Migrant Resistance in Contemporary Europe by Maurice Stierl

An exploration of migrant struggles at the European border through three ethnographic studies, Migrant Resistance in Contemporary Europe by Maurice Stierl, is underpinned and illuminated by the ideas of Foucault - and other theorists - about resistance, borders, the European project, activism and movement. Stierl challenges dominant narratives around migrant resistance, Europe, and what has been called the ‘migration crisis’ of 2015, which he refers to instead as ‘the long summer of migration’. Reading Migrant Resistance is thus an immersive experience in alternative ways of thinking about the European border; what it is, where it is, and how it functions. Stierl tracks resistance struggles of migrants in order to make visible the border and its inherent power relations, and to reveal the points of friction within the sovereign state system. He analyses resistance as method - Foucault’s ‘counter-conduct’ - in three ways, through ‘dissent’, ‘excess’ and ‘solidarity’, by looking at the hunger strikes and occupations of the Non-Citizens in Germany, the movement of migrants through Greece, and the solidarity projects in the Mediterranean.


Beginning with the study of the Non-Citizens protests in Germany, Stierl confirms the migrant as an essentially political figure. A group of asylum seekers demanded recognition as refugees and for an end to the degrading treatment they faced. The political and confrontational were fundamental elements of this protest;

[i]nstead of pleading for inclusion by portraying themselves primarily as victims deserving protection or by promising to become ‘good citizens’ and (economically) productive new members of society, they dissensually claimed their right to presence. (p.37)

Stierl explores how their actions represented a disruption to the consensus, through what he calls a ‘wrong-ing’ of names, space and behaviour; claiming the name of Non-Citizen, physical occupation of public space, and hunger strikes and lip sewing.


The second ethnographic study is that of migrants in Greece: stories of young men who arrived there, moved on, were sent back and moved on again, as well as those still trying to leave, and one who became resident in Germany but still ran into difficulties when he returned to visit family there. Conceiving of these movements as ‘excess’ is based on the idea that, as De Genova puts it, freedom of movement represents a “defiant reminder that the creative powers of human life, and the sheer vitality of its productive potential, must always exceed every political regime” (p.61). That being said, while some scholarship (see that of ‘Autonomy of Migration’) tends to see migration as excess with restrictions as reactionary, Stierl’s analyses of movements show that they are engulfed in an excess of violence. Stierl argues that, as Foucault’s ‘Infamous Men’, migrants become known when they clash with power, and that these clashes reveal border enforcement to be intensely disordered, with migration and control as co-constituted.


In his final ethnographic study, Stierl looks at international solidarity campaigns which aim to protest migrant death in the Mediteranean, with a focus on the Alarm Phone project; a hotline through which the alarm can be raised to secure the rescue of migrants in distress at sea. Tracing the emergence of the Boats4People and then Alarm Phone movements, this chapter offers critical insight into the potential for solidarity between migrant and non-migrant activists. Stierl warns of the need to be open to failure in this context given the gulf between the experiences and privileges of one and the other, arguing that ‘common struggle’ is illusive. He uses the example of a Boats4People meeting in which Tunisian mothers whose sons were feared missing in the Mediterannean had left when they understood that the objectives were forward-looking, about saving future lives, since for them this would mean a forgetting of their sons. Stierl argues that Alarm Phone is an example of the possibility of collective struggle; a phone number circulated among migrants and used by migrants, active since 2015, it has gained the trust of the migrant community through long-term engagement.


Stierl goes on to contextualise the struggles analysed within a framework of Europe as project and idea. For Stierl, the question of Europe is inextricable from the question of migration. The reaction to the 2015 influx of migrants revealed how Europe’s principles differ to those it refers to in the story of itself. In the fifth chapter, Europe is understood through the ‘frames’ of how it thinks of itself: as post-racial and post-colonial, as having defeated borders and achieved unity in diversity. Migrant resistance disrupts these frames, revealing contradictions and thus forcing their re-examination. Rather than being ‘Otherless’, Europe needs an ‘Other’ in order to achieve collective identity. Even a cursory examination of migrant struggles reveals that the border springs up everywhere for those who are not white. Policing of breaches of the Dublin Regulation, for example, requires racialized profiling, and in Greece the ‘crackdown’ on ‘illegal immigrants’ in Athens and Patras relied on racialized police controls.


Meanwhile, border enforcement in the Mediternean is framed as humanitarian governance, allegedly aimed at ending death at sea. This ‘humanitarianism’, though, is a veil, hiding its true intentions in order to maintain an image of itself as a builder of peace on the global stage. Europe disassociates itself from acts of violence, blaming instead rogue states, smugglers and the natural forces of the sea and the desert. Stierl argues that while the border system operates through biopolitical governance, through fingerprinting and tracing coupled with humanitarian rhetoric, it also relies on both sovereign and disciplinary power, through violence at the physical border. Bodies are not turned into mute objects to be scanned, but migrants are beaten, forced and tricked into giving fingerprints, handcuffed and deported. Again, it is migrant resistance which highlights these various modalities of power, but also confuses them.


In his final chapter, Stierl proposes a reading of migrant struggles as expressions of freedom confronted by counter-forces which seek to suppress it. That is, the migrant who drowns crossing the Mediterannean sea did not die attempting to exercise his freedom, but rather was exercising his freedom when he was met with a counter-force. For Stierl, 2015 was not only a period of “utopian yearning” but represented, through the overcoming of the border, “utopian enactments”, or the enactments of freedom. In this way, pressure points of the border, and its vulnerability to collective action, were revealed. Continued migrant struggles shed further light on the nature of the border regime as hierarchical and dictatorial, as well as multiple, not “an object to be eliminated [but] a bundle of social relations” (Mezzadra and Neilson quoted 197). For Stierl, this way of knowing the border, through the struggles of those who battle with it, represents a step towards challenging it; the pressure points are laid bare, fields of engagement open up, and targets for resistance multiply (199).


What is the European border? Where is it, how does it act, and how can it be resisted? While these are the concerns at the core of this book, its true value and biggest achievement is in the examination of these concerns through the lens of migrant struggles. Seen through the eyes of those looking in, these issues take on new texture, alternative ways of thinking emerge, and assumptions about borders, resistance, and Europe itself are called into question.


A European, non-migrant reader may become self-conscious reading this book. If the logic of the border is based on hierarchical thinking, and with the author’s own identification with and involvement in the struggles that he is researching, the reader is implicitly compelled to ask themselves, who am I in the narrative? Where do I sit in the hierarchy? And how should I respond? Indeed, while the book represents a break away from the Eurocentric gaze, it does not aim to preclude non-migrant activism. Stierl, however, has little time for the anxieties of the ‘white saviour’ activist. Questions of how to be an ally, and how to respond to the border from a position of privilege, are left largely unanswered. There is strength in this silence. For a non-migrant activist, reading this book will be an exercise in keeping quiet and being led by those whose struggle it really is. By doing so, one will come away with invaluable insight into what the border is, and how it will be resisted.


Rose Bewick was a support worker on the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Schemes. Now, she is studying for a Masters in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration at the University of London. She is also training to be an Immigration Advisor.