The hieroglyphics of the border: racial stigma in neoliberal Europe


The abstract and introduction below, is taken from a recent article ‘The hieroglyphics of the border: racial stigma in neoliberal Europe” from my ongoing stigma research project. It was included in a special issue of the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies on ‘Race and Crisis” (Edited by Suman Gupta & Satnam Virdee). You can access the full article and special issue online here, if you don’t have access please email me for a PDF).

Developing out of the larger research project on the political economy of stigma, this article fosters the conceptual framework of ‘racial stigma’ to capture some of the myriad practices that characterize racist responses to refugee arrivals in Europe. It is concerned with thinking how territorial borders are (re)made through racism. That is, how the bodies of refugees and migrants are racialised, and how these racialised bodies are used to mark out, to stake out, the borders of the nation.

Historical figures of race and latent forms of ‘race thinking’ haunt Europe. Indeed, racism is always already historical, drawing its ‘narrative energies’ from existing grids of associations, from “semantic and iconic folds” that are deeply etched in the collective memories of people and places (Spillers 2003 210). To capture some of these historical resonances and repetitions, this article employs genealogical methods, an approach that is concerned not with comparison but rather with ‘tracing lines of descent’ (Walters 2012, 116) in order to better understand the technologies of dispossession at the border. Drawing on Stuart Hall’s claim that race is a badge and Hortense Spillers’ account of racism as a “hieroglyphics of the flesh”, this penal genealogy provides a lens through which to understand racism as a set of penal practices of classification (Hall 1997, Spillers 2003).

The central argument of this article is that racism is a primary technology of statecraft in contemporary Europe. Whether performed with razor wire or crafted through words, borders are “racial assemblages” through which humanity is classified and disciplined into “humans, non-quite-humans, and nonhumans” (Weheliye 2014, 8). Racism is not only an accessory of border control; rather, in a more fundamental and material sense, racism makes borders.


I am profoundly convinced that we are facing an organized invasion and not a spontaneous movement of refugees (Milos Zeman, President of Czech Republic, December 2015).

During 2015 an unprecedented 1.3 million people applied for asylum in the twenty-eight member states of the European Union, Norway and Switzerland. This was ‘nearly double the previous high-water mark of approximately 700,000 [asylum] applications in 1992, after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Union’ (Connor, 2016).  Those seeking protection in Europe were largely seeking refugee from wars, conflicts and political oppression in Syria (over 50 per cent), Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea.  Some arrived via Balkan land routes, but these borders were soon blocked and the vast majority made treacherous Mediterranean Sea-crossings. An estimated 3771 people drowned in the Mediterranean in 2015 alone, evidence of the life and death stakes faced by those undertaking this journey. In the summer of 2015, newspapers and news websites across the world were filled with photographs of drowned children and people desperately paddling towards shore on overloaded dinghies. In response to the growing humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, the German Office for Migration and Refugees announced on the social media site Twitter on August 25th 2015: ‘We are at present largely no longer enforcing #Dublin procedures for Syrian citizens.’ What this meant for Syrian refugees on the ground was that if they could navigate a route to Germany, they would be guaranteed at least temporary leave to remain. The announcement triggered what one journalist described as ‘a million-man march through Europe’, as hundreds of thousands of people caught in dire conditions at camps and transit zones across Europe’s Southern borders made their way north by foot, car, bus and train (Foster, 2016). It was amidst this intensifying human and political drama that shortly after midnight on September 1st 2015, two trains drew to a halt in Břeclav, a town in the Czech Republic, close to the border with Austria and Slovakia.

Thinking with this scene, the article develops the conceptual framework of “racial stigma” to capture some of the multiple practices that characterize border regimes in contemporary Europe. The second part of the article considers the ways in which responses to the inking of refugees at Břeclav gave rise to epidemics of racial stigma in a range of local and international contexts. The aim of this section is to illustrate how racial stigma is crafted and communicated within different media and across multiple sites. The article then examines a more concrete scene of humiliation, the abject conditions endured by refugees in Czech immigration detention centres. The aim here is to consider how racial stigmatization of refugees enables and legitimates further practices of dehumanization and degradation. The article concludes with some reflections on racism as a form of haunting (Gordon 1997). It considers how Europe’s current racist crisis reanimates both the historical spectres of race and the spectral geographies of racism. The afterword invites the reader to confront these ghosts by returning once more to Břeclav train station.


Břeclav Railway Station, Břeclav, South Moravia, Czech Republic, September 1st 2015

czech police

At Midnight on the September 1st 2015, a squad of Czech Alien Police boarded two trains in Břeclav and forcibly removed two hundred and fourteen people, one hundred and fifteen men, thirty-eight women and sixty-one children. The first train had arrived from Vienna shortly before midnight, the second shortly after midnight from Budapest, and both were bound for Germany. Czech government officials described the passengers it removed from these two trains as ‘214 illegal migrants’. The vast majority were refugees from Syria, one hundred and ninety-six of them Syrian nationals. Many of them had survived treacherous sea-crossings from Turkey to Greek islands and were just hours away from their German destination when the trains came to a halt and were boarded by police, who moved through carriages checking people’s documents. All of those without an EU passport or a travel visa that allowed them to be on Czech territory were removed. The state-owned Czech Railways revealed they were working closely with the Czech Alien Police to ‘share information on the movements of migrants’ and to ensure the ‘hygiene’ and safety of trains and railway stations; this was why ‘police were waiting for the trains […] They were prepared for the migrants. Buses for their transport parked outside the station and dozens of policemen were patrolling there’ (Czech News Agency, 2015). After escorting people from the trains, some in handcuffs, the police assembled people on the platforms and proceeded to use indelible pens to ink numbers on their arms and wrists. Kateřina Rendlová, a spokeswoman for the Czech Alien Police stated that the inking of refugees was a means of keeping a record of family members, adding, “We also write the code of the train they have arrived on so that we know which country we should return them to within the readmission system” adding “we used to put the numbers on a piece of paper but they kept throwing them away” (Flemr 2015). The refugees were then packed onto buses destined for temporary camps in local school gymnasiums in south Moravia, where officials said they would be processed, before being transferred to remote rural detention centres.


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