Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Technologies of Expulsion: Rethinking Refugees’ Carceral Economies Beyond Surveillance



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6 Minutes

Guest post by Martina Tazzioli. Martina is Lecturer in Politics & Technology at Goldsmiths. She is the author of The Making of Migration: The biopoltics of mobility at Europe’s borders (Sage, 2020), Spaces of Governmentality: Autonomous Migration and the Arab Uprisings (2015) and co-author of Tunisia as a Revolutionised Space of Migration (2016). She is co-editor of Foucault and the History of our Present (2015) and Foucault and the Making of Subjects (2016). She is co-editor in chief of the Journal Politics and on the editorial board of Radical Philosophy.

The new closed controlled centre on the island of Samos

In September 2021 Greek and European authorities inaugurated a new closed refugee camp, called Zervou, on the Greek island of Samos. The high-security camp, which is located miles away from urban centers, is surrounded by fences installed with CCTV cameras. Asylum seekers need to swipe their asylum card at the automated gate in order to enter and exit. While Zervou has been presented by the European Commission as a blueprint for other refugee camps, it has also been the object of criticisms by journalists, NGOs and activists that have defined it as a high-tech prison and a ‘panopticon for refugees’. Scholars have warned against ‘the technological convergence of biometrics, blockchain, and AI’ in refugee camps and their potential repercussions. Greece is nowadays considered a testing ground for experimenting biometric technologies and high-tech surveillance systems in refugee humanitarianism. These experiments, according to the report Technological Testing Grounds (2020)range from Big Data predictions about population movements in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas to automated decision-making in immigration applications to Artificial Intelligence (AI) lie detectors and risk-scoring at European borders’.

Yet, is refugee governance an actual ‘testing ground’ for intrusive surveillance systems? In this post, I caution against the fetishization of technology and shift from an analysis exclusively centered on surveillance towards an understanding of how technological obstructions and forms of carcerality strengthen each other and how carceral mechanisms have been transformed through technology. I argue that more than for tracking and monitoring asylum seekers, technologies are used for hampering their access to asylum and rights. A critical analysis of the (partial) digitalization of migration governmentality requires asking ‘which specific harms do technologies produce on migrants.’ This involves questioning a public gaze which foregrounds surveillance and privacy rights as the main risks associated with the use of intrusive technology and interrogating what it means to see like a migrant.

Technologies of expulsion

Conceiving of expulsion as the act of keeping some people out “from life projects and livelihoods”, I introduce the concept of technologies of expulsion to highlight that technologies are mainly used for hindering migrants from accessing asylum and humanitarian support. The implementation of digital technologies in the Greek asylum system multiplies the obstacles that migrants face to access the asylum procedure and financial-economic support. Indeed, some digital technologies and apps – such as Viber and Skype - have become forced digital intermediations that people who seek asylum must use to get in touch with state authorities and humanitarian actors. For instance, in order to apply for asylum, migrants need to pre-book an appointment with the Ministry of Migration and Asylum through Skype, and they can do it only during specific time slots. Moreover, for asylum seekers to communicate to UNHCR the technical problems they encountered with their prepaid cards or report delay in the monthly financial support they are entitled to, they had no other choice than sending texts through Viber. Similarly, between September 2020 and June 2021 asylum seekers on the island of Lesvos received updates from the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum through a Viber Community. Yet, since June 2021 the Viber Community has been no longer kept up to date, and as an immigration lawyer stressed in a private communication: ‘state authorities’ communication with asylum seekers is very minimal and difficult; asylum seekers are barely informed about the changes in administrative procedures and camps’ rules, and everything mainly happens through word of mouth.’

Covid-19 accelerated the partial digitalisation of the Greek asylum system: with the outbreak of the pandemic, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum activated an online platform through which asylum seekers can renew their asylum card. However, far from facilitating asylum seekers, such a forced digital interface fundamentally hampers them from accessing the asylum procedure and updating their documents. As R., an Iranian asylum seeker based in Athens told me, ‘the online asylum platform is almost impossible to navigate, in particular for those who do not know Greek; and it is often jammed.’

Therefore, an exclusive focus on how technology enhances surveillance, monitoring and tracking overshadows, I argue, the multiple disruptions and forms of debilitation that asylum seekers experience as ‘forced techno-users’. In particular, the image of the panopticon turns out to be misleading if we analyse closely how technologies are used in camps and how asylum seekers’ lives are disrupted and controlled. First, many of the technologies, apps and interfaces used in refugee governmentality have not been implemented for surveillance purposes, but rather for enhancing the digital infrastructures of the asylum system. And yet, they end up multiplying the hurdles that people who seek asylum face and further disrupting their access to financial and humanitarian support.

Second, the monitoring technologies which are enforced in some refugee camps should not lead us to conclude that refugees are targeted by a sort of a ‘panopticon-surveillance system.’ In fact, taking for granted that a capillary surveillance is unfolded in camps would mean first of all denying asylum seekers’ agency and their tactics to dodge restrictions and border checks; and second, corroborating the idea that migrants’ movements are fully controlled rather than managed through a much more flexible system of mobility filtering and illegalisation.

Carceral economies beyond detention

The partial technologisation of refugee camps in Greece is growing in tandem with the strengthening of carceral spaces. Indeed, over the last few years Greece has been turned into a space where migrants remain stranded for months or years and where eventually they end up staying. Alongside that, the outbreak of Covid-19 has been seized as an opportunity by European and Greek authorities to escalate carceral mechanisms to “manage” migrants’ presence: indeed, refugee camps have been progressively fenced and asylum seekers’ movements in and out of camps and hotspots has been highly restricted, limited to specific times during the day and subjected to arbitrary police checks.

While scholars have widely documented the “carceral continuum” formed by alternatives to detention  and remote surveillance systems -such as ankle monitoring bracelets - the Greek context sheds light on carceral modes not narrowed to monitoring and surveillance: carceral mechanisms, I suggest, are unfolded also through ‘spatial harassment’ and temporal disruptions. Asylum seekers’ lives are confined by being expelled within - that is, they are sent to refugee camps which are far away from urban centres; and their life time is increasingly stolen, by being kept in a state of protracted wait or by being illegalized on the spot, as it happens to those whose asylum application is declared ‘inadmissible.’ Indeed, in June 2021, Turkey has been designated a ‘safe country’ for nationals from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Somalia; thus preventively illegalising them. On Greek islands, migrants are affected by a twofold confinement: they are entrapped in an ‘enforcement archipelago’ and, simultaneously, they are subjected to harsh and uneven mobility restrictions.

The confinement regime works through technological glitches

Malakasa refugee camp, August 2021: few asylum seekers are exiting and entering the main gate of the camp. Next to the main entrance, there is an automatised gate, with turnstiles in which asylum seekers will be required to swipe their digital asylum card, in order for the Greek authorities to monitor their movements. The smart card contains different data - biometric, medical, personal and legal - that until November 2020, when it was first introduced, were not combined together. Nevertheless, to date the automatic gate has not been activated, yet. As the camp manager told me: ‘we have no clue if and when it will be activated; there have been many technical glitches after the first test, and also refugees’ protests against it.’ In reality, asylum seekers’ mobility is restricted by the barbed wire that surrounds the camp, by police officers and due to the very location of the camp, which is in the middle of the countryside, miles away from the first village. Yet, the glitches and interruptions in the digital infrastructures of refugee humanitarianism should not be necessarily seen as ‘failures’.

Indeed, as stated above, the multiple digital intermediations that asylum seekers face in Greece disrupt their access to rights and protection, and overall debilitate them. If on the one hand digital technologies are promoted by UNHCR as a way for streamlining humanitarian logistics, on the other refugees constantly face technological obstructions. In some cases, technological glitches turn to refugees’ advantage, as they are not fully tracked. Yet, technological glitches do also open up a leeway for state authorities to enforce rules arbitrarily, as it is the case in Lesvos, where asylum seekers are at times blocked at the gate by the police even if they have the authorisation to go out of the camp.

Therefore, an insight into the actual implementation and functioning of diverse technologies and apps in the Greek refugee context shows that, first, these are not primarily used for surveilling and tracking migrants but rather for obstructing access to rights, mobility and asylum. This is what I have called here technologies of expulsion. Second, the increasing use of technologies in camps should not obfuscate the carceral economies through which asylum seekers’ lives are entrapped and disrupted. As stressed by feminist scholar Jasbir Puar, carcerality is enforced through protracted ‘mobility impairment and, jointly, by slowing people’s time.’ Thus, grasping carceral mechanisms beyond surveillance and detention involves taking into account mechanisms of confinement enforced by disrupting and chocking migrants’ lives, by withholding their time and by hampering them from building collective infrastructures of liveability.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Tazzioli, M.  (2021). Technologies of Expulsion: Rethinking Refugees’ Carceral Economies Beyond Surveillance. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/11/technologies [date]

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