Crossing (Biometric) Borders: Turning ‘Gravity’ Upside Down

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Crossing (Biometric) Borders: Turning ‘Gravity’ Upside Down

  • April 4, 2020
  • By Admin: Osman
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By Anja Simonsen, Department of Anthropology, the University of Copenhagen

A Somali friend living in Ethiopia once said to me that he felt struck by the force of gravity because he had a Somali passport. He demonstrated what he meant by pretending to hold a Somali passport stuck to the table we were sitting at. He compared this imaginary Somali passport to a magnet from the South Pole being drawn by the force of gravity to a magnet from the North Pole. He used the word ‘gravity’ to refer to Somalis being unable to travel to Europe as their documents were viewed as worthless in that part of the world. The word ‘gravity’ thus had very negative connotations. The Somalis I interviewed three years later when conducting fieldwork in Somaliland also talked about feeling weighed down by their passports, but when the discussion turned to European passports and European ID documents,[i] the word ‘gravity’ acquired a different and much more positive meaning. Obtaining such forms of legal IDentity[ii] was seen as something positive in Somaliland simply because they are associated with prestige and potentially enable Somalis to be mobile, both socially and geographically.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘gravity’ does in fact have a dual meaning. In physics it is defined as ‘the attractive force by which all bodies tend to move towards the centre of the earth; the degree of intensity with which a body in any given position is affected by this force, measured by the amount of acceleration produced’ (OED). But ‘gravity’ also refers to social characteristics such as ‘weight, influence, authority, importance and seriousness’ (OED). Keeping this duality in mind, in this article I place the emphasis on the positive sense of the word and use it as an analytical tool to explain how Somali men negotiate their social positions within clan-based networks in Somaliland through the ‘gravity’ of European biometric documentation. In other words, I show how Somalis turn ‘gravity’ upside down.

In academia, a lot of attention has been devoted to migrants’ experiences of feeling weighed down by specific legal, geographical and economic situations. A wealth of research has focused specifically on the European Union’s asylum practices, such as the Dublin regulation (e.g. Hurwitz 1999[iii], Fratzke[iv] 2015),[v] as well as the EU’s reception of asylum-seekers, which is now based on the biometric technology of fingerprint registration (van der Ploeg 1999, 2003). Scholars such as Brekke and Brochmann[vi] (2015) and Belloni (2016)[vii] have explored how European practices of the reception and provision of ID documents often clash with asylum-seekers’ expectations. Such studies have examined the latter’s sense of feeling geographically and socially weighed down by having their fingerprints registered in countries where they cannot create sustainable lives. This forces asylum-seekers and refugees to ‘wander’, as Bauman (1998: 42, 47) has framed it, in their search for sustainable livelihoods. Others are turned ‘involuntarily immobile’ by the process (Carling 2002[viii], Urry 2003[ix]). Van der Ploeg (1999, 2003)[x] sheds light on this immobility in her explorations of how biometric technologies are used for identification purposes in migration contexts. She shows how some travellers are identified as illegal and are stopped, while others are categorized as low-risk travellers with the right to travel freely. Her work therefore illustrates how people without the right kind of status may experience the force of what in this article is defined as the negative form of ‘gravity’ when they want to migrate.

This article supports recent findings by scholars such as van der Ploeg while at the same time contributing new knowledge by showing how IDentity by means of ID documents and the registration of fingerprints in one context can be used to challenge social structures in another. The article draws on fieldwork conducted in Somaliland (the country of origin) and Italy (the receiving country) from May 2013 and still ongoing among Somalis who either want to migrate or are in the process of doing so. Data have been gathered through semi-structured interviews with Somali women and men, NGOs, lawyers, members of parliament, social workers and volunteers. In addition, I have made use of participant observation by following the everyday lives of Somalis in Somaliland and Europe, and of those working with and around people categorized as asylum-seekers, migrants and refugees.

The article starts by explaining the Dublin Regulation and the registration of fingerprints, which here is described as the practices of a Europeanmake-believe’ system. In this article the adjective ‘make-believe’ (Navaro-Yashin 2007)[xi] is used to describe the clash between a standardized Dublin Regulation and non-standardized practices in, for example, the handling of the recognition and reception of asylum-seekers across the EU. The fact that many Somali refugees in Italy are homeless while their friends in northern Europe are provided with housing and food is experienced as a form of negative ‘gravity’. This paradox will be examined in the second part of the article through the story of a Somali man named Ali. Being biometrically registered in Italy, Ali found himself forced to live there. Despite feeling that he was at the bottom of society, he found ways to challenge these gravitational forces and experiences. The third part of the article examines the ways in which Somali men challenge the consequences of having a biometrical IDentity attached to them in Italy by zooming in on the positive social perceptions in Somaliland of ‘having taken the European passport’, as Somalis frame it. The fourth and final part of the article explores the ways in which Somalis with international documents or titles negotiate their social status in Somaliland by taking advantage of the way international IDentity is generally viewed as a marker of upper-class belonging.

[i] E.g. ID documents giving permission for temporary or permanent residence.

[ii] Throughout this article, IDentity is defined as a form of registration through the use of biometric technologies in Italy and through clan affiliations in Somaliland. This form of IDentity is considered unmistakeably as an unambiguous marker of an individual’s’ character. Identity, on the other hand, is characterized as an outcome of social processes and as something that is experienced, lived and changeable (see the introduction to this special issue).

[iii] Hurwitz, A. 1999. The 1990 Dublin Convention: A Comprehensive Assessment. International Journal of Refugee Law, 11(4):646–677.

[iv] Fratzke, Susan. 2015. Not Adding Up: The Fading Promise of Europe’s Dublin System. EU Asylum: Towards 2020 Project. Brussels: Migration Policy Institute.

[v] The Dublin Regulation refers to a European asylum system where the asylum seekers’ country of first entry is responsible for handling the asylum request.

[vi] Brekke, Jan-Paul & Grete Brochmann. 2015. Stuck in Transit: Secondary Migration of Asylum Seekers in Europe, National Differences, and the Dublin Regulation. Journal of Refugee Studies, 28(2):145– 162.

[vii] Belloni, Milena. 2016. Refugees as Gamblers: Eritreans Seeking to Migrate through Italy. Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Studies, 14(1):104–119.

[viii] Carling, Jørgen. 2002. Migration in the Age of Involuntary Immobility: Theoretical Reflections and Cape Verdean Experiences. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 28(1):5–42.

[ix] Urry, John. 2003. Global Complexity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

[x] Van der Ploeg, Irma. 1999. The Illegal Body: ‘Eurodac’ and the Politics of Biometric Identification. Ethics and Information Technology, 1:295–302; Van der Ploeg, Irma. 2003. Biometrics and Privacy: A Note on the Politics of Theorizing Technology. Information, Communication and Society, 6(1):85–104.

[xi] Navaro-Yashin, Yael. 2007. Make-Believe Papers, Legal Forms and the Counterfeit: Affective Interactions between Documents and People in Britain and Cyprus. Anthropological Theory, 7(1): 79–98.