12th December 2018

By Francesca Soliman

As contemporary forms of social control evolve, the scope of criminology keeps widening. For example, the criminalisation of migration has sparked a growing body of research on detention, non-citizens’ rights, and so on. As a criminology PhD student researching the harms of migration control, I welcome the attention these issues receive within our discipline. However, I also wonder whether we risk, at times, doing more harm than good.

During my recent fieldwork I witnessed the cumulative effects that persistent media and academic interest have had on a small community. My project looks at the social harms caused by EU-level migration control on migrants and border communities, so I spent two months on the Italian island of Lampedusa, the closest EU territory to Libya and a key point of entry for irregular migrants (more info can be found in my blog). Over the decades, Lampedusa has received over 400,000 sea-crossers, and many thousands more have died on route. The intense political, media, and academic attention that accompanies migration has noticeably impacted the 6,000-strong local population.

The gradual increase in Lampedusa’s notoriety over the last two decades has brought a welcome surge in tourism, but the 2013 shipwrecks and the so-called 2015 refugee crisis have catapulted the tiny island to unprecedented global fame. Residents told me of being harassed in the street or at work by strangers trying to recruit research participants. One resident told me of being approached for interviews on average four times a week, while I saw another talking to five interviewers at the same time. I personally met several other researchers in Lampedusa, most staying no longer than a week. A lot of this work remains unpublished, especially students’ projects or pilot studies, and thus duplicated by others, begging the question of who it will truly benefit.

Published research can also be problematic: protecting the anonymity of respondents is always hard within small communities, but the same individuals are interviewed so frequently that it is often possible to recognise them in multiple articles. Inadequate anonymisation ties respondents to their words forever, a sobering thought considering there were serious acts of violence in the past towards islanders considered ‘pro-migrant’. Furthermore, it also means researchers can collate the answers given by the same respondent to other interviewers, undermining respondents’ right to decide what to disclose and to whom.

The over-recruitment of some individuals is a consequence of severe research fatigue among the island’s population. The wealth of research being carried out in Lampedusa inevitably focuses on migration, but many residents resent the image of Lampedusa being tied to a phenomenon with little bearing on their daily lives. It is those who work with migrants (whether in an official or voluntary capacity) or who have a political message to put across who are most likely to agree to collaborate with migration researchers.

This not only presents a skewed image of Lampedusans and their relationship with the border, but also reinforces existing social divisions. The salience of migration-related issues deflects attention from the island’s tourist attractions, but it also deflects attention and resources from local problems such as lack of employment, healthcare, education, and so on. Researchers are perceived as profiting from the so-called migration industry, and those who help them as acting to the detriment of everybody else. Continuous attention to migration issues fuels both resentment within the community and more general anti-migrant sentiments.

This situation is by no means exclusive to remote communities. French author Emmanuel Carrère paints an eerily similar picture of Calais, while fellow researchers have privately confirmed analogous issues in the most disparate border communities, from Greek islands to alpine towns between France and Italy.

I believe two fundamental challenges await criminologists as they increasingly engage in migration research. Firstly, as we belatedly join a prolific research field, we must be wary of the dangers of following blindly down well-trodden paths. Media, political, and scholarly attention often go hand in hand, especially since issue salience influences funders’ priorities. This risks producing iterative research which harms its participants and produces new data, but little new knowledge.

Secondly, we must choose our assumptions carefully. Migration is framed as inherently problematic by state actors, who are major funders and consumers of migration research. It could be argued that simply by joining migration studies, criminology risks normalising criminal justice responses to migration. However, by heeding the lessons of critical and radical criminology, we can turn the spotlight away from the powerless and point it firmly on the acts of powerful actors and structures. Our role must be to pay attention to the man behind the curtain; there lies criminology’s unique and necessary contribution to migration research.

Francesca is a PhD student based at the University of Edinburgh. To find out more about her time on Lampedusa visit her blog.