(Un)making the Refugee through Statistical Data: Ontological Construction and Obfuscation in the Central Mediterranean Sea, 2013 to 2015

Authors: Kira Williams*, Wilfrid Laurier University
Topics: Political Geography, Migration, Quantitative Methods
Keywords: borders,refugees,migration,methodology,geopolitics
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Studio 10, Marriott, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


State border enforcement practises attempt to frame the existence of groups or populations as refugees and produce actionable knowledge therein to maintain existing social hierarchies (Cresswell 2006; Ruhs & Anderson 2010; Samers 2010); however, few migration scholars consider how authorities empirically directly construct these ontologies. Pursuing Agamben’s (1998) suggestion, I therefore identify and describe how the European Union set up a system to deprive refugees of their humanity in a legally acceptable manner via statistical data in the Central Mediterranean Sea, 2013 to 2015. I do this by analysing and inferring power relations embedded in statistical data constructed and obfuscated by Frontex from three comprehensive data sources: boat interdiction, migrant “debriefing” interviews and “major incident reports” during interdiction operations. I argue that power relations alter data definition, collection and storage by influencing research objectives and uses; they also contain evidence of bureaucratic practises used to construct them (Burawoy 1998). State border enforcement authorities also have incentive to falsely measure, misrepresent, partially collect or selectively report data (Ley 2003). Data construction thus can embed existing social hierarchies and their construction through rationalism, such as racism, sexism, xenophobia and sedentarism (Silvey & Lawson 1999; Walton-Roberts 2004; Urry 2000). I proceed to propose and use missing data methods then to identify and describe how Frontex (un)makes the “refugee” through detection of anomalies in bureaucratic practise.

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