Tag Archives: borders

Who is the Three-Headed Dog? Surveillance and migration

patinir07745cc7-7700-4981-99f6-4117beda5bccCharon Crossing the River Styx was painted by Joachim Patinir between 1515 and 1524. A reproduction hangs on the wall of a bar in Málaga’s centro histórico where the detective protagonist of The Three-Headed Dog is often found. The original hangs in the Prado, which also plays a part in the book. The soul in the boat is shown in mid-voyage, at the point where a choice must be made between going to paradise (the hard route) or to Hell (the easy one).

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 16.12.48In Greek mythology the dog Cerberus guards the gates of Hell for his master Hades, god of the underworld. One might expect the dog to trouble only souls trying to escape, but there is ambiguity in some sources about what he does to those trying to get in. Once you have a border you have to patrol it in both directions. Cerberus is Surveillance.

surveillancecameraCerberus has three heads. Some contemporary surveillance mechanisms don’t look so different. In the present day he is fences, walls, CCTV, infrared sensors, helicopters, planes and speedboats. Guards with binoculars and machine guns, checkpoints with Interpol databases, detention centres and sometimes, yes, sniffer dogs.

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Surveillance against strangers must be one of the oldest human activities, when borders might indicate the territory of a family clan. Nowadays most controls don’t summarily shoot down intruders on sight, but the camps they get put into are sometimes a kind of living death.

downloadGetting around Cerberus is the most urgent task of undocumented migrants. In The Three-Headed Dog a group of youngsters from the Caribbean have to get through border control with faked papers at Madrid’s Barajas Airport. The smuggler advises them how to finesse questions posed by border agents. Once past that point a long series of challenges begin as the migrants start trying to insert themselves into local life without drawing the notice of interior guard dogs. The border is never permanently crossed.

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Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist

Being and being reviewed: Books as pieces of self

600Being and being reviewed is a play on the English title of Kajsa Ekis Ekman’s book Varat och varan: Being and being bought. Hers is an ideological diatribe on the commodification of women who sell sex and surrogate mothers, full of sound and fury, as well as lies, including one or two about me. It makes women’s bodies and selves into transcendental things.

croppedLAhandsTo put a book out into the world is to say I did this, take it and like it. It’s a kind of commodification, whether you give it away or give it a price. Strict marxists might insist the book is the product of labour and that one is only commodifying that. But I think it’s ambiguous, and I’m not worried about commodifying myself or pieces of myself. I don’t think I’ll lose my humanity by opening private places up to strangers.

Screen Shot 2017-02-13 at 00.19.01Olly ‘gives away his degree’ via book commentary on his youtube channel Philosophy Tube. (I might say he commodifies himself.) In a recent broadcast he reviewed Sex at the Margins. Nine years after publication, there it is, being reviewed. And guess who is reviewed right after me? Hannah Arendt. (See how I muddled the boundary between the book and myself?) You can hear it at about minute 3.20.

Here’s the thing: Olly describes the book in a way that doesn’t perfectly match what I’d say myself. If I were in the room with him I’d argue. But it’s his reading, his experience, and he’s already done with it. The book is an object in the world, not mine to control. It’s a piece of me that others interpret through their own selves.

Screen Shot 2017-02-14 at 13.32.13Then my new book Three-Headed Dog was reviewed recently by Noah Berlatsky of The Hooded Utilitarian.  A Novel Without Borders is a good title and it’s a good review in more than one sense. Noah understands Eddy, for one thing:

Eddy isn’t the typical victim of sex trafficking narratives; he’s not a girl, for one thing, and he’s probably gay. He’s not the typical young person you see in novels, either—he’s neither precocious, nor chosen, nor ambitious. His goals are mostly short term; warmer clothes, a better haircut, a job. Short-sighted, without many connections, it’s likely he’ll be taken advantage of, in big ways or small—but then, being taken advantage of is the fate of most people.

tree-branch-shadows-on-snowThe novel-without-borders idea refers to the difficulty of fitting the book into contemporary genre-categories. Amazon and other book dealers make one choose them (and then they fudge the choices). Noah argues that noir needs ‘mistrust, deceit, dramatic betrayals’. For me, the first two are part of all fiction and the third forms an overt part of The Dog’s plot. Noir’s defining feature is moral ambiguity, and my choosing it as genre was easy and natural to me. I’d argue with him if we were having a drink in a bar. But my own conviction doesn’t trump any reader’s experience.

From Customer Reviews on the Amazon page:

Laura Agustin has created an intriguing character in Felix and I hope to encounter her again.

I loved reading the tale of Felix. Can’t wait for more.

Both these reviewers seem to know there is likely to be more: that is the nature of detective fiction. In some ways those are the most important reviews of all. If you read The Three-Headed Dog, leave a line or two of comment on the Amazon page. Doing that makes the algorithm at Amazon pick up and show it in searches for non-insiders looking for books about migration, trafficking, smuggling and above all borders. If you enjoy Goodreads review it there.

borderoceanAnd speaking of algorithms, the way to avoid them in terms of seeing posts on this blog is to subscribe by email or RSS. On facebook and twitter you’re at the mercy of time and the robots.

Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist

Segregation, colonialism and unfreedom at the border

I spent one hour and 20 minutes in the queue at Stansted’s UK Border recently. There were probably 1000 people in the hall, divided into the usual EU passports versus Rest of World. Signs saying Tougher Controls Mean a Longer Wait are dotted around. In fact, tougher controls do not have to mean outrageously long waits, even if more questions are asked of each traveller. Some interrogations last several or more minutes, but if enough agents were allotted, waits could still be reasonable. If, however, management allot only two agents to the 200 people on the non-EU side and interviews take at least a minute – well, things get bad.

On top of this, however, some policy had particular groups of people jumping the queue automatically: not only a disabled person but the five people associated with her, not only the small child holding a flight attendant’s hand but the seven teenagers associated with him. Four such groups occupied one of the agents for half the hour and a half I waited, leaving only one agent to work the 200 in the queue. It was not the eve of a significant tourist event but a Friday evening when ordinary city-break tourists arrive for a London weekend.

The ‘transition’ Home Office website says functions of the UK Border Agency (abolished earlier this year) will be split in two.

On 1 April 2013 the UK Border Agency was split into two separate units within the Home Office: a visa and immigration service and an immigration law enforcement division. By creating two entities instead of one, we will be able to create distinct cultures. First, a high-volume service that makes high-quality decisions about who comes here, with a culture of customer satisfaction for business-people and visitors who want to come here legally. And second, an organisation that has law enforcement at its heart and gets tough on those who break our immigration laws.a high-volume service that makes high-quality decisions about who comes here, with a culture of customer satisfaction for business-people and visitors who want to come here legally.

The claim of distinct cultures sounds ridiculous to me, but on their own terms they failed miserably the other night. No one came out to apologise to the throng, which, if you want to be nationalistic about it, included several families where one partner had a British passport but the other did not, plus their small children. No one came to explain the delay, or offer cups of water or smiles to demonstrate that a ‘distinct culture’ exists to welcome the majority of travellers to the UK.

When one of the agents closed up and left, I sighed loudly and began talking to the woman next to me. Discussing the length of interviews I mentioned how an official wanted to know the nationality of my friends in Britain. The woman said I thought it was just Asians who were treated like that. The landing card gives the impression that crossing is a formality, but the oral questions make it clear that we in the queue are thought liable to be liars, cheats or worse. If this belief is really at the heart of UK border policy then I would like them to make such a closed, imperialist attitude overt on the landing card.

All who travel often can tell anecdotes about long waits and stupid questions at borders. The UK border is a bad one getting worse all the time but not unique. My object here is not to evoke a stream of crazy anecdotes about worse border-encounters. Instead, I am pointing out how my frequent long sessions at UK airport-borders add up to evidence of the field-work kind. It’s not just well-known journalists and their mates that get detained and delayed and ill-treated at airport borders; officials do not have to imagine you have interesting data on electronic devices to begin invasive questioning. The segregation into separate queues is not based on colour or ethnicity though that comes into play. No, it’s a separation by passports that grant different degrees of citizenship. If you don’t have the right kind you can be mistreated for hours with no way to complain or escape. You cannot go backwards or opt out; you are trapped. And given the situation, the longer you wait the more likely you are to be meek and mollifying when your turn arrives – which is a form of coercion.

These places are closed to reporters and photographers; I have no idea what protection one has, or rights. I do not know what happens if someone falls ill in the queue. Chinese visitors are targeted with an absurd and costly process to come as tourists, which can quite properly be called colonialist.

I believe the British government has an outdated view of Chinese visitors, perhaps rooted in colonial times. They wrongly fear many Chinese will overstay. We have to respect our borders, but such unfounded fears are harming the UK economy. – Chief Executive at London’s Hippodrome Casino

Some estimate the UK is already losing billions of tourist pounds. Why bother to apply if through the easy process of obtaining a Schengen visa you can visit lots of other European countries? Sure the UK has a popular brand, but for most of the world it is neither indispensable nor better than the same cliché-level brand of France or Italy.

Having arrived efficiently on a short flight from Copenhagen, I reached my central London destination three full hours after landing at Stansted. This is really outrageous. Usually I manage to maintain a curious attitude, like in Border Thinking. Sometimes I fail.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Naked musings on borders, illegality and personal identity

Last week at Gatwick airport, after asking me several apparently random questions presumably intended to trip me up, the official wagged my passport at me frustratedly. I knew what he wanted to ask but couldn’t: Damn it, who are you? These poor foot-soldiers in the war of the borders are required, whilst maintaining a calm and polite facade, to bully border-crossers in the hope of finding someone with nefarious purposes. I’m so accustomed to it that I scarcely notice, at the same time I’m aware that, if they want, they can keep me out, so it is always a moment of heightened attention lived in a zone of border thinking.

My Purpose was given as visiting friends, so he’d asked What nationality are your friends? Lots of different nationalities, I said. Oh, so you’re visiting more than one friend? You see why I call these questions random, and they also border on ethnic profiling, but never mind. They are probably sent lists of Annoying Questions of the Week. They hadn’t gotten him anywhere in his quest, anyway, which is why he flapped the passport at me and asked What do you do, anyway? I write, I replied. Now we were back on a more well-trodden track but still with stumbling-points. Have I read anything you’ve written? he challenged. I said I had no idea and and doubted it, but of course while he is having a hard go of figuring out who I am I haven’t a clue about him. Maybe he’s a No-Borders activist in his time off. Finally he gave up and waved me through.

Yesterday I was interviewed by a London politician on my views and proposals relating to trafficking. At one point I was explaining how underground economies mostly tootle along without disturbing anyone, replete with opportunism and abuse but flexible and tending to solve problems internally. To illustrate, I mentioned an incident during my own five years of illegal status (not in the UK). Who are you? I could almost hear him think. At another point I referred to my own experience of being oppressed by the work-permit system, where leaving a job one has a permit for means instant expiration of one’s legal status in the country. He has been told about the live-in maids who cannot leave because their passports are stamped for that single specific employment, even if they are being abused. To find out that supposedly ‘highly-skilled’ permits are just the same and that a researcher might feel abused and want to quit the job but stay and find another had never occurred to him. These are the nuts-and-bolts workings of a dysfunctional migration system, and they are rarely addressed in the abstract debating that goes on about migrants.

At one point, attempting to pin me down, he said, Philosophically you could be called a libertarian -and I cut him off right there. No, I said, I am not a libertarian, I rarely talk about rights and freedoms. I also am not a neoliberal proponent of the happiness of making money in a free marketplace. What I am is a believer in human agency. I believe that disadvantaged persons with limited options of how to proceed in life have, until they are actually put in chains, some space to move, negotiate, prefer one option to another. This position hardly seems philosophical to me, and I am not going to get credit for inventing a new theory with it. Yet time and again it turns conversations upside down.

Similarly, I handle the endlessly tedious conversation about whether selling sex can ever ‘be work’ like this: If one person tells me they experience it as rape and exploitation, I believe them. If another person tells me they experience it as a profession, I believe them. The other day sex workers in Santo Domingo, faced with a government proposing to criminalise their clients, reminded the state attorney that muchas de ellas mantienen a sus familias de este trabajo – many of them maintain their families with this work. (You’d think that would be punto final, wouldn’t you, especially in a poor country where any jobs at all are scarce – but it never is). Why this difference of perception and emotion should lead to such a hullaballoo is really beyond explanation.

Maybe these views make me a philosopher of the cracker barrel, doling out obvious common sense. But the politician explained his grimaces of embarrassed delight: You say things that occur to me in the back of my mind but I tell myself I must not allow them. Because they are taboo? I replied. Or, what do you think, because they are outside the box, revolutionary or downright criminal? Which lines are being crossed, exactly, with this naked talk?

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Border Crossing: Looking for sex-victims and sex workers

I spend about half my time in London; this year I have flown in and out six or seven times. Although the geographical border is obviously not located at any airport, the state says travellers are not in until they pass the legal border – now clearly marked at airports. In the photo to the right, queues to talk to border officials appear straightforward and rational, but in fact ever more often they look like the next picture.

In the foreground is the unnecessarily large and glowering sign marking entrance to UK Border Controls; at that point the sheep and the goats are separated into two queues (EU citizens and everyone else). Far away to the left is the actual borderline. What looks like one huge crowd above is instead two crowds, in queues so long they use a hairpin system that collapses people into a small space.

The UK did not sign the Schengen Agreement allowing free passage across European national borders to EU citizens and legal residents, which is why other EU citizens have to go through a control to get into Britain. At other EU borders there is sometimes a symbolic checkpoint, but often there is nothing at all. This is what Schengen was about, and frequent travellers celebrate it. In the UK it is different.

It used to be that those in the EU queue sauntered pretty quickly through a benign and passive control post, holding up their passports to officials in a genial manner. But the UK has gone through several crises and an unending battle about how ‘tight’ border controls should be, with the current result that those in the EU queue also have to hand their passport to an official who scans it into the machine. The other day the wait between scannings in that queue varied between 8 and 18 seconds, which might sound fast but means, if a lot of people arrive at once, that the queue is usually moving but sometimes rather slowly.

I carried out this counting and other mind-games from my place in the queue for Others – Rest of World – Outsiders, where the wait the other day was nearly an hour. A couple of hundred people were before me in that queue at Gatwick, and the observed time for some of those border-conversations was many minutes. Not for all, some get through in under a minute, and I am certain, if racial and ethnic and national profiling were not illegal, that the Others queue would be separated into several, and then all those whose characteristics provoke knee-jerk, detailed questioning would be together in a pariah queue. As it is, we are all together. This queue does not move steadily or even slowly but in stops and starts.

One game I played was trying to guess which travellers border officials might suspect – or profile as – victims of trafficking. Numerous pamphlets and guidelines – most of them fantasies – have been produced on this subject; most are quite ridiculous. I gazed around me: Would police worry about the brown-skinned woman travelling with the lighter-skinned man? Both of them looked awfully relaxed to me. What about the three high-cheekboned women travelling together, would officials suspect the oldest of being a madam-trafficker? I doubted they would worry about the young men joking together – not as victims, anyway. Everyone looked extremely bored; most played with their phones or read a book.

If anyone had been coerced or duped into that queue, there was no obvious way to know it. The questions officials ask are very schematic and repetitive, presumably to catch liars out in a contradiction, but liars getting as far as these queues have generally got good-looking documents and smart advice about how to handle the interviews, maybe including rehearsals. I would like to know what proportion of these border talks lead to identifying smuggled and trafficked people.

I’ve been quieter lately here. More people now write critically about trafficking policy, though a lot of them – particularly those new to the field and indoctrinated by the rubbishy stuff produced by the US government’s TIP reports – do not question the idea of trafficking itself. The way it all began was about mobility: the completely ordinary phenomenon everywhere in which people hear about a job in a place they don’t live themselves and travel to get to it. Selling sex is one of the paid occupations available. Some people talked about migrant prostitutes, others about migrant sex workers. In the sex workers’ rights movement, one still hears this idea, and migration policy used to be at least nodded to in conversations about trafficking. But now even the word migration has – almost – been disappeared. I say that because I believe policymakers have done and do this deliberately.

My Border Thinking was first published on the Greek site Re-public in June 2008. There are things I have changed my thinking on since that year, but the necessity to adjust one’s thinking in border zones isn’t one of them. Trafficking is definitely a border concept – full of indefinables, confusions and ambiguities. That it should be spoken of now as if it were a known and countable object, like a stone, is all wrong.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist