A crisis point has emerged, whereby the figure of the ‘irregular’ migrant is seen as both a security threat to the European Union (EU) and its borders and as a life that is itself threatened and in need of saving by the EU and its agencies. This contradiction leads to paradoxical situations in the field of EU border politics whereby humanitarian policies and practices frequently expose ‘irregular’ migrants to dehumanising and sometimes lethal security mechanisms.

The dominant way of thinking critically about this problem today is one that blames a ‘gap’ between the EU’s humanitarian rhetoric and the realities on the ground driven by security imperatives. However, this framing fails to address the deeper issues at stake and runs a risk of perpetuating the very dynamics that lead to migrant and refugee deaths. An alternative lens for thought, critique, and action is thus required – one that recognises and engages with the complex ways in which humanitarianism and securitisation have become so problematically entangled.

This article turns to resources found in contemporary European political thought in order to offer such an alternative. The idea here is not that theory can better ‘grasp’ the reality of the crisis, but that it can disrupt how problems are understood and solutions are posited in response and offer new perspectives. In this regard, I want to suggest that the concept of autoimmunity – as found in the works of Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito – offers promise for developing new border imaginaries.

In the argument presented here, the conditions faced by hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees seeking a better life in the EU are reflective of a crisis relating to Europe’s borders and symptomatic of the dangers of excessive protection: an autoimmune disorder has developed whereby biopolitical bordering practices designed to protect European values and ways of life have become militarised and threaten what they are intended to protect. In other words, we cannot understand the terms of the crisis without appreciating the role that the EU has had in creating and perpetuating it.

The ambiguous status of the ‘irregular’ migrant

The unfolding humanitarian catastrophe that has been packaged as Europe’s ‘migrant and refugee crisis’ is of course not at all new, but at least several decades old. The depressing regularity with which United Against Racism has updated its list of deaths of ‘irregular’ populations seeking entry to the EU since the early 1990s attests to the history of border violence that has accompanied the development of the Schengen zone.  These dynamics have intensified to the extent that since January 2015 more than 3,771 migrants and refugees are known to have died or remain missing in the Mediterranean Sea and a further 700 are lost in the Aegean.

Since the 1985 Schengen Agreement, tougher border security – rather than ‘regular’ access to labour markets – has been framed as the optimal solution to the perceived problem of ‘irregular’ migration into the EU. Efforts to police the movement of populations produced as ‘irregular’ have undergone a series of spatial and temporal displacements – both within the territories of EU Member States and beyond via Mobility Partnerships with Third Countries – such that the borders of Europe are increasingly off-shored and out-sourced. But while these developments are by now well-documented, the rise of the discourse of ‘migrant-centred’ border security – particularly since the relaunch in 2011 of the EU Commission’s ‘Global Approach to Migration and Mobility’ (GAMM) – and its ambivalent effects have received less attention.

The GAMM presents the ‘irregular’ migrant as a political subject whose life is threatened and in need of protection via Frontex-coordinated search and rescue missions, enhanced surveillance of the Mediterranean via EUROSUR, and calls for the mainstreaming of human rights and protection for all migrants and refugees throughout their journeys to the EU. At the same time, however, policies and practices under the GAMM framework also interpellate the ‘irregular’ migrant as a political subject whose very existence potentially threatens the security, economy, and identity of the EU and its citizens and against whom increasingly militarised border controls are mobilised within the EU and 1000s of miles beyond European territory as far as sub-Saharan Africa.

Under these conditions, situations of extreme ambiguity emerge such that humanitarian border security policies and practices often expose to death the very migrants that they purport to protect. We know from widely available testimonies that when ‘irregular’ migrants in distress encounter Frontex patrol vessels in the Aegean or Mediterranean Seas they are often unsure as to whether they are going to be rescued or pushed-back. While the EU Commission  claims that Frontex Joint Operations Poseidon and Triton ‘saved over 122,000 lives’ in 2015 alone, research presented by NGOs such as United Against Racism alleges that the Agency has also been involved in illegal operations that tow-away and abandon migrants in distress leading to an ultimately unknown number of casualties and deaths.

The biopolitical paradigm as an alternative frame

Rather than blaming the ‘gap’ between rhetoric and reality, we need new diagnoses of the problem. Instead of viewing contemporary logics of securitisation and humanitarianism as essentially contradictory elements within the field of EU border security and migration management, these can be understood more instructively as twinned elements of what Michel Foucault outlined as biopolitical forms of government.

Foucault used the concept of biopolitics to refer to a specifically modern way of exercising power characterised by a politics of caring for and maximising life.  He argued that from the eighteenth century onward new forms of scientific knowledge emerged in Europe – made possible by disciplines such as statistics, demography, epidemiology, and biology – that brought about the entrance of biological life (zoē) into the modalities of state power (bios).
Whereas sovereign power referred to taking life or letting life live at the level of the individual, bio-power focuses on regulation and intervention in order to enhance the population.

Once the Foucaultian paradigm of biopolitics is adopted then the seemingly ‘paradoxical’ subject position of the ‘irregular’ migrant as both a ‘security risk’ and ‘life to be saved’ can be placed within the same grid of intelligibility: the bodies of ‘irregular’ populations—their basic needs, vulnerabilities, and potentialities—are targeted and managed in ways that allow otherwise risky populations to be known and therefore governed. However, a problem nevertheless remains with the paradigmatic Foucaultian account that we also see at play in the field of contemporary EU border security and migration biopolitics: why does biopower have the capacity to kill if it is animated by and motivated to protect and preserve life?

This question, left hostage to fortune in Foucault’s oeuvre, is taken up by Roberto Esposito, who explores what he sees as the tension between the protection and negation of life at the heart of contemporary forms of biopolitical governance.  For Esposito, neither form of biopolitics – positive or negative – can be given primacy, as in the works of Antonio Negri or Giorgio Agamben, respectively. Rather, in Esposito’s account biopolitics pulls simultaneously in these two opposing directions and the missing link in Foucault’s work is the concept of immunisation.

Borders as biopolitical immune systems

Esposito argues that the need to protect life is not a new societal phenomenon, but that the need to preserve and optimise life was not central to ancient and medieval societies. What changed under modern conditions was that the weakening of ‘the great chain of being’ created the need for alternative methods of self-protection. In this context he traces the emergence of the concept of immunity in both juridical-political and bio-medical traditions of thought as referring to a ‘protective response in the face of a risk’.  The logic of immunisation works by using precisely that which it seeks to oppose in order to develop a resistance against it. But while in non-lethal doses this operation may protect life, beyond a certain threshold Esposito argues that it may threaten that which it is supposed to protect: an autoimmune crisis.

For Esposito it is precisely in the potential for autoimmunity that the ambivalent potential of biopolitical governance ultimately lies. While Nazism represented the zenith of the historical realisation of negative biopolitics, its passing did not mean the end of that potentiality. The logic of autoimmunity has not disappeared, according to Esposito, and he warns against symptoms of excessive immunitary defence in global politics today: for example, the neurotic drive for maximal security by Western governments in the context of the war against terrorism and attempts to change the perception of risk levels in order to justify the need for protection.

Rethought along these lines, contemporary biopolitical bordering practices can be conceptualised as immune systems. While their primary function is to develop a protective response in the face of a risk, borders have the potentiality to develop excessive, aggressively militaristic, and indeed autoimmune tendencies. Border security may preserve life via humanitarian practices, but it may also threaten the same life that it is supposed to protect. Read through the lens of the immunitary paradigm, Europe’s border crisis is an autoimmune disorder stimulated by the problematisation of ‘irregular’ migration as an existential threat to the body politic. Furthermore, this fear of degenerative contagion explains the increasing medicalisation of contemporary EU border security practices and pathologisation of the other.


While the potential to destroy life is inherent within contemporary biopolitical bordering regimes, there is nothing inevitable about this drift. Borders are not only sites of closure and excessive militarised defence; they are also sites of encounter with the other and an opening onto the common. For Esposito there is a subversive potential to this opening in which he locates the possibility for an affirmative biopolitics: one that disaggregates the border-as-immune system from aggressive militarism. However, if too much border security is a risk then so is too little. To be completely open to the other would be to erase the very border that would enable hospitality to the other. For this reason, it is a false choice to posit tough border security against the opening up of borders in a zero-sum way as if either were risk-free: both lead to an autoimmune crisis. An alternative would be to rethink Europe’s border politics along more affirmative lines from within the horizon of biopolitics and its ambivalent potentiality for both the destruction and protection of life. To begin with, Europe might demilitarise its borders, return bordering practices on-shore, subject border security practices to greater democratic oversight, create legal channels for labour migration, and recalibrate present conditions to allow for potentially transformative encounters between self and other: such moves, to paraphrase Esposito, could turn the present crisis into an opportunity to shatter the mirror in which Europe is reflected without seeing anything but itself.

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