Digitalization of governance, transparency, accountability, as well as legal and socio-political implications of data-driven migration governance are among the topics addressed during the workshop “Migration data governance” hosted by the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa on 20-21 October 2022. The workshop aimed to foster interdisciplinary approaches – ranging from political science and legal studies to science and technology studies – to tackle the meaning and the challenges of building a more inclusive society, within, beyond and across EU borders. The present contribution recalls some of the elements emerged in the framework of one of the panels of a discussion that spread over several sessions, which, for reasons of space, cannot be entirely reported.
Digitalization has progressively invested European borders and migration governance. A complex assemblage of surveillance devices, digital technologies and human control methods has been mobilized to track movements across borders, identify and categorize migrants. Interoperability between the different databases and their shared access for national authorities, international organizations, law enforcement agencies, and humanitarian actors seems to be the main strategy to achieve a smooth and seamless European border management. However, data extraction cannot be conceived of as a neutral and merely technical practice. How data are produced, collected, processed, stored, and shared determines considerable legal, social, and political implications. Moreover, the increased visibility, transparency, and legibility promised by data-driven migration management and algorithmic governance often clashes with the materiality of migrants’ lives, administrative procedures, and rougher border control strategies. In the complex interplay between different institutions and actors that come together in the borderlands’ field of struggles, multiple gaps, errors, blind spots, and controversies arise, turning the supposed transparent data-drive management in an opaque regime of governance.
In the panel Transparency and accountability concerns in data-driven migration management procedures, the discrepancy between increased visibility and disorienting opacity related to the new border regime of biometrics surveillance has come to the fore. Looking at the interoperability of migration-related databases, panelists discussed the extent to which this new integrated mode of governance contributes to blurring the boundaries between immigration and criminal law, deploying digital asylum system infrastructures for security reasons. Referring to the literature on “crimmigrant” and “crimmigrant other”, Nina Amelung presented EURODAC (European Dactyloscopic System) as an insightful case study on how crimmigration processes have shaped biometric databases. Initially, EURODAC aimed to facilitate the application of the so-called Dublin Regulation, supporting EU member states in managing asylum requests across the continent. However, since 2013, with the introduction of the new regulation (EU) nr. 603/2013 on data-sharing, the database has been integrated into broader security schemes. This has resulted in expansive access for member states’ law enforcement bodies to asylum seekers’ data, increasing the convergence between migration and crime control. The ongoing convergence turns borders into a permeable field for biometric data exchange, shaping new forms of surveillance, introducing a new regime of “truth” about what counts as a reliable identity, and fostering new categories of suspicion against supposed “risky groups”. Therefore, the interoperable use of European databases – such as EURODAC – as part of an all-encompassing and integrated migration and border management contribute to blurring the distinction between terrorists, criminals, and migrants, risking exposing asylum seekers to structural discrimination based on preemptive suspicion. This conflation is in stark contrast with the latest European Commission’s communication on migration and asylum, stressing that the digitization of border controls should lead to coherent, integrated, and accountable border management.
In other cases, though, transparency and accountability are absorbed (if not denied) by a logic of secrecy. There is no shortage of examples of the complicity between European agencies and national authorities in border security practices that often result in serious violations of the human rights of border crossers. At the Greek-Turkish border, for instance, the European border agency Frontex has been accused of involvement in several cases of illegitimate pushbacks. Other significant examples include the knock-on rejections along the Balkan route or pushbacks by proxy in the Central Mediterranean. In all these cases, secrecy has been mobilized to cover the possible involvement of border authorities in illegal practices. Working on the study case of the Frontex Scrutiny Working Group – established in early 2021 by the European Parliament to investigate allegations about Frontex’s involvement in pushbacks and rights violation in the Aegean Sea - Georgios Glouftsios proposed some groundbreaking ideas in the study of secrecy. With a view to unpacking the so-called migration digital “black box” and the perceived “un-knowability” of digitalized borders, he put forward an understanding of secrecy as a practice. Secrecy is performative. Therefore, there is a need to go beyond the hermeneutic of the secret and study how secrecy is practiced and maintained. In the un/making of secrecy, humans (journalists, authorities’ representatives, parliamentarians, etc.) act alongside different material devices and communication infrastructures through which information is disclosed or hidden. It is important to avoid an anthropocentric gaze and consider all the forms of human and non-human actors implicated in the practices and production of secrecy. Secondly, evidence is never self-evident. Disclosure of relevant information about pushbacks does not necessarily result in the revelation of human rights violations. For information to be evidence, it should become credible to the audience that receives it. Hence, information disclosure does not automatically produce accountability. Finally, there is the need to account for the non-binarism of secrecy and transparency. Transparency can produce secrecy effects: exposing the hidden often is concealing more than what is revealing. Thus, data practices – namely recording, storing, sharing, consulting - can also hide and obscure knowledge about border and migration management. By scrutinizing public hearings and inquiries, security and secrecy do not only emerge as forms of anti-political exceptions but can be constitutive aspects of normal parliamentary work, which includes moments of negotiation and contestation through evidence and counterevidence production. Analytically and methodologically, what matters is the unpacking of the controversies that emerge during public hearings, which allows the understanding of how secrecy is rationalized, contested, and negotiated. In other words, controversies in hearings can make secrecy public, shedding light on how the so-called “black box” is constructed.
Secrecy research recalls the vibrant interdisciplinary debate of ignorance studies applied to the field of migration and border management. In this field, ignorance, opacity, and uncertainty cannot be analyzed just as objects, but as techniques of governing. «Despite dominant official discourses of producing more data, more statistics, more knowledge for border and migration management, these discourses and practices generate variegated modes of not-knowing». At the border, the technological quest for knowledge encounters material complexities, leading to the production of ignorance and silencing border violence. Claudia Aradau and Sarah Perret's exploration of the Foucauldian relation between power/knowledge/non-knowledge and how accountable and non-accountable subjectivities are produced through categories of error and fake in a racialized regime of suspicion showed another way of looking at the “black box” of digital and non-digital border governance. Important here is the effort of using a broader vocabulary around the notion of secrecy, to understand which are the multiple ways in which state and non-state actors deal with knowledge production and non-production.
Not everyone, however, agrees on the usefulness of the “black box” image. Martina Tazzioli and Lucrezia Canzutti, for instance, consider this metaphor misleading, as it assumes consistency in states' practices and points to the impossible endeavor of unravelling the secret, risking «“simply open[ing] more black boxes” while displacing attention from bordering practices». Alternatively, the authors suggest shifting away from the alleged secrecy of the databases, sidestepping the migration’s digital “black box”, and looking around it. This analytical and methodological approach focuses on the actual imbrications between digital and non-digital data in the context of border practices characterized by constant changes, arbitrary choices, errors, anomalies, and omissions. This allows re-inscribing the digital infrastructure of migration control within a «contested politics of mobility formed by migrants’ struggles, technological glitches and political frictions among states». Through multi-sited research on the French-Italian and Italian-Slovenian borders, the researchers created a mobile counter-archive by collecting and comparing paper-based documents and migrants and activists’ testimonies to investigate the use and submission of biometric data in European digital databases. In this perspective, taking counter-archiving as a method means not abstracting digital infrastructures and databases from the materiality of practices and papers that constitute the EU’s cross-border work.
In conclusion, the uncertainty of available data, the co-existence of overabundance and scarcity of data, and the constant mismatch of digital and non-digital data challenge the very notion of digitization of migration. As Claudia Aradau and Sarah Perret have aptly expounded, the literature referring to script analysis offers analytical tools to investigate how the heterogeneity of data forms is combined to govern migration and how it shapes agency by extending authorities’ agency to dis-subscription, while limiting the migrants’ agency to subscription. Revisiting the very concept of the script and what counts as data is a productive theoretical endeavor that requires further exploration. Similarly, it would be interesting to relate this literature to the concept of extractivism, to explore how value is generated by data collection and extraction, not only in terms of direct profit but also in the sense of keeping migrants in a state of prolonged dependency and uncertainty at the border. In any case, the gaps that undermine the seamless idea of a well-ordered digital border are the privileged field for research that takes into account the complexity, discrepancy, and heterogeneity of European border governance and reinserts the digital into the “contested politics of mobility”.
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