Border Crossings and Gender in the Greek Detention System

By: Mary Bosworth (Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford), Sharon Pickering (School of Political & Social Inquiry, Monash University), and Andriani Fili (Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford).

This post is part of the joint blog series on ‘Gender and Migration’ co-hosted by Border Criminologies and COMPAS. Posts in this series will be published on both blogs every Friday until the end of June. You can follow Mary and Sharon on Twitter @MFBosworth and @ProfSPickering.

Greece is a buffering nation where irregular entry via the Greek-Turkish border circumvents all the ‘clean’ remote control border policies favoured by Western Europe, North America and Australia, and instead produces the contested conditions of irregularly crossing borders and the police work of countering and containing unwanted irregular mobility. Greece’s porous borders make policing of the external EU border particularly demanding and present an ever challenging task to border policing experts. In this post, drawing on extensive fieldwork conducted in 2010 including interviews with migrant women and border police officers in Greece, we want to touch on some interim lines of analysis about the different ways that crossing borders is gendered and racialised. The research took place in the Attica Aliens Police Directorate at Petrou Ralli Street, which holds both women and men, as well as children, where 30 semi-structured interviews were conducted with both staff and women migrants detained there.

pic1All of the women talked about their reasons for irregular entry into Europe in terms of gender violence or responsibilities: fleeing political violence which overlapped with threats or experiences of sexual violence in conflict or post conflict situations (and most women from Africa and Iraq talked about the deaths of male family members); or economic opportunities in relation to supporting family especially dependent children in the absence of male head of household. This latter category is in line with increasing research recognising women as the most reliable and desirable migrant labour provider between the developed and developing world. Women all stated that the decisions to undertake the illicit journey were their own―they all identified Europe as a destination themselves, and had made determinations themselves as needing to travel.

However, there’s a big gap between the ways women see themselves and how they are seen by others. Similar to other case studies, Greek border police referred to women in infantalising ways.

They get fooled. Before they arrive here they are told that they are going to work in houses and such and they end up on the street. They don’t know what they are doing and where they are going. Women don’t have an idea. (Vassilis, Chief of the detention department)

A mother and her children at a detention centre in Greece (Photo: UNHCR/J.Björgvinsson)

A mother and her children at a detention centre in Greece (Photo: UNHCR/J.Björgvinsson)

Women who irregularly cross borders were doubly stigmatised; first, for their contravention of gender-based expectations and second, for their breach of the border. If women’s choices are considered poorly calculated and in need of correction, the detainees themselves are often viewed by detention officers as morally and intellectually suspect. Two significant discourses emerged―that of women as cultural slaves, or of animals. Both evidence a heavy investment in what Sinha has called the cultural hook to produce and explain deviance.

They are not able to freely move around, they can’t talk to anyone, they just come to Greece and become slaves. So in a way in here they have a better life, because we feed them and provide them with accommodation. (Anastasia, detention officer)

Police repeatedly referred to migrant women as animals and used tropes of failed motherhood to assign an unnatural state from which their deviance was derived.

Iraqis have a certain mentality, that women have to be animals. I’m not saying this to offend them but this is their way of thinking because of their religion, their culture, as a country, as a people. Women have to animals, be uneducated, not knowing what’s going on around them, have babies all the time. (Xenia, detention officer)

The above pattern broadly confirms decades of feminist criminological research on women’s offending as being seen as ‘doubly bad’ especially for women of colour. Ironically, women’s efforts to meet changing gender expectations in their countries of origin of familial obligation, especially regarding financially providing for their families, doesn’t factor into such assessments. In short, there’s no attempt to recuperate narratives of good motherhood that drives some women to seek out financial security through insecure migration and illicit labour. Women’s own narratives of providing for children and aging parents are unable to disrupt scripts of failed gender at the border.

Traditional gendered ideologies became ensnared in the spaces created by the hyper-politics of border control. Gender roles operated as a drag on women’s international migration, even irregular migration. Gender works to delegitimise women as transnational migrants, especially in the face of increasing border control. The sorting of desirable from undesirable migrants at the border is heavily invested in ‘civilising’ tropes and gendered moralities. Border control has provided another, potent, opportunity to not only reject, but to demean and diminish racially othered women. The complexity of women’s survival, of their sexual decisions and their labour, fade in the spaces of border control. Yet there are few indications that women’s irregular border crossing will change as a result. For women, these spaces are not the focus of their survival. The border is not the main focus. Yet, officials keep their individual and collective racial and gendered stare fixed upon the woman and the border. This incongruence is surely unsustainable.

The Amygdaleza detention centre, one of Greece's many detention facilities

The Amygdaleza detention centre, one of Greece’s many detention facilities

At the moment, we know very little about daily life in Greek detention centres other than what we can glean from reports by NGOs and policy documents. The information becomes even scanter when it comes to the experiences of women detainees, who have very rarely been studied in their own right as they represent only a small percentage of the total reported detained population in Greece.

There is little official clarity over how many women are detained in one of the many detention sites currently operating in Greece. According to the Director of the Aliens Division of the Ministry of Public Order, there are nine dedicated detention facilities, most former military sites, with a total capacity of around 5,000 men, women and children. Yet, in reality, resourceful Hellenic Police employ at least 18 more sites ranging from border guard posts to police stations throughout the Greek territory, rendering the number of detainees unknown. What is more, with the exception of those women who have lodged an asylum application (1,126 women for a six-month period in 2014) and those who have requested accommodation (686 women in 2014), other statistics given by the Hellenic Police don’t make reference to the gender of applicants. The official position of the state is that there are no official statistics breaking down by gender those aliens arrested either when entering irregularly or at a later stage.

Is this about to change? The Deputy Minister of Immigration, Tasia Christodoulopoulou, of the newly elected left-wing government, has stated that one of the first goals of the newly formed Ministry, along with closing down immigration detention centres, is to register the immigrant and refugee population currently on Greek territory. However, this was followed by dubious claims that there are no destitute refugees living on the streets, they just hang out in squares to enjoy the sun, hinting once again at the true meaning of Greek hospitality, only this time it’s not Xenios Zeus, who welcomes irregular migrants but hospitable Helios (God of the Sun in Greek mythology).

The Deputy Interior Minister at the Amygdaleza detention centre (Photo: Eurokinissi)

The Deputy Interior Minister at the Amygdaleza detention centre (Photo: Eurokinissi)

Greece, like many member states of the EU, has for many years been aggressively enlarging its detention capacity as a key means of managing its border and its internal population of foreign nationals. The newly elected government has recently announced radical immigration reforms. ‘Detention centres―we’re finished with them,’ Deputy Interior Minister Yannis Panousis, who’s in charge of public order and civil protection, told reporters on a visit to Amygdaleza detention centre, following the suicide of a Pakistani detainee and consequent uprising of detainees. Statements like this signal a 180-degree turn from the focus on detention and border patrols, which has dominated the country’s migration policy for more than a decade.

However, it remains unclear how immigration authorities will deal with those released or if the conditions will change for those still detained in many of the country’s detention centres. Given that the numbers of new arrivals in 2015 are only expected to increase, it remains to be seen whether the ambitious reforms will become part of Greece’s immigration policy. In order for its immigration agenda to succeed, Syriza, the lead party in the government coalition, will need to not only win support from its skeptical coalition partner, but also to gain the cooperation of Greece’s security and border authorities, who for far too long have seen migration as a burden and especially, women migrants as slaves and less than human.

For more on this study, see our forthcoming chapter in Immigration Detention, Risk and Human Rights (Springer), edited by Maria Joao Guia, Robert Koulish, and Valsamis Mitislegas.

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Valorised and Vilified: What Do ‘Citizens’ Do?

By: William Allen, Research Officer

This blog was first posted in the seminar series “Citizenship and Migration”, a joint series by COMPAS and Politics in Spires, on December 5. It has since been updated.

In my current work with the Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS), I focus on the ways that British newspapers talk about migration issues and relate these narratives to public perceptions and migration policy changes. Using techniques from corpus and computational linguistics, which enables researchers to analyse large amounts of text, I look for (ir)regularities and significant patterns of words. These contextual patterns, called ‘collocations’, can provide insight into a concept: one of the major contributors to linguistics, John Firth, famously expressed this feature of language when he said ‘you shall know a word by the company it keeps’.

wordcloud_WAApplying Firth’s guiding principle to study of UK press portrayal of migrant groups reveals that, in the case of immigrants and asylum seekers, their company is relatively negative. Dr Scott Blinder and I showed that from 2010-2012, the British national press most often described ‘immigrants’ as ‘illegal’ while portraying ‘asylum seekers’ as ‘failed’. But what about citizens? It is clear that debates about ‘who’ citizens are (as well as normative claims about who they ‘should’ be) are important to understanding the politics of citizenship. However, another fundamental question occurred to me: what do citizens do, in the context of migration? Describing the kinds of actions and activities in which citizens reportedly engage—however we may define them—opens further discussion about the nature of citizenship itself.

I returned to our original corpus of 58,000 items mentioning immigrants, migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees from all UK national newspapers that had published continuously between 2010-2012 (more details and reflections on the dataset are available here). Using the Sketch Engine, a web-based piece of software that can look for collocations among nouns, verbs, and adjectives, I asked a key question: when the words ‘citizen’ or ‘citizens’ appear in this corpus of newspaper texts, what action is linked to them? As an exploratory way of initially getting to grips with the concept of a ‘citizen’, I think it reveals some interesting insights.

Table 1 shows the top ten verbs that are collocated with mentions of either ‘citizen’ or ‘citizens’ in national UK newspaper coverage of migration from 2010-2012. ‘Top Ten’ in this context refers to those verbs with the strongest statistical relationship to the target words, although the selection of ‘ten’ rather than five or 15 is admittedly arbitrary (more information about the precise statistical measure used is available here). The actual number of times each verb is collocated with ‘citizen(s)’ throughout the corpus appears in brackets as well. It’s also important to note that Table 1 refers to any citizens, not just ones from a particular nationality or country.

Table 1. Top Ten Verbs Collocated with ‘Citizen(s)’ as Subject and Object, MigObs News Corpus 2010-2012


What Do Citizens Do?

‘Citizen(s)’ as Subject of a Sentence

What Is Done to Citizens?

‘Citizen(s) as Object of a Sentence


struggle (8)

naturalise (31)


enjoy (11)

protect (53)


live (48)

become (214)


emigrate (7)

marry (35)


travel (8)

extradite (10)


suffer (8)

evacuate (10)


flee (7)

rescue (8)


vote (5)

advise (9)


seek (7)

expel (7)


deport (4)

detain (9)

In the left-hand column, we see that mentions of ‘citizens’ occur alongside verbs mentioning movement (EMIGRATE, TRAVEL, FLEE). The word DEPORT actually refers to citizens being deported, not citizens deporting other people. Examples from the corpus illustrate how some of these verbs actually appeared:

  • Britain, the US, Sweden and Japan upgraded warnings to citizens travelling in Europe. (The Express)
  • In 2008, for example, many more British citizens emigrated than returned to the UK, and many more EU, Commonwealth and other foreign nationals arrived than left. (Sunday Times)
  • Mr Cameron promises to “roll out the red carpet” for wealthy French citizens fleeing the punitive tax rates of François Hollande’s administration. (Financial Times)

Meanwhile, closer inspection of the eight instances of STRUGGLE appearing with mentions of ‘citizens’ reveals that these are almost entirely about people who are facing economic difficulties, which has implications for the meaning of ‘successful’ citizens:

  • For too long now, Cameron and Osborne have run the country from a cosy little bubble of wealth and privilege, showing time and again they don’t have the faintest idea what it’s like to be an ordinary citizen struggling to pay the bills. (The People)
  • Irish citizens are struggling with shrunken incomes, emigration and depleted public services because the banks were saved. (Sunday Times)
  • He is obviously in denial about the kind of life this Government has imposed on the citizens struggling with austerity. (Sunday Mirror)

Focusing on the verb ENJOY also shows emphasis on the types of wealth, legal rights, or other resources that are conferred to citizens:

  • There is no working holiday visa programme of the type UK citizens enjoy in Australia and New Zealand. (The Guardian)
  • Of course prisoners have rights – to be reasonably fed, clothed, and housed – but they do not have all those that free British citizens enjoy. (The Daily Telegraph)
  • Dubai has reclaimed land from the Persian Gulf and constructed luxury housing on the reclaimed land, and the city of Chicago has filled in hundreds of acres of Lake Michigan to create parkland that is much enjoyed by its citizens. (Financial Times)

Turning attention to the right-hand column, we can see the kinds of actions that are done to citizens. NATURALISE and BECOME refer to a process of changing into a citizen, illustrated by the following examples:

  • The son of a former Pakistani air force general, Shahzad entered higher education in the US and became a naturalised citizen. (The Guardian)
  • French immigration minister Eric Besson said he was amending a Bill to strip naturalised French citizens of their nationality if they commit crimes punishable by five or more years in jail. (The Express)
  • Under Home Office proposals, non-payment of bills would also delay an immigrant’s application to become a British citizen. (The Times)
  • The US has responded by diluting its third appeal: the ease with which holders of advanced science degrees can obtain visas and green cards – and ultimately become US citizens. (Financial Times)

Also interesting to observe are two different clusters of words implying services provided by a state to its own citizens (PROTECT, EVACUATE, RESCUE, ADVISE) in contrast to more punitive activities (EXTRADITE, EXPEL, DETAIN):

  • Iraq has sent several aircraft to evacuate its citizens from Damascus, though it sealed a major border crossing at al-Qaim, which the rebels captured on Thursday. (The Times)
  • Which party can best manage the climb out of recession – safeguarding public services and protecting the most vulnerable citizens? (The Observer)
  • If the U.S. wants to extradite a UK citizen it needs only to outline the alleged offence, the punishment specified statute and provide an accurate description of the suspect. (Daily Mail)
  • Eric Besson, the [French] immigration minister, said he wanted to broaden the criteria for expelling European Union citizens from France to include “aggressive-begging”. (Financial Times)

Although this post did not set out to complete a full linguistic analysis of language around ‘citizens’ and citizenship, its initial descriptive findings do link with some of the debates and conversations already happening in both this series and wider scholarship. By turning attention to the activities associated with citizens—in this case, as reported by British newspapers in the context of media coverage about migration during a politically crucial time period—I believe we can gain additional insight not only into who counts as citizens, but also what kinds of citizens are valorised and vilified.

Further Reading

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Spousal Migration, Gender and UK Immigration Law

By: Helena Wray, Associate Professory of Law, Middlesex University

This post is part of the joint blog series on ‘Gender and Migration’ co-hosted by Border Criminologies and COMPAS. Posts in this series will be published on both blogs every Friday until the end of June.

Love foreverImmigration controls over marriage both reflect and reinforce the gendered norms of family life. In this polarised and politicised arena, such norms have often been articulated with particular crudity. In my work on the regulation of spousal migration, I have shown how certain migrant husbands have been characterised, at best, as cynical instrumentalists and, at worst, as sexually exploitative or abusive. Female citizens, who bear responsibility for national, social and cultural reproduction, have been castigated for their irresponsibility, disloyalty or naivety in entering unsuitable relationships. These ascriptions have been even more marked when relationships have subverted other expectations about power relations and sexual attraction. A relationship between a man from a developing country and an older British woman will often be seen as ruthless opportunism on his part and self-delusion on hers.

However, such controls have never been mainly about gender or marriage.  To be sure, the ways in which gender emerges and is deployed in marriage migration controls have evolved as societal understandings and expectations have changed. Even in this socially conservative arena, ideas about who has agency, who may love whom and who will exploit whom are not exactly the same as they were fifty years ago. But gender’s significance in the control of spousal immigration has also varied according to its ability to serve immigration-related outcomes. Gender, while always present, comes in and out of focus as a critical feature of the legal regime and has been harnessed in different ways to underpin particular forms of exclusion.

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On the mainstreaming of EAL provision in England

By: Ole Jensen, Research Officer

The percentage of 5-16 year old pupils in English schools who are recorded in the English as Additional Language (EAL) category more than doubled from 7.6% in 1997 to 16.2% in 2013. Paradoxically perhaps, policy guidelines and local educational authority support structures have been reduced significantly over the past years. Why is that? I’ve had the opportunity to look at this from different perspectives over the past few weeks.

Back to SchoolMy daughter’s primary school had its Ofsted inspection last month. With 87% EAL children – and the majority of these of Pakistani heritage – the ghost of the Trojan Horse had arrived, and the school management had done their homework on British values. I was one of four governors taking part in a group interview, incidentally illustrating the ethnic diversity of the school: One White British governor, one South Asian-Pakistani, one South Asian-Indian, one White Other. As it happened, all went well, the feared Ofsted inspectors proved entirely agreeable, and we are still ‘Good’.

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Gender, Race, and Immigration Detention

By: Sarah Turnbull, postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford

This post is part of the joint blog series on ‘Gender and Migration’ co-hosted by Border Criminologies and COMPAS. Posts in this series will be published on both blogs every Friday until the end of June.

Yarl's Wood IRC (Image: Immigration Detention Archive)

Yarl’s Wood IRC (Image: Immigration Detention Archive)

On 2 March 2015, an exposé by Channel 4 News of Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) was yet another ‘scandal’ facing the UK’s beleaguered detention centre for women. Through the undercover video footage, several Yarl’s Wood staff members can be heard making racist, sexist, and misogynist comments about the women detainees held under their care. Although not unique to immigration detention facilities, such sentiments highlight the complicated interrelationships of gender, race, nationality, and sexuality in the broader context of migration and its control. In this post, I consider the connections between gender, race, and immigration detention and what (if anything) can be gleaned from the feminist scholarship on punishment as a way to think through this particular form of confinement.

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