The images of migrants and refugees trying to reach the European mainland by boat are well known. Much less is known about how border surveillance at sea actually takes place. The research for our article ‘Surveillance at sea: The transactional politics of border control in the Aegean’ brought us to the Greek islands Chios and Lesbos. How do Greek coast guards, Frontex officials and military police forces of EU-member states guard the Agean?Interviews with coast guards, migrants and their representatives, local authorities and NGOs and field work on a patrol vessel made us aware border control at sea consists of a huge patchwork of practices and techniques. Observations of patrol vessels are shared with authorities on the islands but also with the national coordination center in Athens and the Frontex headquarters (by now called the ‘European Border and Coast Guard Agency’) in Warsaw. Satellite images and information collected by radar travels through a network of professionals and officials. The resulting ‘vision’ of a critical situation in which an unknown boat reaches Greek waters and a decision with regard to a possible intervention has to be made is the outcome of many different hands with many different technologies.
What we found missing in this picture is one crucial group of actors: the migrants themselves. Migrants are not passive objects but form an active part of the scene and create that scene to a certain extent. However, many descriptions of surveillance do not grant them with agentive capacities.
Our research found that the ‘situational awareness’ of border surveillance that ought to provide modes of intervention in a meeting of Hellenic Coast Guard vessels with boats that carry migrants is confronted with people who can prove hard to tow away. Or they can prove recalcitrant to the extent that they enact a change of the definition of the surveillance situation into that of a Search and Rescue missions (SAR). Although the implementation of new technologies often promises to subdue such recalcitrance, our analysis showed how recalcitrance is generated by the interplay of visual technology and the being seen (by migrants) of mobile forms of surveillance technology. Moving between border protection and SAR is a way of dealing with the very resistance that objects perform when being rendered relatable.
The conclusion of our research is that there is an intimate relationship between the visualization of critical events at sea and the actions that are or are not undertaken. These events can only be understood by taking the active role of migrants themselves into account as they affect the situation. As a result, the policy distinction between border surveillance at sea and search and rescue operations is hard to maintain. Therefor, we conclude a conceptual perspective is required that questions the boundary between border surveillance and ‘Search and Rescue’ at sea and allows for a deeper engagement between the subjects and objects of surveillance and visualization.