Sarah Parker Remond Centre


Transcript: In conversation with Maurice Stierl

This conversation was recorded on 15th December 2022. Speakers: Dr Luke de Noronha, Lecturer in Race, Ethnicity & Postcolonial Studies, SPRC // Maurice Stierl, researcher at Osnabrück University

Luke de Noronha: Hello, I’m Luke de Noronha, lecturer at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre here at UCL and today I’m speaking with Maurice Stierl. Maurice is a researcher at Osnabrück University in Germany, working at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies there. Before that he was a lecturer in international relations at the University of Sheffield here in the UK and he’s also taught at the University of Warwick and the University of California Davis. 

Maurice’s research focuses on migration struggles in contemporary Europe and Africa and is broadly situated in the fields of international, political sociology, political geography and migration and citizenship and border studies. His book, Migrant Resistance in Contemporary Europe, was published in 2019 with Routledge and he has written many excellent papers, chapters and essays on Europe’s borders, on humanitarianism and its contradictions, on varied forms of migrant activism, and one of the main reasons I wanted to speak to Maurice today, and something I really appreciate in his work, is his persistent attention in his writing to questions of migrant struggle, subjectivity, autonomy and the question of freedom. 

Maurice has also been involved with the Alarm Phone Collective since its founding, a group dispersed around Europe and Africa that provides a hotline for people in distress at sea as they try to make dangerous crossings. So thanks so much for speaking with me, Maurice.

Maurice Stierl: Thanks Luke, it’s a pleasure to be here.

LN: So I wanted to start with quite a broad question which is about your work and the range of things you focused on has been about the bordering of Europe. So I wanted to ask what’s been going on at the borders of Europe since the Pandemic, whether you can give us a sketch of any shifts in the routes that people on the move are taking and how they’re being confronted by state authorities and EU authorities, and how varied humanitarian activist groups are seeking to intervene in these spaces?

MS: So the situation at the external borders of Europe continues to be pretty devastating and maybe I’ll just give you three snapshots from three regions, because I think they, in some ways, symbolise the current state of affairs there and they are, first, a brutalisation of border enforcement, then the externalisation of border violence and third, a concerted attack on forms of solidarity at borders. 

And I move first to the Aegean because I think here we can see most explicitly the brutalisation of border enforcement. So the Greek authorities push back, and these pushbacks now have become the norm, so this is what we have to expect when the coastguards detect a migrant boat, and these pushbacks work in a really horrible way. 

So, say, a coastguard vessel detects a migrant boat, the boat is stopped, the people on board are beaten, especially the men. The boat is then dragged back into Turkish territory and abandoned there, the engine disabled, or the people are taken on board of the coastguard vessel, beaten, robbed, they take away phones, money and all that stuff and then they are brought back to Turkey and left on these floating devices. Maybe you’ve seen these images, these orange floating tents, or whatever you want to call them, and they’re just abandoned there and left in distress until, hopefully, the Turkish forces come and rescue the people.

So this has become the norm and it’s devastating obviously for the people on the move but also it poses, I think, a real dilemma for anyone engaging in solidarity with the people on the move because who do we call if there are people in distress? There are no civil rescuers in the Aegean because they were all criminalised and they’re not present anymore. And also another dilemma is that the right wing government really wants to be seen as an anti-migration and so revealing human rights abuses for them is maybe not even a big deal. They appreciate that in some ways. 

So it’s a real problem and then, of course, you have other elements there. Frontex, the new border agency, is suppressing information about the pushbacks. You have the EU Commission offering support to Greece and lauding Greece as Europe’s shield and all that stuff. So brutalisation of border enforcement is really clear in the Aegean Sea. 

Then when we move to the Western Mediterranean and the Atlantic, so people are trying to reach Spain, the situation is somewhat different because people are being rescued more or less by the Spanish Salvamento Maritimo and, of course, Spain has a left wing government, at least on paper. So they’re not really keen on being seen, as the Greek Government, as the perpetrator of anti-migrant violence but what they are doing, and this we can see all around Europe, is they’re really keen on externalising border violence. So they are really financing the Moroccan regime so that people don’t reach Spain, either via the sea or via the fences to the Spanish enclaves. 

So what this does is, of course, on the one hand, externalises border enforcement to authorities and regimes that really carry out brutal attacks on people on the move. On the other hand, I think it creates incentives for these regimes to still allow certain mobilities to cross into Spain and to create these border spectacles because they always have to make a point that, look, there are still people crossing, we still need more funding and money and all that stuff. 

So what this leads to are these horrible scenes that we saw earlier this year, with 37 people dying at the Melilla border fence. They were chased by the Moroccans also towards the fence. There were some reconstructions of the events, people dying on piles of humans were left to die. It was like an incredibly violent spectacle and I think the images were really seen worldwide but these are the effects of these externalised forms of border violence, and shortly after, Morocco was promised half a billion Euro for border security from the EU. 

And at the same time, we also see other forms of mobility that are really deadly, especially to the Canary Islands, so people leaving the Western Sahara or even Senegal or Mauritania to reach the Canaries and right now a boat with 53 people is still missing. A week ago a boat with 49 people capsized and so nobody really hears about these mass shipwrecks in the Atlantic.

And maybe briefly, the third example from another border region is from the Central Mediterranean context and here we see the same. We see violent border enforcement, we see externalisation of violence but we really see an attack on solidarity at the border, because it’s only in the Central Mediterranean where rescuers are operating since 2014 and they face a lot of harassment by various EU state authorities. 

The NGOs are not allowed to land, or at least the landing is delayed. Once they are at the European ports, they are often now allowed to return to the Central Mediterranean. The crews of the NGOs are not really protected from attacks by the Libyan coastguards and, as everyone knows really, activism captains are repeatedly brought before court and they’re criminally harassed. And, of course, also with the new Italian Government, fascist, post-fascist, whatever you want to call it, as the first thing they sought a direct confrontation with the NGOs. 

So this is the attack on solidarity and I think it’s so crucial to look at that because on the one hand, it’s meant to prevent NGOs from rescuing in the first place and disembarking people in Europe and on the other hand, it is also meant to prevent them from monitoring what’s going on at the borders, because they are monitoring, they are documenting what’s going on and so this criminalisation or this sort of lawfare is really meant to get them out of this space. 

And then also I think I want to briefly mention the criminalisation of boat drivers, which is really something that hardly anyone looks at but it’s so important because boat drivers themselves are people fleeing. They’re crossing the Mediterranean not to make business or money but to just reach Europe and now we see a really systematic criminalisation of them and in Greece, I think they are maybe even the highest prison population in Greece. It’s mad. Also in Italy, it’s a high percentage of people in prisons who are criminalised as drivers or as smugglers. So that’s a big problem that I think we need to look at. 

So just these three snapshots from the borders and these patterns we can see to different degrees, I think, all around Europe. I think we should really look into how this plays out in specific contexts but I think, yes, we can draw larger parallels between these patterns. 

LN: Can we pause on the Central Med a little longer, I guess a few follow up questions. I wasn’t aware that the Central Med is the only place where there is the civil response, the boats, etc. So could you say a little bit more about why that is and whether there are moves to have that in the Aegean or in the Western Mediterranean? 

But also I realise there are pushbacks from the Central Mediterranean to Libya which rely on Frontex, for example, their drone surveillance and feeding information to the Libyan coastguard, so in a way that form of externalisation, and we’ll talk more about the sea space, the jurisdictional space of whose waters and international waters, etc. but that might be an important thing to draw attention to, the role of aerial surveillance and drones and kind of outsourcing to the Libyan coastguard those interceptions before they reach European waters? 

And maybe you could say a bit more about the boat steerers, I think that in the liberal press in the UK context, we do hear more stories about the sea captains, the humanitarian actors who, with incredible bravery and solidarity, are doing their work in this space and sometimes facing criminal punishment, but why is there such an absence of our shared knowledge or reporting on the boat drivers? Are these individuals who, I assume, are just people on the move like others and who end up being delegated to steer or maybe they have some skills or whatever it might be, are they getting long sentences? If you talk about one of the biggest populations in prison in Greece and also in Italy, we’re talking about a significant population here, much greater numbers than the captains and the humanitarian actors who, unfortunately, there aren’t enough of. It’s difficult to get enough people to help them at sea. 

MS: So sea rescue only occurs really in the Central Mediterranean and there are various reasons for that, but in 2015/16 we did see rescuers also around the Greek islands. We saw lifeguards going there to help out to rescue and we saw others swatting boats in distress and so on, but over the years, because migration became such a toxic and regulated issue in Greece, they were basically chased away by the Government. It became increasingly difficult to enact any forms of direct solidarity with people on the move and so a lot of these NGOs that were present there decided, at some point, to leave because they just couldn’t guarantee the safety of their members. 

And in the other border regions, there are also no rescuers because, say, around Spain at least there is the sense that the Spanish salvamento maritime, the rescue organisation there, is doing a pretty good job in comparison to other border regions. And so there is this focus on the Central Mediterranean and I think it is important to also look as well, and to think about, whether the civil fleet, or however you want to call it, should also move to other regions because I was earlier talking about the Atlantic crossings and they are so deadly and so many bodies get lost there, so might it be useful to also have aircraft in that region monitoring the space and trying to find boats. 

I think there are some of these discussions ongoing but so far there has been this focus on the Central Mediterranean and when we think about the Central Med, it’s super important to think about it as a space that is monitored constantly through aerial surveillance, by Frontex airplanes, by Frontex drones but also by coastguards, national airforce. So it’s not a space that is just out there, open seas, nobody knows what’s going on. Actually there are a lot of actors that are constantly criss-crossing this space. 

I think that’s important and at the same time, often aerial surveillance is justified by saying that, because of that, people are being rescued. Clearly that’s not the case. On the one hand, these aerial missions often do not report boats to the nearest assets to the boats in distress. So if there’s an NGO vessel and they could intervene, following maritime law, international law and so on, they should be notified. Often it’s not the case. 

So there’s a sort of information blackout. So instead of informing rescuers, the Libyan authorities are informed and then they send vessels that were donated by Italy and Europe to chase after the migrant boats and to basically capture them and abduct them back to Libya. So we see a real system of capture in the Central Mediterranean Sea where there’s aerial monitoring which is directly connected to the capture of people trying to flee. 

And about the criminalisation of drivers, it has become such a deeply problematic and systematic issue that we really need to pay more attention to that. As you said, there has always been a lot of attention paid to European rescuers. Carola Rackete, for example, the German captain who steered the boat into the harbour of Lampedusa despite Salvini trying to keep them out and that produced a lot of attention, a lot of solidarity which is really great. 

But what often falls out of sight are these migrant captains, that are often just sent to the steering wheel or to the engine to direct the boat who may hold the satellite phone or a compass or whatever, and when they arrive, people are being questioned and they are really trying to always get one or two or three people from every boat to then criminalise them as smugglers, so they can say that they are still engaging in these anti-smuggling operations. 

Everyone involved knows that this is not the problem here. These people are not the ones organising the crossings. They are not what Europe often refers to as the big masterminds or the traffickers. They are just simple human beings, not really involved in any of that, just trying to reach a place of safety. So I think this migration issue, and critical engagement with imprisonment, has to really go together. I think these two issues are deeply linked in the European context.

LN: Maybe you could tell us a little bit more about the work of Alarm Phone, I know you’ve been involved with that group, which is a broad network. Maybe you could tell us a bit about what the group does and its scope geographically, which is the thing I’m really interested in, the national, even intercontinental, ways of organising around safe passage?

MS: I think we have to situate it a bit in a context. So in 2011 with the uprisings, boat crossings to Europe increased and also, of course, death at sea. So at least 1,500 people died just that year and in response to that, a lot of activists in Europe and Africa tried to think about ways to prevent death at sea and to intervene in this border space and already then there were some discussions about launching civil rescue missions or operations. 

But because of financial issues and so on, because it’s incredibly expensive, these ideas were dismissed and then there was an Eritrean / Italian priest called Father Mussie Zerai, who lived in Rome, and he received a lot of calls from, especially Eritreans who were in distress at sea. So they would call him and send their GPS positions to him and he would then alert the authorities in Italy and also try to pressure them to do something about the boats in distress. 

So he did this for several years and we saw this as an inspiration and we thought okay, this is actually something practical we can do and we can collectivise it because also he was obviously as one person, not able to respond to all distress cases and it was really tough on him and so we asked him whether we should do that, and he said don’t start tomorrow, start today. It took a bit longer because we had to set up all these systems, of course, to make this hotline work and so the Alarm Phone came about in October 2014 and it works like a hotline. 

So our shift teams, they are behind the phone 24/7. When calls come in, they have then certain manuals for a variety of distress situations. Because the distress situations are so different in the different regions, it needs constant revising and reworking of the manuals that we use. So over time, more and more people started calling Alarm Phone because in the beginning it was just an idea. We didn’t know whether people would actually call this hotline, this random activist hotline but they did and, of course, it was also good timing because then 2015 happened, over one million people crossing the maritime borders. So very quickly the number was shared within migrant communities who were travelling, when they had good experiences with Alarm Phone supporting them and would pass it on. 

And I think this was key to really get trust within certain migrant communities who couldn’t rely on state authorities in assisting them and who then turned to activists. So we’ve done this now for eight years. We’ve supported more than 5,000 boats in distress and, as you said, this is a trans-border network. So this is a network that operates from various European countries, African countries, Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal in particular, and that has to be trans-border in a sense because the issues that we deal with are trans-border. They are mobile. 

So it’s not just sitting there and responding to phone calls but it is a lot of on the ground engagement, trying to get information of certain migrant groups, certain patterns, certain ways or modalities of movement. What do people carry with them? We also try to share information how to cross in a safe way. What do you need to consider when you actually do the crossing? How much fuel do you need? What kind of lifejackets should you wear? What kind of devices should you carry? What do you do if you end up in a distress situation? What do you do if your engine stops? Can you try to reignite the engine? How do you make your distress seen? Can you use certain devices that you have on board to reflect certain lights so that people might see you in the distance? 

All these things are done also on the ground, so in Morocco, in Tunisia, and elsewhere. So there is a huge network that has come about over the years. We are more than 300 activists now and it’s really on the ground solidarity with people on the move, to really try to think what is useful for people on the move while they move and, of course, it’s also about really documenting human rights violations. We have not only, unfortunately, accompanied boats that then capsize with thousands dying in the end but we’ve also documented a range of human rights violations, and all these pushbacks in the Aegean, pushbacks in the Central Mediterranean, forms of non-assistance, of abandonment, all that kind of stuff. 

And this is also important, if we cannot prevent them, at least we have to document them and we have to create an archive of border violence because nobody else is really doing that. It’s a lot of work but it’s also a beautiful network. It’s really a trans-border network with people who are engaged but also who come from really different places and have different backgrounds and I think what grounds us is this everyday practice of being on the phone. It’s like a duty and it’s tough. When we started this, of course it’s difficult to foresee where we would end up and it’s also slightly daunting I think to start a project that you can never stop really, because a lot of people rely on that and you know that. So let’s see how long it continues but I fear it will go on for quite some time. 

LN: I’ve been reading the eight years of Alarm Phone document, the Voices of Struggle, which I recommend anyone listening download and learn more about and support Alarm Phone in any way you can. But I was reading that document and it’s really clear that many of the people who are involved in the organisation might be those who, as you say, are living in Morocco, Tunisia, so not necessarily European citizens, or those who have been on the move themselves. 

But I was just thinking about the challenges of working with family and friends in the context of shipwreck and the context of loss. So if you could say a little about the challenges of working in this context and perhaps that leads you into telling us a little bit about Alarm Phone’s CommemorAction activities, which I think are really worth pausing on as well. 

MS: Yes, I think it’s important to remember that when a boat capsizes and people die, their bodies are often not found. The issue then is that, if bodies are not found, there’s no evidence that people have died. Even if we were on the phone with them a minute earlier and we believe that they capsized, there could be other reasons why a good connection was cut. The battery might be low or they might have dropped the device into the sea or loads of reasons why communication ended. 

So sometimes we just cannot say for sure that these people died and, of course, we also don’t talk to a hundred people on board but a couple of people. So we don’t know their names or their full names at least. We don’t know where they are from often. Sometimes we can sense, of course, by the different languages they speak and sometimes they tell us also their nationalities and all that stuff but more often than not, we talk to people who we obviously don’t know where we have very little information about them. 

So if they disappear, we cannot really even phone their relatives or friends, but they sometimes contact us and I think this is something that has really increased over the years, also because it seems like more people just distrust big organisations as well, or they don’t get the support they’re looking for there and so they contact Alarm Phone. Alarm Phone is a distress hotline, so it cannot necessarily do all this other work but it’s trying to do that, at least to note down names and other details about the missing and then try to find out information about them if there was a shipwreck at around the time they thought the boat departed in a certain region. 

But this is huge work and it’s very rare that there is a match but sometimes we are able to reconstruct certain shipwrecks, especially when we were in touch with the people for a long time, we have maybe more details or friends in Libya and so on reach out and they then provide a list of names, for example. So this happens but it’s quite rare. So because it’s also such a daily reality and experience of our members and of so many people, we see that this violence reverberates. It does not stay in the Mediterranean. 

So those who suffer are not only those who die but family and friends. And so this is always something that I find so devastating, in a sense, that this border violence that affects whole communities in the Global South, it’s mad how many people die and how many people are affected by this death and disappearance. So in order to find a way of accounting also for this loss and grievance, there are many actors that engage in what we’ve started calling CommeroAction a couple of years ago. So commemorations connected with actions, to commemorate those who’ve lost or disappeared and to also blame those who are responsible for their disappearance and death. 

So this has really started and we see a lot of CommeroActions taking place on the anniversary of big shipwrecks in Tunisia, in Morocco, in Senegal, in Sudan, in loads of places. So, yes, organising with families I think has become really central because we see it as another aspect that we have to engage with, because nobody else is doing that and to think also about what families need, because, first of all, they need clarity about the fate of their loved ones, which they might never get. 

So ten years ago I was in Palermo and I met lovely Tunisian mothers of the disappeared and I was in Zarzis in Tunisia only a few months ago and I met some of them again. So they still have no idea about what happened to their children and they still are so traumatised about this disappearance but they are also still fighting, and I think this is what CommeroActions are so meant to be, these encounters between those who are directly affected, people in solidarity, and really organising to protest. So we did a lot of marches in Zarzis and other places in Tunisia. We did CommeroActions also in Europe at the same time. 

So it’s become really a trans-border, international movement I think, that has very specific grievances and difficult cultures of grieving as well, but that still unites these different actors and groups in thinking about where this violence comes from and then trying to target those that have perpetrated these forms of violence. So I think CommeroActions are a real central struggle around borders these days.

LN: Maybe we should talk briefly about the Channel because we’re speaking on 15th December, yesterday we all woke to hear of another shipwreck, a boat that capsized in the Channel and this is a fairly new development in terms of the uptick in the number of people crossing the Channel by boat. So it’s become another hotspot, in a way, of maritime crossing and risk. 45,000 people, according to the British Government, have made the journey so far this year which is significant. 

I know that Alarm Phone actually released a statement yesterday evening and I’ll read a little passage of that. They wrote, ‘details of the event are still emerging, but the location of the initial search and rescue operation on the borderline separating British and French territorial waters recalls the situation which led to the deaths of 32 people last year (that was in November 2021, I think) and again raises questions about the coordination of the French and English coastguards in their duties to save lives at sea.’ 

So we know that at least four people have died, I don’t know if we know their names yet, probably not. We know that this is a problem that’s partly caused by a question about a border in the sea and about who’s responsible for that. Maybe you could just say a little bit about the Channel crossings and a little bit about how the Channel compares to some of these other sea crossings in terms of numbers. It’s a shorter crossing so I assume it seems to me that it’s a safer crossing and much safer than the Atlantic that you’ve described, for example.

But can you say a little bit about the Channel, which I’m worried about especially at the moment because just the day before this shipwreck, the Rishi Sunak Government, who will be in power for who knows how long, but are trying to score political points again by promising to be tougher to deal with the backlog but also signing plans with the French Government to police the shores of the northern coast of France more aggressively, etc. 

MS: I think it’s so timely now following the shipwreck yesterday and just this sort of hysteria in the UK about small boats, small boat arrivals which are, of course, a consequence of restrictive migration policies. It’s not due to the work of smugglers and people loving to do the crossing by the sea but because of migration policies. And I think it’s important to then have actors that take on a perspective that is grounded in the political struggle around mobility, activists and NGOs that have also long engaged in Calais and elsewhere, and that know the conditions and the reasons why people are doing these crossings, so that we’re not only following these UK politicians who use migrants as scapegoats, which is such an easy thing to do but, unfortunately, works so well. 

So since the number of boats rose over the last few years, there has been more attention also from activists and networks and NGOs and since September 2021, the Channel then became officially Alarm Phone’s fourth region and besides accompanying people on the boats, as elsewhere, it’s also here really important to just monitor state behaviour because of the Tory Government, because of ideas of maybe deterring or pushing back migrant boats that were discussed a lot. There are these questions around how French and British authorities reacted to the November 21st shipwreck with 30 people dying. So there are loads of questions and developments, I think, that we have to look at very closely and so Alarm Phone being there and counter-monitoring state behaviour I think is really key, together with a lot of other activist networks that have been present there for many years already.

And, as you mentioned, also the incident yesterday raised certain questions about the cooperation between French and UK authorities and the speed of the response to the incident and so on, and in the end I think fishermen were the first on the scene and they rescued the majority of the people. And I think it’s also important to flag this up because these are the other forms of solidarity that exist in the sea at different maritime borders and we spoke about civil rescuers earlier but, of course, there are others who are actually rescuing. They are fishermen, they are merchant vessel crews and all that. So I think it’s important to show that there are so many seafarers who live up to the duty to rescue, despite what states want them to do. 

At the same time, I think while it’s super important to monitor these developments, it’s also important to stay nuanced and to not draw simplistic parallels between the regions. All the regions are really different. All the ways in which authorities behave in these regions are different and so comparatively the French and UK authorities have organised rescues fairly well so far, and this is also, of course, one of the reasons why the death toll is not as high in the Channel. As you say, the crossing is also not that long but there’s so many vessels moving around that space, it’s also really dangerous because of that. 

So it is still a dangerous passage but there has not been the sort of widespread, non-assistance or even pushbacks as we experienced in the Aegean or the Central Mediterranean, and I think this is important so that we don’t fall into this trap of maybe spectacularizing a situation which others are already spectacularizing all the time but, of course, it’s key to really trace the border violence that occurs also in this space and to really monitor what will happen in this space which is open. 

But when we trace this violence, we also have to then focus really on what happens on the ground, what happens before people make the crossing or try to make the crossing along the French coasts, where police violence is really brutal and where they beat up people and harass people, racially profile people with impunity. So we shouldn’t just focus on the spectacularized crossings but really on this mundane, everyday violence that people experience in France.

LN: Yes, I was really interested in this last year really, the kind of RNLI, the lifeboats because they’re a charity funded largely by charitable donations that are very well liked by many people because of, I suppose, a shared understanding that being distressed at sea, that people who are drowning at sea or are in trouble, is something that people seem to share a connection, with a sympathy, a shared humanity at that level, which I think is really interesting when they intervene against a logic of… because Pritti Patel, when Home Secretary, was saying we’ll make floating barriers, we’ll push people back, we’ll act unilaterally to return boats, etc. 

All these things which not only aren’t workable because of the protections that are inherent to a liberal state, and I think we should recognise that we are in a context in which the French coastguard are following people along until they enter UK waters, but this is a fairly safe passage a lot of the time. It’s worth recognising that but also that there are actors, non-state actors, who might actually appeal to a broader constituency in something that’s often polarised between those people like us who think people should be able to move freely and those people who watch the seas for the signs of the interlopers, etc. Then there’s another kind of block of people which might summon some shared sympathy and humanity, which I also think happened in 2015, around images of people in distress and for all the limitations of focusing on children, something that was genuinely felt and that opened up the possibility of something else. 

And that leads me on, I guess, to thinking about, which I see in your work and with other scholars and activists, which is trying to shift the gaze from always focusing on state and its ability to control and its spectacles of exclusion, and to think instead about the kind of vitality, power and force of people on the move and this obviously is part of the approach that you subscribe to and I do too, which is the autonomist’s kind of autonomy of migration approach. But a lot of people won’t know exactly what that theoretical frame opens up, so maybe you could say a bit about how you find useful this idea about the autonomy of migration in your thinking and activism?

MS: I think I first came across this autonomy of migration literature when I started my PhD and it was a sort of revelation. It’s embedded in autonomous Marxist perspective which focuses on material struggles as the engines of history and I think that translated to migration meant that we should focus on those who engage in struggles of mobility, and I think in our really deeply unequal world, mobility, when we take this perspective, is not just something that states organise, manage, control in a neat way, different sovereign states that are just regulating mobility as they will, but migration is something that is politically fought over, and mainly by the people on the move themselves as political subjects. 

So I think this shift in perspective was so important because it really ruptures the state centric, policy centric perspective that still dominates studies on migration and borders. All these push-pull myths at sea, migration as a sort of water tap that can be turned on, especially if you need more workers, and can also then be turned off again. So the autonomy of migration really allows us, I think, to look into the contexts and practices of migration and there are so many and in my work, I try to trace some of them. 

And just related to, I think, the conversation we just had on the Central Mediterranean and to ground that a bit, when the Meloni Government came to power in Italy only a few months ago, there were these ideas that they would be able to end Mediterranean migration or they would reinforce the borders so that maybe nobody else would reach Italy. They would block all the boats before Italian harbours and, of course, it’s still early days but we still have to see what they have planned. 

But I think looking at these initial dynamics is interesting from an autonomous perspective because despite this culture war on the NGOs, or maybe because of this is culture war on the NGOs, we see that what gets hidden are all these arrivals that take place all the time regardless of the NGOs being blocked. So the Italian Government is not able to prevent people from reaching the Italian shores. They move further now than a few years ago because they know that they would probably not be rescued close to the shore of Libya and so they organise in ways that allow them to make longer journeys.

And at the moment, we see a lot of big boats coming from Tobruk, in Libya, for example, 500/600/700 people and, of course, it’s a super risky strategy but it’s, in some ways, too big to fail in a sense. Of course, if they fail, it’s devastating but so far they’ve made the crossings because they’re too big to be pushed back and still a post-fascist / fascist government seems unable to let 700 people drown in front of their coast. 

So we have this attack on the NGOs. At the same time we have loads of people arriving, about 100,000 people have reached Italy this year which is more than in the last four years, despite all of the militarisation of the sea borders, despite the Libyan coastguards and militias chasing after migrant boats, despite Frontex aerial surveillance. So if we only follow these narratives of border control and policy and states proclaiming that they are able to end migration or control migration, then we are not able to account for these mobilities. How do people still arrive despite all of this, despite a whole system of border control that they have to encounter?

And also very recently the EU Commission released a 20 point action plan on migration. I read this, it was quite hilarious because all these 20 points, they’re not new. They’ve existed for so many years and they have not worked for so many years. So they basically say the same things again and it shows a sort of helplessness on the side of policy makers because they know that they cannot really clamp down on migration as they would like. 

So they have the same recipes which really don’t work, which is obviously not to say that they’re not trying and they’re not being violent and that thousands of deaths every year are the price of that. But it’s still to say that people are not brought from one place to the other by smugglers or traffickers, if you follow European policy makers, but they organise their mobilities and they struggle again and again. So they are people who have been pushed back seven times and they tried for an eighth time. 

So for me, the autonomy of migration really shifts our perspectives to ask where do we actually look when we think about migration, and how do we look at these mobilities? Do we only see them as victims who are transported from one place to the other, which is the dominant perception I think in Europe – people as either victims of smugglers who don’t really know anything about the sea and who just need to be blocked in order to save their lives? Or do we see them as agents with their own aspirations, their own desires, their own abilities? And if we take this perspective, what does solidarity then look like? It’s solidarity then, it’s not some Italian responses to only victims but then the response is one of solidarity. How can we assist people who are actually struggling over mobility? 

So this perspective has informed my work and also in my book in Migrant Resistance and for me it’s still central because there is still this focus on policy and on how states can regulate migration. At the same time I also wanted to be quite critical about some aspects of it. So there are sometimes these ideas around autonomy, what does autonomy mean? I think it’s a problematic term in itself because there are sometimes these ideas that migration precedes control, which I think is a super complicated argument to make when we look at the visa regime and how people move also due to these structures in a precarious way in the first place. 

There are also these sometimes slightly problematic aspects that romanticise migration, that migration just happens regardless of circumstances and attempts to control it. But when we look at who moves, there’s also then a gender perspective, an able-bodied perspective because to overcome the sea, you have to be quite often able-bodied. It’s very rare to see people who are not able-bodied to succeed in crossing. 

So there are aspects I think where we have to ask who can move, given the circumstances? And I think we have to be critical of the autonomy of migration in some ways but we have to also think with it because it’s also developing. It’s all theoretical, academic approaches. It’s not written in stone. It’s being shaped, it’s being improved I think  as well. So for me as a perspective, it’s still incredibly valuable. 

LN: I find that too and I think you’re right. Obviously the question of what autonomy means is contested. The definition I find useful is not necessarily that migration precedes control but that there’s always a kind of excessive uncontrollable character to human movement and a kind of sheer vitality to people on the move. And that I would like to extend into thinking about what happens when people arrive as well, because my critique of autonomy of migration, perhaps not really a criticism so much as a building from, which is that there can be an emphasis on people on the move, on hotspots of bordering and movement and on that tension in those specific places. 

Whereas because my work is focused more on people once they’re in a place like London, the question then for me is once you open up an emphasis which is not on state’s ability to control, on Europe as a fortress, on states and on the EU always succeeding in doing what they’re doing, and you start to see the ways in which so many people have crossed and have made lives, with or without status, and then transform socially and culturally the places to which they arrive. 

Obviously the place where I’m speaking from in East London doesn’t make any sense without thinking of the histories of those who’ve moved here, often unwanted and racialized, and totally transformed them, and defined the life of a place, what’s exciting about it and what people resonate with and what people even understand to be the culture of this place in its multiplicity. 

And I think that’s what’s also interesting about autonomy of migration is that it gets us thinking about how those people on the move unsettle the space of the political and I suppose how people get thrown together in new ways, and this is the bit I see in the work you’re describing of Alarm Phone, but how people who are thrown together in new ways under shared conditions might be prefiguring alternative ways of relating to or against nations and racial categories. 

And that’s what I think autonomy of migration, where it could be built out as well is to think about the work of people, thinking about multi-culture, anti-racist practices connected, perhaps where does the figure of the migrant operate in the context of anti-racism in places where we have increasingly found faces in high places, but new constituencies. 

What I’m trying to say is that there’s a dead end way of thinking about migration which is that what do we do about the fact that people are worried about migration, as though the constituencies will stand still and we just need to triangulate and do opinion polls, when actually what’s hopeful for us should be that the new constituencies are being formed and precisely the autonomy of migration is one of the sources of that. And hopefully the demographic racists are right and that these places will be transformed by the fact of ceaseless human movement. 

Thank you so much, Maurice, for speaking with me. I think that was incredibly important and a helpful conversation and hopefully people listening have got a lot to follow up on in their reading of Maurice’s work and the work of the many people organising to help and assist people on the move. 

MS: Thanks so much, Luke. It was really nice to chat with you. 

LN: Thank you for listening. For more information about UCL’s Sarah Parker Remond Centre, find us at ucl.ac.uk/racism-racialisation or follow us on Twitter at UCL_SPRC