RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2019

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21 Emerging notions in the analysis of forced migration and borders (1): Ambiguity and uncertainty
Convenor(s) Léa Lemaire (University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg)
Lucas Oesch (University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg)
Lorenzo Vianelli (University of Exeter, UK)
Chair(s) Léa Lemaire (University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg)
Timetable Wednesday 28 August 2019, Session 1 (09:00 - 10:40)
Room Sherfield/SALC Building, Read Lecture Theatre
Session abstract Emerging notions such as ambiguity, uncertainty, volatility, discretion, in/visibilisation, inconsistency, improvisation, and more, are increasingly used to analyse the governance of the im/mobility of refugees, as well as the issue of borders. These notions are used in geography and other disciplines to study topics such as camps, walls, deportation, resettlement, refugee status determination, asylum seekers’ reception, irregular migration, and so on. This is true for both studies in the Global South and North. These notions fall within an attempt to explain and conceptualise the complexity of forced migration and borders, and the way they are governed. Indeed, they highlight contradictory dynamics and paradoxical processes. However, there has been hitherto little attempt to think across these notions and to reflect on them as analytical and conceptual tools in the study of forced migration and borders. This panel aims at bringing together contributions referring to these emerging notions in order to explore their commonalities and diversity. Among a multiplicity of approaches that has been used to grasp these notions, there has been a wide reference to the Foucauldian perspective by conceiving them as strategies or effects of dispositifs of government. However, this panel is not limited to this perspective, and aims at reflecting on the various conceptual approaches used in the production of these emerging notions. It also seeks to understand the effects of such strategies or effects of government, both on governmental practices themselves and on the subjectivities of refugees.


Linked Sessions Emerging notions in the analysis of forced migration and borders (2): Discretion, improvisation and (in)visibility
Emerging notions in the analysis of forced migration and borders (3): Informality, (in)stability and hybridity
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: ac2019@rgs.org
Dispositifs of refugee reception and border management: governing through ambiguity, failure and improvisation
Lorenzo Vianelli (University of Exeter, UK)
Léa Lemaire (University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg)
Lucas Oesch (University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg)
The paper intends to provide some conceptual and analytical context for the session on “Emerging notions in the analysis of forced migration and borders”. This will be done by focusing on the Foucauldian concept of dispositif, which we use in relation to some of the notions that are discussed in the session. Examples of ambiguity, failure and improvisation emerged from fieldwork we conducted on various topics and in different regions, such as the reception of asylum seekers in the EU, the detention of Sub-Saharan migrants in Malta, and the governance of refugee camps in Jordan. Drawing on these different case studies, the paper shows how the notion of dispositif represents one possible way of conceptualising the forms of ambiguity, failure and improvisation at stake in refugee reception and border management. Indeed, these notions can be interpreted as governmental practices through which the strategic reutilisation of the unintended effects of the dispositif takes place. Hence, the paper argues that ambiguity, failure and improvisation are not only the result of the contested and complex nature of social dynamics, but they are also part of institutional strategies to govern the lives of asylum seekers and refugees.

If you’re confused, don’t worry, everybody is confused here: Refugee governance and the politics of uncertainty in Lebanon
Nora Stel (Maastricht School of Management, The Netherlands)
Lebanon has the highest per capita number of refugees worldwide. The country’s 1.5 million Syrian refugees face a ‘no-policy-policy’ that rejects the establishment of official refugee camps and refuses to give them formal refugee status. A stringent entry and residency regime has left 70% of Syrian refugees without legal residency status, making them extremely vulnerable to exploitation. This situation of imposed informality and systematic unpredictability reproduces the position of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees. With reference to an increasingly illusory ‘right to return,’ these have faced seven decades of ‘permanent temporariness’ in what is often called a perpetual ‘state of exception.’ Such institutional ambiguity is routinely explained as the consequence of capacity problems that stem from state fragility or hybridity and the unprecedented scale of refugee crises. This paper, however, argues that institutional ambiguity is not merely an effect of governance, but can also feature as a governance strategy. It explores the ways in which institutional ambiguity is produced and/or maintained as an instrument to pacify refugees. Building on critical policy analysis and qualitative case-studies, the paper conceptualizes these defining dynamics of Lebanon’s refugee governance as a ‘politics of uncertainty’ that institutionalizes ambiguity, liminality, and exceptionalism to control, exploit, or expel refugees.

Governing by ambiguity: the developmentalisation of humanitarian space in Jordan
Katharina Schmidt (University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
In 2016 the European Union (EU) and the Government of Jordan (GoJ) negotiated a compact aiming to connect humanitarian refugee assistance and development agendas through granting Syrian Refugees the limited right to work (Lenner & Turner 2018). Based on five months of ethnographic fieldwork among international humanitarian and development actors in Jordan, this paper investigates how organisations, tasked with the economic integration of Syrian refugees, struggle with a volatile policy climate in which the GoJ’s objectives are perceived by development and humanitarian actors as unknown, uncertain or inconsistent. Drawing on theorisations of institutional ambiguity as a governance strategy (Nassar/Stel 2019, Stel 2016), this paper argues that these policies allow the GoJ to divert humanitarian funding away from assistance for refugees and towards its own development goals. Searching to secure their existence in Jordan, humanitarian organisations aspire to reconstruct and establish themselves as development actors, thus becoming complicit in what I propose to call the developmentalisation of humanitarian space. Building on agnotology theory (McGoey 2012, Stel 2016), this paper critically examines actors’ claims of “not knowing” if refugees will soon return to Syria. While seemingly emphasising the latters’ freedom of choice, these claims obscure the actors’ involvement in undermining refugees’ voluntariness of leaving a ‘host’ country in which they face legal limbo, decreasing humanitarian assistance and exacerbating costs of living.

Beyond methodological nationalism: ambiguity, translation and assemblages in forced migration policy
Katharina Lenner (University of Bath, UK)
This paper seeks to draw out the utility of using notions of ambiguity, translation and assemblage, as they are increasingly taken up in critical policy studies (e.g. Clarke et al. 2015; Fischer, 2003; Mosse and Lewis, 2006) for understanding forced migration policies, particularly in the global South. Using examples from the response to the presence of Syrian refugees in Jordan, it shows how these concepts can help overcome the methodological nationalism that still permeates discussions in the field, especially among political scientists. The paper argues that conceptualizing policy as an assembled formation makes it possible to look at the co-emergence of and evolving relation between different elements: technologies of government, actors, discourses, keywords, objects, but also quotidian practices, bureaucratic logics and individual desires, all of which span across supposed levels of analysis or analytical divides between national and international policy actors. The paper specifically looks at two instances – the counting of refugees, and the formal opening up of the Jordanian labour market to Syrian refugees – to show how such elements are recombined and reinterpreted to produce outward ‘policy success’.