Guest post by Richard Vogt. Richard is an independent scholar and public servant with a wide range of research interests that mostly include violence to/of bodies and state hypocrisies of power, usually mediated through a critical and cultural lens. Richard is on Twitter @richardvogt2021. 

Review of At Europe’s Edge: Migration and Crisis in the Mediterranean by Cetta Mainwaring (Oxford University Press, 2019).

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Cetta Mainwaring has been thinking about the peripheral borders of Europe, and in particular Malta, for most of a decade. This has given her a unique and somewhat encyclopaedic understanding of how the small European Union (EU) state has flexed its political muscle at the expense of its humanitarian heart for the past decade. In 2012 she described the situation in Malta in terms of the construction of a crisis, which she expands upon early in this book. While many of the issues around mandatory detention were once couched in discussions of Libya’s civil war (which Mainwaring has also written about separately at some length), these days it has taken on a far wider context. In At Europe’s Edge, Mainwaring’s concern centres primarily on this detention regime, with its ambiguous and technocratic language, using Malta’s place as a Dublin Regulation country for the EU as a clever case study in the outsourcing of border control.

As I sit down to finally write these words of reflection on this thoughtful book, the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee have finally been moved to comment on Malta’s treatment of mandatorily detained migrants, a signature policy that Mainwaring highlights has a history prior to the country’s EU accession in 2004 and to the Schengen area in 2008. The Immigration Act of 1970 (the country’s only 20th century law on migration) featured indefinite detention as default, and this was mimicked by the subsequent policy of 2002. This required the first detention centre to be constructed out of an ex-military barracks, as they so often are on the European continent. Those arriving or captured in the country’s system have no recourse to settlement in other European countries. Does this make Malta a kind of migrant dystopia or merely a microcosm of the Dublin and Schengen gridlock in league against the uninvited from North Africa?

Not only are migrants rescued at sea by Maltese military forces, but they are also branded by an association with criminality. In At Europe’s Edge, Mainwaring makes the reader aware that the military aesthetics of search and rescue are a key component of enhanced anti-migrant sentiment. This representation is part of detention-as-spectacle that Mainwaring and Stephanie J. Silverman previously analysed in 2017. Unlike nearby Lampedusa, however, migrants trapped in Malta’s system cannot be transferred to the European mainland. The use of military personnel demonstrates how crises are ‘political phenomena’ used to mobilise fear. This spectacle is the start of a unique double process wherein irregular migrants are highly visualised and then forced into invisibility, whereby their rights are smothered as they remain in a kind of bureaucratic limbo between the borders of Europe and those of Malta. This lack of looking at the true precarity of the migrant experience has been deepened with the introduction of drones in the Malta maritime zone, further extending the Frontex vision of surveillance and refoulement as a means of protecting the European coastline.

At Europe’s Edge tackles what has become an intractable policy deadlock largely of the EU’s own making. The longer it continues, the further to the margins the real victims – those seeking sanctuary and refuge, or even just a better shot at a reasonable life beyond dangerous precarity – are pushed in political discourse. In the third and fourth chapters of the book especially, the focus on migrant ethnographies helps reinstate the humanity of migrants; of their existence as people caught in transit, not as merely parts of multiple datasets for Frontex or European border reports. As Mainwaring is keen to remind the reader, a majority of the recent sudden and overwhelming migration is short-term and a result of exceptional circumstances. The Syrian conflict obviously has come as a shock to European states, but so too did the collapse of communist regimes, the Balkan Wars, the wars in the Caucasuses and the ongoing stalemate in Libya for the past decade. In this maelstrom of sensationalised images and political responses it appears business-as-usual that the real victims, those bodies washed ashore or never found once they leave the shores of North Africa (Tripoli in particular), are denied a voice.

Alongside this realisation, Mainwaring is keen to point out the (neo)colonial factors involved in search and rescue logics, with the ‘radical erasure’ – a sort of mare nullius – of the connection that has been forged between Europe and states in North Africa. And yes, borders include as much as they exclude these complex histories between Europe and its neighbouring regions. There is a tendency in many contemporary writings around the European border to be overly theoretical, and as such the way that Mainwaring cements her discussion in ongoing empirical evidence is one of the greatest joys in this book. As depressing and cynical as the policies are, I found myself hooked by her attention to detail and have been following emerging events throughout this year as a result of the interest she has managed to pique. For Mainwaring this is not just research; At Europe’s Edge reflects the determination of a type of academic activism (an intervention) that has been present in all the work of hers I have read to date. And this appeal is aimed not just at governments but also at the academy of which she is a part.

Three questions return to my mind when rereading At Europe’s Edge. Why does the EU obsess about the fortification of its external borders when statistically it is clear that the majority of its unauthorised migration occurs through legal, largely air, travel? Secondly: why do migrants continue to risk the Mediterranean route when it is the deadliest such route in the world, particularly given the answers to the first question? And thirdly, from the synthesis of these considerations, how have smaller periphery states sought to profit from the increased focus on security at Europe’s external borders? What becomes most apparent by the end of the book is just how complicit all levels of European governance are in the refusal of dignity and basic human rights to those in need of the protection of international law, which Europe has been so proudly promoting since the end of World War II.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Vogt, R. (2021). Book Review: At Europe’s Edge: Migration and Crisis in the Mediterranean. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/11/book-review-0 [date]