Turning the Gaze upon Power: Refusal as research in/to and against the EU border regime

Turning the Gaze upon Power: Refusal as research in/to and against the EU border regime

Aila Spathopoulou and Isabel Meier

When Mira arrived in Berlin in 2015 to apply for asylum, and saw how bad the living conditions in the overcrowded camp spaces were, she got involved in several activist groups immediately. After one year of putting all her energy into asylum regime struggles, Mira stopped attending events and meetings as she got tired of the existing power dynamics within these spaces: “People with secure status take up too much space and the situation of asylum seekers is not taken into consideration when organising protest events!”

Amir works as a ‘cultural mediator’ for a non-governmental organization at Samos’s hotspot. According to Amir’s boss “mediators must present as with a complete and exact translation, nothing less and nothing more, we cannot afford an incomplete translation”. However, there were instances when Amir refused to become what he described a “passive translation machine” by providing among the ‘cracks’ of translation the asylum applicant with additional information that he knew would help her to escape the unbearable situation at the hotspot. One morning, Nikitas, who worked as a cultural mediator on Lesvos, received a phone call from the police station in Mytilene town (Lesvos) asking him to come and translate for three people from Morocco who they had arrested from Moria hotspot. Nikitas, however, refused to go, because in his words “I know that if they have done something wrong and they admit it, they will be deported. And, I cannot become complicit in their deportation”.

These stories come out of two research projects exploring migrants struggles within and against a transnational regime that tries to impose borders through our everyday lives. Aila’s research focused on the hotspot regime in Greece and the “violence of categorization” that it produces between ‘refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’, and, also, between the arriving ‘asylum seekers’ from the established migrant communities in borderlands. Isabel´s research explored everyday bordering practices in the UK and Germany from the perspective of people stuck in the asylum system. Her activism and conversations with people stuck in the asylum process contemplated the construction of contemporary political spaces and the emotional dimensions of bordering. As researchers and activists, we have witnessed an engagement in a politics of refusal to negotiate racial and colonial dominance articulated in research and solidarity encounters, as well as with the state, humanitarian agencies and transnational corporations in the context of the so-called “refugee crisis” and hotspot management at EU borders.

Instead of reading these stories as resignation, withdrawal or passive disengagement with the border regime, we want to attend to them as enactments of refusal – an active disengagement from structures of inequality and violence, that can help us to think about questions of decoloniality, solidarity and new ways of relating. Indigenous and Black feminist researchers (Simpson, 2007; Tuck & Yang, 2014; Shange, 2019) have explored refusal not just as a “no” but as a way to turn the gaze back upon power – a redirection to ideas otherwise unacknowledged or unquestioned. This includes the refusal to do research, the refusal within research as well as to shift pain narratives of migration to agencies, possibilities and power. We build on Suryia Nayak and other black feminist theorists when arguing that ethnographic refusal functions simultaneously as content and method. In the following, we want to contemplate some of the ways in which we can think, feel, act and write through refusals as rooted in the desires for a methodological but also epistemological shift. We also want to emphasise the importance of paying attention to the more invisible forms of refusal, such as silences, withdrawals and embodied forms of refusal enacted by our participants and that move beyond dominant representations and binaries. Shifting attention to the politics of refusal is a starting point from where to refuse to participate in the violence that the binaries between method and content, being “actively” and “passively” engaged, as well as categories of migrant figures (re)produce with the conscious intention of breaking down the multiple borders that have been erected to keep us apart ‘within’ and ‘outside’ of research.

Refusals to produce and enact specific kinds of subjectivities
As researchers on the so called ‘refugee/migration crisis’ in ‘Europe’ we take a position against the border regime by refusing to comply with/consign to the various categories that get to be reified as identities such as that of the ‘migrant’, the ‘refugee’, the ‘activist’, the ‘researcher’, the ‘volunteer’, the ‘citizen’, the ‘tourist’ and the ‘cultural mediator’. Rather we enquire into how the multiple forms of vulnerability and the various temporalities at which some human beings are consigned to a ‘migration management’ have intensified divisions along lines of racialized citizenship, class power, and gender violence. We want to show, moreover, how economic and emotional exploitations do not only cut across the different migrant figures (re)produced by the hotspot regime but, also, those who are not represented and constructed as being subjects of the regime, such as so-called ‘second generation migrants’, or those with a ‘migrant background’ as they are frequently being referred to. Thus, refusal as participation in research on the border regime for us signifies moving beyond these binaries and by amplifying the perspectives of people who refuse to be categorized and governed as such.

Refusals to produce and enact specific kinds of political actions and agencies
Acts of refusals are often read as some form of giving up, passivity or “doing nothing”. Here we want to point at the implications of only considering specific kinds of action as politically relevant within and against the border regime. Being political is often thought of as being “actively” engaged in different spaces of organised politics: protest events, meetings, boycotts, sit-ins – in other words anywhere where people come together to speak about and act against the transnational regime. However, only specific subjects depending on their social location and position with the migration regime can afford these forms of public engagement, highlighting how the distinction in more or less respectable forms of engagement works to secure existing power dynamics and hierarchies. In our research, we observed many subjects withdrawing from these spaces as they felt not emotionally, physically and mentally resourced enough to mobilise and negotiate existing power dynamics within them. Others challenged that these forms of resistance and organising were the interventions needed, turning to other networks of care. Turning to refusal as a manifestation of political agency requires us to explore the political and ethical possibilities of turning away, withdrawal and non-action – that is, what it might mean to be both politically engaged and not fitting these norms. Enactments of refusal thus turn the gaze upon power by questioning the naturalised association between political engagement and activism. In other words, shifting our attention to acts of refusal in the context of migrant struggles is a methodology that allows us to move beyond dominant representations and binaries illustrating how refusal is not passivity, but a different kind of action. This is not to devalue the important contribution of activism to international struggles against the border regime, but rather to shift attention to some of the political agencies and possibilities that conventional definitions of “the political” render invisible.

Refusals to produce and enact specific kinds of translations
During our research we also observed acts of refusal within translation and mediation in the context of the hotspot regime in Greece. Specifically, the hotspot system exploits people with a ‘migrant-background’ with linguistic and cultural capital in order to effectively control the newly arriving population within the emerging economy of the ‘refugee crisis’. Cultural mediators are typically people who still count as migrants in the eyes of the state, even if they have been living for years in Greece or have even been born in the country and who, after living in Greece without citizenship for years, or all of their life, suddenly discover through their precarious labour in the ‘refugee crisis’ to be at the end of the day ‘economic migrants.’

Here we point out to what we discern as (embodied) forms of refusing to perform the hotspot’s bordering strategy, resulting in what is being referred to as ‘incomplete translation’, as they are being referred to within institutional encounters in the context of the hotspot regime. These acts of refusal challenge the hegemonic narrative around the figure of the mediator, that constructs them as passive translation machines. That is, while mediators are used by state actors and non-governmental organizations as “a means of understanding the refugee’s world”  in order to governing her/him accordingly, Aila spoke with several mediators who told her that there were instances in which they chose not to ‘translate’ something that the ‘beneficiary’ revealed because she/he knew that the state would use this information against the refugee. In addition, she encountered mediators who refused to comply with the rules of the organization they were working for and which dictate the who (e.g. only ‘deserving refugees’ and not ‘economic migrants’), the when/for (e.g. only during working hours and for the organization) and the where (e.g. at the hotspot or camp) of translation by engaging in acts of solidarity with the refugees. These acts of refusal through and/or against translation constitute, we argue, forms of resistance against the hotspot regime that tries to impose borders between us, also, through processes of ‘translation’ and ‘mediation’ that instead of uniting sustain inequalities embedded in race, socio-economic status and citizenship.

As researchers on the border regime who want to move on with refusal as a method, engaging in coalitional struggles with mediators is, we contend, one way of moving forward towards this direction. We point to the importance of reflecting on the political possibilities emerging from ‘incomplete’ translation and the ways in which they can form a starting point for refusal as participation in research on the border regime, a research that itself often relies on the translation work of ‘mediators’. Hence, it is important to question, who benefits from an ‘incomplete’ translation and who doesn’t (and whether it is those in power who gain from a translation that is complete) as well as the political possibilities that emerge from ‘incomplete’ depictions of a reality where death and life are at stake.

We invite papers for a special issue of Social Sciences exploring the politics of refusal in the context of border struggles, please get in touch if you are interested in contributing.


Nayak, Suryia “Location as Method”. Qualitative Research Journal 17, no. 3 (2017): 202-216
Shange, Savannah. “Black Girl Ordinary: Flesh, Carcerality, and the Refusal of Ethnography.” Transforming Anthropology 27, no. 1 (2019): 3–21
Simpson, Audra. “On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship.” Junctures 9 (2007): 67-80.
Tuck, Eve and Yang K.W. “Unbecoming claims: Pedagogies of refusal in qualitative research.” Qualitative Inquiry 20, no. 6 (2014): 811-818.


Aila Spathopoulou is a Research Assistant at the Department of Politics and International Relations at Goldsmiths University and co-director at the Feminist Autonomous Centre for Research in Athens. Her research interests include bordering; uneven geographies; cultural mediation; racialized labours; post-colonialism; feminist research methodologies Isabel Meier is an Associate Lecturer of Sociology at University of Northampton, her research interests include the politics of asylum; bordering; post-colonialism; solidarity; race and emotions

Image Credit: Steev Hise