Post by Helene O. I. Gundhus. Helene is Professor of Criminology at the University of Oslo, and Professor II at the Norwegian Police University College. She has published widely on issues to do with police methods and professionalism and transnational policing. Her books include Moral issues in intelligence-led policingThis is the sixth instalment in the themed series on Policing, Migration and National Identity.

Photo credit: Pre-crime movie official trailer, YouTube

In the summer of 2015, nation states in Europe responded to the increase of migrants arriving from Africa and Asia by developing various interventions to combat irregular mobility. This included closing territorial borders, Intra-Schengen control increased, and numerous control measures were more or less permanently introduced. Border control practices in Central and Western Europe immediately became strenghtened. Drawing on interviews with those involved in the Operation Migrant, in our article, Pia Jansen and I analyse how the Norwegian police managed the increased inflow within a migration and law enforcement framework. 

Operation Migrant started with a request from the National Police Directorate, in charge of managing the Norwegian police, to the National Criminal Investigation Service,  which are the special agency for criminal investigation. The aim was to launch the very first national intelligence-led policing project that should provide intelligence on expected number of asylum seekers and migrants arriving in Norway, their profile, which border crossing were used and which ones they might be using in the future. They were also tasked with providing information on potential criminal activity and public safety issues as a consequence of the increased inflow of migrants.  

The core aim of intelligence is to reduce decision-makers’ uncertainty, and to have a common knowledge base so that resource allocation could be more rational and targeted. However, the view that migration was a potential threat and part of a ‘crisis’ encouraged worst-case scenario thinking that generated suspicion and unease, especially among politicians, about the potential criminal repercussions of the increase in migration population. As Mythen and Walklate argue, there are three types of questions to ask in risk analysis. They involve historical data concerning ‘what was’, situational pictures of ‘what is’, or more imaginative and abductive speculations about ‘what if’. The intelligence analysts intervieweed were most concerned with the police managers and politicians’ precautionary logic of unknown events. However, with little to hold onto from the past, it was difficult to ask the ‘what was?’ question. Some analysts, thus, focused on the questions ‘what is?’, trying to explain how the current situation points to the future, through obtaining more data of the present situation. Analysts point to the importance of building a situational picture, using data as close as possible to the present ‘real time’. Relying on the past or the unknown future will lead to different predictions of the future. For instance, when the define future threats, they come up with 132 information needs, were the threats goes from concrete law violations as human smuggling to stopping unstable persons capable of and possibly doing future harm. Asking ‘what if’ was tricky when the aim was to gather information about potentially threatening people. A police analyst describes the difficulty: 

There were several concerns about who the people coming were. Were they terrorists? The focus for a long time was whether terrorists hide among immigrants. Many of them are traumatized, come from areas where certainly, or at least very probably, they have been involved in a war. There are questions about the person’s identity and there is a lack of certainty about it, etc. These were issues that one was supposed to try to include properly in reports. (National Crime Investigation Service 9)

The interviewees’ accounts show how they actively shape what is viewed as risks and threats by assessing likelihoods and possible scenarios. Indications of threats ranged from asylum seekers reported for ‘stealing’ to the much more vague notion of ‘capacity for violence’. Rather than producing facts, they strive to find more rational arguments to support or refute vaguer concerns. It is, therefore, essential for them to capture what they call ‘emerging themes and challenges’. This is in sharp contrast to the managers and politicians that keep asking ‘what if’, thus emphasising a precautionary logic. 

The findings highlihts how the risk level attached to border security is negotiated in a patchwork of power relations between commissioners, practitioners and politicians. Were the risk analysis pointed at lower needs for border control and no increase in crime, the managers initiated law enforcement efforts and order maintenance just in case to pre-empt crime. This was justified ’in the name of security’ and for future deterrence. The findings also show how the rationality of probabilities not only produces arguments for management decisions, but generates complexity by producing several possible futures to choose between (see also Hilderbrandt). 

Although the link between security and migration was made long before the introduction of risk and threat analysis, the article highlights how risk mangement reinforces the link between migration and threat. Studying actors who implement migration policy within the police bureaucracy thus provides new insights about the role of the police not only as preservers of social order, but also as producers of social ordering practices which recognize the presence of future threats. Logics based on anticipatory action is, according to Anderson, formalizing, justifying and deploying actions in the present, by defining and labelleing them. 

Approaching migrants as threats and potential criminals foregrounds the unpredictability and uncertainty of the future and its indeterminate potential. As argued by Weber and McCulloch, to identify ‘suspicious identities’ and act on them is becoming a vital object of policing and various strategies of migration policing. Moreover, although the analysts base their decisions on available historical and realtime data, the efforts emphasizes the significance of the pre-emptive logic for legitimizing action; it is threats lying ahead that become the justification for taking action in the present. 

Our findings underscore the importance of studying how risks and threats are produced. As argued by Lee and McGovern, new forms of communication reduce some risks, but they also create others because they contribute to the production of new risk events. Securing borders might reassert state sovereignty as the afore-mentioned risk indicators imply, but the vulnerabilities and human security of the migrants receive less attention than those of the domestic public. This shift in focus from what someone has actually done to what they might do in the future is changing discourses of punishment and moral considerations of legal offences towards the question of who a person is (i.e. their citizenship, nationality, identity issues, moral conduct). The lack of information about the past makes this shift more prevalent, and furthers the development of anticipatory logics and practices. It is immigrants that are seen as not fitting in that are controlled and reacted upon by the police, as argued by Ana Aliverti.  To a certain extent, seeing insecure identity as dangerous paves the way for the use of more coercive methods of securing it: this is the process that Franko has described as the criminalization of identity. A lesson to be learned from this is that controlling migration as future risk also links crime and terrorism in a way that transforms migrants and asylum seekers into potential criminals or terrorists.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Gundus, H. (2020). Pre-crime and policing of migrants:  Anticipatory action meets management of concerns. Available at: [date]