Movement and (in)security: from the politics of surveillance to the politics of compassion


María Lois

Jul, 2022
Migration, understood as displacement and the movement of people or groups on a temporary or permanent basis, would seem to be part and parcel of the history of humanity, or rather, of the global history of humanity. We are taught that human beings moved around, even in prehistoric times, and that they moved in search of a better life, whatever the meaning of “better” may have been. It could have meant greater access to food or more favourable living conditions, it could have been understood in terms of minerals, climate, socio-environmental conditions, emotions, or even all or none of the above. In this way, movement and migration are integral to our understanding of society and how we define communities composed of mobile people, regardless of their legal status. Rather than thinking of this mobility as an external element, or an externally constituent component of these communities, we can see that migration and the ways in which movement is practised influence the formation of society itself.

However, in recent decades, particularly in the last ten years, mobility and (in)security have come to be increasingly interconnected, with borders being reimagined as a means of territorial control over movement. Events such as 9/11, the “Kayak Crisis” of 2008, the Arab Spring, the “long summer of migration” (also known as the refugee crisis) and many others have become points of reference for understanding how the intersection of security and mobility has taken centre stage in the collective imagination of society, how it is performed via the constant demarcation of its limits, and how it is enacted by their delimitation in space and time.

Photo_ Georgie Pauwels_CC BY 2.0
Surveillance and compassion

It does not seem that obstacles to mobility manage to slow or prevent migration. Neither in terms of border security, nor in terms of mobility-controlling technology, does a causal relationship emerge between the two. Granted, these obstacles transform migration routes and timescales, but they do not prevent borders from being crossed; in fact, paradoxically, some of the most heavily policed borders are also those which are most frequently crossed. However, these measures do play a role in strengthening the perception of the threat posed by movement, as well as the territorial effectiveness of these containment measures. They are part of a performance in which the obstacles play a key role in portraying movement as unsafe and threatening, but this dynamic is caught between two things: self-referential and effective territorial political practices with insecurity looming on the horizon, and possible cartographies which reflect social movements whose aim is to go beyond the territorial. In the same way, a whole political economy of migration has been generated around these movements, and it is a topic that has generated a growing amount of research in a number of different areas. It is not only people or groups who are in motion, but also various organisations, institutions, resources, laws, and so on. We are not only referring here to physical journeys, but also to elements of the projection, construction and reproduction of migratory situations and contexts, with little attention to the political condition of vulnerability engendered by mobility. Thus, migrants’ situations are affected not only by obstacles and limitations, but also by the organisations, institutions, resources and rights involved in their movement. These can be at the origin of their journeys, at a temporary or permanent destination and, ultimately, in the very concept of mobility, which is rarely if ever perceived as a process with any degree of autonomy, more often being characterised by a welfare-focused approach.

In light of this, it can be helpful to see things from a different perspective, in this case one that highlights the strong contrast between the imaginary and real narratives surrounding the movement of people, which is a tremendously fertile area from which to deconstruct practices of control over mobility. The media summarises migration at the southern border of Spain, and therefore at the southern edge of Europe itself, with images of 150 sub-Saharan men clambering or jumping over a wire fence. This portrayal is in stark contrast with the acknowledgement in reports by the European Commission that the majority of what are termed “irregular migrants” initially access the Schengen area via regular, legal means by obtaining a non-permanent visa, but then fail to leave when their visas expire. [1][1] See also, European Commission 2020. Recovered from: o Krotký, J. y Kaniok, P., (2020). Who says what: members of the European parliament and irregular migration in the parliamentary debates. European security, 1–19. This fact was also referenced on maps of migratory patterns published by Frontex on their old website and in other publications on risk analysis, as well as in academic work that has been widely read and referenced; all this is to say that these issues are institutionally recognised and have been the topic of debate. The contrast between different narratives indicates a certain level of histrionics surrounding some aspects of movement, rooted in references to ideas of race, gender and criminalised forms of movement, from which large-scale policies are put into action to identify and control migration. The resulting vision boils down to the surveillance of foreign citizens who enter Europe with a likelihood of staying illegally, having crossed its borders in a violent and disorderly manner.

The contrast between different narratives indicates a certain level of histrionics surrounding some aspects of movement, rooted in references to ideas of race, gender and criminalised forms of movement, from which large-scale policies are put into action to identify and control migration.

On the other hand, institutionally confirmed figures point towards a need for new perspectives on how migration is viewed. Returning to the context of Spain, the figures from the Spanish National Statistics Institute (INE, Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas) for the first half of 2022 established that migratory flows came from Morocco, Romania, Colombia, the United Kingdom, Italy and Venezuela, in that order. This essentially means that they come from a neighbouring country in North Africa, members or former members of the European Union, and Latin America. Once again, exploring the contrast between rhetoric and reality can prove a thought-provoking exercise; think of how British or Italian citizens factor into this collective imagining of migration, or property investors, or applicants for so-called “citizenship by investment” (in Spanish CIP, Ciudadanía por Inversión), or members of the armed forces, to name but a few. It would appear that there is a lucid and clear abstraction of what constitutes a migrant, what their problems might be, their possible agendas and their position in society in terms of assistance or intervention needed to avoid exclusion. [2][2] See also (both sources in Spanish): Colectivo IOE (2010) Discursos de la población migrante en torno a su instalación en España: exploración cualitativa (Migrant perspectives on settling in Spain: A qualitative exploration). Madrid: CIS (Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas). Ribas-Mateos, N. (2018) Las políticas de la compasión están construyendo a personas completamente asistenciales sin voz política (The Politics of Compassion are producing completely welfarist people with no political voice). Available at:

From a politics of surveillance to one of compassion

En todo ese universo retórico y complejo, la concepción y gestión de las Throughout this complex rhetorical landscape, public policy conception and management plays a fundamental role. Decisions about rights, controls, interventions and, ultimately, what constitutes the legitimate movement of people all form part of the institutional framework and of the decisions made by public bodies at every possible level. Here, again, we can see how society starts with the establishment of free movement as a human right, as stated in, for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Such a right undeniably exists to ensure diversity without threatening national unity, but it ultimately amounts to an explicit protection of the right to movement within society. In the context of the war in Ukraine, the capability of Europe to organise and guarantee a system of asylum became obvious. In March 2022 the European Union activated the Temporary Protection Directive, which granted immediate protection for one year to those fleeing the war in Ukraine, including Ukrainian nationals, third country nationals, stateless people and legal residents in the country. This protection granted residency permits, the ability to work, access to medical care, and so on. This directive, though created in 2001, was not put into action in 2015 during the Syrian Civil War. Only in 2022 was it first implemented, when it showcased the efficient, effective and organised provision of asylum and protection based on certain universal rights. However, the impact on institutions and groups involved in previous movements has become evident, and thus decisions made by institutions at various levels—which have not been extended to others in similar circumstances—uphold inequalities, establish preferential treatment for legitimate or related migratory flows and, lastly, uphold the material and symbolic conditions which underpin this mindset, along with the hierarchies which differentiate and legitimise migratory flows. Knowing this, we could establish a sense of responsibility and commitment, especially towards migrants on other levels of the hierarchy who, even now, are differentiated or cast aside. However, the near invisibility of this structural issue—by which we mean the practices of differentiation which permeate asylum and refugee policies—presents an uncomfortable home truth, namely that the racialisation of migration according to origins and routes has become normalised.

Instead, we should be dealing with the rhetoric around migration by exploring how we can move forward—given that the movement of people forms (and has always formed) an integral part of society—under conditions that guarantee certain minimum rights to those who relocate from one place to another (though not, of course, in all cases).

Alternative spaces

In the year 2015, during the “long summer of migration”, when people were moving through Europe on foot in search of a temporary or permanent home, there were many experiences which I believe can teach us about the everyday dynamics and spaces which reproduce and create inequality. However, we are going to focus on one of these experiences which is of particular interest to scholars of movement and borders. At Radboud University in Nijmegen, on the border between Germany and The Netherlands, a group of colleagues associated with the internationally renowned Nijmegen Centre for Border Research (NCBR) began an informal initiative which they named Asylum University. Under this title, they organised opportunities specifically for asylum seekers, which included guaranteed access to university education, organising talks, debates and language classes. [3][3] This initiative is the focus of Kolar Aparna’s doctoral thesis, submitted in 2020 under the title “Enacting Asylum University: Politics of Research Encounters and (Re)Producing Borders in Asylum Relations” at Radboud University in Nijmegen under the auspices of the NCBR. The spirit of the project was to provide a space for everyday events related to teaching and research, through which connections could be formed between spaces of knowledge exchange and temporary accommodation—i.e. shelters, refugee centres and the University—and in this way create safe places for collective action and reflection. Shortly after its inception, one of the Netherlands’ emergency shelters was opened close to the campus, housing around 3000 people opposite the main university community offices. In spite of the difficulties experienced by the initiative it managed, at least temporarily, to shake up people’s previously held notions around migration, migrant spaces, and socially expected or accepted forms of residence. Kolar Aparna (2020) lists some exchanges with academic experts in border studies and administrative personnel that reveal a fear of engaging with people who have some form of unregulated status, as well as an inability to engage with asylum seekers on a level beyond mere academic consideration. They are considered to be objects of study, always in some space of waiting for a status, but maybe never sharing that which is understood to be the same as our own.

The border can therefore erase the very question of whether sick (or healthy) people exist, as it provides a simple line which divides sick people or carriers of disease from the healthy; in this particular case, it excluded anyone and everyone who did not come from inside the country.
Around that time several similar initiatives were proposed in universities in Spain, with varying degrees of acceptance. In addition to Spain’s migrant intake numbers being undeniably lower than those of countries such as Germany or the Netherlands, the initiatives failed to make much of an impact in an administrative, bureaucratic and academic landscape which believed it had already pinned down the problems (and solutions) of such a group. In many instances, the opening up of public spaces such as classrooms and University facilities for in-person, non-hierarchical social interaction was dismissed on grounds of security, citing possible disagreements and conflicts. The discomfort caused by an unregulated gathering which occurred outside the confines of preconceived expectations around the vulnerability of those who migrate and the help they receive demonstrates yet again how complicated perspectives on (some types of) migration can be. At the same time, this also highlights the disruptive potential of opening up everyday social spaces, something that the hosts intended as a means, rather than an end in itself. Universities, as public spaces with a social function, are places for social change, and the ingenuousness of these proposals may well be a vital and powerful strategy if we are to continue thinking about the possibility of emancipating how we view migration.

It is precisely in the places where migration is studied and analysed, in public and in publicly acknowledged spaces of equal conditions, that the possibility of other kinds of encounters can be envisaged. If this does not prove true then, at least as Aparna implies, they can serve as places to reflect on the environment and sense of community of universities as a subject to be studied in itself, given that they do in fact create differences and inequalities. Despite the possible difficulties, I would also like to think that, in the immediacy and closeness of everyday life, the relationships we establish are complex, but also open and malleable, with the potential to free us from narrow, fixed perspectives on migration. Conflict is just as much a part of society as agreement, and it is much easier to resolve and explore it in relatively informal spaces that are free from regulation or interference. Therefore, it is by living among one another that we can finally find somewhere to explore both conflict and agreement, and we must ultimately remember that diversity is not exclusive to migrant populations.

The territorial trap

Looking beyond the ingenuousness of the previous paragraphs, another important point to be made about the link between migration and (in)security is its territorial manifestations, which made a brief appearance at the beginning of the text in our discussion of the systematic recourse to territorial solutions for dealing with possible threats, specifically the building of border walls. The idea of creating a physical barrier between nations is, of course, nothing new—on the contrary, it is ontologically tied to the construction of the modern nation-state. However, it is worth noting that interest in them has reached a fever pitch in recent years in spite of their questionable efficacy (though academic opinions differ on this). Elizabeth Vallet recounts how the existence of such walls has grown from 15 in 1989 to 74 in 2022, with at least 15 more at the planning stage. [4][4] Vallet, E. (2022) The World Is Witnessing a Rapid Proliferation of Border Walls. Migration Policy Institute. Recovered from: Her research relates this to the end of the Cold War, and then later to 9/11, arguing that the COVID-19 pandemic consolidated the trend towards the development and installation of physical infrastructure as the central component of a hermetically sealed border. In the context of the European Union, requests for financing to build border security infrastructure have been growing over time. At almost the same time as the implementation of the Temporary Protection Directive for people coming from Ukraine, the militarisation and construction of a fence by Poland on its border with Belarus and the construction of another wall on its border with Russia in Kaliningrad clearly demonstrated the differentiated treatment for migrants depending on their supposed points of origin and subsequent political practices or beliefs. In public rhetoric on the matter, and in a letter to the European Commission which was signed by 12 countries, attention was drawn to the “need to adapt the existing legal framework to the new realities, enabling us to adequately address attempts of instrumentalisation of illegal migration for political purposes and other hybrid threats” [5][5] Recovered from: The idea that certain types of migration can be saved by building walls to block other types of migration is paradoxical, to say the very least.

As Vallet notes, the COVID-19 pandemic brought certain trends in the relationship between migration and (in)security into focus. On the European stage, the decision was made for the first time to close external borders on 17 March 2020. In the weeks leading up to this closure, the connection between mobility, security and the pandemic had already been making its presence known on various parts of the global stage thanks to political figures such as Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban: “Because movement spreads the disease and makes the epidemic global, and migration is movement, therefore there is a logical link between the two […] Hungary has managed to defend against migration, so we are protected against the infections migrants may bring with them.” [6][6] Dunai, M. (2020). «Hungary confirms first death from coronavirus» Reuters, 15 de marzo. Recovered from: death/hungary-confirms-first-death-from-coronavirus-idUSKBN2120QD In other words, what can be found outside the border may not stay put, and if it gets in, problems will only increase. This gestures to disease as something tied to place, meaning the antidote to it is, consequently, a territorial matter. The border can therefore erase the very question of whether sick (or healthy) people exist, as it provides a simple line which divides sick people or carriers of disease from the healthy; in this particular case, it excluded anyone and everyone who did not come from inside the country.

With the borders closed, the only permitted movement was that of goods and journeys considered essential to the continued functioning of shared territory. The request for coordination in communications from the European Commission firmly establishes the link between borders and security by creating an area where “the EU’s external border has to act as a security perimeter for all Schengen States” [7][7] “Communication from the Commission: COVID-19: Temporary Restriction on Non-Essential Travel to the EU.” COM/2020/115, 16 March 2020. Recovered from:

Narratives surrounding the politicisation of migration hold greater sway over people’s opinion than data. In light of this, now may well be the time to think about other narratives which make it possible to put movement at the centre of how society is formed.

It is worth noting that internal EU borders close on a relatively continuous basis in the presence of so-called “exceptional circumstances”. The Schengen Borders Code has always permitted the introduction of controls at its internal borders on the basis of such exceptional circumstances, as dictated by Chapter II of Regulation UE2016/399 which was reformed in 2016, in particular articles 25 and 30. In fact, “exceptional circumstances” have ranged from sporting events to Papal visits, G-7 meetings, NATO and climate summits, terrorist attacks, political protests and Hell’s Angels gatherings. [8][8] Lois, M. (2014), “Apuntes sobre los márgenes: fronteras, fronterizaciones, órdenes socioterritoriales” (English: “Notes on the margins: borders, frontiers, fronterisations, socio-territorial orders”) In E. Cardin, and A. S. Colognese A. (Orgs.), As Ciências Sociais nas fronteiras. Teorias e metodologias de pesquisa (English: Social Sciences at the borders. Research theories and methodologies) (pp. 239-259). Cascavel: Editora JB. In more recent times the pandemic has led at least 14 countries (Austria, Czechia, Denmark, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Estonia, Portugal, Spain, Finland, Belgium, Switzerland and Norway) to strengthen their internal EU borders as a way to control the movement of people, with those of Germany, Austria, Denmark, France, Norway and Sweden being maintained in more or less the same conditions since the refugee crisis of 2015.

The generalisation of restrictions on mobility in the context of COVID-19, on the other hand, can also allow for reflection on how immobility has come to be a strategy in the establishment of security. In a time of widespread restriction of movement, the irrelevance of spaces normally used to impose immobility and isolation were resoundingly revealed to be just another territorial tool for maintaining certain movement and security under “normal” circumstances. This was demonstrated as soon as these places where control of movement was exercised within the European Union became affected by the pandemic. For example, in Spain on 6 May 2020, the eight functioning Migrant Detention Centres (known in Spanish by the acronym CIE: Centro de Internamiento de Extranjeros), were closed. [9][9] “Today is a historic day for Spain: the CIEs are empty.” Europa Press (6 May 2020). (Original article in Spanish, published in Público under the title “Hoy es un día histórico para España: los CIE se quedan vacíos”). Recovered from (article in Spanish): These centres, originally conceived in 1986 as non-penitentiary facilities in which to hold migrants for a maximum of 60 days while they were in the process of being deported, are a product of the first Spanish Immigration Law on the rights and liberties of foreign nationals (Spanish: Ley Orgánica 7/1985 sobre Derechos y Libertades de los Extranjeros). The suspension of administrative timeframes and processes, as well as flights (including repatriation flights), made it impossible to formalise deportation. It is interesting to note how the immobility of some becomes the mobility of others. Much like in other spaces which are intended to safeguard the movement of some by restricting that of others (CIEs, refugee camps, prisons), once movement was restricted in general, immobility and isolation ceased to be useful. Restrictions on mobility enable other forms of mobility which, in this case paradoxically became a strategy for survival. In short, the territorial trap, whereby different visions of spatial socialisation become entangled, is of utmost significance; it points towards a territorial imaginary in which controlling mobility means that, by closing the borders, you limit danger, movement and exceptionality. Nevertheless, it was precisely this exceptionality that showed mobility to be a key element of how society is formed, how it is an integral part of the world economy, and that it is crucial to the maintenance of the labour activities needed to reproduce the system itself.

The Numbers Game: where next?

Little remains to be said about the role of movement and migration in society. Institutions, research institutes and academics have all expounded on its impact in various terms depending on the context in question: economic and consumerist terms in contexts of limited growth; demographic terms when discussing ageing societies; and in terms of care in contexts of growing dependent groups. The impact of migrant remittances on the local and regional economies from which they originate shows the stability of a complex and counter-cyclical system of exchange and circulation of people, goods and money; according to the World Bank, the total amount climbed to 626 billion USD in 2022.

However, divergences between different narratives continue to provide insights that would be worth exploring in greater depth. A recently published article on immigration in Germany, France, the USA, Italy, the UK and Sweden, which draws on statistical data from a total sample of 24,000 non-immigrant people, suggests that a large part of the debate surrounding immigration is characterised by misinformation and stereotypes, often stemming from anti-immigration political parties and media outlets. [10][10] Alesina, A., Miano,A. y Stantcheva,S. (2022) Immigration and Redistribution, The Review of Economic Studies, 2022, The research therefore focuses on the discrepancy between perception and fact: with the exception of Sweden, the people interviewed assumed that the proportion of immigrants in their country was at least double the actual amount. They also had incorrect perceptions of where immigrants had come from, believed that they depend more on state welfare than they really do, and that they are less educated and have a higher rate of unemployment than the corresponding figures show. The article concludes that narratives surrounding the politicisation of migration hold greater sway over people’s opinion than data. In light of this, now may well be the time to think about other narratives which make it possible to put movement at the centre of how society is formed, without romanticising, chasing, victimising or coddling migrant experiences, but rather seeing them as a cornerstone of what creates society. Perhaps we can contribute to the production of new narratives by thinking with an open mind about the reproduction of institutional and non-institutional rhetoric that links immobility to security, about practices and processes that legitimise certain forms of migration, about the racialisation of insecurity and hierarchies of migration, about unconventional spaces in which to come together, and about the sidelining and hiding of migrant people. Perhaps these new narratives can see the good and the usefulness of irregular movement and come to see it as part of what we think of as “normal”.