Guest post by Polly Pallister-Wilkins, Assistant Professor, Politics Department, University of Amsterdam. This post is the fifth installment of the Border Criminologies Themed Blog Series on the Industry of Illegality organised by Ruben Andersson

This post looks at the impact and politics of illegality in the humanitarian borderwork undertaken by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the borderlands of Europe. It’s based on ongoing engagement with the Operational Centre in Amsterdam, which in part co-managed MSF’s much-publicised sea rescue operations in the Mediterranean with MOAS, and involves some very nascent reflections on current research.

Here I’m particularly interested in the ways in which concerns around illegality and economic migrants came to frame and restrict initial discussions in MSF around the running of search and rescue (SAR) missions; that is, how practice at the border itself as a place of intervention by law enforcement actors—border police and customs officials—is shaped by the tension between illegality and the saving of lives and how subsequently such border practices on the part of MSF have come to partially disrupt the category of ‘illegal.’

The centrality of ‘illegality’ to today’s European border regime is a key point of contention in MSF’s humanitarian response to deaths and suffering at the border. This border regime differentiates between legal and illegal categories of mobility: on the one hand, it helps produce travellers whose mobility is facilitated with recognised documentation and legal and safe modes of transportation, and on the other, it produces travellers whose movements are labelled illegal, and who are forced into increasingly precarious forms of mobility. Illegality plays a central role in constituting the border regime, which in turn produces precarious mobility and places people on the move at risk and in need of life-saving SAR operations in the Mediterranean.

Illegality and its imbrication with the border regime also determine the limits of such humanitarian borderwork. Here the ability to save lives is dependent on the consent of border officials engaged with policing illegality and precarious mobility. It’s these border officials, such as the Italian Guardia Costiera and Guardia di Finanzia, co-ordinated by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome, who ultimately control the field of operations and its limits, determining the spatial zones of SAR, identifying vessels, and managing the disembarkation of people rescued.

SAR operations are one of the more obvious ways humanitarians intervene in the suffering of precarious, mobile lives at the borders. The less explicit and less visible or spectacular ways in which illegality shapes borderwork are manifested in the discursive field. Illegality works as a label to distinguish between deserving and undeserving forms of mobility, intertwining with dichotomies between economic migrants—the ‘illegals’—and refugees, also forced into illegal forms of mobility by the border regime but concomitantly supported by a legal framework through which illegal journeys can be transformed into legal statuses. Some in MSF saw SAR interventions at sea as problematic exactly because of these tensions and the spectre of ‘illegality’ and its attendant politics.

In contrast, there are those voices in the MSF movement who’ve stressed that MSF’s role as humanitarians should be to focus on, in the words of some MSF’ers, ‘those who suffer, not on whether people are worthy or not.’ In other words, that MSF, as they say, ‘doesn’t differentiate between legal status, but bases its assistance according to humanitarian need’ and that ‘there should be no distinction made at the level of practice.’ Here the practice of SAR is framed in such a way that it has the ability to challenge the category of illegal and to present the human subject of the border regime, allowing for further intervention into the debate around the violence of the border regime itself, preventing as it does safe and ‘legal’ forms of mobility.

Discourse and practice aren’t separate in borderwork but work to mutually reinforce each other through the production of particular imaginaries and subjectivities, as well as spaces of intervention. Following a summer of SAR operations that have worked—in part—to expand the field of legitimate border practice to now include SAR operations, it’s also possible to see how practice determines attitudes to discursive labels. At a meeting in Amsterdam in early September, some MSF members were keen to stress that the current ‘crisis’ at Europe’s borders and beyond was ‘framed by politicians specifically as a “migrant” crisis to try and de-empathise the issue’ in recognition of the ways illegality comes to be interpreted as negative. This in turn determines possible responses that usually involve more law enforcement and border policing.

These debates within MSF can be read as an attempt to move beyond, or to disturb, categories around illegality. However, at the level of intervention and assistance and in responding to the violence of the border regime—violence that is routinely effaced by the category of ‘illegal’—such categories remain largely untouched in practice. Here ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ persist as foundations of a border regime that seeks to determine mobility according to status. As MSF loudly and rightly calls for the provision of safe and legal routes as a response to the suffering caused by the current European border regime, categories of legality and illegality attached to mobility still remain undisturbed.

Author’s note: I would like to thank MSF for allowing me access to their world and to their ‘field,’ for being so open, for the stimulating engagement, and for allowing me to be part of the ongoing debate.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Pallister-Wilkins, P. (2015) The Politics of Illegality in the Humanitarian Borderwork of Médecins Sans Frontières. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2015/10/politics  (Accessed [date]).