Border deaths

Border deaths or migrant deaths “describe the premature deaths of persons whose movement or presence has been unauthorized and irregularized as they navigate or interact with state-made boundaries” (Last 2020: 21). A narrow definition includes only those deaths that occur during the border crossing (at the borderline) or the transit from one country to another, while more contextual definitions include deaths that can be in any way related to any material or immaterial state-made boundaries in any space and/or at any time. The definition also varies depending on who is included in dead – people whose bodies are found, persons who are missing, disappeared or who are believed to be dead (e.g., because they disappeared during a shipwreck), etc. “Border deaths occur not merely along the external borders of EUrope but deep inside and far beyond of what is commonly considered EUropean sovereign territory, revealing the increasingly vacillating, deterritorialising and externalising tendencies of border governance“ (Stierl 2016: 174). The definition varies also depending on who is included in dead – people whose bodies are found, persons who are missing, disappeared or who are believed to be dead (e.g. because they disappeared after the shipwreck)  (Last 2020: 21-22).

As Antoine Pécoud summarizes: „The societies that are confronted to these deaths struggle to make sense of this phenomenon and to provide them with meaning; yet the process of framing border deaths is highly contested and thus very political. In particular, it implies developing a narrative regarding why migrants died and is therefore inseparable from the assignment of responsibilities“ (Pécoud 2020: 380). Contemporary societies usually deal with border deaths in two frameworks (Cf. Pécoud 2020: 380-381). One is related to security issues and focused on the argument put forward by the governments which position border deaths as outcomes of smugglers and traffickers activities and irresponsibilities. Second emphasises the role and responsibility of the states and frames border deaths as consequences of restrictive border control policies.

Utilizing the concept of functional borders, which are increasingly deterritorialized and supported by highly selective and complex performances of border control staged at multiple locations through technologies of selection, detention, deterrence, expulsion and pre-emption, Leanne Weber and Sharon Pickering (2011) define deaths as border-related „if they occur at any of the functionally defined ‘border sites’: at the physical border, en route, in offshore or onshore detention, during deportation, on forced return to one’s homeland, and even within the community as a result of hate crime, labour exploitation, withholding of subsistence, or the promotion of conditions of legal and social precariousness“ (Weber and Pickering 2011: 5).


Last, Tamara 2020. “Introduction: A State-of-the-Art Exposition on Border Deaths”. In Border Deaths. Causes, Dynamics and Consequences of Migration-related Mortality. Paolo Cuttitta and Tamara Last, eds. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 21-33.

Pécoud, Antoine. 2020. „Death at the Border. Revisiting the Debate in the Light of the Euro-Mediterranean Migration Crisis“. American Behavioral Scientist 64/4: 379-388

Stierl, Maurice. 2016. „Contestations in Death. The role of Grief in Migration Struggles“. Citizenship Studies 20/2: 173-191.

Weber, Leanne and Sharon Pickering. 2011. Globalization and Borders. Death at Global Frontier. London: Palgrave Macmillan.


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