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The Naked Anthropologist · borders


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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.


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.


Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist


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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


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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


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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


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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


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The faith in technology is touching. Not that they shouldn’t try, not that there are not bad people abusing the absence of technology. But without understanding why people want to get out of Nigeria, why they want to go abroad to work, and send money back, and see the world and be able to come back and then leave again, this technology will be a very partial solution. And that’s after they get it all working correctly; anyone stuck in a rich country’s border-control queue when a new machine fails knows about that. As quickly as the state installs clever new machinery for detecting fraud, fraudulent-document producers come up with a way around it. Which is what migrants look for in entrepreneurs (here called middlemen) who will smuggle them out of one country and into another.

However, let’s say these machines do present significant obstacles to people wanting to get on airplanes. In that case, arrangements to leave via the wide-open other borders will become more popular, getting rides to other places, other airports. To prevent that, Nigeria is going to build fences with check-points: just like in the olden days, just like on the US and Israeli and Melillan borders, where surveillance would have to be 100% efficient (and 100% non-corrupt) to prevent everyone who wants to make a hole in or dig under the fence or wall. Not to mention Nigeria’s sea border.

Immigration installs IT equipment to check human trafficking

28 February 2011, Vanguard

Abuja -The Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) has installed Document Fraud Readers, scanners and other passenger registration equipment at the various international airports to check human trafficking. NIS Comptroller-General, Mrs Rose Uzoma, on Sunday in Abuja, said that the equipment would also check movement of people in and out of the country.

At the international airports, we have taken necessary steps to install IT equipment, the Document Fraud Readers and the Scanners. We have installed the Passenger Registration Equipment that enables us take stock of whoever is leaving or coming into this country. I could tell when last and if you have ever travelled through our international airports in the recent times, I will tell you the time and hour and the immigration officer that cleared you. The facilities we have had enabled us to a very great extent to be able to ensure that people don’t travel with forged documents.

Uzoma said that the era when people used their relatives’ passports to travel was over as the immigration service had installed machines that could identify every individual and detect look-alike photographs on passports. She noted that officers had been trained and sensitised to be able to tackle the challenges of human trafficking to help to reduce the bad image it had given the country. Uzoma said that the service had been collaborating with the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) to tackle the menace of human trafficking. She said that the NIS had also established human trafficking units at its areas of operations in the states and at its headquarters in Abuja as a complement to the efforts of NAPTIP.

If anyone has travelled and sees the peril under which our sisters operate, nobody will wish it on his or her worst enemy. So our officers are living up to their responsibilities.

The immigration service boss said that the absence of notable physical structures on Nigeria’s borders in many places was a challenge as it was difficult to identify the border route in many instances.

If you have had the opportunity of travelling through any of the borders in the northern part of the country, you can see how extensive and expansive they are and many of them don’t even have what could pass as international border control structure.

Uzoma said that the service would soon put in place passport control plazas and necessary structures to enable officers to effectively patrol all the border areas. She added that trans-border criminality also remained an ongoing battle between the law enforcement agencies and criminals. She added also that the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) has issued about three million electronic passports to Nigerians between 2007, when the new passport was introduced, and February 2011.

I know we have issued a little less than three million electronic passports from 2007 to date. As we speak we are also giving permits to foreigners. Recently we have started registration of Africans and ECOWAS nationals. We didn’t have their data, but they are also foreigners. We had to borrow the equipment from INEC that they used in the previous voter registration; re-programmed them and we gave them to all our local government area officers for them to take biometric data of all those Africans in our midst. At the last count we had about 400,000 non-Africans residing legally in Nigeria.

The NIS Comptroller-General said that one of the major challenges confronting the service was the attitude of some Nigerians as regards the processing of the passports. She said that the challenge derived from the fact that most Nigerians didn’t like to fill forms either for their passports, or for other necessary documents. Many prefer to use middlemen to do something as simple as filling a form and in a lot of cases the middlemen fill the forms incorrectly, missing out some details. Uzoma added that Nigerians also didn’t like to take responsibility for processing their travel documents and preferred to use middlemen, which often times, led to the problem of visa refusals at embassies. She advised that Nigerians should be sensitised to understand that they had to conform with international best practices, especially when they planned to be travel to other parts of the world.

Uzoma also said that the NIS had acquired the best technology to detect falsified age declaration and some other details, including the change of names when a dishonest applicant applied for a passport while claiming that he or she never took one in the past. She said that when the immigration service took fingerprints in its machines, the computer would bring out the name of the original owner of those fingerprints and when they matched those of the applicant, such person would be revealed as having once obtained a passport.


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Do you doubt how European borders are increasingly surveilled and policed? I was recently invited to

Towards E-Borders
The impact of new technologies on border controls in the EU

Border control is a key element of the European Union’s policy as defined and developed in the new Stockholm Programme adopted in December 2009. In recent years, the European Union has tried to make full use of the latest electronic technology to provide a way of collecting and analysing information on everyone who travels to or from the EU. The ultimate aim is to monitor internal and external borders to ensure greater security, effectiveness and efficiency.

To this extent, the EU is currently working to develop and adjust surveillance and information systems such as Eurosur, Schengen Information System (SIS I and II), Visa Information System (VIS), Passenger Name Records (PNR), entry/exit system, etc.

Different Member States have successfully delivered pilot projects which make full use of new technologies to ensure that controls at borders are continually adapted to maintain a high level of internal security. Ireland recently approved the development of an Irish border information system (IBIS) which operates on the basis that passenger information collected by carriers prior to departure are sent to an Irish Border Operations Centre where it is screened. The United Kingdom implemented the iris recognition immigration system (IRIS), a biometric entry system, which recognises the unique iris patterns of a person’s eye to allow quick entry for pre-registered passengers at selected ports in the UK.

This seminar intends to take stock of the use and the impact of new technologies on EU borders. European and national initiatives will be debated. The role of Frontex and Europol to ensure greater security at EU borders will also be discussed.


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At the end of this piece published the other day I talk about a step I’ve long considered to be part of a partial solution for the myriad problems associated with undocumented migration. Often, in the victim narratives that surround irregular migrants, it’s assumed that all find employment only because they can be brutally exploited and underpaid. The employment scene is more diverse than that, and often people might be employed – chosen for a job, that is – but employers aren’t allowed to hire them. The work permit system allows migrants to work only in the place and manner specified in the first application: no job-switching is possible. And those who’ve got into a country illegally cannot apply for a work permit for a legal job. The inflexibility does no good for anyone’s economy.

The Ease of Righteous Causes: What to feel about undocumented migration

London Progressive Journal, Issue 98, 27 November 2009

It was easier when one could talk about asylum as a benevolent offering to virtuous people downtrodden in their own countries. It was easier when the category of refugee seemed transparent, when we knew about fewer armed conflicts and less, perhaps, about who was Right and who was Wrong. It was easier to be a country that could openly say Come here. We care. We are a civilised people and will help you.

Now that there are too many people asking for asylum and calling themselves refugees – ‘too many’ being an unquantifiable number – it is not so easy. One can still try to limit the talk to the most egregious armed conflicts, the biggest ones, or the ones where the good guys can more easily be distinguished from the bad. But one has the sense of the ground slipping away beneath the conversation.

The other day I saw Welcome, Philippe Lioret’s film about the miserable situation in and near Calais, where French police tear down wretched shelters whilst young men cry. It’s a good film but takes the easy path as far as the protagonist’s reason for wanting to reach Britain: he is in love with a girl in London. This romance allows anyone who watches the film to identify with his quest and root for him as he swims the Channel. But what if the romantic motive were missing?

Anti-immigration voices use the term ‘economic migrants’ as a pejorative, an accusation against people who don’t qualify as refugees from officially (and arbitrarily) designated conflicts. In the current climate, a migrant is actually more likely to be sympathised with if he or she presents as a victim than as an able-bodied person willing to take almost any sort of paid job available. Or, in the case of Welcome, if he is in love.

Many looking at the images of smashed camps around Calais would like to know why those sad young men insist, against every obstacle, on remaining there and continuing to try to get into Britain. One said, in response to a reporter’s question, that there is respect for human rights in the UK. He may really believe that, but the same sort of ‘respect’, for what it’s worth, exists in other European countries. Given the extreme difficulty now of getting through the Channel Tunnel and into non-Schengen Britain, it’s logical to wonder why they don’t turn left to Spain or right to Belgium or almost anywhere else in Europe.

Rather than believe that the UK is a human-rights paradise, we should understand that such migrants are trying to get here simply because that’s where their networks led them. When these men were thinking about leaving home they talked to everyone they could about the possibilities. If family, friends or paid smugglers had led them to another European capital, that’s where they would be. And that’s where they’d now be facing different problems, less interesting to media cameras than those in Calais. But their networks brought them to the north of France, and the same networks cannot now provide an alternate plan – particularly not from far away, back in Afghanistan or Iran.

At this point – the point experienced by Welcome’s hero – to find that it’s near impossible to get across the Channel is staggering. One got this far on information that was paid for. Now the last few stages turn out to be much harder than promised. Those unable to swim for ten hours in cold water face options of paying an unknown local smuggler, hanging on in place, despite French police actions, or changing life-plans drastically without good advice. Even an environment as hostile as Calais can seem better than a complete unknown.

The story is similar for many women migrants described as trafficked in the mainstream media. When thinking about leaving home, they, too, talked to everyone they could about the possible options. They also followed routes known to family, friends and smugglers. If they passed the Schengen barrier and the water surrounding the UK, it helped that their methods were different – they didn’t try to hitch a ride through the tunnel. Now, of course, they can also be described as economic migrants, and, as such, be deported if caught – unless they can prove egregious enough treatment to qualify as victims of trafficking. But the prospects for being allowed to stay with a normal residence permit are slim.

Migration is now a phenomenon that governments want to manage. A 2002 White Paper describes five techniques used to combat illegal immigration: ‘strategic enforcement measures, identity management, increasing employer compliance, greater policy co-ordination both within and between governments and regularisation.’ Other proposals refer to ‘earned regularisation’, by which illegals able to prove their social worthiness would be granted amnesty, and ‘open borders’, which would focus on getting people jobs and integrating them socially.

All are more complicated and less easy to understand than No Borders, the dream of many that has no chance of success in a Europe combining more united and centralised policies with intensified nationalisms. In this climate, things are unlikely to improve for migrants who only want to come, work and be left alone. But many on the left resist taking a pragmatic stance that would accept the current political climate. There is also a tendency to hold onto the victim-categories – the ones that show the men’s tears in Calais and talk about sexual slavery for women.

It’s harder to face up to the fact that many migrants are complicit with the dodgy enterprises that help them get new lives. Why? Because they know that there are opportunities for getting paid jobs, even if they are in the ill-named informal economy, which means they cannot be used to get work permits and visas. The jobs are there, in construction and agriculture, or as a nanny, sex worker or restaurant employee. The fact that one’s status will be illegal once one arrives recedes in importance; the fact that one will be unable to convert from illegality to legality without leaving the country can’t be expected to sink in beforehand. The object is to arrive.

In the harder context we see today, whether in London or Calais or Copenhagen or Amsterdam, the question is whether the availability of paid jobs couldn’t mean, in and of itself, that migrants can be employed legally. Forget governmental concepts like formal-informal economies for a moment. If a legal employer offers paid employment to a migrant, should that employment not allow him legal status? Why not? If he or she is paid a normal amount and taxes are paid by all, what’s the problem?


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This story from last year illustrates how policies intended to repress prostitution result in prostitution moving and changing shape – not disappearing. Repression stops the particular and usually visible, which may be all that was desired but is rarely what campaigners say they want. Here, punters drive from northern Italy into southern Switzerland, where brothels are legal.

See a recent story about Goa, for example, where an entire red-light district was torn down, with the result that Goans now see commercial sex everywhere. Entrepreneurs in the sex industry adapt easily to changing conditions. See recent stories on Sonagachi in India and on Malaysia and Korea. I published an academic article on the irrationality of legal prostitution regimes last year.

Then there is the ever-present story showing that even when European sex businesses are legal, many or most workers are migrants. A report on prostitution in Ticino (in Italian) explains why undocumented migrants may not bother to register and become legal (when they are eligible),

Here’s the Swiss news story.

Ticino’s brothels profit from Italy clampdown

15 September 2008, swissinfo, based on an article by Nicole della Pietra

Tough new measures introduced in Italy have sent many customers across the border to brothels in Switzerland. Prostitution is currently booming in Ticino, Switzerland’s Italian speaking canton. But many of the girls involved are illegal. The authorities say they are keeping a close eye on the situation. Half a dozen brothels line the road that links the north and south of the canton at Monte Ceneri. The establishments are doing brisk business, to which the stream of visitors attests. “There are more brothels here than houses,” remarks a young army recruit who has been posted to the Ceneri barracks.

Apart from a few Swiss soldiers and the odd local, most of the clients here and at other Ticino brothels are Italian – as can be seen by the huge number of cars with Italian number plates. Some places in the Lugano and Chiasso region, further south, have an even greater density of brothels. The small village of Melano (population 1,000) alone has four. Cross-border sex commuters are attracted by the closeness to the A2 motorway through the canton, the standards of comfort, security and hygiene and the competitive prices.

The Italian media have long been talking about the “Ticino phenomenon”. The prestigious La Stampa newspaper went so far as to describe the canton in an August article as “a brothel paradise” and “Mecca of luxury”, while highlighting establishments’ “discreet charm”.

Clients may enjoy a certain freedom in Ticino but the same cannot be said for Italy. Brothels have been illegal there for 50 years, which has led to a rise in street prostitution. The government, anxious to change the situation, issued a clampdown decree at the beginning of this year. In Lombardy, which borders Ticino, the authorities have decided to issue a €500 (SFr796) fine to kerb crawlers. And in Milan police have stepped up patrols of red light districts. Video surveillance and the internet are also being employed.

Swiss police believe that the Lombardy situation could have consequences for Ticino. “We don’t have any precise data yet but border regions are certainly going to have an influx of visitors from Italy,” said Alex Serfilippi, an inspector with a special unit which fights the proliferation of prostitution in the canton.

In the week in which swissinfo visited Ticino, two new establishments announced that they were opening for business – adding to the 37 places already in operation in the canton. The sex business adapts quickly to the needs of its clients and to offer and demand, say experts. “We only need to be absorbed by a big enquiry for a few days to see an immediate upsurge in the number of girls in the area,” explained Serfilippi. “We keep applying pressure every day as it’s the only way of stopping the phenomenon from growing even further,” he added.

The prostitution boom is a godsend for some of the area’s hotel and restaurant owners who have seen better days. Some have converted their businesses into brothels, complete with champagne bar and rooms for hire.

On average between five and 20 girls work in these types of establishments. Most come from eastern Europe, with a third coming from Latin America. “We have recently seen a massive increase in the number of Romanians,” added Serfilippi. The police officer estimates that there is a maximum of 600 prostitutes in the canton, of whom between 60 per cent and 80 per cent are illegal. Added to this are the dozens of saunas and massage parlours which each employ one or two young women. Since 2002 a total of 490 people have signed up to the cantonal prostitution register.

“It’s unfortunately extremely difficult, if not impossible, to provide precise figures for this very fluid milieu,” said Serfilippo. The crime expert and journalist Michel Venturelli believes that south of the Alps the number of prostitutes could be as high as 1,200. . .


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Below are exceprts from a migration story in the Observer. There’s quite good information here but also note the confusion about the word trafficking: much of what’s described here should be called smuggling, according to UN protocols. Note particularly:

Though many immigrants travel independently, others use organised criminal traffickers for at least some of the journey

If migrants ‘use’ people to help them cross borders illegally, these are meant to be described as smugglers. It’s a hard distinction to maintain consistently, but in this story people are clearly travelling because they chose to and sometimes paying for help. The help can end up being abusive, of course.  The word refugee is also used. Some of the people interviewed might have a case for asylum but many do not. Also the word criminal is peppered around unnecessarily.

Gender note: Everyone mentioned in the story is male, but what’s described applies to women who migrate without documents as well, and illustrates why getting into a ‘protected’ situation can be tempting, why getting into sex work may be a temporary solution, and so on.

I’ve highlighted in bold some common realities known to those who study or hobnob with undocumented migrants, and removed some material you can read on the original site. Note the immensely pragmatic attitude shown by those interviewed: they are going against legal policy, they know it, they will keep trying, they are not crying about it. It’s not a victimising article.

Why do I want to get to Britain? It has to be better than everything else

Jason Burke, Norrent-Fontes, France, 8 March 2009

The three tents are clustered in a ditch, beside a field, in the middle of nowhere. . . .A tractor bumps past, a crow flaps across the grey sky, the traffic on the A26 Paris-Calais motorway 500 yards behind a small wood is barely audible. It is an unlikely place for a refugee transit camp, the last stop before the UK. The nearest town is two miles away: the grubby two cafes and post office of Norrent-Fontes.

But the ditch is a temporary home for 26 young Eritreans and Ethiopians trying to get to Britain by hiding in the lorries that stop in the layby every night. And their situation is far from unique. An investigation by the Observer has revealed scores of such makeshift settlements containing an estimated 1,500 people, including women and children, scattered across a huge swath of northern France.

There are camps as far west as the Normandy port of Cherbourg. . . and as far north as the Belgian ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend. In Paris, an estimated 200 young immigrants who are on their way to the UK sleep in parks every night. . . Read the rest of this entry »


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