Treating People as Objects? Ethics, Security and the Governance of Mobility

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: Sch of Hist, Anthrop, Philos & Politics


This research seeks to critically analyse the ways in which efforts to control the movement of people across borders are becoming increasingly entangled with efforts to control the movement of objects across those same borders, and the ethical implications of this entanglement. More specifically the project aims to explore the extent to which current efforts to control mobility result in security practices and policies that treat people purely as objects, rather than as rights-bearing subjects. By paying particular attention to the moral risks embedded in controlling the movement of people and objects, this research aims to provide a strong empirical foundation for the development of rigorous ethical assessments of state border security practices and governance. Our research therefore aims to identify the ethical trade-offs between state protection and security on the one hand, and the treatment of people as rights-bearing individuals on the other. Exploring this tension will offer insight into how legitimate the legal, political and ethical norms governing mobility are and whether the security practices at borders are appropriate, proportionate and effective.

These objectives will be realized using a combination of methods. These include: discourse analysis of key documents; ethnographic observations at London Heathrow, Dover Port and Felixstowe Port; and semi-structured interviews with managers and front line workers at the three UK border sites, senior civil servants, activists working with migrants, and migrants themselves.

This research will be carried out in a way that is collaborative and inter-disciplinary, bringing together researchers with expertise in Philosophy, Law, Governance, Security and International Relations. Whilst the field research will be carried out by particular teams of researchers according to their specific expertise and experience, the analysis of the documentary and ethnographic material will be undertaken collectively in order to capitalize on our interdisciplinary expertise. In this way the project brings together insights from different disciplines in the humanities and social sciences in order to address an issue that is relevant to each of them.

The project will further academic debates about the contested relationship between security and ethics by carrying out detailed, empirically informed work on how governance structures and security practices at the border either facilitate or prevent the treatment of people purely as objects. In order to develop these debates the project includes an academic workshop part way through the project. A number of academic articles in leading international journals will be produced, with an emphasis on co-authored collaboration and cross-disciplinary impact

In addition to contributing to these academic debates a central objective of the project is to begin a conversation with the UK government, migrant groups and other end-users about (a) how to identify situations in which humans are more likely to be treated purely as objects at border sites; and (b) how to decrease the objectification of human subjects during border processing activities. To ensure this impact the project will hold an end-users workshop at the end of the project in order to disseminate and discuss our findings. This workshop will be supported by a set of three briefing papers, one for each of the three distinct communities that will be impacted by the project. These are: policy-makers responsible for UK border management, practitioners working at UK border sites, and advocacy groups working on behalf of migrants.

Planned Impact

The impact of this research project will be both multi-dimensional and forward-moving. An empirically grounded methodology ensures that both research participants and end-users are actively involved in knowledge production throughout the project, and also that the social and economic impacts of the research are durable over time through on-going networks of expertise.

There are three distinct audiences for this project:

1. Policy makers in border security and management from multiple departments, the two of most relevance being Customs and Revenue and Immigration: The policy makers concerned are primarily based in the UK, but our findings will also have relevance to policy makers in the EU. Because our concern is the treatment of rights-bearing individuals engaged in border crossings, the policy audience also includes experts responsible for rights legislation.
2. Border practitioners who are actively engaged in managing the border on a daily basis, and who implement the governing practices of mobility control: These individuals include border security personnel, customs officials, and immigration officials who each engage in practices and decision making that must negotiate the ethical challenges and tensions of mobility control regimes on the ground.
3. The migrant advocacy community who act both in partnership and on behalf of the migrant community, specifically asylum seekers, and includes support organizations such as Asylum Aid, and groups directly engaged in legal advocacy and in lobbying such as NCADC.

These audiences will benefit in two distinct, but interrelated, ways:

1. The identification of Best Practices and the Development of a Consultative Network. This impact is implicated in the organisational practices of policy makers and border practitioners and in the on-going engagement between all three audiences. It focuses on enhancing knowledge sharing both within each community, for example between policy makers in customs and those in immigration, and across communities, for example between policy makers and the migrant advocacy community. In identifying best practices, there is significant potential to productively change organisational practices in ways that both lessen the negative impacts of treating people purely as objects, and also enhance the ability of actors to negotiate the sometimes competing demands of security and ethics. Through the provision of concrete detail and strategies, policy makers will be able to engage in evidence-based policy making, border practitioners will be able to enhance and develop appropriate training programmes and standard operating procedures, and advocacy communities will gain concrete tools upon which to build protection and advocacy strategies on behalf of migrants. Through enhancing opportunities for consultation and beginning to establish regular channels of communication in a Consultative Network, opportunities to share experience and so to influence policy and practice will be enhanced.

2. Identifying Guidelines for Ethical Action. This impact is also implicated in the organisational practices of the end-user communities. Policy makers will benefit from Guidelines for understanding the ethical challenges of mobility management that enable future policy making to retain lessons that are being learned in current practice (as evidenced in Best Practices, Impact No.1), and also from a wider Consultative Network. Border practitioners will benefit from a broader understanding of the ethical challenges that may be faced at border crossings, and from concrete strategies for negotiating such challenges. As maintaining a future-thinking orientation to addressing ethical questions must include experience (as developed in the Consultative Network, Impact No.1), the migrant advocacy community will be impacted through an enhanced emphasis on on-going consultation, and as such greater opportunity to influence policy and practice.


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Description The findings below are included in three published academic outputs.

Key Finding #1: At all levels, from EU policy to daily practices at ports and airports, debates about border technologies and automation are standardly framed by two dominant and opposed perspectives: 1. Technology is superior, and 2. Humans are superior. What became clear during our observations, ethnographies and interviews was that actual practice at the border does not entirely support either of these two dominant perspectives. Rather, the relationship between human and technology is one of entanglement. These findings indicate the need for a broader culture change at border spaces, and in the policy realm associated with them, to take into account the complex uses of technologies and the myths surrounding our belief in, or distain for,them. The polarised perspectives outlined above, and their operative assumptions, risk masking tensions that could have significant ethical and security implications.

Key Finding #2: While the use of a fundamental rights framework to 'do' ethics at the border can counter tendencies to collapse the distinction between humans and inanimate objects, at the regulatory level a focus on ensuring that rights are respected effectively ignores the ways in which values like social solidarity interact with questions about rights. For this reason a rights based framework only provides a partial analysis of the ethical requirements that exist in the management of the border. Furthermore, the ways in which individuals staffing the border see others (including potential migrants) as similar or dissimilar to themselves affect their dispositions to assist them. In turn this can lead to systematic differences in the ways in which different individuals are treated at the border. These differences will in many cases be entirely consistent with respecting the fundamental rights of all those involved. As such, training in fundamental rights will leave untouched important aspects of the ethical treatment of those arriving at the border

Key finding #3: The infrastructure of the airport can be split into spaces of 'flow' (designed to produce efficient and smooth movement through space) and spaces of 'dwell' (designed to 'tether' passengers to specific fixed points - such as Flight Information Displays and seating banks - until onward movement through the airport is necessary or possible). The material infrastructure of spaces of flow is effective, even authoritative, in achieving the goal of efficiency by making this goal one that is shared with passengers - in part through creating shared expectations, and mutual ongoing reinforcement of behaviours at the level of the individual. Because the 'scripts' of flow embedded in the design of the airport itself limit both the accessibility of posted rights information and cooperation between passengers, the effectiveness of a rights discourse to limit any dehumanisation, or to ensure ethical relations, is limited. Furthermore, because these 'scripts', or expected passenger behaviours, are based upon a specific 'neutral' subject the potential for discrimination and inaccessibility is embedded in the airport environment itself.
Exploitation Route Findings from the project have been presented at a number of academic conferences, including: Law and Society Association conference New Orleans, June 2016; Science/ Technology/ Security: Challenges of global governance conference, London, June 2016; Critical Legal Conference, Kent, September 2016, International Studies Association conference, Baltimore, February 2017, European Workshops in International Studies, Cardiff, June 2017, European International Studies Associataion conference, Barcelona, September 2017.

A report detailing the findings of the project has been prepared and delivered to those end-users who facilitated access to the project's field sites, and to those interviewed as part of the project. Members of the project team will continue to work with these parties to take the project's key findings forward in their organisations. Copies of this report have also been made more widely available by members of the research team to ports/ airports and to those responsible for training border staff. This will form the basis for further engagement by members of the research team with people in this sector.
Sectors Security and Diplomacy,Transport

Description Members of the research team have disseminated the results of the research to the end-users engaged with throughout the research process, and via our contacts to the broader community engaged with security at airports and ports. In doing this we have made a number of recommendations about changing practice in a number of areas, including: clearer posting of rights information at the border, ways of being more inclusive of the diversity of users in managing rights, extending training in new policies and technologies to take account of the broader context in which they are implemented, supplementing the fundamental rights lens with consideration of other values (such as solidarity) when reviewing policies, and extending ethics training of border staff to incorporate more than fundamental rights. To date engagement with these end users has not led to any identifiable impact. I will update this section in the future as and when this occurs.
Sector Security and Diplomacy,Transport
Impact Types Policy & public services

Title TPOT Interviews 
Description The database comprises transcripts of interviews with staff at airports, ports, and regulatory bodies. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact None known at present