With the unfolding of the crisis in the Mediterranean region, scholarly debate and public criticism of the European Union’s border regime have largely focused on the coordinated negligence taking place at the continent’s territorial limits. The sea’s dramatic emergence as a mass grave leaves its hard northern borders all too exposed, with images of Alan Kurdi or interventions by Ai Weiwei drawing sympathetic gazes away from the more mercurial borders that cross and contaminate the lands and lives contained.
In New Borders: Hotspots and the European Migration Regime, authors Antonis Vradis, Evie Papada, Joe Painter and Anna Papoutsi recognize this problem. Written in a direct, accessible style balancing scholarly reflection with poetic prose, the book uses the EU’s hotspot approach to border enforcement on the Greek island of Lesbos as a window into “what a border, under the convenient invocation of an emergency, does to the territory it encloses” (p. 4), as well as “what the pretext of migration as a threat does to our freedom and sense of belonging” (p. 3). Over five short chapters, a preface and a brief introduction, the authors: provide a three-phase timeline of the so-called “migration crisis”; situate the crisis in a longer historical narrative about international efforts to govern population mobility; describe the role of hotspots in producing differentiated mobility regimes; analyse the material, organizational and institutional results of a humanitarian approach to migration management; and examine how the hotspot approach feeds the growth of EU liminal territory and the emergence of a European superstate. Throughout the book, it is argued that, beyond providing a streamlined infrastructure for the processing and sorting of asylum claims, the hotspot approach inaugurates an era where the rights of an increasing share of the population are retractable.
Rather than accepting the EU’s definition of hotspots as facilities for the reception, identification and registration of people coming to Europe by sea, Vradis et al. wisely provide their own multidimensional definition of hotspots as simultaneously “an idea”, “a novel combination of legal and administrative practices” and a “set of physical infrastructures” (p. 3). As the book progresses, the authors repeatedly reframe hotspots to highlight these parameters and the practices they contain or reproduce. Through this continuous reinterpretation, they vividly capture not only the constantly mutating nature of the European border regime but also the high degree of improvization at the heart of the continent’s contradictory responses to the rising death toll.
While the first two chapters of New Borders appropriately frame the emergence of the hotspot approach in its historical and present context, it is not until the third chapter that the book’s most compelling arguments are fleshed out. Here, the relationship between hotspots and the EU-Turkey agreement takes centre stage, with the Greek isles serving as a laboratory for what the authors refer to as “the Europeanisation of the border”. For Vradis et al. the hotspot approach:
… creates zones of indistinction as asylum becomes a bordering practice, while the border gets dislocated into sovereign EU territory, creating buffer zones of pseudo-protection in the EU periphery. [The hotspot] disentangles decision-making and border enforcement from legal scrutiny and rights from territory (p. 48).
This shift occurs within a broader transition towards the spatial management of mobility and the substitution of the ostensibly universal rights framework that modern notions of asylum emerged from for a more state-centric and utilitarian focus on “admissibility”. As a result of this shift, the authors claim in the following chapter, the right to asylum becomes “a tool of exclusion” when considered alongside “the humanitarian reasoning underpinning the notion of vulnerability, which in turn seeks to legally legitimise an outright exclusionary process” (p. 81). This powerful argument will resonate strongly among those familiar with how assessments of individual vulnerability by social services in the global North can often serve to further stratify unemployed and precarious workers, and spark conflicts between them over scarcely deployed resources.New Borders is at its best when analysing the double movements that are so characteristic of the EU migration regime. Through the window of the hotspots in Lesbos, the authors identify a wide range of seemingly subtle shifts with profound implications beyond the border. For instance, rather than depicting the hotspots approach as merely a tool for impeding passage, Vradis et al. see an emerging imperative of controlled, near-constant movement that has more to do with guaranteeing the circulation of capital than it does with guaranteeing the freedom of mobility the EU claims as a motivation. Perhaps the most compelling argument the book makes links the formal emptiness of citizenship rights that this “zero-hours” approach to movement involves and that of the zero-hours contracts proliferating in European labour markets alongside demands for more flexibility. The book’s final chapter convincingly develops this point alongside the argument that what was often called the social contract is being replaced by a new spatial contract, in which the policing of movement “swaps teleology … for openness” (p. 98).
Beyond documenting an understudied part of Europe’s border infrastructure, New Borders contributes to the field of border studies through insights like these. However, the book does have some shortcomings. It occasionally overstates the degree to which both hotspots and arrivals by sea are representative of the broader European migration regime, which largely takes shape in more mundane settings such as airports or long queues at public administrative buildings. Of course, the authors did not set out to study these spaces, but a comparison of the sorting, filtering and waiting that takes place in them with the seemingly similar processes they observed at hotspots could shed some light on the administrative violence borders produce.
Little attention is paid, too, to the role of biometrics, digitalization and other technologies of control that install the border in the body, with stigmatizing effects that last well beyond the moment of entry. While the authors do point out that the hotspots approach embodies “the colonial and racial undertones of Europe’s own identity” (p. 85), the relative lack of attention to these aspects seems to impede a more robust critique of the European border regime as a racialising (and racist) algorithm.
These aspects notwithstanding, the contributions made by Vradis, Papada, Painter and Papoutsi in this book are considerable. Though the format is ultimately too short to make it a comprehensive assessment of the European border apparatus in all its scale, the authors provide an impressive depiction of its development through their analysis of one of its newest components. If hotspots are a window into the European migration regime, New Borders tosses a brick right through it.