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Rejection Regimes: An Ethnographic Study of the Social Life of Intra-EU Border Regimes

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - REJREG (Rejection Regimes: An Ethnographic Study of the Social Life of Intra-EU Border Regimes)

Reporting period: 2018-04-01 to 2020-03-31

While in the last years the Mediterranean has been at the centre of the terrible “border spectacle” (De Genova 2002) as one of the main stages of the EU’s migration crisis, systematic pushbacks of migrants at internal EU borders are largely removed from public debate. Since the spring of 2015, the increase of migratory flows towards the EU, particularly intense in Southern EU countries such as Italy and Greece, reshaped the whole EU political landscape. Disputes between member states on the “burden” of refugees, followed by a series of cascading reintroductions of border controls at internal Schengen borders, made evident that the so-called “migration crisis” was in reality an EU crisis of governance.
REJREG sheds light on the emergence of border securitization within the Schengen area as a response to the general perception of “crisis” related to the management of migratory flows and contributes to understanding the unexpected social and political consequences of the reintroduction of intra-EU border controls, at local and international level. REJREG comparatively focuses on two crucial borders: the French/Italian and the Austrian/Italian ones.
It aims to uncover and understand:
1) side-effects and unintended consequences of border enforcement at the local level (by collecting and analyzing empirical data on the increasing number of border deaths, social mobilizations, growing smuggling economies, and evolution of migrant strategies) (research objective 1)
2) its political implications on international relations between EU member states (providing knowledge on the daily practices of border police and their implications in terms of shifting/ conflicting/ overlapping sovereignties) (research objective 2).
"The first three-month period was dedicated to preparing the ground for developing the project, in particular the empirical research. A review of the literature related to the project (border studies, migration and refugees’ studies) was conducted in parallel with the analysis of asylum and migration law at the EU and the national level (Italy, French and Austria), on the one side, and the agreements for cross-border cooperation in force at the French/Italian and Austrian/Italian borders, on the other.

After this preliminary phase, fieldwork research has been carried out between July 2018 and January 2019 in three aforementioned cross-border locations, two at the French/Italian border and one at the Austrian/Italian border. Fieldwork has been carried out between July and November 2018 at the French/Italian border (three months in the Marittime Alps, two months in the Hautes Alps) and between December 2018 and January 2019 at the Austro/Italian border. Four main categories of social actors have been involved in the research: 1) migrants, 2) residents of border areas, 3) local administrators and 3) border police officers.

Data recollected (recorded interviews and field notes) have been analysed between February and June 2019, in parallel with dissemination activities that extended until the end of the fellowship.

Communication activities (creation and continuous update of a research blog including audiovisual contents, creation and continuous update of a Facebook page) have been conducted throughout the whole duration of the project.

The main results achieved sheds light on emerging social and political dynamics at the intra-EU level:

1) States sovereignty practices though borderwork.
Results: Vergnano, C. (forthcoming) “Desired freight and undesired migrants. Security and market forces at internal EU borders”, Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space.

2) Processes of criminalization of solidarity (and, more broadly, criminalization of border-crossing facilitation practices).
Published results: Vergnano, C. (2020) “Why take such a risk? Beyond profit: motivations of border-crossing facilitators between France and Italy”, Social Anthropology (doi: 10.1111/1469-8676.12918) and Vergnano, C. (forthcoming) “From affects to contentious politics: disruptive encounters with migrants along a transalpine route”, Journal of Alpine Geography

3) The dialectic relation between the evolution of techniques of control, on the one side, and migrants´ agency, on the other
Results: Amigoni L., S. Aru, I. Bonin, G. Proglio and C. Vergnano (eds.) (2021) ""Debordering Europe. Migration and controls across the Ventimiglia region"", Palgrave MacMillan."
Research findings provide original contributions to three scholarly debates.

1) The material dimension of borderwork.
By suggesting that the two imperatives of the contemporary world (free trade and security) play a role in shaping states´ borderwork, the research challenges the literature on migration and borders. The comparison between different borderization processes suggests the existence of a relationship between the volume of cross-border trade and states´ interest in curving undesired human flows. The implications of this acknowledgement are significant for the broader research agenda on migration and border studies since borders´ material dimension (freight flow, state provisions for security) is easily quantifiable and comparable, but rarely taken into account in the analysis of migratory processes.

2) Criminalization of border-crossing facilitation practices.
By challenging the dichotomy smuggling/solidarity, interest/ selflessness, calculative rationality/ idealized altruism, my research provides a contribution to literature about the gift. By showing the richness and complexity of border-crossing facilitation practices, it demonstrates that mere market logics do not reflect the complexity of the figure of the smuggler; nor are humanitarian, ethical and political motivations exclusive to supportive citizens providing free help to migrants in distress.

3) the dialectic relation between techniques of control and migrants´ agency.
Moving from empirical evidence, my research aims at providing a theoretical synthesis between two antithetical approaches in the study of migratory processes (analytical prioritization of control techniques VS the prominence of migrants´ agency). I argue that, in a structurally violent context, migrants´ agency can take place only with severe human and psychological costs.

Societal impacts:
Research results have been disseminated through
1) a research blog, which constitute an open access mine of information for whoever is interested in the social and political impacts of borderization processes at the very heart of the Schengen area ( and
2) meetings with civil society actors (public debates in local community centres in the Susa Valley, Bolzano and Ventimiglia).