Call for Papers AAG 2016: Contemporary Migration by Boat and Border Enforcement


Association of American Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting, San Francisco, California, March 29 – April 2, 2016

Contemporary Migration by Boat and Border Enforcement:
The governance, representation, spatialities and humanitarian realities of people migrating by boat at sea.

Elaine Burroughs, Maynooth University, Ireland
Keegan Williams, Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada

Outline of topic:
The migration of people by precarious and unauthorized boat methods at sea has increased substantially in recent years. This practice has gained significant attention from a range of actors, including governing authorities, political elites, the media, and NGOs. Although the sea has become a space of hope/desperation for migrants, it has also become a space of conflict over territory and sovereignty (Mountz, 2013). The critical literature on borders and exclusion shows that wealthier states have enacted a “policy of containment” designed to keep most migrants out (Castles, 2003). Border enforcement at sea is premised on this idea of containment. To this end, state authorities, like border guards and immigration agencies, have built systems to force migrants back before, during, or after arrival at the physical border (Hyndman & Mountz, 2008; Samers, 2004). Previous literature notes that this increased enforcement will be associated with increased loss of life as migrants take more dangerous journeys to evade authorities (Betts, 2006; Collyer, 2007). Indeed, not only are the number of people travelling by boat increasing, but the number of deaths are also increasing, especially in areas such as the Mediterranean (IOM, 2014; UNHCR, 2015).

The issue of containment of migrant boats emerged as early as the late 1970s (Mountz, forthcoming). Great concern about movement at sea was generated in Australia, the EU and the USA in the 1990s (Lutterbeck, 2006). Increasing publicity of migrant boat incidents worldwide reinforces these concerns and the security threats they reportedly pose (Pugh, 2001). State authorities attempt to combat migration by boat through various enforcement measures (e.g. the EU’s Operation Triton and NAVFOR Med). The causes of this humanitarian issue, however, are complex, and authorities inadequately and improperly use search and rescue services to address the situation. A number of scholars and non-governmental organisations have discussed the humanitarian and legal realities of migration by boat and border enforcement at sea (Gammeltoft-Hansen, 2008; Carling & Hernandez-Carretero, 2011); however, few studies have analysed their empirical relationship. We also have little information on what happens to migrants after their journeys at sea end. These gaps exist despite the importance of the continual “crisis” which migration by boat represents to these states.

Aim of session:
The key aim of this session is to specifically examine the current migration of people by boat at sea and the multiple instances of this practice from around the world. We wish to bring together scholars interested in this area and to advance knowledge on this topic within the field of geography. We aim to explore the full spectrum of processes involved in the migration of people by boat, from the reasons why people do so, to the attempt to control and “manage” this type of migration, through to what happens to these migrants once their “journey” at sea ends. Of particular interest to this session are papers that: (1) identify the empirical realities and outcomes of migration by boat; (2) describe the relationship between migration by boat and modern border enforcement in wealthier states; and (3) explore how migration at sea is represented by authorities and the media.

Regional examples include (but are not exclusive to): Australia/Indonesia, Canada, the European Union (e.g., Canary Islands; Spain; Italy/Malta; Greece), Malaysia and the United States of America.

Potential session participants should contact Keegan Williams ( and Elaine Burroughs ( by 28 September 2015 to indicate their interest in participating in the session. Please include a proposed title and a 200-word abstract.
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Migration Definitions


The European Migration Network (which is part of the European Commission) recently published the third edition of a very large glossary containing over 400 migration-related terms. The EMN state that one of the purposes of the glossary is for legislators and policy-makers at EU and national levels to have “up to date, reliable, factual information” about migration. While such a glossary is helpful in understanding migration more broadly (particularly for students who are interested in migration), some of the terminology used is questionable: for example, the use of “alien” (while probably based on national legislation, is still used several times to refer migrants), “illegal immigrant”, “absconding”, “asylum shopper”, and “mass influx”. This wide-ranging terminology is presented as “reliable” and “factual”, which functions to legitimize any underlying negative connotations inherent within those terms. I have discussed migration terminology several times on this site, and in several academic publications, nevertheless, once again, I must highlight the significance of terminology use, especially by large influential institutions. Although we require definitions for further understanding and clarity, I think that at a very basic level, we can (and should) move beyond referring to people as aliens.

The full document is available here. The EMN Ireland website is available at:

Lives in Limbo – Asylum Seekers in Ireland





A section entitled “Lives in Limbo” on the The Irish Times website details the lives of migrants (asylum-seekers) residing in Ireland’s direct provision centres. It contains information on these centres and the current situation of those residing in direct provision. It states that the average time a person resides in direct provision in Ireland is three years and eight months. Also, Ireland has one of the lowest acceptance rates for asylum seekers in Europe.

The most gripping aspect of “Lives in Limbo” are the photographs of migrants, the photographs of living spaces, and a series of short, but gripping interview videos. Providing public access to photographs and videos of these migrants literally puts a face on the often abstract concept of asylum. The videos provide heart-rending accounts of life in direct provision. These people speak about not being allowed to work, mental health issues, and the lack of space, privacy, and independence. Most especially concerning are the video accounts of children who are faced with uncertainty on a daily basis. The children speak quite eloquently about not living in a “normal” home environment and about how they do not have space to play with friends or to study for school.

The Irish Times also published a map of the location of these centres in Ireland. In 2013 there were 34 centres with a capacity for 5,000 residents. A link is also provided to the Asylum Archive, which lists these centres and contains photographs of the buildings.


“Lives in Limbo” concludes with links to articles that were published in the Irish Times on various aspects of this topic. Of significant interest are “How asylum became a business” and “Could direct provision be the subject of a future government apology“. This month, the Irish President Michael D. Higgins criticised direct provision accommodation in Ireland, stating: “The system of Direct Provision by which they [asylum seekers] are put in to places of accommodation and may remain there for eight to ten years is totally unsatisfactory, almost in every aspect of it.”

Migrant Deaths in the Mediterranean Increasing


It is nearly a year since the tragedy in Lampedusa where hundreds of migrants died trying to make their way to Europe. Unfortunately, migrant deaths in the Mediterranean continue and seem to be increasing. The Guardian reported that more than 2,900 people have drowned or gone missing this year while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. This is a huge increase compared to a reported 700 deaths in 2013.

Two weeks ago, a boat on its way to Italy sank near Malta. Approximately 500 migrants (including 100 children) died. This boat was allegedly intentionally sunk by smugglers due to a dispute over the migrants’ refusal to move to smaller boats. Only 11 migrants survived this incident and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called it a “mass murder”. On the very same day a boat containing 200 migrants sank off the coast of Libya.

To say that these attempts by migrants to “illegally” enter Europe is based on mere economic gain is too simplified. People are travelling in this precarious way due to various ongoing conflicts, human rights abuses and economic instability in a range of countries in Africa and the Middle East (e.g. Sudan, Libya, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria). So, how should authorities deal with this, often fatal, method of migration? I argue that one way is to remove the dependence of migrants on smugglers. This can be done by making access to Europe less restrictive and increasing the number of legal methods of migration, especially for those fleeing conflict or persecution.