Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Migrant Digitalities and the Politics of Dispersal: An Introduction



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5 Minutes

Guest post by Glenda Garelli (De Paul University) and Martina Tazzioli (Swansea University). This is the first post of Border Criminologies’ themed series ‘Migrant Digitalities and the Politics of Dispersal’, organised by Martina and Glenda.

This themed series stems from a one-day international workshop on ‘Migrant digitalities and the politics of dispersal’ held at Swansea University on June 30, 2017, and funded by the Cherish-De research centre. The workshop focused on digital technologies in the field of migration governmentality and refugee humanitarianism by investigating the spatial strategies of dispersal that are simultaneously enacted by states for regaining control over ‘unruly’ mobility. The spaces of mobility and control of what we call ‘migrant digitalities’ remain unexplored in the analyses of the datafication of migration.

Photo: Martina Tazzioli
Migrants in the Calais jungle recharging their phones via dynamo bicycling (Photo: Glenda Garelli)
This blog series seeks to cover this gap by bringing together contributions that tackle four interrelated topics. First, it looks at the ‘digitalisation of labour migration’ (see forthcoming posts by Altenried, Bojadžijev and Wallis) which requires rethinking the nexus between labour mobility and digital labour. Through such an angle, the series also engages in rethinking forms of value extraction that capitalise on migrant mobility as such. Second, it highlights that the datafication and digitalisation of mobility does not concern migrants only: as Bellanova points out in his piece, a critical lens on digital technologies leads us to question the very distinction between migrants and citizens, showing how mechanisms of datafication of mobility target all subjects, through racialised and exclusionary criteria, as also analysed by Scheel and Ustek-Spilda. Third, it brings attention to the effects of subjectivation that the digitalisation of migration governmentality is generating - for instance, by producing refugees’ destitution. Fourth, it takes into account spatial strategies of dispersal and containment connected to, and taking place in simultaneity with, the implementation of digital and financial tools, as stressed both by Walters and Fontanari in their forthcoming posts. In engaging with the topics above, we aim to show that the implementation of these technologies in the field of refugee humanitarianism has, on the one hand, partially transformed the way in which both humanitarian and security actors operate, and on the other hand, it is deeply articulated with disciplinary modes of control and spatial tactics of dispersal and containment.  

The migrant as a source of data extraction is part of the daily functioning of the border regime and its economy: the datafication of mobility and the obligation for migrants to leave digital traces of their passages (e.g., through fingerprinting procedures) are part of the multiplication and heterogenization of borders well beyond the geopolitical frontiers of Europe. However, migrants are not just objects of digital technologies; more recently, they have also been crafted as active users of these technologies, such as Apps and digital maps, and of financial tools such as debit cards. What European states defined as a ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015, has constituted the political and material terrain where digital technologies for managing, supporting and including migrants have proliferated.

Counter-map to support migrants' passage at the French-Italian border (Photo: Martina Tazzioli)
However, we caution here against the tendency of speaking about a ‘digital turn’ in migration governmentality (i.e. the widespread use of digital technologies for managing, supporting and disciplining migration, as well as the ways in which migrants do eventually appropriate technologies). It is important to underline how technological interfaces are in fact tools that pertain to a very precise spatial politics in the government of refugees. First, internet-based access to information and card-based access to humanitarian aid allows for a dispersal of the refugee population across a national territory. In other words, the concentration of refugees in camps and/or large governmental hosting structures is not anymore the precondition for humanitarian support and aid. ‘Techno-humanitarianism’ and refugee dispersal in fact go hand in hand, to the extent that digital and financial connectivity seems to correspond to the production of political disconnection. As they are evicted from camps (for example, in Calais), their dispersal leads to a break up in the collective organization of refugees for daily survival and for political purposes. Moreover, since the partial increase in ‘digital connectivity’ is often disjoined from their legal status, it does not necessarily foster refugees’ integration but instead heightens their vulnerability. 

We are also interested in how migrants’ subjectivities are shaped and disciplined through financial and digital technologies, in conjunction with the spatial effects of containment and dispersal. The wide use of digital technologies for supporting and governing migrants is gaining more and more importance in the academic literature as well as in the public debate. However, discussions are usually framed either in terms of control and migrants’ traceability that the use of digital technologies can potentially trigger, or through the vocabulary of inclusiveness and connectivity. Instead, we aim to take a different analytical angle, moving beyond the binary opposition between exclusion and inclusion. More than tracking individual subjects, digital technologies in the field of ‘digital humanitarianism’ are used, we argue, for governing refugee populations.

In this regard, we challenge the paradigm of the consumer (the subjective figure of the migrant-consumer) and the model of the citizen (the refugee as the active citizen). Indeed, migrants can be excluded from the asylum system or be denied entry, while at the same time they are incorporated into digital economies. Similarly, the exclusionary criteria to get access to financial tools or digital technologies, do not produce migrants as consumers or as autonomous individuals. Instead, migrants are shaped as temporarily financialised and digital subjects. Hence, the digitalised refugee or the ‘connected migrant’, as per Dana Diminescu’s definition, is emerging as a figure who constitutes a source of data and value extraction, as well as new modes of exploitation. The partial and temporary inclusion of migrants in financial circuits - through the implementation of debit cards in refugee camps - and the increased digital connectivity is very often disjoined from legal recognition and refugee protection and does not foster their right to stay, work, and access citizens’ benefits. In fact, the temporariness that characterises Cash Assistance Programmes and migrants’ access to digital technologies contributes to strengthening migrants’ precariousness. The same migrants who do temporarily benefit of prepaid debit cards recharged by the UNHCR and who are eventually in connection with NGOs via mobile Apps, are easily ‘illegalised’ when denied international protection. We want to suggest that a spatial approach, which enables mapping the effective geographies of control and destitution, should be supplemented with an analysis of the temporalities that migrant digitalities rely on. This is an aspect that remains essentially unexplored in critical scholarship on the datafication of mobility and on digital technologies in the field of migration.

A church in Claviere, which activists have occupied to host migrants in transit (Photo: Martina Tazzioli)
The expansion of the technological frontier in the government of refugees does not correspond to an expansion of the material support available to them. It is not an addition to, but a restructuring of the humanitarian aid system. Digital and financial interfaces tend to replace support on the ground, rather than constituting its technologically savvy supplement. As humanitarianism binds refugees to digitalized and financialized aid under the predicament of promoting their independence, it is in fact reducing its deployment on the ground and, with that, the presence of a space for the daily negotiations and contestations that characterize the dispersal/reception of aid. From this vantage point, digital and financial interfaces seem to function as a digital buffer for the attrition that may emerge in the relationship between governing refugees and being governed as a refugee. The partial digitalisation of of refugee humanitarianism jeopardises the grounds where refugees’ claims can be directly addressed to humanitarian actors. The frontier of techno-humanitarianism hence tends to produce independent and geographically dispersed non-subjects: persons who are technologically connected and included in digital and financial circuits but who are very far from having the political subjectivity of a citizen, the branded subjectivity of a customer, and even the humanitarian subjectivity of a vulnerable subject entitled to support.

A critical approach to migrant digitalities aims for much more than simply studying the transformations of bordering mechanisms: it is an investigation of Europe’s technological borders that draws attention to the effects of subjectivation and subjection that the temporary and exclusionary digitalisation of migration engender on migrants themselves.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Garelli, G and Tazzioli, M. (2018) Migrant Digitalities and the Politics of Dispersal: An Introduction. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/05/migrant (Accessed [date]).

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