Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

‘Studying up’ and getting access to the deportation apparatus in France



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5 Minutes

Guest post by Ioana Vrăbiescu. Ioana is currently a post-doctoral researcher within the ERC project “SOLIDERE: The Social life of State Deportation Regime” at the University of Amsterdam. Her case study is entitled “Deporting ‘failed’ EU citizens: the eviction and expulsion of Romanians of Roma ethnicity in France”. This is the seventh post of Border Criminologies’ themed series on ‘Accessing the Migration Apparatus’ organised by Damian Rosset and Christin Achermann

Deportation practices have been criticised around the world. In response, states have made it more and more difficult to conduct fieldwork on the deportation apparatus. Why would states allow researchers to study their repressive mechanisms? What would be the reason for state and non-state agents working along the deportation continuum to disclose their practices to a critical viewer? Why let me in?

As part of my post-doctoral research, I aimed to study the deportation of Romanian citizens from France. This included examining public institutions, such as the Administrative and Judicial Courts, French and Romanian Police units working in France and in Romania, the French Office for Immigration, as well as private companies, non-governmental organisations working inside and outside the detention centres, and independent journalists and activists. In this post, I focus on the challenges of conducting fieldwork as a Romanian researcher in France while examining the practices of French state and non-state actors. Instead of questioning the legality and legitimacy of deportation practices and the reasons why the state tries to hide them from the public eye, I focus on the difficulties of studying up as a Romanian researcher the French deportation apparatus enacted against Romanian citizens.

Many scholars evidence the richness and challenge of ethnographic research within state structures of security even as states seek to obstruct and deceive a ‘foreign’ gaze on its practices. Often, state reactions and responses to demands for ethnographic research transform the initial project pushing the ethnographer to a position where s/he eventually ‘ends up in’, a position with limited access and closed doors but also with unexpected invitations ‘in’. In my case, the state allowed me to see what the state wanted me to see. Instead of fully blocking or permitting access to institutions involved in deportation practices, the state acted rather hazily. Full opacity or complete access to fieldwork might be easier to explain, but having limited or partial authorisation obliges a researcher to reflect on how access affects the whole research process.

Getting access, as Hugh Gusterson explains, is by ‘permission of people with careers at stake, where loitering strangers with notebooks are rarely welcome, and where potential informants are too busy to chat’. So, while, my requests for access to conduct fieldwork within the French police, such as the Prefecture de Police, were rejected with sophisticated letters of empty content, I managed to open back doors, and thus, I had informal encounters with civil servants and police officers, who were willing to talk. Moreover, I managed to secure access to the French police unit in Romania and other police units in Paris, the Romanian police unit in France and the Border Police in Romania, the Administrative and Judicial courts where the deportees are brought to trial, and I also conducted interviews with interpreters, lawyers and auxiliary personnel in all these institutions.

However, my access was not obstructed in relation to public institutions (only). A certain antagonism and mistrust between my French informants and myself shadowed most of my fieldwork. Often I was getting cautious permissions, heard people whispering behind my back, and had to make sense out of crumbles of data. In fact, one of the most significant encounters in the diffuse field of deportation (not all the actors involved think they are part of the deportation apparatus) has been my interaction with activists and civil society actors in France. I met few of them while they were organising conferences, round tables, joint sessions and street demonstrations to highlight the damage the French state does to irregular migrants and asylum seekers. I was curious to grasp their view on the rights of deportable migrants, to witness their high emotional investment and legal professionalism at work. When I asked about the Romanian deportees, most reacted by shrugging their shoulders and encouraging me to write about the poor condition of Roma migrants—the usual suspect. I tried to explain that my focus is not the Roma population. Silence. Nodding. The unsettling feeling of being scanned was amplified by my ambiguous identity. Without uttering it, a rhetorical question was floating in the air: how serious might a Romanian who studies French society be? Disclosed in small remarks about my research interest, indirectly questioning my background and qualifications, the dismissive attitude prevailed. Against the colonial gaze, my status as a researcher at the Dutch university was not enough. In France, scapegoating Roma is not new and despite controversial campaigns, the prejudice against Romanians is entangled. The outcome of these first encounters usually was no second meeting, no answering to my emails…

For ethnographic research, the deportation apparatus remains challenging regardless of the identity of the researcher. Deportation has become a contested space for political action, a battlefield for migrants’ rights defendants, and an ethical issue for those who contribute to the criminalization of detainees and deportees. Indeed, my field-notes disclose a full palette of emotions, conflicting ethics or exhibited discontent with ‘the state’ from the part of people working outside state structures or even state employees. However, my perceived identity—as a white Romanian woman in France who was conducting research for a Dutch university—has shaped the answers and approaches of the participants in the study.

Studying up does not denote only studying the state, its institutions and practices, setting meetings with high-officials or looking through piles of files. Studying up has been for me continuing to talk with French activists after they found out I am Romanian. Studying up signifies talking normal in abnormal research settings, when people are submitted to processes which have been qualified as blatant illegal procedures: the French courts, the waiting ‘rooms’ at detention centres, police stations or with high-ranked bureaucrats working in the Ministry of Interior, those high police officers in charge of making the deportation apparatus work. Studying up also implies conducting research within a society whose members are not willing to treat you as equal or accept you as a reliable researcher. Studying up is after all a forced equality imposed for the sake of science. Researchers expect access to settings based on their privilege of knowledge and entitlements, which at the end is not what matters.

Did I manage to see what I wanted? Did I collect the right data? Would my informants talk differently if I were a man, French, an activist they appraised or a journalist they despised?

Rarely have I collected data or witnessed practices without reflecting on my own participation in the interactions, the disruptions to the daily routine of my participants or the influence I had on their views on deportation. On the one hand, my appearance indicated a middle-class white background, which in a stereotyped way distinguished me from the securitised Roma migrants, who are at the centre of forced return policies in France. This part of my identity was particularly helpful in my initial encounters with participants in my study. On the other hand, my gender played an important role in the interviews I conducted with police officers, lawyers, judges, interpreters, activists and social workers. I found it was easier to approach women, and I had a contingent access to men, who often saw my request for interview as an opportunity for lunch invitation. Nevertheless, my Romanian identity and the topic of my research were not alluring to any of my French informants. The constrained access I obtained shaped my own identity as a researcher situated between the dynamics of police officers’ protection, civil servants’ (uttered or not) mistrust and high-officials’ obstruction in the field of deportation. The bitter feeling that stayed with me after most of my encounters was that I was perceived as an untrusted or suspicious researcher.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Vrăbiescu, I.  (2017) ‘Studying up’ and getting access to the deportation apparatus in France. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/11/studying-and (Accessed [date]).

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