Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Freedom and Force: Contesting the Figure of the Migrant Slave



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Guest post by Maurice Stierl. Maurice is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Warwick. Before, he was an Assistant Professor in Comparative Border Studies at the University of California, Davis. His research focuses on migration struggles in contemporary Europe and (northern) Africa. His book ‘Migrant Resistance in Contemporary Europe’ was published by Routledge in 2019. This is the third post of Border Criminologies themed series on 'Deaths at Borders' organised by Marta Esperti and Antoine Pécoud. The series draws upon a special issue of American Behavioral Scientist, coordinated by Marta and Antoine.

In November 2017, a CNN report seemingly exposing migrants being auctioned off to the highest bidders in Libya provoked a global outcry. Undercover video footage appeared to show sub-Saharan migrants being sold into servitude. As “smugglers become masters,” the report noted, “migrants and refugees become slaves”. The scenes of slave auctions overshadowed the fifth summit of the African Union and the European Union that took place in the Ivory Coast a few weeks later. Several African leaders echoed the demand voiced by its host, President Alassane Ouattara to end such “disgraceful drama

Sea-Watch.org/Julie Bourdin

In my recently published article, “Of Migrant Slaves and Underground Railroads: Movement, Containment, Freedom”, I explore the figure of the migrant slave in order to complicate dualisms of consent and coercion, freedom and force, and agency and subjection in the portrayal of contemporary forms of unauthorised migration. These dualisms, often taken for granted and left unquestioned, have far-reaching consequences for those deemed to have moved in/voluntarily.

Where, precisely, is the dividing line between freedom and force when it comes to precarious migration today? Is it possible at all to maintain clear-cut differences between movements understood as consented to throughout the journeys and movements that imply (elements of) coercion? Can irregularised movements be “victimless,” free of elements of fraud, threat, or exploitation? Asked with concrete examples in mind, are those embarking on the Mediterranean voyage from Libya to Europe moving voluntarily or against their will? What really does intentionality and voluntariness mean when the abject realities in the Saharan desert, in Libyan detention, and the Mediterranean Sea are known to those who, nonetheless, move and decide to be moved? Are they being smuggled or trafficked? Are they migrants, refugees, or slaves?

Depictions of migrants as slaves, both as modern-day ones and the reincarnation of trans-Atlantic slaves, have become increasingly popular, coalescing with increased cross-Mediterranean movements. Especially European politicians and policymakers have come to describe migrants on precarious boats as slaves and those arranging their journeys as slave traders. Italy’s former prime minister Matteo Renzi argued in 2015 that traffickers, “[trampling] on the values and riches that our sea has contributed to civilization”, would be “the slave traders of the 21st century”. In the same year, then EU high representative Federica Mogherini made the case that trafficking networks would make “people slaves out of their desperation. They sell hope, but instead of hope then they deliver death.”

In their self-declared war on human smuggling and trafficking, these European “anti-trafficking crusaders” turn migrants into slaves in order to justify militarily intervening and preventing their arrival in Europe. These seemingly historical references seek to invoke, as John Akomfrah suggests, “a period and a moment from the past [to] denude them of historical significance by having them as metaphors and symbols, [and] placing them in a situation where they then have political efficacy.”

In order to contest such dehistoricised production of the migrant slave and its political efficacy in efforts to shut down migration corridors, one can cautiously draw other, actual, comparisons between historic slavery and contemporary forms of migration. There does exist a historical resonance between the former and the latter – but only if one challenges traditional depictions of the slave. Far from being ‘inanimate cargo’, many enslaved Africans rebelled during trans-Atlantic voyages, and some reclaimed their freedom. Despite linguistic barriers, the closed environment of the ship, shackles and other restraints, the violence of sailors, and the little possibility for flight, acts of resistance during the Middle Passage were not unusual but frequent.

Remembering these struggles at sea by bringing them into the context of contemporary migration allows to emphasise the agency and longing for freedom that underpin trans-Mediterranean movements today, but which are meant to be erased through the figure of the migrant slave. At the same time, it is this agency that highlights the principal, obvious, and unbridgeable difference between trans-Atlantic slavery and Mediterranean migration: the former’s resistance vis-à-vis the latter’s desire and need to cross the sea.

Due to this unbridgeable difference, we can turn instead to acts of escape during the time of North American chattel slavery which may resonate more with attempts to flee and find safety today. Arguably, it is not the African slave being forced across the Atlantic but the fugitive slave escaping on the “underground railroad” who resembles most closely the acts of escape via the Mediterranean today. Despite many romantic depictions, the underground railroad was not a well-oiled system that rescued slaves from the plantations and escorted them from one safe house to the next until a free state was reached. Instead of (white) saviours rescuing the enslaved to the north, the phenomenon of fugitive escape rested for the most part on the initiative and ability of the slaves themselves. Slaves thus turned migrants to free themselves.

It is the story of the slave turning migrant that has something to offer when conceiving of, or rather contesting, the figure of the migrant turned slave today. Emphasising the agency that underpins acts of escape to a place of perceived freedom does, of course, not mean downplaying the conditions of violence and coercion in which these acts of escape took and take place. Both slave and migrant runaways had and have to pay dearly to move (and to be moved), always situated at the juncture of “subjection and subjectivation (or, to put it in a different way, of coercion and freedom)”.

However, when European anti-trafficking crusaders use the dehistoricised image of the African slave in their portrayal of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to cast in doubt their initiative and subjectivity, and to ultimately prevent them from arriving in Europe, the story of the fugitive slave and the underground railroad offer a counter-narrative, a narrative that emphasises the longing for freedom that underwrites precarious movements today as it did in 19th century North America.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Stierl, M. (2020). Freedom and Force: Contesting the Figure of the Migrant Slave. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/10/freedom-and-force [date]

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