Book Review: Migration by Boat: Discourses of Trauma, Exclusion and Survival



Time to read

4 Minutes

Post by Maartje van der Woude, full professor of Law & Society at Leiden Law School, the Netherlands, and Associate Director of Border Criminologies. Maartje´s expertise lies with legal and social matters related to (counter)terrorism, (border)security and migration, and the growing interconnectedness of all three. Over the past couple of years, she has published extensively – in English and Dutch – on etho-racial profiling, border policing, (counter)terrorism and crimmigration.

Review of Migration by Boat: Discourses of Trauma, Exclusion and Survival, edited by Lynda Mannik (Berghahn Books, 2016). 

With 13 essays focusing on migration while crossing bodies of water, Migration by Boat forms a truly refreshing and unique contribution to the existing scholarship on borders, migration and mobility. The derogatory term ‘boat people’ originally refers to the thousands of Vietnamese who fled their country by sea following the collapse of the South Vietnamese government in 1975 in poorly constructed vessels. Over the past years, the term has been reused while talking about asylum seekers and refugees risking their lives to cross bodies of water in search of a better, safer future all over the world. While the term ‘boat people’ was later applied to alleged ‘waves’ of refugees making their way to the US by boat from Cuba and Haiti as well as to various groups finding their way to Australia, coming from Europe myself the term ‘boat people’ resonates most clearly with the public and political debates about those who are trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe.. The 11,740 migrants that already lost their lives while attempting to cross since January 2015 illustrate the dangerousness of these overseas migratory movements. Looking at the seemingly ever growing populist voices among politicians and the public, the emphasis appears to be set on the alleged dangers and risk that ‘boat people’ would pose to the countries of arrival and beyond. By researching how migration by boat is imagined and reimagined, lived and experienced, and how the individuals involved are represented in ambiguous ways, the overarching aim of the edited collection is to show how migration by boat is symbolically aligned with notions of deterritorialization that often support fears of invasion, whereas in reality these voyages represent the most physically and emotionally devastating form of forced migration.

In addressing these contrasting representations and experiences, all authors focus on an alternative mode of representation to facilitate humanitarian perspectives that are often left out of policy decisions, public conversations and media reports. Each of the chapters feature a particular kind of marginalization that exaggerates aspects of belonging, and underlines the fluid borders that differentiate ’us’ from ‘them’. By drawing on a broad range of disciplinary perspectives, theories and varied ethnographic fieldwork every chapter presents a fascinating case study on the human drama of migration across bodies of water. The book is divided in four sections, each containing three to four chapters: (1) Embedded memories for public consumption, (2) The artist and the illegal immigrant, (3) Media, politics and representation and (4) Stories of smuggling, trauma and rescue. With the chapters being very different from each other due to the richness of methods, perspectives and theories that are applied, the role of the editor - Lynda Mannik – in presenting them in the Introduction, as well as reflecting on their different contributions in the Afterword is crucial. Mannik is successful in identifying the connecting lines and relating the contributions to the four central themes of the book.

These themes are critical to understanding the power and relevance of interdisciplinarity in analyzing dominant discourses with regards to nation state policy making and public opinion. The first theme, water as an ambiguous space, addresses the importance of understanding the complex circulations and relationships linked to ocean travel and the positive dynamics of movement through water in order to understand the ambiguous nature of migrants’ experiences. While the water is a space of peril and danger, but on the other hand, it is also a space of hopes and dreams for better times to come. The second theme, trauma versus agency, critically questions the different dominant narratives around migration, especially the very strong dichotomy of being either a victim or a villain and the consequences this has for state and humanitarian action. The third theme, control and protectionism, looks at the way in which the framing of migrants’ and their identities, often suggesting links with criminality and risks, affects public opinion and government policies concerning immigration and vice versa. Several chapters reveal how political arguments favouring protectionism and state centered securitization seem to prevail when it comes to refugees who arrive by boat as water borders are often more difficult to police and survey, but also how media representations sensationalize them as a dire threat or crisis to the security of citizens on a variety of levels including economic, health, and basic safety. The fourth, and last theme is personal and public memory. This theme captures the richness of the empirical analysis underlying many of the essays in the book, where authors are reconstructing experiences and narratives by analyzing monuments and detailed personal accounts. Personal accounts, in particular, give unique insight into actual experience and enlighten readers to the realities of forced migration.

Migration by Boat offers its readers a diverse and rich collection of essays, centred on migration, borders, identities, and humanitarian ideals, pushing its readers to see transnational flows of people away from the clear-cut juxtapositions of citizen/stranger, land/water and victim/threat. This makes the book an important and interesting read for a broad audience. The overarching concern of the contributing authors for human life and dignity, and their efforts in  challenging indifference lend both urgency and timeliness to the text and make it a must read for anyone working on, or interested in, issues on migration and borders. Whereas the previously mentioned theoretical and methodological richness might be predominantly of interest to a more scholarly crowd of both students and researchers, the book and its different essays will also engage non-scholarly audiences of migrants, policy makers and the general public.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

van der Woude, M. (2018) Book Review: Migration by Boat: Discourses of Trauma, Exclusion and Survival. Available at: (Accessed [date]).

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