appreciate the opportunity to discuss At Europe’s Edge, and congratulate Dr. Ċetta Mainwaring on its recognition with this book forum. I aim here to celebrate the book for its offerings, and to note the timeliness of their arrival as the world continues to live through the highest rates of displacement since the end of WW II when the global architecture to govern migration was designed. Access to mobility became more restricted by the global pandemic brought on by the coronavirus, shortly after the book was published. At sea, much of what Mainwaring lays out through empirical research presented in the book still stands today, as new rounds of crisis unfold and render people on the move and detained in and around the Mediterranean ever more precarious.  

The book offers much to migration scholars and policymakers interested in deeper understandings of the racialized dynamics of human smuggling and asylum seeking and the geopolitics of migration control. Mainwaring (2019: 20) poses three searing questions that serve to organize and structure her text and the narratives she builds therein. First, she asks why the EU fortifies borders when more people without authorization nonetheless arrive through legal means. Second, she asks why people continue to take such great risks and die at sea despite border fortification. And third, how have small states on the geographical margins of the EU responded to their responsibilities. By answering these seemingly straightforward questions, the text that follows in fact up-ends much of the thought behind policy-making and analysis in migration and refugee studies. 

To answer these questions, Mainwaring adopts what she writes about as a “view from the margins.” This includes the perspectives of island states and migrants, but also involves a shift that is at once epistemological and geographical, away from land to sea. Indeed, Mainwaring begins and ends her text at sea and centers the sea at every opportunity. Each chapter opens with the arrival of a different boat; begins and ends with the lived experiences of these journeys across the sea, foregrounding human agency (and advancing a burgeoning literature on journeys, and years of debate about the agency of people moving). This approach challenges the methodological nationalism that plagues migration studies by showing first that it is essential to pay attention to movements of both migrant and state enforcement in interstitial spaces between states. And so Mainwaring turns to the Mediterranean as a place where we can locate and better understand the construction and limits of Europe and European member states. And she simultaneously challenges the role of nation-states, naming their bordering practices as inhumane and violent. 

Joining an exciting array of scholars and a burst of recent writing about migration in the region (e.g., Tazzioli, 2020; Proglio et al, 2021; Stierl, 2021), Mainwaring positions the Mediterranean as contested space and posits people as equal actors therein, whether state voices or migrant voices speaking to bureaucrats in this analysis. She writes, “I am interested in how various actors engage in, imagine and shape the Mediterranean space” (Mainwaring, 2019: 3). Migrant voices challenge European narratives of maritime borders as addled with crisis, securitization, and humanitarian rescue. To accomplish this, Mainwaring spends time conceptualizing and delimiting human agency, specifying what she means when she uses this phrase. She offers Important lessons to navigate the morass of bifurcated debates in literature about how to understand sovereign power and human agency. Mainwaring notes that she is neither interested in arguing for the primacy of sovereign power over agency or for human agency over sovereign power, but rather in understanding how they interact as co-constitutive forces. 

Central to her analysis is the migration journey, including crossings of the Sahara, times of stasis at sea and on land, and a circuitous route experienced for many months or years long before the point of crossing the Mediterranean by boat. By emphasizing not only violence and fear, but also negotiations, exchanges, and even tales of survival, Mainwaring positions human agency not as Herculean, but human and lived day-to-day. These are at times small triumphs along the path of what Michael Collyer (2010) calls “fragmented journeys.” Mainwaring provides a comprehensive understanding of these journeys, and migration more generally, as the living of human life and relations in all capacities and complexities. In so doing she defies easy tales of victimhood or exclusion in which structure/agency debates become too easily embroiled.  

Mainwaring maintains focus on the borderlands, themselves a construction of an international state system designed to exercise control over territory, membership, jurisdiction, mobility and immobility. These are profoundly geographical exercises, readily apparent in Mainwaring’s writing, as she moves from the geographical margins of the EU (the Mediterranean, but also the small island state of Malta) to the seat of power to interview officials in Brussels. Building on the writing of Reece Jones (2012), who in turn draws on the writing of bell hooks (1991), Mainwaring finds refusal in the borderlands. She illustrates how the Mediterranean and islands such as Malta are not only spaces of isolation, but of connectedness, cohabitation, and negotiation. EU search and rescue operations may construct the sea as a series of seemingly enclosed, cartographically defined jurisdictions. But ships and people – like other mobile entities – defy jurisdictional boundaries as they cross, as “geographic markers recede into an unfamiliar watery panorama” (2019: 61). Mainwaring maps what she identifies as a politics of neglect that is made possible through the legal ambiguities surrounding sovereign power and also responsibility and accountability at sea – a politics that continues to imperil people crossing the Mediterranean today, as I write.  

This is a fluid, multi-scalar analysis, with no governance institution escaping Mainwaring’s analytical purview: from the Europe Union, to the responses of member nation-states, to individuals and collectives on ships. Mainwaring ties the politics of the shipwreck directly to the construction of Europe, Europeanness and identity. She traces crisis narratives to the fluid and contradictory boundaries of Europe, which include some while excluding racialized and classed others. “Within the visual political economy, the migrant boat becomes a powerful symbol of disorder alongside images of land border crossers crowded into containers or travelling by foot across deserts” (Mainwaring, 2019: 7). It’s the politics of this disorder that are so central to EU/state construction of a crisis, and it’s precisely Mainwaring’s interest in the work that crisis narratives do that makes this an original contribution to existing scholarship on maritime migration. 

In fact, a central part of Mainwaring’s analysis of shipwrecks and deaths at sea is this construction of crisis. She posits the dependence of nation-states and policymaking on migration crises (and their close cousin, spectacle) as a means to advance the paradigm of ‘managed migration’, which amounts largely to migration control and a panoply of policies that keep people on the move in as precarious a position as possible workers. This advances a literature which has grappled with these manufactured crises and their devastating effects without necessarily stepping back to understand this larger picture: the necessity of crisis, which Mainwaring identifies as a tool of governance. She shows how EU structures effectively require southern EU states to sustain this crisis. Contemporary enforcement policies and discourses about them maintain the contradictions of humanitarian rescue and securitization that constitute migration management and that position migrants simultaneously as victims and villains or threats to security. 

Mainwaring asks poignantly why mobility, a constant and mundane feature of European history, Maltese history in particular, and human history more broadly, should be narrated as crisis. She asks what space crisis rhetoric creates, and “what questions, actions, and understandings does it foreclose” (2019: 28). At Europe’s Edge can be understood as a tome on the destructive work that crisis rhetoric can do, including all that it occludes: the violence of state policies that produce death at sea, the ways that this violence is lived, and the voices of those who are living it. 

Rather than an abrupt moment in time, the manufactured crisis unfolding in Mainwaring’s text moves slowly and deliberately across the extended life of the journey itself – beginning in sub-Saharan Africa with negotiations along the way as people navigate their way to eventually cross the Mediterranean. The text dwells in stories at sea and then in detention in Malta. These textual decisions defy the very abrupt, seemingly spontaneous, or accidental narratives and instead posit migrant journeys and lived experiences as deliberate, thoughtful and necessary engagements with geopoliticized politics and infrastructures of exclusion and surveillance that people are forced to navigate. 

The case study of Malta raises the important question of how small states alternately carry out migration control and detention on the part of larger, wealthier neighbors, and also how they resist and negotiate these demands. Specific to the region where she researches and writes, Mainwaring centers the Mediterranean with a case study of Malta that grounds the geopolitical analysis through the lens of response of a small island state that functions as gatekeeper. Yet this analysis offers lessons for other regions of the world where smaller, less wealthy, less powerful states are coerced into migration control: through Australia’s coercive operations in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and North America in the Caribbean and Pacific, as examples. Increasingly migration controls are documented as extending further transnationally to regulate mobility, such as the US in Central America, and the EU controlling mobility across the African continent (Landau, 2019). 

The journeys to Malta become a sustained rumination on all of the elements of the Gordian knot that is the crisis of asylum (Mountz, 2020), of externalization, of detention, the losses of human life, deportation, the relocation of people across the EU, and the continuation of life on the margins. The book offers direct critiques of migration scholarship, policymaking and discourse that continue to rely on antiquated and simplistic notions of push and pull factors; it also defies the presentism of so much discourse about migration by attending to the colonial histories and neocolonial relations, racism and racist policies, to understand what sustains these processes and practices. 

Mainwaring challenges dualistic thinking about migration and displacement, about victimhood and villain, about structure and agency, and calls into question the ongoing construction project of the EU and the very future of the EU as a project that rests on racialized geographies that are beyond dehumanizing – that are fatal. 

The book is a triumph. It’s beautifully written, which means it’s easy to read, for its language, if not for its content. Mainwaring is to be celebrated for this achievement. 


Collyer M (2010) Stranded Migrants and the Fragmented Journey. Journal of Refugee Studies 23(3): 273-293.
hooks b (1991) Marginality as Site of Resistance. In Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, eds. R Ferguson, M Gever, T T Minh-ha, C West, 341–343. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Jones R (2012) Spaces of Refusal: Rethinking Sovereign Power and Resistance at the Border. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 102(3): 685–99.
Landau L (2019) A Chronotope of Containment Development: Europe’s Migrant Crisis and Africa’s Reterritorialisation. Antipode 51(1): 169–86.
Mountz A (2020) The Death of Asylum: Hidden Geographies of the Enforcement Archipelago. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Proglio G, Hawthorne C, Danewid I, Khalil Saucier P, Grimaldi G and Pes A (2021) The Black Mediterranean: Bodies, Borders and Citizenship. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Stierl M (2021) The Mediterranean as a Carceral Seascape. Political Geography 88. Epub ahead of print. DOI: 10.1016/j.polgeo.2021.102417
Tazzioli M (2020) The Making of Migration: The Biopolitics of Mobility at Europe’s Borders. London: Sage. 

Alison Mountz is Professor of Geography and Laurier Research Chair in Global Migration at Wilfrid Laurier University. Mountz’s research explores how people cross borders, access asylum, survive detention, resist war, and create safe havens. She studies the tension between the decisions, displacements, and desires that drive human migration and the policies and practices designed to govern migration. Mountz’s monographs include Seeking Asylum: Human Smuggling and Bureaucracy at the Border (University of Minnesota Press, awarded the 2010 Meridian Book Prize by the AAG); Boats, Borders, and Bases: Race, the Cold War, and the Rise of Migration Detention in the United States (with Jenna Loyd, University of California Press); and The Death of Asylum: Hidden Geographies of the Enforcement Archipelago (Minnesota, awarded the 2020 Globe Award by the AAG).