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Interview with Barak Kalir, associate professor of Anthropology and Sociology

B. Kalir
Barak Kalir

To Vito Fiorino, the piercing cries that awoke him and his friends as dawn broke on the morning of 4 October 2013, sounded like the greedy cries of hovering seagulls. Rushing out on the deck of his yacht off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy, Fiorino’s inquisitiveness soared to consternation, before descending into abject horror at the sight of drifting bodies littering the bluish waters of the Mediterranean. Close by, Domenico Colapinto, a local fisherman, had already reached what seemed to be the victims of a shipwreck. Trying to drag a drowning woman to safety, Colapinto struggled in vain to grab hold of her fuel-soaked arms. ‘… I couldn’t hold her. She fell back into the water as I called “hold on, hold on”. She was looking at me and didn’t say anything; she was exhausted. She couldn’t even float. I watched as she slid down, without a scream, with those eyes watching me.’[1] The Italian coastguard, which soon appeared on the scene, would later have the dreadful task of recovering the bodies of hundreds of men, women and children; migrants whose desperation for a better life trumped their indubitable fear of crossing a treacherous sea in an overcrowded, decrepit boat. The unknown, faceless victims of a perennial tragedy that continues to play itself out on the borders of wealthy Europe.   

Despite its harrowing conclusion, the subsequently known Lampedusa migrant shipwreck – in which more than 350 African migrants drowned after their boat caught fire and sank – forms part of a broader, recurring debate about illegal immigration, both in Europe and around the world. As an issue with a clear political and socio-economic resonance, illegal immigration dominates the political agenda of many, if not all, developed and developing countries. Every year, affluent countries within the European Union allocate a substantial part of their national budget to border control, and to tracking down, detaining, processing and deporting ‘illegals’ already residing within their borders. As a result of the uncertainties brought about by increased globalisation and the renewed growth of political populism, many states have of late taken a tougher stance against illegal immigration. In the Netherlands and elsewhere, however, this tougher approach by policymakers hasn’t always translated into successful implementation at street level, at times falling notoriously short of its objectives.

No wonder then that a lot of recent research has dealt with such issues as state deportation policy and the position of illegal migrants. Within academia, a wide range of researchers – ranging from social scientists to legal scholars – continue to examine the manifold aspects surrounding transnational migration between states. One such researcher is UvA anthropologist Barak Kalir, whose own extensive research has focused on the plight of undocumented migrants. Underscoring the importance of his work, the European Research Council (ERC) recently awarded an ERC Starting Grant to Kalir for his forthcoming project on the deportation policies of four different countries. In this month’s UvA in the Spotlight, we speak to Kalir about ‘illegalised migrants’ and the unfeasibility of current deportation policies.

Could you tell us more about your recent book 'Transnational Flows and Permissive Polities'?

The book is a collection of ethnographies of transnational migration and border crossings in Asia. Besides dealing with the tension between the legal and illegal/illicit aspects of transnational (im)mobility, the book also addresses issues of mobility and diaspora from various vantage points. It sheds new light on bottom-up globalisation, and examines the narratives and views of the mobile subject (undocumented migrant - ed.) and their sense of belonging to places and communities.

You were recently awarded an ERC Starting Grant for a forthcoming project on the deportation policies of four different countries. Could you tell us more?

As an anthropologist, most of my research over the last ten years has focused primarily on undocumented migrants: their motives, marginality, outlook and experiences. I’ve also examined the efficacy of state policy, and the way the latter influences and shapes the everyday existence of marginal populations. At one point, however, my gaze started to shift as I realised that the difficulties surrounding undocumented migration in host countries might be less attributable to state policy as such, and more to the way policy is implemented at street level.

After further pursuing this line of thought, I discovered a lacuna. Whereas a lot of research either explores the position of migrants or state policy in host countries, not a lot is known about what I call the ‘meso’ level; the groups that are responsible for implementing policy and that deal directly with undocumented migrants on a daily basis. These ‘implementers’ consist of two seemingly opposing groups: at one end of the spectrum are the state agents, such as police officers, bureaucrats and local authorities, who follow the letter of the law and diligently execute policy; at the other end are the so-called ‘do-gooders’, such as human rights organisations and other NGOs, who try to ameliorate the plight of undocumented migrants. In contrast to the common assumption that these two groups are in direct opposition to one another, my initial findings inject a certain amount of ambiguity, revealing a more complex picture. The outlook and beliefs of the individuals who form part of these groups are sometimes incongruous with the duties they are expected to execute. There are, for example, many state agents who have extremely progressive ideas about migration and favour a radically different approach to that taken by the state. This chasm between personal principles and official duties in turn leads to the selective implementation of policy. The same holds true for NGOs, which include individuals with a very conservative outlook on migration and who in private agree with more stringent measures to curb migration.

In my project, which will have a comparative focus on the deportation policies of Greece, Spain, Ecuador and Israel, I will – among others things – seek to map and understand how such worldviews are shaped, and how these views in turn influence issues such as policymaking and policy implementation.

Photo: UNHCR

Why did you specifically choose these four countries? 

First and foremost, I chose these four countries because they afford a global comparison. By examining their respective approaches to undocumented migration, I’d like to determine whether there is a global convergence in deportation policies and practices. I’m also interested in finding out whether this supposed convergence applies to the way that civil society within these countries responds to state policy.

Within Europe, Greece and Spain are the most suitable candidates for such a comparative study, as both are located at the periphery of the European Union and are the first destination for undocumented migrants seeking entry into Europe. Ecuador and Israel are interesting because both have fundamentally different deportation policies. While Israeli policy is highly restrictive, violent and entirely reactionary, Ecuador probably has one of the most progressive deportation regimes in the world, characterised by a very humane and caring approach to the issue of undocumented migrants. As opposed to Israel, the Ecuadorian state also actively works in close partnership with NGOs and other stakeholders.

What is the social relevance of such research?

Although one’s expectations should always remain grounded in realism, I have of late noticed an increase in the amount of invitations I receive to workshops and interviews dealing with deportation policy. Many of these invites come from policymakers and civil servants who are thirsty for new ideas with respect to deportation policy in its current form. There seems to be a growing consensus that the current system is unworkable, ineffective and in need of an overhaul. In this respect, ongoing research could be the key to pinpointing alternative approaches.

Do you think the deportation system is unworkable?

Oh, I’m adamant about it. In my opinion, the global deportation system is inefficient whatever way you look at it. It’s inefficient because it sets the wrong targets and allocates enormous amounts of money and resources to a problem which is greatly exaggerated. Last year alone, the Netherlands spent approximately half a billion euros to detain, process and deport about 3,000 ‘illegals’. Looked at from a purely business perspective, such meagre returns raise questions about the sustainability of current policy. Shouldn’t such extravagant sums be put to better use?

The only reason I can think of why the state would obstinately proceed with such a misguided approach is because of symbolism. What really seems to be at stake is the notion of ‘control’. To the outside world as well as to its own citizenry, the state wants to come across as a tough and jealous guardian of its own sovereignty. Many states seem to have a deep-seated fear that they might seem ineffectual both at home and abroad, and be overrun with immigrants. Contrary to what some people might think though, many migrants are highly educated, law-abiding and could potentially make a significant contribution to their host countries. I really believe that in 50 years’ time, people will look back at the migrant issue and wonder how it could have taken us so long to see how wrong our approach was.