What is your Passport worth?

Illegalised Migration and the Paper Market
by Stephan Scheel, 
Souad Osseiran and Soledad Alvarez Velasco
(King’s College, London)

What is your Passport worth? Illegalised Migration and the Paper Market | by Stephan Scheel, 
Souad Osseiran and Soledad Alvarez Velasco (King’s College, London)

The current climate of contemporary globalization, far from far from yielding a borderless world, has generated a proliferation of borders and exclusions orchestrated by nation states (De Genova, Mezzadra and Neilson, 2013). A process of accelerated dehumanization is taking place together with the effective configuration of a “global apartheid” (Ballibar, 2005). The global apartheid establishes divisions between individuals based on their membership (or not) in nation states. The divisions between individuals, extends to divisions between different parts of the earth’s surface through uneven geographical development (Harvey, 2005) a direct outcome of contemporary capitalism. Contemporary capitalism in its current neoliberal historical phase has produced a polarization between rich and poor countries and, on the national level, an increase in income disparity and a precarization of social living conditions. Following the events of 9/11 and the subsequent pre-emptive War on Terror- –orchestrated by the U.S. government– there has been a worldwide proliferation of what Nicholas De Genova calls (2013) the “spectacles of militarized border control and securitization in all aspects of travel and transit” (De Genova, 2013). The combination of draconian migratory laws, increased restricted visa regimes and new technological devices for border control have served to limit what little freedom of mobility existed prior to these events. Migration is affected by these complex structural conditions. To move in search of work, security, or hope cannot be understood without discussing the structures which give rise to the need to move. Migrations beyond the control of states have always occurred, but in the face of all these changes and accelerations, migratory routes have become more complex and dangerous. The accelerations have also brought with them added state and social violence against migrants en route, and after they have arrived. At hand is not only how people move across borders, but the conditions and terms of their presence once they have arrived.

Today, it has become an unquestioned convention of travelling to present passports, ID cards, visas and other identification documents to border control authorities. The proliferation of biometric technologies for border control purposes reflects this move towards governing human mobility by identity (Lyon 2008). Passports, visas, ID cards, no matter if biometric or not, constitute crucial devices of mobility control that serve state authorities around the world to verify a travellers claimed identity and to answer the central question of border control in order to grant or deny passage: Are you who you say you are?

At the current conjuncture, the possibility to go, wherever one wants to go is not a right or a matter of course, but a matter of providing identification documents that satisfy statist authorities. But this has not always been the case. The need to furnish “the right” identification documents and travel authorisations is a quite recent phenomenon. It was not before the end of the First World War that passports and other identification documents were required to travel within Europe or abroad (Llyod 2003). Recent studies explain the emergence of passport and related identification documents like ID cards or visas as a cornerstone of states’ attempt to monopolise ‘the right to authorise and regulate movement’ (Torpey 2000, Salter 2003). These studies investigate passports and other identification documents as devices of mobility control. Yet, attempts to falsify and manipulate identification documents are just as old as the attempts to govern human mobility by identity (Groebner 2004). The warranty of this finding for the current conjuncture is confirmed by the insight that identification documents are vital to ‘illegal’ migration (Sadiq 2009, Vasta 2011). For this reason it is inadequate and misleading to speak of ‘undocumented’ migrants or migrations. We avoid using the criminalising and stigmatising connotations of the EU’s official terminology of illegal migration or migrants. In order to highlight the processes of illegalisation that make people ‘illegal’ we speak of illegalised migrants instead (Bauder 2013)Starting from these observations, this explorative study seeks to invert the control centred perspective of the aforementioned works on governing by identity by asking: How do passports and other identification documents feature in tactics of illegalised migrants to access mobility and other resources like formal employment, housing, healthcare, international protection or a legal residence title?

In order to explore this question the members of the research group will draw from their ethnographic research on illegalised migration in the three different contexts and reflect on the role of identification documents in:

  • Tactics of Syrian migrants/refugees in Turkey to gain entry to Europe and claim asylum. The conditions and terms of their presence in Istanbul, and the ways passports and documents are a means of access resources within Turkey. Migrant practices to overcome the Syrian regime’s attempt to control their mobility and presence outside Syria by withholding passport renewals;
  • Migration strategies of illegalised transit migrants from Central and South America through the U.S.-Mexico corridor towards the U.S. ;
  • Practices to appropriate mobility to Europe via Schengen visa in the context of biometric border controls.

We do not have any hypotheses yet. Rather, the members of the research group will, based on their ethnographic research, develop hypotheses in regards to the following questions in order to explore the principal research question cited above:

  1. Depending on the migration strategy (clandestine border crossing, claiming asylum, entry via visa) the role of identification documents varies considerably. In addition, it also seems to change in the course of illegalised migrants’ trajectories. It is for instance known that illegalised migrants try to conceal their identity and country of origin when apprehended by the police in order to forestall a deportation (Broeders/ Engbergsen 2007). Recent studies have highlighted, by contrast, that illegalised migrants are enticed to assume a stable paper identity and accumulate official proofs of their illegal presence in view of a legalisation (Chauvin/ Garces-Mascarenas 2012). How do illegalised migrants negotiate this tension? In which situations do illegalised migrants use or refrain from using borrowed, bought original, falsified or manipulated identification documents? What kind of documents do they use in which situations to access what kind of resources? How does the usage of identification documents change in the course of migrants’ trajectories? Are there any patterns we can identify beyond the individual case studies?
  2. The price of identification documents on the informal paper market, including passports, health insurance cards, residence permits, ID cards and so forth, is strictly related to the type of resources they permit to access and the degree of protection from controls they offer due to their quality (Engbergsen et al. 2006, Sciortino 2004, Vasta 2011). Yet, first discussions among the members of the research group indicate that the prices of documents also vary geographically and temporarily. Can we identify any determinates that influence the prices of particular identification documents? In how far do we need to amend and qualify the hypothesis cited above?
  3. The usage of falsified, manipulated or original identification documents does not dissolve the risk of detection by authorities. Moreover, respective practices have been criminalised in the past decade under the heading of ‘identity theft’. The introduction of biometric identifiers in visas passports and other documents can, in fact, be regarded as a response to the aforementioned practices. These considerations raise the following questions: What kind of risks do illegalised migrants take when they use a particular identification document to cross borders, access formal employment and housing markets or to pass through police controls? What kind of practices and techniques of control do illegalised migrants encounter when they use falsified, manipulated or original identification documents of another person? What kinds of practices and safeguards do illegalised migrants mobilise to avoid detection when they do so nevertheless? Which dynamics can we observe between illegalised migrants’ tactics to access mobility and other resources through falsified, manipulated or original identification documents and the practices, means and methods of border and migration control?
  4. Finally, the subtitle of the conference raises the question in how far we can interpret the usage of falsified, borrowed or manipulated identification documents as a way to access resources like mobility, protection from prosecution, healthcare, formal labour markets etc. as tactics of commoning i.e. as practices of making common the resources these documents are meant to turn into privileges not everybody can access (An Architektur 2010)? In order to prevent a romanticisation of illegalised migrants and their often highly precarious living conditions we do, however, also need to consider in how far the usage of falsified, borrowed or manipulated identification documents involves and facilitates the rearticualtion of relations of domination and exploitation (Herzenstein/ Spire 2010)?

Critical research and the visibility of local findings about the complexities of current migratory processes should at least help in interrupting the banality of our times in which this sort of realities are strategically unseen.

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