Post by Maartje van der Woude, Full Professor of Sociology of Law at The Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance, and Development and Associate Professor of Criminal Law at the Institute for Criminal Law & Criminology of Leiden University. This post is the first installment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on Decision-making in the Dutch Borderlands organised by Maartje.

This blog post marks the kick-off of a themed series on ‘Decision-making in Dutch Borderlands,’ which is the name of the larger interdisciplinary research project I’ve been working on together with two PhD students over the past couple of years. The overarching research question we aim to address in this project is the extent to which the Dutch migration checks that are carried out by the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee (RNM) in the border areas with Belgium and Germany―also known as the Mobile Security Monitor (MSM)―can be considered legitimate.

The RNM and their Role as Border Police

I still remember how one of my master’s students in 2012 started an internship with the RNM. The RNM is a gendarmerie corps―that is, a police force with military status. I was immediately intrigued by this organization of which―unlike the regular police―I knew surprisingly little. It turned out that I wasn’t the only one, since publications and empirical research on the RNM were lacking. Needless to say, this only further triggered my curiosity. I decided to schedule a meeting with my student’s RNM supervisor to see whether they would also be open to letting me do some research myself. During this first meeting it became very clear to me that, in contrast to what I expected, the RNM was in fact an organization very much open to an external perspective that would critically and conscientiously examine and evaluate some of their activities. Yet, there were also clear concerns about bringing an ‘outsider’ in. What did I want to research? What kind of access would I need? Who would I be talking to and why? What would I be writing and publishing? Many questions that all evolved around the main crucial question: ‘Do we trust you?’

For many young academics who often feel pressured to publish as much as possible after getting their dissertations out there, it may have been too big of a risk to invest time and effort into something they weren’t quite sure would pay off. Building trust clearly takes time and is a precarious activity. I experienced this first hand. One meeting turned into a dozen during which I encountered a broad range of officials from throughout the organization. Everywhere I went and to everyone I spoke I explained why I was so interested in the organization and, after finding out more about the various tasks of the RNM, why I was particularly interested in their role as Border Police. As I explain in a previous blog, in their capacity of Border Police, RNM officials have the power to carry out immigration checks in the internal border areas between the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium. The legal construction under which these checks take place is known as the Mobile Security Monitor (MSM). Not only did I find the mere existence of the MSM fascinating in the light of the Schengen Agreement and open borders, I wanted to find out how and why people would be selected for an MSM-based immigration check and how people experienced these checks. Altogether, this culminated into the overarching question of the legitimacy of the MSM and discretionary decisions taken under the flag of the MSM.

After having reached a clear agreement with the RNM and the Ministry of Security and Justice―in the form of a written covenant―on how the research would be carried out and what data would be collected, how and where the data would be stored, how to deal with the confidential nature of the data and, not unimportant for an academic, how to publish about the research. As part of the convenant an external advisory board of officials working for the Ministry of Security and Justice and the Ministry of Defence as well as academic experts was put together. The research team that would eventually carry out the research would report every once in a while to the advisory board on its proceedings. The board was also available in case of running into practical or ethical dilemmas. With the convenant as an important and tangible marker of mutual trust, in the fall of 2013 I was granted access to carry out the research together with two PhD students who could use the collected data for their individual dissertations. Almost two years later, we’re wrapping up the last bits of the fieldwork and working on the first publications.

Assessing Legitimacy by Mapping Discretionary Decisions

Primarily, we sought to assess the legitimacy of the MSM. As a result, we focused on mapping the discretionary decisions that are taken by the various actors involved in the MSM: From the street-level border police officials to the upper level policy administrator to the national and European legislature. Indeed, discretionary power resides at all levels of criminal justice bureaucracies: from the most senior officials at the center who frame broad policy to the most junior recruits at the street-level whose work as screening or gatekeeping officials means direct contact with the difficulties of the real world. Only by mapping and analysing the discretionary decisions made by each of these individual actors one can determine the legitimacy of the MSM. For this part of the research, we conducted over 800 hours of observational study during ride longs with the RNM while they were performing the MSM. Additional data on street-level decision-making was also collected through thirteen focus group interviews with 8-10 RNM officials, resulting in about 30 hours of conversation. In order to map the discretionary decisions taken on the legislative and policy level, besides an analysis of the relevant policy and legal documentation, in-depth interviews were carried out with senior policy officials working for the RNM, the Ministry of Security and Justice, and the Ministry of Defence who were somehow involved in the implementation of EU legislation into the national and organizational framework. And lastly, since legitimacy is also closely connected to the way in which people perceive the actions and decisions of law enforcement officials, tying in with the theoretical framework of procedural justice, 167 surveys in 12 languages were taken from individuals who had been stopped under the MSM. All data were collected in the period October 2013 to October 2015.

The Rest of the Themed Series

After further reflecting more in general on the importance and challenges of doing academic research into law enforcement decision-making, over the next two weeks we will be shedding light on some of our legal and empirical findings. In doing so, we focus on the following sub-questions: What is the goal of the MSM and to what extent has that goal been influenced by the ongoing securitization of migration? Who are stopped and why? What is the role of technology in immigration control in Dutch border areas? How do citizens perceive the MSM and the RNM? The series will be closed by a reflective blog on the Dutch case in the light of the European Project. Through the range of blog posts we will publish as part of the themed series, we hope to give you a first glimpse into some of the outcomes of our project. The full results of our research will be published through various publications in Dutch and English over the next couple of months and probably years.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

van der Woude, M. (2016) Starting to Decipher Dutch Border Practices. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/02/starting-decipher (Accessed [date]).