Post by Martina Tazzioli, Lecturer in Political Geography at Swansea University. She is the author of Spaces of Governmentality: Autonomous Migration and the Arab Uprisings (2015), co-author with Glenda Garelli of Tunisia as a Revolutionized Space of Migration (2016), and co-editor of Foucault and the History of Our Present (2015) and Foucault and the Making of Subjects (2016). She is co-founder of the journal Materialifoucaultiani.

Como and Ventimiglia, two Italian cities located at the border with France and Switzerland, respectively, have become critical border-zones for migrants in transit. Ventimiglia is best considered a ‘racialized intermittent frontier’. In 2011 and in 2015 Schengen was suspended only for third-country nationals, allowing the French authorities to perform identity checks on passengers on the train connecting Milan to Marseille essentially on the basis of people’s skin colour. The transformation of Como into a  border zone is far more recent: as the activists of Como Senza Frontiere, a network supporting migrants in transit, point out, ‘despite its geographical location - being a frontier-post close to Switzerland, Como had never been an effective border for migrants until summer 2016’. Indeed, migrants who wanted to move to Germany used to take the train in Milan and cross directly to Switzerland without stopping in Como. Yet, after the Swiss authorities enforced border controls in late June 2016, Como has become a forced stopping point for migrants who then end up temporarily stranded in the city.

In this post, I look at the transformations of Como and Ventimiglia into border-zones by bringing attention to modes of governing mobility through (forced) mobility - thus, shifting the focus from governing of mobility to governing through mobility. In so doing I contribute to a broader discussion of how states try to regain control over ‘unruly’ mobility; namely on migration movements that ‘disobey’ the spatial restrictions imposed by the Dublin Regulation and, more broadly, the tempos and the exclusionary restrictive legal channels of the Visa system.

What emerges from the observations and the interviews I conducted at the French-Italian and Swiss-Italian borders, is what I call containment through (forced) mobility. In these sites, border tactics obstruct migrants' movements and presence, not by fully stopping them but, rather, by forcing them to follow erratic geographies and to bounce across borders. As I will show in this post, this takes place through measures of forced displacement, push-backs as well as through more indirect ways of producing containment beyond detention - e.g. by obstructing migrants’ autonomous movements and forcing them to undertake convoluted routes.

These official strategies are predicated on a politics of dispersal of migrant multiplicities. Migrants’ presence on the territory is hindered and their movements are disrupted, diverted and decelerated not only by putting them in detention but by keeping them on the move. By focusing on (forced) mobility as a way for governing migration, I do not refer here to the transfers of migrant detainees from one reception center to another –which has been investigated by carceral geographers like Nick Gill; nor do I consider migrants’ hyper-mobility  per se, that has been well explored by the scholarship that addresses the consequences of Dublin Regulation on migrants’ lives. I am, instead, interested in the outcomes of border enforcement practices at the internal frontiers of Europe and forced internal transfers that seek to deter, decelerate and lengthen migrants’ routes.

‘Who knows if they are there’: invisibilizing and scattering of migrants across space

Speaking about ‘containment through mobility’ could appear oxymoronic: to what extent can migrants’ presence and movements be contained through mobility? Unlike detention, containment  encompasses a series of strategies for limiting migrants’ autonomous movements, not only by stranding migrants and making them immobile but also by keeping them on the move. Through (forced) mobility, I suggest, containment illuminates a triple governmental withdrawal: not seeing, not dealing with, and not protecting migrants in transit.

Unlike the hotspot centres located in Southern Italy - in Trapani, Lampedusa, Pozzallo and Taranto -  Ventimiglia and Como are border-zones in which national authorities do not seek to identify all migrants or track their passage by storing digital traces (through fingerprinting). Moreover, the Europeanization of controls that is at play in the hotspots, in the presence of Frontex and EASO officers, who monitor the Italian police concerning registration and identification procedures , does not take place there. In fact, it could be argued that migrant transit points like Ventimiglia and Como are characterised instead by a politics of non-registration, or of partial registration. While for the French and Swiss authorities Ventimiglia and Como are critical border sites to monitor, that require the deployment of police patrols and even drones for spotting migrants trying to cross the border, for their Italian counterparts, they are spaces of transit, where identifying migrants is not the priority.

At the same time that official hotspots were opened in Italy and Greece, these anomalous spaces of containment and transit were being organized by the Prefectures in Italy and run by the Italian Red Cross. Unlike hotspots, where all migrants are transferred upon arrival for the purposes of identification, admission to centres of transit in Como and in Ventimiglia is based on selective hosting criteria. In Ventimiglia, for example, only men can enter; women, minors and families are hosted in a Church in the city centre and are therefore excluded from the hosting system. There is no individual identification in Ventimiglia as ‘what matters is to count how many migrants passed, not who they are’, the manager of the camp explained to me. Conversely, in Como only pregnant women, underaged persons and families are allowed to stay in the small paddock full of white containers, almost invisible from the street. From time to time, migrants are identified and even fingerprinted in Como. However, this is neither a strategy of full identification, nor a politics of control conceived in terms of surveillance: indeed, only migrants who ask to be hosted in the centre are registered - filling in a form with their full name and nationality - and  only those who want to claim asylum are fingerprinted. In spaces of transit, the traps of humanitarianism, described above, directly affect migrants by impeding their journey and diverting their geographies.

The invisibilisation of migrants who pass through these border-zones and who are ‘bounced’ many times from one side of the border to the other - being pushed back by the French and Swiss police - contrasts with current images of the large movements of migrants and asylum seekers that circulate in the media. According to the Italian Red Cross, around 9,000 migrants transited through Ventimiglia since the opening of the camp and about 3,000 passed through Como. At the same time, Swiss authorities reported that 17,500 migrants were pushed back from Switzerland to Italy between June and December 2016. However, as Sunder Rajan points out, official statistics lead to ‘certain forms of blindness as a part of the rationality of a certain mode of seeing and accounting for the population’. ‘Seeing like a state’ conceals practices, such as the ones recounted to me by activists in Como in December 2016: ‘migrants who are apprehended at the border at night, are taken back by force to Italy and dropped in Como without notifying of their expulsion the Italian authorities nor the migrants’.  On both sides of the border, national authorities prevent any possible formation of collectives by dividing and scattering migrant multiplicities. The strategy of dispersal - which consists in scattering migrants across space - is combined with exclusionary criteria of access both to the camps and to the asylum procedure. The institutional channels to the asylum procedure are at the same time a humanitarian trap for many migrants - demanding protection entails leaving one's own digital trace and involves a sort of ‘geographical fixation’ (Foucault, 2013) - and what states try to restrict access to, preventively hampering some migrants from submitting the asylum claim. That is to say, after the implementation of the hotspot system in Italy, some migrants have been denied the possibility to claim asylum, and in this way had been illegalized on the spot. While in official hotspots the main exclusionary criterion is nationality, in hotspot-like spaces even those migrants who are eligible for the Relocation scheme (like Eritreans and Syrians) are arbitrarily pushed back from Swtizerland and France or are not allowed to claim asylum there.

Containment through mobility

In July 2016, the first forced transfers of migrants by bus from the French-Italian border to the hotspot in Taranto, 1,200 km from Ventimiglia, took place. In September these internal forced transfers became a weekly routine, and the same measure was extended to Como: migrants who are pushed back from France and Switzerland are then taken by the Italian police to the south of Italy with the purpose of lengthening and diverting their journeys, rather than hindering their further movement through detention or abandoning them. Migrants are not kept inside the hotspot. After being fingerprinted and identified for the second time, they are released. In this way, both the humanitarian and the security ‘hold’ over migrant lives becomes looser. However, it would be misleading to speak about abandonment of migrants on the territory: indeed, abandonment would entail a pre-established idea and a certain condition that consists in taking into account, and protecting. Many of the migrants in question are not even asylum seekers in Italy, nor the state has previously taken care of them. They are preventively excluded from the channels of the asylum or they do not want to remain in Italy. Moreover, it is not so much through constant monitoring that migrants are governed but, rather, through ongoing obstructions, modes of containment beyond detention and a mixture of identification (in the hotspots) and non-registration (at the internal frontiers).

Though many of those pushed back return to Ventimiglia and Como, it is possible to understand their forced ongoing movement as a form of containment; their mobility is disrupted not by detaining them, but by keeping them on the move. ‘We cannot leave any group of migrants assembling here, we must ‘unload’ and empty the frontier’, the Director of the Italian Police, Franco Gabrielli, declared. This illustrates that the interventions conducted in informal hotspot-like spaces are not about control in terms of surveillance nor about detention. Rather, they consist of scattering migrants across spaces, generating containment through forced mobility and removing the dangerous conducts from the others - namely, the ‘risky’ and turbulent migrants from the others.: together with the migrants ‘bounced back’, to use the word employed by the Italian police, from the Swiss and the French side of the border, those who take part to visible protests are removed from the cities that have become frontiers. Thus, the government of mobility as a government through (forced) mobility brings to the fore the effects of containment generated beyond surveillance and detention, that force migrant to restart their journeys and to undertake erratic geographies across Europe.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Tazzioli, M. (2017) Containment Through Mobility at the Internal Frontiers of Europe. Available at: (Accessed [date]).