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The EU’s contested forms of Border Governance in the Mediterranean Sea

The space of the Mediterranean Sea can be regarded as a focal point and a laboratory of EU border governance. Between the shores of Northern Africa, Turkey, and Southern EUrope, the translation of discourses on im/migration into practices of EU border control can be closely observed and analysed. Arguably, it is here that changes in migration policies have their most immediate and consequential effects. Since the Arab Uprisings ‘re-opened’ the Mediterranean migration corridor in 2011, more than 19,000 people are known to have died in the sea. Currently, in summer 2018, major conflicts between EU member states continue over the question of rescue at sea, disembarkation, and the relocation of precarious travellers. At the same time, EU member states and institutions dramatically reinforce processes of border externalisation, with significant implications for those seeking to migrate to EU territories. EUrope’s pre-emptive border controls attempt to further displace forms of violence that cannot but accompany contemporary processes of border enforcement and (other) division-creating practices. In view of persistent migration pressures, my research project will closely investigate emerging forms of EU border governance at sea, which evolve in conflictual processes, often situated between humanitarian rescue logics and the enactment of migrant deterrence.

Questions concerning the governance of migration have become pressing, dominating public discourses and concerns in EU member states. This Leverhulme project is situated within these discourses on and practices of migration and its governance. Migration pressures will continue to pose challenging questions to the EU as a whole, which, ultimately, revolve around matters of inclusion and exclusion in relation to a political community. Struggles over migration animate how, for example, sovereignty, identity and community are negotiated and enacted. Particularly following the year of 2015, when more than one million people entered EU territories without authorisation, reinforced attempts to deter (sea-) migration have become contested practices that demand a closer and multi-perspectival analysis. My research enquires into the fast-changing dynamics of bordering in the Mediterranean by ethnographically exploring the interrelated actors and forces in both EUropean and Northern African contexts. While public imaginaries of immigration toward EUrope are often fostered and polarised by media portrayals of sea-born migration and while there is growing academic interest in this particular border region, there is a lack of a relational, multi-sited and multi-dimensional analysis that brings together discourse and policy analysis, ethnographic enquiry and governmentality approaches that scrutinise both the EUropean and, significantly, the Northern African context. My research will examine how human movements and their governance shape this contested political space.

In the Mediterranean, not simply traditional sovereign border enforcers but a variety of actors, ranging from activists, humanitarians and commercial actors to national, intergovernmental and supra-national forces, are involved in the inclusion or exclusion of ‘others’. Exploring these actors and the struggles between them within the ‘force field’ of the Mediterranean will provide novel insights into this borderzone. How do these actors influence and shape the space of the Mediterranean, what alternative imaginaries do they hold, and how are political agendas enacted in practices of bordering? How do these complex and conflictual border practices inform and potentially challenge our conceptualisation of state sovereignty and relations among states? In other words, what are the implications of unauthorised sea-migration for forms of statehood, (sovereign) forms of authority, control, and governance in the contemporary moment?


Maurice Tierl


Academic Lead: Maurice Stierl