A guest post from Polly Pallister-Wilkins, Assistant Professor in Political Science at the University of Amsterdam. Polly’s work broadly sits in the borderlands between International Relations, Critical Security Studies and Political Geography. More specifically she specialises in the intersection of humanitarian intervention and border control. Her current research is concerned with what she terms ‘humanitarian borderwork’ building on previous research into humanitarianism, border policing and the political sociologies of walls, fences and security barriers. Her regional areas of focus are the Mediterranean, specifically Greece, and the Middle East. She has been an assistant professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Amsterdam since 2012 after undertaking her doctoral research at SOAS, University of London. Recent work has appeared in International Political Sociology and Geopolitics. She is also the editor of a forthcoming forum in Mediterranean Politics on the ‘Migration Crisis’.
I grew up watching Baywatch. Saturday evenings were the highlight of my week. All that sun, sea, sand and heroics. This may account for my poor bastardisation—and for this I apologise—of Warsan Shire’s evocative verse. In addition I am not suggesting that all focus is on the boats that transport people and the sea they cross even as journeys and modes of travel become a central theme in border and mobility policing and the study thereof. I am labouring under artistic license here.
The appearance of search and rescue operations (SAR) in the Mediterranean and Aegean—beyond those undertaken continuously by commercial vessels and the daily routines of state coastguards—is, Cap Anamur aside, a relatively new phenomenon. The Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) was the first non-state actor to engage in humanitarian driven SAR in 2014, joined in 2015 by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and later Seawatch in the southern Mediterranean. These actors are also present in the Aegean, a wholly different operating environment, with smaller SAR vessels, where they operate amongst a plethora of other groups and individuals focused on responding to the danger of the boat journeys of people on the move.
I have the utmost respect for those engaged in a range of practices that I call humanitarian borderwork. These humanitarian borderworkers, mostly volunteers, work tirelessly to alleviate the violence of a European border regime that makes safe and legal travel an impossibility for those seeking life. These people step in and step up to provide assistance for people on the move where Europe, its member states and its large-scale humanitarian organisations, so used to acting the sovereign and intervening elsewhere beyond the borders of Europe, have failed.