Migration is by definition a spatial event with spatial components like space, routes and borders. Therefore, key features to understand, illustrate and talk about migration are maps. We, the Childmove team, are planning on making maps as well to summarize and communicate our findings regarding the trajectories of our participants. Maps are tools that are perceived as the ideal way to neutrally and objectively communicate spatial processes. The iconographic simplicity and the illusion of having no author creates the idea that maps distance the subject from all interest groups, that maps are views from nowhere and therefore trustworthy. But of course, maps come from somewhere. They always serve in a way the political, economic and social agenda of the creator. We do realize that we as well cannot escape the fact that we have certain views that will be reflected in our maps. But by being transparent about that and by critically reflecting on our mapping plan and the ethical issues that come along with that, we hope to create maps that reflect the real experiences of our participating URMs. For my internship, I will be assisting the team in making these maps. I did my Bachelor’s in Geography so I have experience using mapping software and I am currently finishing my Master’s in Sustainable Development with the focus on space and society. This allows me to critically reflect upon spatial processes (like migration) and the social, economic, political and cultural dimensions that go along with that. In this blog post, I will reflect upon ethical issues that go along with mapping critical and confidential information. The main questions I will ask myself is how mapping irregular migrants’ trajectories can be harmful when misused and secondly, how my mapping could be done in an ethical way. To answer these questions, I need to think about the effect trajectory maps might have on policy-making and public opinion, and to reflect on how negative effects on the lives of migrants and refugees can be minimized. First of all, migration maps visualise detailed trajectories of refugees. When many of these trajectories are uncovered by map-making, popular migration routes are revealed. This uncovering could strengthen on the one hand surveillance at the border of the European Union (EU), reducing chances for asylum seekers to enter EU territory. Another danger is that it also facilitates surveillance far away from the EU border. Due to the externalization of border and migration management, migrants are irregularized in popular transit locations long before they attempt any irregular border crossing. The effects of map-making on this externalized border and migration control is twofold. First, it has an effect on border defence by extra practices of control and thus disabling racialized groups of migrants from migrating. Secondly, this outsourcing of border control often involves law-evading tendencies. This means that the risks faced during the journey increase as surveillance posts outside the EU borders, which are usually more violent, multiply. These risks have a tremendous effect on the security, dignity, physical and mental health of the migrants. Increasing these risks for future migrants by mapping trajectories of research participants that shared their trajectories in confidence, would be highly unethical and needs to be avoided without a doubt. I will take this into account using three strategies. First, I will avoid revealing trajectories that are not well-known already. Second, I am thinking about ways to visualise the risks faced during the journey in order to draw attention to these law-evading tendencies and risks that go along with that. Lastly, I plan on making interactive web-versions of the maps, where I will limit the zoom level in order to not reveal precise locations. Now, let’s shift to issues concerning public opinion. There are three main issues that influence common belief: framing, agenda setting and priming. First I reflect upon framing. The majority of migration maps frame refugees as faceless masses that are invading Europe. They are often portrayed as economic refugees that seek to enjoy our welfare system and steal jobs from locals. A second issue is that migration maps are used to serve political agendas. By determining which issues are worth paying attention to and by establishing how to look at these issues, maps can shape public perception about what should be done to govern migration. Style-choices create ideas about who should be here and who shouldn’t, like big red arrows intruding EU territory. As such, migration maps are used to enhance an ethnocentric (in fact Eurocentric) worldview, to influence the political debate on borders and identity of the EU. The last issue is priming, which is the power of framing and agenda-setting over long periods of time to put a certain view on a topic at the centre of attention. For instance, repeated xenophobic media encounters (images and maps) create general anxiety towards the newcomers. Besides this, another problem occurring frequently is that maps are often based on poor data sources, because of limited time and funding available for map-making. Migration data is mainly available from institutions dedicated to controlling migration, whose focus is only on selected aspects of migration. It is thus important to be critical about data sources when one wants to make migration maps in an ethical way. The data I will use is collected by researchers from our team during interviews carried out directly with the participants, so I know the information comes straight from the source. From the first part, I conclude that it can be ethical to map migration trajectories, but only after certain considerations are made. Next, I will go deeper into these considerations by highlighting the importance of style choices. I will focus on grid, symbology and level of participation. Grid choices include the grid of the nation-states, the EU and the map projection. First, using state borders as a base map creates the idea of neutrality and naturality of borders themselves. It ignores the fact that borders are social constructs and wipes out societal diversity within. Political, economic, societal and environmental aspects of colonial and postcolonial relations that created these borders are not recognized while this history largely contributes to the instability and international conflicts which determine that international mobility that the maps want to illustrate. Aware of this issue, I will have to use the state borders anyway to clearly indicate the trajectories. However, the countries will be coloured in light-grey and the borders in dark-grey to avoid the harsh black border lines. A second concern is the external borders of the EU. In many migration maps, the EU is symbolized with a unified blue colour (a soft colour generally used for good or neutral things) while refugees are indicated with big, red arrows (related to bad, negative and dangerous feelings). The use of these colours, as in the FRONTEX map below, creates an idea of Europe versus the rest, of friend versus foe. Subsequently, I decided to not give the EU a separate colour. All countries will be in light-grey, no matter the regional organisation they belong to. The last issue is the map projection used. Many migration maps use projections that portray Africa very big and Europe small, which exaggerates the problem. Such a projection will be avoided in my mapping project. As indicated before, style choices are not neutral even though they appear to be so. The colour of arrows create an idea of the invasion and the size predicts alarming rates of migrants aiming for the EU. This is not empirically accurate, since undocumented migrants are only 0.1-0.7% of the European population. The big arrows imply way bigger numbers. This design is used to justify aggressive policies regarding migration. The arrows also neglect the legality of the border crossings. First of all, many of these borders are legally crossed. This is even true for the EU borders because the vast majority of non-EU nationals living irregularly within the EU did enter with a regular visa or permit which then expired (the so-called overstayers). The people that did enter the EU irregularly often had no choice but to enter irregularly, because legal travel documents are practically inaccessible for certain nationalities. Another issue is the simplification of the trajectories which go straight to Europe, assuming a unidirectionality towards the EU while the majority of migrants stay in the region of their country of origin and do not go to Europe at all. All these simplifications thus obscure difficulties, risks, uncertainties and challenges encountered on the route. In my mapping project, I want to take these considerations into account by making specific symbology choices. I will indicate the complexity of the journey in different ways. All stops along the journey indicated by the participants will be included, as well as the amount of time they had to spend there, the type of accommodation and the legal status. This in order to have detailed itineraries instead of dehumanizing simplifications. The arrows indicating the route will be rather small and we will not use the colour red. The last issue I will pay attention to is the level of participation. The final aim is to make a dynamic, interactive map of all the trajectories. This will be a great time investment compared to static maps, but using this format can be a big contribution to solving some ethical issues. Interactive maps change the relationship between the user of the map and the information portrayed. By actively contributing to their own knowledge construction, users become more engaged in the subject which has a positive effect on awareness and the understanding of the complexity, dangers and challenges of migration. There are thus many ethical issues to consider during the mapping process. It was important to reflect upon these in order to contribute to more ethical cartographic approaches to migration. Thanks to similar critical reflections by cartographers, more and more alternative visualisations are emerging. There are the counter maps that radically try to humanize migration maps by, among others, revealing power struggles (e.g. visa regimes), hidden factors along the routes (e.g. secret detention centres) and the (indirect) support of wars by EU member states. Other alternatives are deep-maps that try to illustrate place-related emotions and mobile maps that aim at stressing the dynamic and relational migration trajectories. It is important that research efforts continue to be invested in these alternatives and more ethical directions for migration mapmaking. When we scientists do it correct, migration maps could help to humanize refugees again.
Mona Fias did her bachelor’s degree in Geography at Ghent University and is currently following the Master’s programme Sustainable Development at KULeuven. As a specialisation, she follows the ‘Space and Society’ track. She is doing her internship at the Centre for the Social Study of Migration and Refugees where she assists the Childmove team with social-spatial mapping issues. At the same time, she is working on her Master thesis focusing on the discrepancies between the location of the Belgian Asylum Centres and the needed arrival infrastructure around the centres as perceived by the inhabitants.