Numbers (or, The Spectacle of Statistics in the Production of “Crisis”)

An interesting article about how statistics can be more than ‘just facts’. The numbers presented on the ‘refugee crisis’ are manipulated, the same way as the ones describing the ‘debt crisis’.
This article is part of the series a series entitled: Europe/Crisis: New Keywords of “the Crisis” in and of “Europe”. You can find more information about the project and all the articles, here.

by Maurice Stierl, Charles Heller and Nicholas De Genova via nearfuturesonline

Illustration by Petja Dimitrova (

A significant practice deployed to instill a sense of “crisis” with regard to contemporary movements of people into “Europe” is the constant circulation of accounts of dramatically rising numbers of recent migrant and refugee arrivals. In short, there is a politics of numbers that is crucial for any critical migration and borders scholarship or activism to expose. This numbers game, exploited by national governments, EU institutions, and international organizations, as well as fear-mongering news media and right-wing populist political parties, routinely serve to fortify the more general staging of a spectacle of “invasion” or “inundation” conjured by images of seemingly desperate “foreign” (orientalized) masses seeking entry to places where they ostensibly do not belong, have no legitimate claim, and are presumably unwelcome. The Mediterranean Sea in particular has long been a space for the staging of continuous “border spectacles” (De Genova 2002; 2013b) where migrant vessels arriving on European shores evoke phantasmatic imaginaries of “siege.” Alongside this proliferation of images and discourse, an incessant circulation of numbers thus plays a crucial role in the production of a “crisis” of migration and borders.

The strategic use of statistics generates the homogenized and aggregate representations that are decisive for erasing the individuality and political subjectivity of people on the move as well as effacing their collective struggles and hardships, and thus for portraying “unauthorized” border crossers as a menace. Some political collectives, such as United, have offered counter-counts, emphasizing the urgency of circulating data and other information with respect to those who have lost their lives braving European borders, but whose tragedies have largely gone uncounted by state authorities and border policing agencies such as Frontex. Here, we seek instead to interrogate how the discourse and sense of “crisis” is produced through the politics of counting, or, what we will call the spectacle of statistics.

Notably, the imaginary and rhetorics of migrant “invasion” seem reserved for the countries of the so-called Global North – the EU, the United States, and Australia, in particular. However, the statistical graphs and maps representing numerical data quantifying the supposed “mass influx” of migrants or refugees into the sacrosanct space of “Europe” – themselves echoed by the wave shape that high and low points of interceptions predictably produce in graphs – conceal as much as they reveal. In the first place, by focusing exclusively on the movement of people across the frontiers of the EU, they by definition leave out the reality that countries neighboring conflict zones have borne the inordinate burden of providing safe haven for people fleeing violence, taking in hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions, of refugees, usually for several years if not decades. Of the millions of Syrians who have fled their country since 2011, more than 2 million re-settled in Turkey, more than 1 million in Lebanon (where Syrians now make up roughly a third of the total population), more than half a million to Jordan, and several hundreds of thousands to Iraq and Egypt. Likewise, hundreds of thousands of Eritrean refugees and about half a million South Sudanese refugees have relocated to Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda. The same is true for the disproportionate number of refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq, who have primarily moved into neighboring countries. That some among these untold millions of displaced people would also seek to move toward Europe cannot be surprising. Any of these countries of the so-called Global South would surely have far greater grounds to speak of a “refugee crisis” than the EU. Indeed, by contrast, British politicians and news media began to refer to a “crisis” at Calais in the summer of 2015, when the border barriers were charged by only several hundred (or at most, two or three thousand) migrants and refugees, whom the British Prime Minister himself depicted as “swarms.” Moreover, it is also vital to recognize that European wealth, power, and prestige have long been deeply implicated in the imperial domination and pillage of the same countries and regions of the so-called Global South from which these migrant and refugee movements originate. Such European implicated-ness of course includes not only histories of direct colonial plunder and domination, but also various manifestations of past and present interference, investment, and intervention as well as disregard and malign neglect that have contributed to violent postcolonial instability and the consequent dislocations that have “uprooted” migrants and refugees in the first place. Thus, refusing the methodological Europeanism (Garelli and Tazzioli 2013b) of this statistical spectacle allows (and requires) us to ask: Whose crisis is this?

Challenging the ways in which numbers are deployed is not to suggest that the changing number of migrant and refugee arrivals in Europe is in any sense politically insignificant. The year 2015 has indeed been a historic and monumental year of migration for Europe precisely because disobedient mass mobilities have disrupted the European regime of border control. As critical scholars of migration, maintaining a “critical distance” from this numbers game in our own research is important in itself, but what seems all the more urgent is a more elementary general skepticism toward the spectacle of numbers in favor of questioning how, why, by and for whom, and to what ends these acts of (official) counting are performed. As Nando Sigona (2015) has pointed out, for example, the release of figures on migrant and refugee arrivals plays a crucial role in framing and generating public debate. In that knowledge, therefore, the European border agency Frontex released data suggesting that, as of September 2015, 710,000 “migrants” had entered the EU. However, comparing these numbers to those collected by the IOM and the UN (which differed substantially), Sigona detected that Frontex had in fact been double-counting: they elided the difference between multiple entries (or attempted entries) by individual migrants with the specter of a multiplicity of migrants, repeatedly counting the same individuals who had each crossed into EU territory several times as so many distinct “migrants.” Likewise, the de facto “uncountability” of many of the newly arrived has equally been instrumentalized in discourses calling for heightened “border protection.” The “crisis of the Schengen system,” largely provoked by the inability or unwillingness of many governments to register “asylum-seekers” desiring to simply transit through their countries in order to reach central and northern EU member states, have thus exacerbated imaginaries and rhetorics surrounding “the uncounted” (and thus uncontrolled) “illegal” migrant as a purportedly “dangerous” other within Europe.

Statistics then, beyond their seeming “objectivity,” play a crucial role in framing a given phenomenon as a seemingly self-evident “problem,” and similarly are instrumental for shaping affective and political responses to it. The border spectacle that Nicholas De Genova (2002; 2013b) has incisively analyzed is therefore at work in the very production of statistics but it is also further generated and sustained through the mobilization of the resultant numbers: statistics of interceptions on land or at sea appear to quantify an otherwise elusive and amorphous “threat,” which only becomes “real” and “objective” to the extent that it is measurable. Once counted, then, the alleged “problem” is effectively objectified, and its “reality” appears to be verified. Ironically, this “threat” thus seems to materialize only in the moment of its neutralization through capture by the police power of the state. Through the production of such numbers and the spectacle of statistics, then, it is simultaneously the fetishized menace of “illegal migration” and the securitizing work of states and their border policing agencies that are made visible and given a semblance of “reality.” Hence, alongside other border spectacles, the spectacle of numbers assists in the construction of illegalized migration as “the problem” to which border and other immigration law enforcement measures must be addressed, while the political disorder and economic catastrophes that migrants and refugees have fled are relegated by implication to the status of a mere externality, someone else’s responsibility “elsewhere.” Furthermore, the European border and immigration regime itself, which directly produces the illegalized condition of these migrants and refugees in the first place, appears to simply need further fortification. Hence, the statistical construction of the magnitude of the “problem” of migration predictably leads merely to more securitized and militarized tactics of border control (see also De Genova 2011; 2013a).

Notably, a spectacle of statistics is comparably at work in relation to the “debt crisis,” “the financial crisis,” and all the related avatars of “the crisis” in which the graphic representation of quantitative data (such as credit ratings, currency ratings, growth rates, and so forth) proliferate in the daily news – as if they communicated anything meaningful about our actual economic conditions (Antoniades 2012). The statistics that otherwise might allow us to discern the deeper dynamics that led to the “debt crisis” – specifically, who has benefited from or been devastated by them – almost never enjoy such spectacular prominence. For example, the dramatic surge in the shares of aggregate wealth and income monopolized by the richest 0.1% of the population that was enabled by the turn to neoliberal strategies of accumulation beginning in the 1970s, while real wages and living standards plummeted for the great majority, would suffice to point to an epochal “restoration of class power” (Harvey 2005). Likewise, other statistics – for example, showing the differential expenditures of EU states over time, state revenues from taxes, and the inequalities of tax structures – would allow us to see that it is not that EU states that are imprudent “spendthrifts” but rather that through neoliberal reforms and tax cuts for those with higher incomes, a significant portion of wealth has been increasingly kept in (or returned to) private hands. For years, increasing public and private indebtedness was facilitated and manipulated through financial markets, and thereby made vulnerable to speculation. In the wake of the 2007–08 financial crisis, however, the speculative logic of these markets (through which debts had come to be financed) increased public debt exponentially, to the inordinate benefit of banks and financial services corporations but to the excruciating detriment of social welfare (Attac 2011: 46–62). Thus, we may detect again that the spectacle of numbers in the production of “the migration crisis” – where statistics are also persistently mobilized to generate the specter of onerous public costs in the form of social welfare spending for “opportunistic” migrants and “undeserving” refugees – must be made legible alongside the perfect opacity of the statistics that otherwise conceal the extent of our deepening generalized immiseration through neoliberal strategies of capital accumulation.