Commodifying Noncitizenship

Commodifying Noncitizenship

Tendayi Bloom

Increasingly, aspects of the construction of the relationships between States and individual noncitizens are being delegated to third parties. One useful place in which to see this taking place is in the sphere of privatised migration control. This piece argues that the commodification of noncitizenship – and noncitizens – that occurs when migration control is privatised has problematic theoretical implications as well as troubling consequences in the real world. Trying to understand the theoretical implications can lead us to a better understanding of contemporary noncitizenship as well as help us to find better ways to address the troubling real-world consequences.

Privatising migration control is not like privatising other things. Migration control behaves in a different way to other previously State-run activities. Unlike the supply of utilities, the laying of roads, even the running of criminal detention facilities, migration control is fundamentally concerned with questions relating to State sovereignty. Moreover, unlike in these other privatised organizations, those involved in migration control are engaged directly in the construction of an individual’s relationship with a State, including keeping that person from entering into such a recognised relationship. In a recent paper in Citizenship Studies I argue that for these reasons privatised migration control raises problems, even for those who would advocate privatisation in other sectors, and those who would support other forms of migration control.

Migration control is moved into the remit of private entities in a range of ways, from employing visa processing companies to manage data collection and processing and imposing sanctions on those transporting migrants without the required paperwork before the border; to the contracting of private border guards and purchase of surveillance technology at the border; and then there is the hire of transportation and detention specialists; the sanction of landlords and employers, for example, within a State; and then the employment of carriers to engage in deportation away from the State. Furthermore, as in other areas, the private actors involved in migration control are also involved in policy development. As I have argued elsewhere, it is useful to recognise this constellation of privatisation as a whole when considering its impact on the commodification of noncitizenship and noncitizens – and the implications of this commodification.

First, note that the peculiarities of privatised migration control make it troubling even for those advocating the privatisation of other traditionally public services. On the one hand, constructing the noncitizen relationship through controlling who may compete in the State, including who may offer his or her services within the labour market, artificially skews that market, one neoliberal argument against migration control per se. On the other hand, while roads, water and electricity are already desirable, the desire for migration control services arguably needs to be created. In this way, the market in private migration control providers is not constructed in such a way as to promote healthy competition leading to improvement of value and utility. Instead, as writers like Ruben Andersson have argued, in order to maintain a market in migration control, privatisation in this sector encourages companies to perpetuate the notion that their services are needed – that is, that migration needs to be controlled and that the private sector is needed in order to achieve this.

In this way, the noncitizen construction is commodified. This involves the construction of a noncitizen as a thing to be controlled, generating profit insofar as that individual is seen as dangerous. It relies on constructing noncitizens as appropriate subjects of control. This commodification risks reconstructing individuals even further from the scope of humanitarian concern. If the value of noncitizens is perceived to be measurable by the value they have to the companies that are paid to control them, or the costs of that control to States, there is the risk that it becomes harder to see their rights claims as obligation-generating and their humanity as relevant for policy discussion. Indeed, some, like Patrick van Berlo (in his Leiden University blog post earlier this year) also argue that this should be seen in the context of so-called ‘crimmigration’, the criminalisation of some forms of migration (e.g. see Valsamis Mitsilegas’s work on this), which also changes the frame within which migration is considered and noncitizen-State relationships are understood.

I think that liberal concerns with this form of privatisation go even deeper. First, the commodification of the individual described above is problematic to any worldview that contests the relegation of individual humanity to other interests, or that promotes the equal moral worth of persons. Next, it is worth considering who gives a State its mandate to act (and so also to delegate its actions). In a democratic society, the State is thought to act upon a mandate given by the demos. If a State relocates a sphere of this action to the private sector, there is a risk that this moves it beyond the realm of democratic legitimacy. It may also move such use of power beyond democratic scrutiny. This was the concern that Verena Risse and I presented with regard to carrier sanctions in 2014. We argued that implicitly relocating migration control to private actors through carrier sanctions cannot be justified, as it engenders a space of State power that we then referred to as ‘hidden coercion’, in which a State’s coercion of individual noncitizens is obscured both by its ambiguous location and by its delegation.

That is, privatisation here gives rise to a predictable gap between explicit State immigration policy and the way in which that policy plays out. For example, an airline may be sanctioned if a State decides that someone that it has carried into that State’s territory has no good claim to be there (lacks appropriate paperwork and any humanitarian claim is rejected). As such, this incentivises a carrier company, as Tally Kritzman-Amir puts it, to ‘err on the side of caution’ and not carry anyone with an uncertain humanitarian claim even if that person might in fact be accepted by the State in question. In this way, the stated policy of the government differs from the expected action to result. This has the effect of impairing democratic legitimacy since citizens and even State officials become decreasingly able to trace the decisions that are being taken and the actions that are being carried out in their name.

There is the possibility that a State’s sovereignty might be undermined in other ways as well. Privatisation of migration control means that force can be used against individual noncitizens in the name of sovereignty protection, not only by State officials, but by private actors acting on the word of a State. Those actors might even be mandated by the State to make decisions about the use of force and the level of exclusion (consider carrier companies deciding who to carry in order to avoid the risk of sanction, and visa-processing companies managing and ordering the data on visa applications).

Froud, Johal and Moran recently argued in this publication that contracting out public services leads to a ‘codependence’ between governments and private sector actors and the growing unequal co-dependence in migration privatisation is the final area I’ll raise here. As large companies collect and store data for governments on their immigrant systems, their police registers, and their welfare service needs, it becomes possible for that data to sit further and further from the State itself. As expertise moves from the public sector into the private sector, States risk becoming increasingly dependent upon the private sector both to advise and supply with regard to border security. In these various dimensions, then, the privatisation of migration control and so commodification of noncitizenship potentially has the effect of weakening a State in ways that are often seen as core to sovereignty and indeed compromising aspects that are usually used to justify migration control in the first place.

This all has implications in practice. Earlier this month, Ruben Andersson argued here that ‘border control is out of control’. And elsewhere, I warned of what I called a migration arms race such that as private companies make irregular migration increasingly difficult, smugglers and traffickers make control increasingly difficult, raising costs for States and migrants alike and making things more difficult for both. I argue that this all means that the noncitizen-State relationship is constructed in a way that serves private interests rather than acknowledging the realities of that relationship and the obligations that result. Noncitizenship is about much more than migration and noncitizenship construction is about much more than migration control. However, through an examination of privatised migration control, it is possible to see a new way in which the noncitizen-State relationship is being constructed – and a further reason to be wary about the appropriate private sector role in this area.

For more on this research, see Bloom, T. (2015) The business of noncitizenship. Citizenship Studies 19 (8), 892-906.


Further Reading:
Andersson, Ruben (2014) Illegality Inc: Clandestine Migration and the Business of Bordering Europe. Oakland: University of California Press.
Avant, Deborah (2005) Market for Force: The Consequences of Privatising Security. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Betts, Alexander (2013) ‘The Migration Industry in Global Migration Governance’, in The Migration Industry and the Commercialisation of international Migration, edited by Gameltoft-Hansen and Nyberg Sorensen, 45-63. London: Routledge.
Gameltoft-Hansen, Thomas (2013) Access to Asylum: International Refugee Law and the Globalisation of Migration Control. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Harney, Robert (1977) ‘The Commerce of Migration’, Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes Ethniques Du Canada 9: 42-53.
Lahav, Gallya (2006) ‘The Rise of NonState Actors in Migration Regulation in the United States and Europe’ in The Migration Reader: Exploring Politics and Policies, edited by Anthony Messina and Gallya Lahav, 290-314. Boulder: Lynn Rienner.
Menz, Georg (2013) ‘The Neoliberalized State and the Growth of the Migration Industry’ in The Migration Industry and the Commercialisation of international Migration, edited by Gameltoft-Hansen and Nyberg Sorensen, 45-63. London: Routledge.


Tendayi Bloom is a postdoctoral associate of the Global Justice Program, MacMillan Center, Yale University. She works on questions of noncitizenship, migration, statelessness and justice. The material in this post derives from work presented in a Special Issue of Citizenship Studies entitled ‘Theorising Noncitizenship’, which she recently co-edited with K. Tonkiss. A more detailed treatment of Tendayi’s own position on the nature of the noncitizen-State relationship is developed in the monograph she is currently completing on this subject.