

Andersson talks about ‘echoes from the colonial encounter’ (p. 104) and he does so by connecting to anthropological debates on gift exchange, a very interesting invocation in the chapter ‘Hunter and Prey.’ In a meticulous fashion, he describes the (not so) high-tech equipment, quad bikes, fences, and other materials that European countries give to their African ‘partners,’ and the claims-making processes that involves those in the global north and south but, of course, in a highly asymmetrical way. The tragedy of it all comes to the fore in Andersson’s thick description of African brigade patrols who try to keep ‘their own’ inside, even if that means going to a deserted beach every day, despite the fact that not a single ‘clandestine migrant’ has left there in years.

This is a highly recommended book for those interested in the politics of international migration and more broadly, in globalisation and ethnography. Ruben Andersson clearly has what it takes to be a critical observer of the wickedness of which humanity is capable. It’s hardly surprising that this brilliant ethnography won him the British Sociological Association/BBC Thinking Allowed (Radio 4) ethnography award.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Mutsaers, P. (2015) Book Review: Illegality, Inc.: Clandestine Migration and the Business of Bordering Europe. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2015/09/book-review-1 (Accessed [date]).


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