Post by Andriani Fili, Managing Editor of Border Criminologies and PhD candidate at Lancaster University, Sociology Department. Her research focuses on exploring the history and development of immigration detention in Greece. 

Review of Migrant Resistance in Contemporary Europe by Maurice Stierl (Routledge, 2018).

As Europe has responded to growing numbers of people on the move in and around its territory by tightening its borders, strategies of border policing have assumed significant policy and political weight. Through the securitisation of land and maritime borders, state governments have sought to deter and disrupt the ‘unauthorised’ mobility of people, often at the expense of their human rights. Despite our extensive consumption of media narratives that frame people on the move in Europe as provoking an unmanageable crisis, we know little about the nature and ramifications of the experiences of border crossers themselves. A growing body of interdisciplinary academic research has redirected attention to those who move across borders and the ways they experience border policing, as well as to the perspective of the security forces and their own conceptualisation of border control.

Maurice Stierl’s book Migrant Resistance in Contemporary Europe, is an ode to the human ‘desire to migrate which finds expression in disobedient and unauthorized movements’ (p. 167). Drawing largely from Foucault’s conceptual ‘tool-box’ (p. 15) and on the author’s wide-ranging experiences of political research and activism that took place in various countries between 2011 and 2018, the book conceptualises public protests of migrant activists, irregular movements inside Europe and new forms of solidarities as three interwoven facets of migrant resistances. By understanding migrant resistances as crucial moments ‘through which the political can and must be thought’ (p. 4), the author employs them as method, an ethnography of struggle, which ‘compels engaged activism as research’ (p. 18). In so doing, he treats resistance as a catalyst that provides a window into particular aspects of the European border regime, using it as a standard point of reference for analyzing how power is exercised in the contemporary world.

The first part of the book (chapters 2, 3 and 4) provides ethnographic accounts of migrant struggles that contest and expose the technologies, practices and rationales that underpin European migration governance. Chapter 2 frames migrant resistance around the heading of migratory dissent, informed by Jacques Ranciere’s work. The author follows a cycle of migrant mobilizations, including demonstrations, occupations of city squares, hunger strikes and other forms of self-harm that emerged in Germany in 2012. Initially conceiving of themselves as non-citizens, migrants engaged in a cycle of protests in public, acted with and upon their bodies to openly challenge their presumed absence and unwantedness in German political life. Their acts of dissent against residence laws, for Stierl, opened up new political possibilities because they ultimately refused the state imposition of a non-citizen status, forcing government officials to directly respond to their demands.

While this facet of resistance is the most confrontational and thus more visible, chapter 3 positions the narrative in Greece to exhibit migratory excess, a more elusive form of resistance. Through life stories of migrants who are confronted with extreme violence and governmentally enforced identities, the author takes us on a journey from the borderscape of Lesvos to Athens and on to the city of Patras—a trajectory that seems all too familiar for those escaping to northern Europe. Drawing on their experiences while in transit, the chapter glaringly points to the diverse ways that people can resist in the ‘hope to enter a less violent future’ (p. 90). Although falsifying identities, buying fake passports on the black market, hiding, and running away might not be the most visible forms of resistance, they are nonetheless signs of a creative human persistence to keep moving in an environment which seeks to immobilize them.

Chapter 4 is perhaps the most personal account of migrant resistance as it revolves around the emergence of activist networks that Stierl has been personally involved in. The form of resistance recounted in this section is represented through the heading of migratory solidarity. Through accounts of failed attempts to support and save lives at sea, such as in the case of Boats4People, as well as successful attempts, such as with WatchTheMed Alarm Phone, Stierl shows that solidarity ‘counter-performs and prefigures the Mediterranean space as one not of abjection but rather of encounter and exchange’ (p. 120).

Having described how migrants and those who support them resist against diverse mechanisms of governance, the book’s second part seeks to understand what these struggles mean for “EUrope”, (a neologism problematising usages that equate the EU with Europe and vice versa, which Stierl uses throughout the book (p. 12)), and for our collective future in a less violent and segregated world. Chapters 5 and 6 are what I find to be this book’s constitutive moments. They highlight how European border violence has in many ways haunted both the project of and the very idea of Europe itself. In fact, these chapters skillfully overthrow many of the grand narratives that Europe has based itself upon, i.e. that of a transborder design, its humanitarian ethos, and its post-racial and postcolonial reality. When we follow the movements and struggles of unauthorized migrants, Europe becomes articulated ‘as a polity and space of racialized ordering and othering, of barriers, traps, and violent collisions’ (p. 158); thus, Europe’s dirty truths become exposed.

Whether such truths are able to actually break these dominant frames is the focus of chapter 7. While Stierl is careful not to romanticise the migrant struggles that the book presents, the concluding chapter seeks to imagine a radical future inspired by these struggles. In so doing, it animates the debate of the activist-research approach over what is possible and what kind of collective future we can imagine. The answer to these questions—while indeed difficult to address—is not very clear in Stierl’s narrative, which gets carried away in what migrant resistance reveals rather than how it can bring a different and better world to come. A call against apathy and for the creation of coalitions of groups struggling together is of course to be expected, but it is also of paramount importance to critically analyze how the collective “we’s” that such coalitions represent are constructed and maintained through the exertion of power and force, as well as who they exclude. Despite this, the book is vital reading for anyone who is trying to understand Europe’s contemporary border regimes and the ways they can be challenged. It would certainly appeal to students and scholars of migration, border criminology, security and citizenship studies, as well as broader social and political sciences.   

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Fili, A. (2021). Book Review: Migrant Resistance in Contemporary Europe. Available at: [date]