CLS Fellow: Berfin Nur Osso, Doctoral Researcher, University of Helsinki, Faculty of Law

We cannot do socio-legal research on refugees without regard to their own perspectives and narratives.

In our Visiting Fellow series, we will hear from the academics and the PhD students who virtually joined The Centre of Law and Society in the 2021-2022 academic year. In this post, we hear from Berfin Nur Osso, whose research looked at ‘Access to Right to Have Rights’: Managing Migration at the European Union’s External Borders.

Why did you choose the topic?

We cannot do (socio-)legal research on refugees without regard to their own perspectives and narratives concerning their experiences of borders enforced by multifarious laws and policies. Refugees are often portrayed in the legal and policy documents and the media as victims whose lives must be saved, as villains who pose a threat to national security, or as ‘unruly’ populations who refuse to be integrated into their host societies. Since the early 1990s, a bourgeoning scholarship has concentrated on externalisation, but continued to classify certain refugee populations as ‘irregular migrants’ portrayed as villains, victims, or disobedient masses and shorn of agency, maintaining the dominant legal, policy, and media discourses. By externalisation, I refer to measures and the practices of bordering that aim to curb or prevent the mobility of certain refugees before, whilst, or after these refugees reach their desired destinations. Refugee law scholars, particularly externalisation scholarship, focus too much on how externalisation laws and policies are operated, by whom, and at whose cost, particularly in the European Union (EU) context. A great deal of this scholarship expounds what the law says at a particular moment in time. That being the case, most of externalisation scholarship happens to be doctrinal, and the materials and data they dissect for purposes of research consist of legal text and documents, mainly legal norms and rules and court decisions at national, supranational, and international levels.

Conversely, while most refugee scholars in other social sciences and humanities focus on the impact of externalisation laws and policies for refugees in changing time, spaces, and situations, they do not pay much attention to the analysis of legal text and documents. Additionally, most of these approaches, be it in law and in other disciplines, overlook the human side of externalised migration management and the implications of these practices for refugee law’s subjects, namely refugees. Refugees are the ones who are affected the most from the implementation of various externalisation policies and laws in context. Hence, their voices and perspectives concerning their own experiences of the operation of these policies and laws must be heard, as well. Aside from investigating the state tactics and strategies of managing migration through borders, therefore, we also need to attend to how the operation of migration management laws and policies are perceived, experienced, and challenged by refugees to make sense of the actual repercussions of these practices for refugees.

Against this background, I address in my doctoral research project, entitled ‘Access to Right to Have Rights’: Managing Migration at the European Union’s External Borders, the shortcomings of earlier literature by capturing both the perspective of states and of refugees with reference to the concept of border regime. My overarching objective is to examine the interplay between the externalisation of migration management and the agency of en route refugees in irregular circumstances (including asylum seekers), particularly within border zones and transit countries. Within the project, I dissect externalisation as a process constitutive of border regimes, namely the two-way, continuous, and agonistic interplay between borders and the struggles of refugees in reaching, staying, and being included in their desired destinations. To understand this process, I amalgamate the analyses of legal and non-legal texts alongside refugee narratives and their creative practices within an empirical socio-legal study. In doing so, I develop and utilise a grounded analytical framework with approaches from critical border studies (CBS) and contemporary legal-political theorists. Within this framework, I address the interplay between externalisation and refugee struggles by scrutinising how externalisation measures exclude certain refugees from ‘right to have rights’ (Arendt, 1973), understood as state territory, asylum (including procedures), and human rights, and how the refugees affected by these measures struggle to get access to this right despite externalisation.

My doctoral project utilises a transdisciplinary perspective through combining law and social sciences with visual arts. To develop the grounded framework, I conduct a case study on the border(ing) regimes engendered by the practices of deportation and containment at the EU’s Greek-Turkish external border, with a particular focus on the post-2015 ‘migrant crisis’. Within the case study, I initially engage in a qualitative inquiry of relevant legal and policy documents produced, for instance, by the EU institutions, Greece, and the UNHCR. I focus on states’ perspectives of managing (irregular) migration through bordering to understand the theoretical underpinnings of the legal construction of externalisation practices. The idea is to first unpack how state actors produce borders (including bordering phenomena) in legal and policy documents and operate them in their externalisation practices to block refugee mobility into and within state territories. Moreover, I conduct a visual analysis of the narratives emerging from the paintings produced by refugees and from the pictures they share on social media, as well as the practices associated, respectively, with their artmaking and their use of different information and communications technologies (ICTs). In so doing, I attend to the perspectives of refugees affected by externalisation practices regarding their experiences, struggles, and perceptions of these practices to grasp the latter’s implications for refugees. I seek to voice the perspective of refugees on border(ing) to reveal migrant agency vis-à-vis externalisation practices.

My academic background and my experience as an artist demonstrate the need in refugee law to enhance multidisciplinary projects within the realm of socio-legal studies. I consider that the ‘socio’ in the ‘socio-legal’ offers ample ground for assessing the legal phenomenon of externalisation in its social and political context. Of course, having background in law, political science, and international relations, as well as being a political cartoonist, this project lies at the junction of my research interests and skills. My background serves a strong basis for engaging in legal analysis and employing the theories and methods pertaining to other social sciences, humanities, and arts. Additionally, my positionality as a visual artist provides useful insider insights and in-depth understanding to make sense of the artworks that translate their maker’s lived experiences. At the intersection of my research interests and background, the project will help me gain the necessary skills for carrying out an independent socio-legal project that merges theoretical and empirical analyses with reference to CBS, law, and the visual.

Why did you choose the CLS?

It was in March 2021 at the annual meeting of the Socio-Legal Studies Association (SLSA) hosted virtually at Cardiff University when I first heard about the CLS. My interest in the work and activities of the CLS has sparked during my paper presentation and participation at the SLSA 2021. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, this conference experience was no different than the first two years of my doctoral training that I commenced in January 2020. Living in a virtually connected world, however, I was able to meet and network with distinguished scholars across the world, including the CLS researchers. And for that matter, the virtual fellowship at the CLS has been a great and unique opportunity in the face of the Covid restrictions. I considered that the CLS would provide an exceptional academic environment for my doctoral research project and my future career as a socio-legal scholar, while my research would also be an asset for developing synergy benefits within the CLS and the wider socio-legal realm. Most particularly, I have become interested in the Research Stream ‘Justice in a Time of Austerity’.

What did you contribute from the CLS fellowship?

Later in 2022, I participated in the SLSA Annual Conference once again to present a research article of mine, thanks to the knowledge I gained and the connections I have made through the earlier SLSA Conference organised by Cardiff University. Furthermore, I was able to get in contact with researchers with whom I share similar research interests. I have been particularly interested in the work of Prof. Jiří Přibáň on legal theory and the theory of human rights, as well as in ‘socio-legal conversation series’. During my fellowship at the CLS, I was able to reflect on the current developments relating to my doctoral research, further enhance its scientific and societal impact, and build networks that may lead to future collaboration. I hope to be able to physically visit Cardiff and the CLS someday and meet its distinguished researchers in person.

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