Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies

From theory to practice in Schengen migration control

Marie Curie Fellow Federica Infantino probes the diffusion of knowledge and practice in Schengen migration control.

04/06/2021 | News - Research

Federica Infantino recently started a two-year Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellowship at the EUI, as a member of the Migration Policy Centre (MPC) research team. Her project “The Diffusion of Migration Control Practice” (DoMiCoP) will run through February 2023.

Migration control refers to a wide range of actions that affect migrants before and after their arrival at Europe’s borders. These include visa application processing, the confinement or holding of migrants in detention and asylum centres, and the apprehension and removal of undocumented migrants. “Migration control,” remarks Infantino, “has become a very big business in Europe.”

The Marie Curie project

For her research, Infantino focuses on the groups of professionals who are charged with interpreting and implementing migration policy – those people and organisations that form the critical link between the legal framework and directives in Brussels and the staff who work on the ‘front line’ with migrants themselves.

To get at how people working in these fields learn and develop ‘communities of practice’, she will use field-based, ethnographic methods. Her aim is to better understand how migration control in the EU is implemented “on the ground.”

The Migration Policy Centre

Prospective Marie Curie Fellows must select their preferred institution and request their support as a host to the project. When asked why she chose the EUI, she mentioned she had previously spent time here as a visiting fellow and knew that “it is an excellent research environment.” She chose the Migration Policy Centre in particular because she felt her approach would be supported and understood by its leadership. “The MPC, directed by Andrew Geddes, clearly recognises the need to understand the processes of policy-making within and beyond the state. This is a necessary compliment to the important and extensive research being done on the migrant experience.”

Building on previous work: the concept of migratory risk

Prior to her Marie Curie Fellowship, Infantino conducted extensive fieldwork in Morocco among officials in the consulates of Italy, France and Spain, and the employees of various private-sector contractors with whom all these governments work closely on visa issues. At that time, she was interested in how and why these ‘communities of practice’ formed and how their members diffuse policy-related knowledge.

For the visa dimension of migration control, explains Infantino, a key concept is the management of ‘migratory risk’. In Europe, this concept generally reflects the desire of states to avoid additional residents burdening an extensive and costly welfare system, but it can also be marked by broader cultural and racial overtones.

“One of the main takeaways from my previous work is that people on the ground solve problems that weren’t foreseen, or were left unsolved, at the higher legal and policy level."

Why are these issues solved at such a low level? For Infantino, this passing of the buck happens in two ways.

“One way leaves the hard calls to intermediary and front-line officials, keeping politicians and policymakers in Brussels protected from blame. The other effectively ‘outsources’ migration control – and thus most of the face-to-face contact at any stage of the migration process – to private companies.”

This outsourcing creates huge ethical, democratic and legal dilemmas. Many of these firms are multinational corporations (MNCs) who provide similar services to multiple states throughout the globe. “Who is responsible”, asks Infantino, “when these businesses violate the rights of individuals or pervert the principles of border control?”

A gap in understanding

When it comes to migration control, explains Infantino, “I noticed a gap in our understanding of what happens at the ‘intermediate-level venues’ of practical knowledge exchange. What configurations of actors and organisations are involved, what motivations underlie their involvement? What does the interaction look like, the conflicts and negotiations that eventually produce shared interpretations and ‘practice’?”

These venues include professional training programmes and platforms, working groups set up by the Commission, the client relations units of MNCs and even some NGOs. Many of the actors have careers in both the public and the private sectors.

The contributions of the research

With her research, Infantino hopes to help Brussels understand the perspective of the people implementing migration control, and to recognise how complex the work can be for people on the ground. “There is a lot of bottom-up input to the process,” she says, “and policy-makers need to realise this.”

“In addition,” remarks Infantino, “this research draws attention to actors who have a real impact on the migrant experience. We should really have a better, in-depth understanding of how they are implementing policy.”

Federica Infantino holds a dual doctorate in political science, from Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and from Sciences Po Paris. She has worked at the University of Oxford’s (COMPAS) programme and at the ULB. Her most recent book is Schengen Visa Implementation and Transnational Policymaking: Bordering Europe, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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