Guest post by Laura Cleton, PhD candidate at the University of Antwerp. Her project deals with the politics of migration control in the Netherlands and Belgium and focusses on the subjectification of ‘deportable migrants’ in the encounters of street-level bureaucrats and irregular(ized) migrants. She is on Twitter @LauraCleton.
Within the field of migration and border studies, migration control institutions are often described as particularly problematic sites to access. Scholars reflecting upon accessing these spaces of everyday control highlight the difficulties and hostilities they encountered in acquiring access to the offices of bureaucrats in charge of executing deportation policies, which are often hidden from the public view to avoid public scrutiny (see the work of Ellermann, Eule and Vrăbiescu). In 2017, Border Criminologies hosted a dedicated themed series on the various obstacles researchers come across in ‘Accessing the Migration Apparatus’.
This post is both inspired by and a reaction to these reflections on researching state institutions responsible for the control of irregular(ized) migration in Western European states. It has two aims: 1) to highlight the questions that arose when the state institution I researched did not seem to be characterized by opacity and resistance, and 2) to show that this openness towards me studying deportation practices can be seen as part and parcel of a state project aimed at legitimizing restrictive forced return policies.
Acquiring access to frontline deportation offices
For a research project undertaken at Dutch deportation offices (DT&V), I was interested in studying how street-level bureaucrats carried out restrictive migration law, without always having recourse to the possibility of deportation. Studies have highlighted how self-constraining liberal norms, migrant resistance and international constraints can be responsible for this ‘deportation gap’. Similar to Vrăbiescu, my access to this closed environment has been guaranteed by knowing the ‘right person’, in this case a senior DT&V policy officer, and by their perception of my trustworthiness as a former research intern at the Ministry of Security and Justice. This combination provided for almost unconditional access to the vast migration control infrastructure in the Netherlands. While others note that they often had to resort to acquiring unofficial access via lower level bureaucrats (Eule, Vrăbiescu), in my case, the official permission I received from two DT&V vice-directors ensured unrestricted access. The vice-directors put me in contact with the managers of several DT&V offices, ensured access to state IT systems and ensured that I could make individual appointments with state workers.
Getting a warm welcome and the openness of deportation officers
Contrary to most testimonies in the literature, I was met with an unexpected and ostensible kindness and open-mindedness towards my research project. Frontline officers never openly showed hesitation or hostility towards me ‘hanging out’ with them and took their time to explain their working methods. The institutions’ official engagement with this project has extended beyond providing access to the frontline offices: it varied from pointing to what they thought were interesting angles for research, to putting me in contact with colleagues at other institutions and sending two-page commentaries after publication of our findings. I got the impression that the DT&V had very little resistance towards my presence at their offices.
Puzzled by these unexpected gestures, I felt that I needed to look closer at this open-minded attitude. Did they feel that they were helping out a colleague? Were they really showing me the true workings of the Dutch deportation apparatus at all, or were they upholding a certain ‘preconstructed’ discourse, solely showing me ‘what the state wants me to see’? (see Vrăbiescu). Without immediately presuming that there was indeed darker reality hidden behind their narratives, I focussed on trying to understand where this openness came from and what its function could be. Was it solely my unique positionality as a white, higher educated, female former colleague that can account for their open-mindedness? Or do their narratives point to a more structural tendency where state practices are less hidden than we ought to believe they are?
‘Uncovering’ discretionary practices
I hold that I did not open up ‘the black box’ of migration control, but rather ended up researching an institution that explicitly aimed to communicate what happens ‘inside migration policies’ to the broader world. Writing about her research at the DT&V, Priins also highlights how her request was welcomed with enthusiasm and happened to coincide with an institutional desire to be more transparent about how policy is ‘really’ carried out. In a recent article, Vrăbiescu reflects upon the willingness of the French state to unveil solely those parts of the deportation procedure not deemed ‘inappropriate’, namely the organization responsible for ‘voluntary return’. In the Dutch case, I argue that the DT&V purposefully engages in disclosing work that Vrăbiescu calls ‘practices that even the state thinks are not “good”’ for two reasons: first, because they do not believe that they are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but necessary to uphold the legitimacy of the asylum system, and more importantly, to legitimize the actual working of the deportation apparatus. During fieldwork, I was continuously pointed to how the new insights I gained from witnessing and interacting with frontline workers would also lead to a renewed political understanding of the ‘necessity’ of deportation in sovereign nation states. Thus, my informants believed that this project would change my own political engagement with the topic, since I would now ‘truly understand’ why irregular(ized) migrants ‘should be deported’.
Such efforts are not solely directed at a few academics researching the DT&V, but is reflected in an impressive amount of media coverage, story bundles, documentaries, information videos, interviews and even a book dealing with the daily enforcement of deportation policy in the Netherlands. Indeed, the DT&V has a dedicated webpage highlighting their efforts in reaching out to media and public platforms. These materials consist of amongst others two documentaries highlighting the work of DT&V case workers in detention centres (broadcasted on one of the public service channels), critical interviews with DT&V employees in national newspapers and videos explaining how case workers try to persuade irregular(ized) migrants to ‘depart voluntarily’. My take on this unexpected opening up about hidden DT&V practices is that it serves to enhance the public legitimacy (and support) for the migration control system, by explicitly focussing on the stories of individual case workers ‘merely enforcing policy’. By depicting the emotional labour of those carrying out deportation policy in these materials, the DT&V itself takes up the task of ‘opening up the black box’ of their work, to further legitimize and gain support for their work within the migration control infrastructure.
Of course, one can never know whether these materials and my time spent in bureaucrats’ offices indeed shows everything there is to see. But, claiming that they disclose their working methods to me and via these materials to the wider public, purposefully serves to legitimize the workings of migration control policies. Rein (pseudonym), one of my informants working at a DT&V office close to Amsterdam puts it this way: ‘I don’t mind featuring in documentaries and videos explaining our work: we have nothing to hide, and in this way, people hopefully will look at the DT&V in a different way’. The warm welcome I received therefore might very well be explained not just by my specific positionality, but as an outcome of this larger state project of gaining legitimacy. For future research on the detention and deportation apparatus, these insights might give rise to further analysis of the workings of opacity, secrecy and various manifestations of state institutions’ disclosure.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)
Cleton, L. (2019) From the Filed: ‘We Have Got Nothing to Hide Here’: Reflections on Researching the Deportation Apparatus in The Netherlands. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/07/field-we-have-got (Accessed [date])