Information campaigns to deter migrants as new bordering practices

This article is published as part of the 'the symbolic frontiers of border externalization' blog series

In our previous article of this series we argued that, since the 1990s, Europe and Australia started to implement the so-called awareness campaigns to deter irregular migration. These campaigns are considered an essential tool in fighting human trafficking and undocumented migration, as they contribute to raising awareness among potential victims regarding the risks of being caught in criminal networks and thus reduce their vulnerability. Several European states, as well as the Australian government, supported by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), have launched numerous campaigns to inform the population of sending regions of the risks of migrating, mostly in central and eastern Europe - Romania (1992 to 1996), Albania (1992 to 1995), and Ukraine (1998) -, the Philippines (1997 to 1999) and Vietnam (1998 to 1999), with an increase since 2000 in Morocco, Gambia, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, Cambodia, Colombia and the Dominican Republic.

In their attempt to reduce emigration before migrants reach the border by convincing them not to leave their home, these campaigns complement traditional methods of migration control, such as the surveillance of borders. In other words, for achieving its goal of deterring would-be migrants and refugees from leaving their countries, these campaigns depict them in very specific ways, operating as ‘new bordering practices' that are in conjunction with extraterritorial border policies. Nevertheless, these symbolic and imaginary dimensions of border externalisation have received little scholarly consideration.

There is now a rich literature exploring extraterritorial border management, while focussing on two different aspects of this practice: the securitisation of territory adjacent to physical borders; and the topologies of biopolitics governing racialised bodies. This latter aspect emphasises the disciplining of undesired migrants through the toll deflection, detention, surveillance and deportation take on migrant bodies.

Yet, what requires greater attention is how states attempt the symbolic control of unwanted migrants. This occurs through the use of extraterritorial subjugation as a practice of preemptive border security, the implementation of border externalisations through extraterritorially acting upon people’s perceptions of migration, and depiction of irregular migration in a negative light. This detailed analysis of the efforts by states to govern international migration through spreading imaginaries that symbolically reshape certain spatial associations is lacking.

Beyond the physical aspect of the border, it is fundamental to consider the symbolic aspects of it. Images and discourses reporting the European and Australian ways to tackle the 'migration crisis', while illegalising those who attempt to cross the border - focussing on their endeavour in terms of risks, death, prohibitions, acts of breaking the law, failure of the arrival - are part of how the media and communication contribute to shape and spectacularise the border.

The media portrayals of people crossing the border, through narratives and images of security and salvation, for example, can be understood as representational barriers, that construe their identities as 'desirable' or 'undesirable'. This is what we can call the 'narrated' border, which is part of the wider 'mediatized border', intended as a regime of reception characterised by the fusion of caring compassion for and military protection from mobile populations.

The mediatised border can be considered as a techno-affective network of mediations around migrants and refugees, where emotions of fear and empathy co-exist through digital connectivities, ritualising our relationship with the other through discourses of difference and superiority.

To capture the symbolic and affective role of media in managing human mobility we need to investigate the border not as a place, rather as a process, a socially constructed and shifting structure of practices and discourses that produces norms of difference and exclusion across bodies and voices of would-be migrants, with a view to sustaining projects of geo-political sovereignty.

As several scholars highlight, the border is always 'a process of bordering' that seeks to rhetorically identify and control the (very) mobility of certain people, services and goods that operate around its jurisdiction. As a technologically-driven process of ‘rhetorical identification and control’, the process of bordering thus systematically produces its own discursive or emotional landscapes of social power.

These affective spatial imaginaries are extraterritorially disseminated by the states to symbolically normalise certain territorial relationships. Through their normalisation, these imaginary geographies - created by performative discourses and socially held narratives about spaces and places circulated in language and performed in material practice - are used as a 'positive power' by the states to normalise human behaviour. A power that contributes to aid the policing of migration, through the shaping of the choices, desires, needs, and wants of people.

Using this schema, information campaigns to deter irregular migrants should be understood as new forms of delocalised migration control. These can be intended as new bordering practices that work extending the subject-making power of the state beyond its sovereign borders to redefine the 'truth' of irregular migration. A redefinition that aims to modify the choices, desires, needs, and wants of potential irregular migrants in ways discouraging them from migrating.

According to this perspective, we can argue that traditional methods of migration control, such as the surveillance of borders, are thereby complemented by attempts to convince migrants not to leave their home. Thus, to understand how information campaigns contribute to prevent arrivals before migrants reach the border, it is fundamental to explore the ways in which these new bordering practices are part of the complex dichotomies of care and control, the absence and presence of law, transparency and darkness, solidarity and indifference, which mark contemporary border regimes.

Short biography

Associate Professor Pierluigi MusaròPierluigi Musarò is Associate Professor of Sociology at the Department of Sociology and Business Law, University of Bologna, Italy, where he leads modules such as 'Humanitarian Communication' and 'Media and Security'. He is Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Research Fellow at the Institute for Public Knowledge - New York University, and at Monash University (Melbourne). He is author of several books and papers in the field of migration, borders, human rights, media communication. He is President of the Italian NGO YODA and founding Director of IT.A.CÀ_migrants and travelers: Festival of Responsible Tourism.