Post by Leanne Weber. Leanne is Associate Professor of Criminology, Director of the Border Crossing Observatory and Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. She researches border control and migration policing using criminological and human rights frameworks. Her books include The Routledge International Handbook on Criminology and Human Rights (with Elaine Fishwick and Marinella Marmo), Policing Non-Citizens, Stop and Search: Police Power in Global Context (with Ben Bowling) and Globalization and Borders: Death at the Global Frontier (with Sharon Pickering). This is the fourth instalment in the themed series on Policing, Migration and National Identity.

Police researchers often speak about police patrolling the boundaries of belonging, however the dynamics of this process are rarely closely examined. Similarly, social researchers exploring questions of integration and identity have generally studied the socio-cultural and economic factors that influence belonging without considering the impact of encounters with authorities. My article, based on a qualitative study conducted with young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds in south-east Melbourne, connects these fields of inquiry by exploring the impact of contact with police on young people’s personal perceptions of belonging, and relates these encounters to forms of internal bordering. 

Participants in the study were predominantly young people from Pacific Islander and South Sudanesebackgrounds. They were asked in interviews and focus groups to discuss their experiences with police, both positive and negative, and report how those encounters made them feel. While most participants said they had never experienced positive interactions with police, good experiences included being treated politely, listened to, and sometimes having discretion exercised in their favour. Reports of negative encounters with police were far more prevalent, primarily in the context of traffic and street stops. These practices were perceived by those without offending histories as information-gathering exercises about their identity or associates, or as ‘tests’ of their attitudes towards police that can escalate into trouble. Those with offending histories perceived them as the price they need to pay for ‘being in the system’. One group of young African Australian men felt that police were pervasive in their lives, walked into their homes at will and appeared at social gatherings they attended with friends. Mothers from South Sudanese backgrounds talked about being followed by police cars while driving in their neighbourhoods or having police arrive in force at their homes. 

Lack of courtesy, sarcasm, being singled out on racial grounds, not being taken seriously, and being approached aggressively and with disrespect were also frequently-discussed themes. The issuing of fines for minor infractions such as public drinking, insignificant or non-existent vehicle defects, and fare evasion were widely seen as petty and vindictive, and led in some cases to the accrual of enormous debts that could not be paid. Young people also reported being occasionally prevented from boarding or alighting from trains. These practices were corroborated by parents and youth workers, one of whom described some of the policing in the area as ‘vindictive’ and aimed at ‘humiliation’. 

Young people reported a wide range of emotional responses following negative encounters with police which could be considered as indicators of ‘affective belonging’. Their responses are depicted in the image below. 


Some responses, such as feeling ‘angry’ or ‘frustrated’ towards the police, demonstrate the potential of negative experiences for leading young people to question the legitimacy of police actions. Disturbingly, other reported emotions suggested their effect on was to destabilise young people’s perceptions of where they fit into society (such as feeling ‘isolated’ and ‘misunderstood’) or their perceived status within that society (feeling ‘humiliated’, ‘disrespected’ and ‘powerless’). Of particular concern are the cases where non-offending young people said that being approached by police made them feel as though they were ‘bad’ and perceived by others as ‘criminal’, suggesting impacts on their self-perceptions that are potentially consistent with labelling theory.

Cultural anthropologist Ghassan Hage attaches the term ‘governmental belonging’ to those who assume the right to determine who should ‘feel at home’ within the nation. In this study,  police were found to engage in ‘governmental belonging’ when they select individuals for unwarranted intervention based on their racial or cultural identity, or fail to extend the expected level of courtesy and protection when members of migrant communities seek police assistance. These practices create a conceptual divide between those who are being treated as respected members of the community and those who fall outside the circle of protection. One South Sudanese Australian parent interviewed for the study expressed this sentiment succinctly when she noted: ‘The police are good for some people, but not for us’. 

In addition, the police were found to become actors in the ‘politics of belonging’ – a phrase popularised by sociologist Nira Yuval-Davis - when their actions convey to the wider community that members of specific groups present a threat to others. This may occur when young people from particular backgrounds are repeatedly singled out for police attention in public places, either in response to calls from the public, or when police exercise their move-on powers. Young people sometimes acknowledged that police were often responding to a wider politics of belonging, in which public pressure for intensive policing was driven by distorted media reporting associating young people from their communities with violence and other criminality.

Overall, the analysis showed that borders and boundaries are linked through their roles in processes of in/exclusion that operate at different stages in the migratory experience. While migrants may be included, in the sense of being legally and physically admitted at the national border, newcomers may continue to receive messages of social exclusion and non-acceptance. Discriminatory policing enacts a socially constructed border based on markers of non-belonging in a community, and sometimes a nation, that is mediated, at least in the first instance, by race and other forms of visible difference. The findings suggest that further research into psycho-social theories of identity formation in young people and criminological theories dealing with societal reaction and labelling could be fruitful ways to examine more closely the relationship between police encounters and individual feelings of (non)belonging.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Weber, L. (2020). ‘My kids won’t grow up here’: Policing, borders and belonging. Available at: [date]