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C4 The Production of Spaces of Migrant Disappearance

Dr. Maurice Stierl

Maurice Stierl, Foto: Simone Reukauf

Political Sociology/Geography
Osnabrück University

Since 2014, 55,487 migrants have disappeared worldwide, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). However, it is clear that many disappearances remain unaccounted for. This project analyses the production of spaces of migrant disappearance as a conflictual negotiation of the in-/visibility of the disappeared. Migrant disappearances often take place at global faultlines that separate nation states as well as the Global South from the Global North. The project examines empirically one such faultline: the maritime space in the Atlantic Ocean between West and North Africa and the Spanish Canary Islands. Compared to other border regions, such as the Mediterranean and the US-Mexico border, this region has received less attention, even if the number of people disappearing or dying there has sharply risen since 2020.

The project is based on the assumption that spaces in which migrants 'disappear' are produced through a complex interplay between policies, actors, practices, infrastructures and geographical conditions - in this case the Atlantic Ocean. The project analyses the conditions, dynamics and mechanisms of the production of these spaces. The intensification of 'irregular' migration to the Canary Islands and thus the shift to a dangerous sea route can be attributed to policies of migration restriction and the externalisation of borders by the European Union. Also attempts by West and North African states to regulate migration and restrict certain mobilities as well as the worsening of an already difficult economic situation in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic have contributed to intensifying migration movements.

The mechanisms of disappearance and in-/visibilisation are examined in a multi-sited ethnography, with a focus on Spain, Morocco and Senegal. The project analyses whether and how the lack of attempts by states to count and account for migrant disappearances makes such phenomenon invisible. In the absence of systematic records, non-state actors and international organisations seek to determine the number and identity of the disappeared, also in order to make migrant disappearances visible and subject to social negotiation. In addition, family members of the disappeared and civil society organisations are developing specific cultures of protest and commemoration that aim to make the disappearances socially and politically relevant.

The project’s central research questions are as follows: How are spaces of migrant disappearance produced? Which actors negotiate migrant disappearances and their in-/visibility and ›countability‹? What significance do border spaces have in the in-/visibilisation of disappearance?