Inside the Border Black Box: Towards a Political Economy of the Balkan Route

Border policing in the EU is a high-tech affair where people count much less than numbers. In the course of this, the political economy of mobility, especially along the so-called “Balkan route,” has become a veritable black box. In this BLACK BOX EAST interview with Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki, the criminologist and human rights lawyer Sanja Milivojevic tries to shed light on this.

The mobility infrastructure co-created and deployed by asylum seekers has become increasingly black-boxed. As shown by the paradigmatic case of the so-called Balkan route: black-boxing is a process that takes place when rising numbers of mobile bodies are used as a legitimation for introducing and promoting border management as a computer that is ostensibly able to come to terms with “runaway numbers” only by turning qualities into quantities and rendering the potential of mobile labor into a number that can be calculated and thus controlled. This computerization of border management produces the first dimension of the mobility black box: constructed by code-savvy technicians as an opaque space that obstructs knowledge of its internal workings. You studied the so-called “Balkan route” in your book “Border Policing and Security Technologies” (2019) – a space that is nowadays for the most part seen outside a historical context, unrelated to the dissolution of socialist Yugoslavia, the Germany-led NATO intervention, the reshaping of the region by Berlin and Brussels, and capitalist market mechanisms that have been introduced there. To begin with, could you elaborate on the rationale behind deploying security technologies in the context of border management, and how black box politics constitute an integral part of it?

An ongoing pursuit for security in what is now known as a risk society makes a borderless world, or a world where borders might be more permeable, a rather bleak prospect. Security seems to be the most aspired-to concept in the area of migration management. In fact, it is mobility itself that has become the key security concern in the contemporary world. Proliferation and multiplication of physical, internal, and digital borders across the globe creates a fault line that divides what I call the green-listers of transnational mobility (wanted) from the grey- and black-listers (suspicious and unwanted). Contemporary borders that construct these fault lines are complex political, philosophical, socio-legal constructs: sometimes they are visible, like the barbed-wire fences on Hungary’s borders with Serbia and Croatia. Often, however, they are almost impossible to detect. Borders move in and out, extending to countries of origin and transit via policies, identity databases, drone surveillance, education campaigns and racial profiling practices, and a range of other border security technologies. Crucially, the ultimate objective of the migration machine is well-controlled, secured (for black- and grey-listers of transnational mobility), and seamless borders (for green-listers).

In 2015, a temporary collapse of border regimes for migrants and asylum seekers fleeing Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict zones placed countries of transit under unprecedented pressure. They were tasked with the job of regaining control over growing mobility flows. Non-EU “allies” in the Balkans (Serbia, Kosovo, and North Macedonia) and new member states (Croatia) ended up in the spotlight; a region troubled by its recent past was quickly turned into unexpected and unlikely guardians of the EU border regime. My book mapped the interplay and performance of borders along the Western Balkans migration route that regulated mobility and, even in times of border closure, filtered people towards the West. Borders, thus, were never completely shut. The demand for low-skilled labor acted as a driver to stream migrants through the regulatory mechanisms of borders. After all, the immobility of black-listers and assessment of grey-listers of transnational mobility was, and still is, the real purpose of borders. Establishing the right number of the right people permitted to access labor markets and/or asylum systems in the West is their goal, and the combination and fine-tuning of many borders is the strategy to reach it. Some of these borders were self-imposed on the Western Balkans by nations. More often, they were developed under the pressure (or guidance and financial support) of the EU.

The borders of Europe have thus been externalized to the region, and their function was to create “dams” and regulate mobility in times of increased mobility pressures. Like a giant sieve, borders in the region created a purgatory for both non-citizens (people in transit) and citizens of nation states of the Western Balkans. They classified, blocked, and filtered out border crossers. Such purgatory had many sites of enforcement – from physical borders between Serbia and Hungary, practices of racial profiling against “bogus” asylum seekers, to anti-trafficking interventions targeting women transiting the region. Solid borders such as fences, pushbacks and violence along physical and internal borders were omnipresent in the Western Balkans before, during and after the “crisis.” As their purpose is to create barriers that block and remove dangerous or unwanted “Others” (both citizens and non-citizens), they served and continue to serve as membranes that immobilize or temporarily restrict the mobility of many, until their usefulness in the West’s labor markets or asylum systems is thoroughly assessed. I outlined how a threat of suspension of the visa-free regime by the EU and its member states resulted in reinstating solid borders in the region, through legal reforms, education campaigns and practices of racial profiling and pushbacks along the physical borders of Serbia, North Macedonia, and Kosovo. Liquid – porous – borders were also a key mechanism in mobility management. Designed and inspired by the Global North, these borders helped achieve the right balance of people able to pass through the region to ensure both economic growth and the supremacy of the EU. From letting “genuine” refugees make their way through the Western Balkans migration route, to special interventions that target some citizens while enabling others to cross borders, they were constantly calibrated and re-calibrated during the “crisis.” Cloudy (technology-underpinned) borders deployed and defended in the digital sphere were the last cog in this migration machine. Computer systems, databases, servers, and high-tech hardware were fine-tuned mechanisms for the articulation of mobility, and in fact the ones most difficult to observe and analyze. I managed to capture only a tiny fraction of them, mostly those targeting transiting non-citizens since they are, as you say black-boxed, obscured, and carefully hidden. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this type of borders was instrumental in mobility management during and after the migrant “crisis.”

The architectural feature of the mobility black box as an opaque space that obstructs knowledge of its internal workings is further enhanced by the fact that the computerization of border management has been promoted as a business opportunity and a possibility for fostering a “homegrown European security industry.” The member states of the EU and the EU itself are thus promoting the privatization of a governmental domain (the protection of state borders), and in the course of this privatization they are accepting, if not actively supporting, that deals can be made in the back room, inaccessible to the public, deals that remain beyond comprehension because their proceedings and documents are sealed as “trade secrets.” What would be a particularly illuminating example of that in the Western Balkan?

Border regimes in the region changed significantly before, during, and after the migrant crisis, inspired and directed by the administration in Brussels, Berlin and other centers of power in the EU. In that sense, blackboxing is present when it comes to the purpose of the above interventions, as well as their nature. Trade secrets thus do not apply simply to technology itself, but also to why technology has been deployed at all.

I studied this change in borders’ nature and structure, and their transformation from permeable to semi-permeable, and ultimately to a border shutdown (though not a complete shutdown, as I explained above). Europe’s techno-social machine impacted profoundly on and extended to border crossings, airports, asylum centers, and public discourses in the region. As such, in the phase of limited engagement, nation states on the Western Balkans migration route effectively suspended their migration and asylum systems, as seen by the non-engagement of government agencies and law enforcement in countries of transit. Indeed, agencies in charge of registering non-citizens in Serbia and North Macedonia have (actively and passively) encouraged them to leave the region as quickly as possible. A ‘mockery of a system’ inspired by a lack of pressure from the EU, but also the xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism of local populations, enabled thousands of migrants to reach the West. As the pressure by the EU and its member states grew, and following media campaigns that focused on racialized criminal “Others,” solid and cloudy borders were promptly reinstated in the region. This resulted in non-entrée and border shutdown policies, in which former enemies (such as Kosovo and Serbia, or Serbia and Croatia) emerged as partners in mobility management in the region. I also documented how countries of origin and in particular their border guards “do borders” on behalf of destination countries. I mapped how the growing number of “bogus” asylum seekers prompted a change in border regimes in Serbia, Kosovo, and North Macedonia that infringed on the right to mobility and the right to seek asylum of thousands of people from the region.

Borders in the region have thus been anything but static, but their workings have in many ways been blackboxed. Borders expanded, multiplied, and spread following migratory pressures in the region and political developments in the EU. These pre-frontier controls had a clear aim: to compensate for the perceived vulnerability of the EU by identifying, assessing, and controlling people outside of its territory in times of increased migration pressures. Consequently, the “normal politics” of migration in the region transformed into “emergency politics” during the time of amplified mobility of people from the Global South. As such, borders were continuously renewed and enabled, embodied in physical borders, digital spaces, territories of other sovereign states, and bodies of people who attempted to cross them. Our knowledge about these processes, what underpins them, and who ultimately benefits from them (i.e., the private sector) remains limited.

A third feature of the mobility black box is that the privatization of state services introduces a vast array of actors from the organized crime milieu. The “Balkan route” is exemplary because the dissolution of Yugoslavia was accompanied and accelerated by the rise of organized crime of all shades. It is crucial to note that actors from the organized crime milieu are not acting apart from the capitalist market but rather as an integral part of it – not merely its “dark side” but increasingly also its very official-inofficial embodiment. In this vein, organized crime actors have contributed to building the capitalist market in the Balkans, while the black-boxed business practices of the neoliberal states that emerged after the dissolution of Yugoslavia invite or at least favor criminal or proto-criminal conduct (e.g., corruption) and a realm of impunity at large. If the organized crime-orchestrated smuggling of people, drugs, weapons, and other goods constituted the “Balkan route” in the first place, then the securitization of mobilities along the “Balkan route” has become a new, additional profit-generating game for organized crime actors introduced by the EU promoting border management as a new market. To what degree is this aspect a “typical feature of the Western Balkans”? To what extent is it a characteristic of privatization and neoliberalism in (Eastern) Europe in general?

This is not something I investigated in the book. I can, however, confirm that the above interventions during the migrant “crisis” have commenced the process of de-Balkanization and re-Europeanization of the region. This remote migration management on behalf of Europe set the region on the pathway to reverse the process of Balkanization, and one step closer to EU membership. Former enemies cooperated in mobility control, as evidenced in the case of Serbia and Croatia, or Kosovo and Serbia. This is significant, given the region’s troubled history, but can also be a new spark that can potentially rekindle animosities and grievances of the past (and can also be a short-lived trend). Racial profiling, religious or nationality-driven interventions, and practices in the region where ethnicity, race and religion have caused so much suffering, are negligent at best. However, the outcry over such practices has fallen mostly on states and governments of the Western Balkans. And while Europe’s requests for unrestricted freedom of movement without discrimination do exist on paper, these interventions, although committed by nations of the region, were inspired and orchestrated by those that benefit from such practices.

You speak of “social sorting of non-citizens” in your work, and this leads us to the fourth feature of the mobility black box, related to the fact that the mobile bodies along the “Balkan route” often resist easy classification. As a procedure, social sorting of non-citizens seems to reach its limits in the very moment when “runaway numbers” resist machine-readability, that is, when passports are lacking, missing, or have been destroyed; when passports are outdated, fake or inconsistent with data base records, etc. It is at this juncture where the black box status of mobility management not only imposes its oppressive politics onto mobile bodies but is also to a certain extent generated by these very bodies – as an act of resistance that may express what has been called the “autonomy of migration.” Thus, the question is: can the mobility black box also be read as a realm that supports the freedom of movement?

People on the move are constantly classified and reclassified through bordering practices. Black-listing follows a security logic and excludes known threats. Most of the mobile population in the region, however, were catalogued as grey-listers, and subjected to data analysis, risk profiling and assessment of their suitability for labor markets and/or asylum systems in the Global North. During the “crisis” the Western Balkan region was transformed into a buffer zone, a labor reserve where filtering and (more or less) temporary immobilization took place. Many tentacles of the migration machine in the region blocked, delayed, filtered, categorized and re-categorized people on the move, effectively creating a manageable flow of migrants. Striking the balance of people allowed to cross – people assessed as useful on the labor markets or as genuine asylum seekers who would validate the supposedly humanitarian nature of the asylum system of the West – was reached in countries of origin and transit; more importantly, this outcome was achieved through the cooperation of nations that were in a bloody conflict less than twenty years ago. They were reunited, if not reconciled, to accomplish this task.

Security technologies, wherever they might be deployed, are arguably becoming more violent. I captured testimonies of resistance, violence, pushbacks, and exploitation that are direct outcomes of border securitization. While perhaps not as explicit as the sites of shipwrecks in Lampedusa or bodies scattered on Mediterranean beaches, the region’s “collateral damage” was arguably equally tragic and dramatic. Underpinning the purported willingness to tolerate human tragedy and casualties in the region was the local population’s racism and xenophobia, and a humanitarian “rescue” narrative that targets women border crossers. Negative and at the same time inevitable impacts of these processes, such as violence and border pushbacks, racial profiling and governing mobility based on race and ethnicity of border crossers were, it seems, a prize candidate, and potential candidate states were willing to pay to get political points for the big prize: EU membership. The Global North, on the other hand, not only tolerated but arguably instigated and promoted such harmful practices.

Countries of origin and transit such as those in the Western Balkans were spaces where border struggles take place, and where mobile bodies reclaimed technology in order to enhance their migratory projects, record abusive bordering practices, and potentially create counter-narratives of migration. I call this process “stealing the fire” (inspired by the story of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity); it happens via existing technology platforms such as smartphones and social media, where people on the move enabling mobility projects, seek accountability for violence and human rights violations, and change security narratives in the public and policy discourse around migration. The potential of counter-security technologies in de-securitization of migration is, while to some extent carved out in my research, largely unexplored in the literature. Stories by people shared on social media undoubtedly have the potential to transfer their suffering, pain, survival, and hope to broader audiences. “Stealing the fire” in this context can potentially mean breaking the monopoly of official truth-telling actors of migration, through mass self-communication in the digital knowledge commons.

About the Project

This interview is part of the Berliner Gazette’s 2021 annual project BLACK BOX EAST. Find all details and up-to-date information on the project here:

About Sanja Milivojevic

Sanja Milivojevic is a Research Fellow in Criminology at La Trobe, Melbourne, Australia. Her research interests are borders and mobility, security technologies, surveillance and crime, gender and victimization, and international criminal justice and human rights. She is Associate Director of Border Criminologies at Oxford University and editorial board member for the journal Temida (Serbia). She publishes in English and Serbian. Her books include “Sex Trafficking and Modern Slavery: The Absence of Evidence” (2017) co-authored with Marie Segrave and Sharon Pickering, “Border Policing and Security Technologies: Mobility and Proliferation of Borders in the Western Balkans” (2019), and “Crime and Punishment in the Future Internet. Digital Frontier Technologies and Criminology in the Twenty-First Century” (2021).







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