Interrogating the Wave: Media Representations of African Migrant Youth

Stephanie Maher[1]

“Images are not just a particular kind of sign, but something like an actor on the historical stage, a presence or character endowed with legendary status, a history that parallels and participates in the stories we tell ourselves about our own evolution”  - (W. J. T. Mitchell 1984, 504)


    Media representations are powerful. Not only do they embody the appealing veneer of journalistic impartiality, which seems to objectively reflect world in unadulterated ways, but also they help to generate public opinion and thus create consensus when crafting and mobilizing particular policy responses.

    Such an image-policy nexus is exemplified in the hyper-mediatized phenomenon of clandestine migration out of West Africa during 2006 and 2007. While the Western route was effectively crippled by the implementation of border controls and surveillance technologies, the images we see today of boat migrants leaving North African shores bear a striking similarity to those circulated nearly a decade ago.

    In order to highlight the productive relationship between image and policy, this photo essay explores some of the visual and rhetorical representations of West African boat migrants that circulated widely in the European and American press during what was called a “wave” of clandestine arrivals in the Canary Islands. I briefly explore the history of clandestine boat migration from Senegal to the Canary Islands before unpacking some of the strategies that image producers used to inform broader publics about the “threat of invasion” of poor African youth on European soil.[2] I conclude by examining some of the policies mobilized in response to the “wave” of clandestine arrivals and the contemporary phenomenon of boat migration to Europe.


    Part I: History 

    “In the late 1990s, a fishing pirogue lost its way and got swept out to sea. When they landed a week later on Tenerife [Canary Islands], everyone was shocked. Up to that point, no one even imagined you could reach Europe by fishing boat. That’s when it all started.”

    -          Abdoulaye, artisanal fisherman, boat captain and repatriated migrant from Senegal

    While clandestine migration from West Africa to Europe predates the twenty-first century, the number of arrivals in the Canary Islands increased dramatically after 2000 (Carling 2007). Although the reasons are many, this introduction focuses on the rather serendipitous realization that traditional West African pirogues—wooden boats intended for coastal fishing—might be a viable mode of transport to the Canary Islands. The story of a single pirogue accidentally reaching Tenerife in the late 1990s, as Abdoulaye recounted to me, is connected to a longer political economic history, which may offer a window into why so many youth attempted clandestine passage in the mid-2000s.

    Under the provisions of the third Lomé Accord of 1984, a number of West African states were obliged to liberalize their maritime territories to industrial fishing trawlers from Europe. In exchange, states like Senegal were given hard currency in the form of license fees, which then helped to pay for servicing costs associated with foreign debt and structural adjustment loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In the beginning, it seemed like a mutually beneficial arrangement: the waters off West Africa were full of fish that European Union consumers were willing to buy, and European fishermen, who’d been put out of work because of overexploiting local fish stocks in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean, were eager for jobs. Additionally, the argument was that compensating developing countries for access to their fisheries would help them to establish research expertise and protocols to better monitor, evaluate and manage those fisheries in sustainable ways (see Title II, Articles 50-54 in Lomé III: 19).

    From the signing of Lomé III, however, the monitoring and evaluation protocols have rarely, if ever, been instituted. For one, West African nations lack the infrastructure, such as boats, helicopters, and satellite systems, to supervise European vessels offshore. Moreover, there is little incentive to regulate the catch quotas of those vessels because, according to François Bellec, the fisheries Accords in Lomé III “are commercial, rather than development agreements” (1991: 3). In other words, the Accords are chiefly designed to benefit the European fishing industry and the governments of West Africa, but not the people in between. As a result, rampant overexploitation of fish stocks by purse seiners and high-tech trawlers, which can catch and process in one day what 50 local artisanal fishermen catch in a year, has depleted West Africa’s maritime resources to the point of collapse. Over the years, foreign industrial overfishing has prompted local artisanal fishermen in Senegal to go farther and farther afield to find viable fishing grounds. This is why, Abdoulaye explains, the first pirogue got lost. “They were looking for fish and they got swept up in a storm.” From there, word spread and the exodus began.


    Part II: Representing Migrant Youth

    The story of “the first pirogue” was one I heard over and over during fieldwork in Senegal. When I returned to the US, a colleague asked me if there was really a first pirogue that got lost at sea and ended up on the Canary Islands. I don’t know, but what seems more important is that young repatriated migrants continually link the beginning of the phenomenon with international agreements that adversely affect local livelihoods, and, in the case of Lomé III, cripple local economies. Yet, without understanding this background, without grappling with the complexities of life for youth in Senegal, images of West African migrants look almost unbelievable. The overcrowded boats, the chaotic assemblage of faces, the poignant hungry stares all perpetuate the erroneous idea of clandestine migrants as embracing a kind of “recklessness” that defies rational logic (Streiff-Fénart 2011). Confronted with these images, a viewer without the benefit of context might ask, “Who would embark on such a risky journey?” The answer to that question is not so much a matter of who, but of how many.

    In 2006 alone, 41,000 clandestine boat migrants from West Africa landed on the Canary Islands (Fall 2010: 31).[3] An untold number never made it, either perishing at sea or becoming marooned off the coast of North African states. That year, media coverage of clandestine migration to Europe exploded in the press with images of boat migrants filling the pages of the high-volume outlets such as the BBC, The New York Times, and The Guardian.

    While the visual images these sources display seem to incontestably and neutrally document real life, the images themselves are not mirrors. Through a variety of visual techniques, such as framing, focus, and point of view, they are subjectively, though perhaps uncritically, hyper-constructed representations.

    By filling the frame with faces too numerous to count, images like the ones shown here reify the notion that Europe is being “invaded” by African migrants during this period. Moreover, the sheer number of these images circulating also indicates the extent to which the media scape is saturated with representations of young black Africans depicted as scared, exposed and, above all, illegal. Such images thus conveniently reinforce an historically entrenched racial calculus that equates skin color with the proclivity to criminal behavior.

    Words likewise carry an enormous power of suggestion. The metaphor of a “wave” or “flood” of clandestine migrants arriving on European shores effectively summons an atmosphere of panic, and a consequent call to immediate action on the part of European nations (Erjavec 2003; Horsti 2012). One 2006 headline from Le Figaro, a popular French daily newspaper, reads: “A record wave of clandestine migrants submerges the Canary Islands.” In the article, the author reports, “Since Thursday, successive waves have not stopped rushing the archipelago.” Another headline from The New York Times reads simply: “Migrants flood Spain.” Other media outlets from the BBC to Fox News, to NPR and The Washington Post participated in the circulation of the rhetoric of the “flood.” Some media sources chose to double up on the metaphor. In a 2007 USA Today piece, a pirogue arrival at Las Galletas beach was called “the latest wave in a constant flood of desperate migrants.” While 41,000 is no small number of arrivals, other more measured voices, such as Hein de Haas, argue that the discourse of invasion is an outright myth, and that in fact intra-continental migration within Africa is far more pronounced (2007).

    These rhetorical descriptions and visual representations combine to dehumanize young West African migrants by equating them with a non-human substance, or “a wave.” More pointedly, they play into racist discourses that have historically situated Africans in the category of inanimate objects. Lacking the ability for rational thinking, migrants, like water, can do no more than evade, disperse, and runoff. As one piece in The Economist elaborates: “Like a liquid flowing downhill, illegal immigrants naturally take the path of least resistance.” This comment both likens migrants to a substance of dubious orientation and then naturalizes the distinction by presenting it as something intrinsic to migrants’ character.

    Calling on tropes of racial pollution, the images and rhetoric surrounding clandestine migration unequivocally present the African “other” as potentially dangerous.[4] But this “othering” is not purely the result of repugnance, but of a complicated relationship between aversion and desire (hooks 1992). Images like this are reminiscent of colonial photography, or African portraiture exhibited at the World’s Fairs of the nineteenth century. With the young black body on full display, such representations are both an attractor and an offense to latent Victorian sensibilities. The embedded sexualized narrative of Orientalist imaginaries operates as an extension of racial anxiety and the desire for imperial power. In this way, the African savage deserves, even requires, domination. He is both the fetishized object of slave fantasies and the subject of imperial control. Such histories continue to exert interpretive power on the contemporary production and circulation of images of young black Africans and, on the policy responses mobilized to manage migration as an issue of national security.

    If the persistent objectification of the black body is part of the moralizing discourse of colonialism that prohibits racial impurity, it is also a continuation of the long-standing tradition of missionist crusading on behalf of the ignorant and victimized male African who, despite his actions, cannot seem to progress past the lower echelons of social, moral, and cognitive development. “They know no better,” these images suggest. Confusion, instability and poverty are both what the migrant youth expresses and what he brings with him.

    During this same period of media reporting, there also circulated a catalogue of images depicting recent arrivals on a sunny beachside scene in the Canary Islands. In these representations, we see the European holiday gone awry as the suffering of Africa is brought home to an unsuspecting gaggle of sunbathers.

    2006, Arturo Rodríguez / The Associated Press

    2006, Arturo Rodríguez / The Associated Press

    In this scene, Europe fulfills its role as caretaker and civilizer of the young African victim. Most strikingly, the woman, and not the African migrant, is the center of our gaze. Not only does she occupy fully half the frame and faces the lens straight on, but also the sun on her pale bikinied body highlights her as the primary subject of the image. The bottle of water she holds, the gloves on her hands, the look of worry and confusion on her face all contradict the paradise surrounding her. She is upset in more ways that one. First, her holiday has been transformed into a hospital. And second, the look of fear we see on the faces in the boat has suddenly been transmitted to her as if by an invisible vector.

    These images are iconic of African desperation invading European shores. Their disruptive power perfectly embodies the threat of African youth arriving in “waves.” Here the daydream of the vacationer’s paradise is contaminated by the presence of African misery, though these sunbathers in the distance appear immune.

    As anthropologists have shown, marginal figures like the clandestine migrant are dangerous precisely because they “have physical but not ‘social’ reality” (Turner 1967: 98). Mary Douglas argues in her seminal ethnography, Purity and Danger, “[P]ersons in a marginal state… are placeless. They may be doing nothing morally wrong, but their status is indefinable” (1966: 94). As such, they upset the normal order of things. Here, the Atlantic panorama boasting a luxury yacht is smudged by the presence of a pirogue.

    The couple in this image seems befuddled, stopped in front of the beached pirogue. Of significance, these images are less about West African boat migration and more about European reactions to it: worry, indifference and confusion. Taken together, these images suggest a kind of apocalyptic aftermath or post-epidemic Europe. Here the vestiges remain, reminding viewers of the unstoppable “wave-like” power, which brought chaos, suffering, and desperation to paradise.

    Despite what photographers might aim to convey, an image does not hold meaning a priori outside its relation to the viewer. These representations do not merely mirror acute realities but frame it in particular ways. Importantly, then, the reflection is dialectical. Feminist theorists have long argued that the viewer is as much consumer as she is producer of knowledge when it comes to visual representations. Viewing, or consuming, images involves pleasure, the kind that comes from seeing but not being seen (Mulvey 2009). We enter into a relation with the image, a relation which produces interpretation. Images involve us on a fundamental level precisely because we participate in the co-production of their meaning. In the instance of West African migrants, this co-production then informs how people other the migrant subject. As Erving Goffman argues, images both reflect and shape social norms (1979).


    Part III: Policies

    Given the above discussion, it is little wonder why European states would demand migration reform. However, it is too simple to suggest that media representations cause particular policy responses. Rather, the point here is to grasp how the discursive field, which includes media images and rhetoric, as well as ministerial-level dialogues and strategy papers, produce truths about the phenomenon of clandestine migration from West Africa during this period. The many dangers associated with boat migration intersects with discussions of legality, state sovereignty, humanitarianism, and security. Yet the policy response largely concentrates on security, not protection (Cross 2013). Importantly, as Ruben Andersson recently points out, the transnational industrial complex surrounding border control has a vested interest in projecting an image of persistent border crisis. “In times of globalization,” he says, “bordering has itself become a globalized business” (2015).                 

    Since the mid-2000s, several strategies have been adopted by the European Union and individual Member States to halt the “flood.” The first strategy focuses on border management. In an effort to stem the flow out of West Africa, the EU heightened the presence of maritime patrols and surveillance systems in the Mediterranean and off the Senegalese coast. This was operationalized largely by FRONTEX, the external border management arm of the European Union.[5] Created in 2004, FRONTEX has played a major role in crippling clandestine naval routes to Europe by both stopping journeys before they begin in Senegal and by policing the North African coast and the Mediterranean Sea before arrival at their destination.[6] Like FRONTEX, Spain’s Sistema Integrado de Vigilancia Exterior (SIVE) is another effective border control mechanism. By positioning highly sophisticated surveillance technologies off the Spanish coast, boats are detected and intercepted earlier and thus fewer pirogues are able to make it to European shores.[7]

    A second strategy focuses on developmental diplomacy. Bi- and multi-lateral partnership agreements with African states like Senegal, Mauritania and Morocco require that African nations police European borders from the other side of the Mediterranean.[8] In exchange, African states receive significant foreign aid. The 2007 Country Strategy Paper (CSP) and National Indicative Programme (NIP) signed by the EU and Senegal is a case in point. Citing the “unprecedented wave of clandestine emigration coming from Senegal [which] descended on the Canary Islands” in 2006 (Senegal-European Commission, Part I: 19), the NIP provides significant “financial instruments” for, among other things, the militarized control of clandestine migration (Senegal-European Commission, Part II: 2).[9]

    A third, interrelated strategy entails bilateral repatriation, or “readmission” agreements. In 2006, Senegal and Spain reached one such agreement, which stipulated the return of 6,000 irregular migrants of various nationalities to Senegalese territory in exchange for 19.8 million Euros in development aid. In 2008, a similar agreement was reached between France and Senegal, which effectively tied the allocation of development aid to the forced repatriation of Senegalese nationals (Lefrançois 2009: 6).

    The mobilization of FRONTEX and SIVE both contributed to a significant drop in irregular migration from West Africa. Whereas 41,000 arrived in 2006, a little over 2,000 arrived in 2009. While significant, these numbers obscure how clandestine migration hasn’t disappeared, but has shifted in response to the militarization of border control in the Atlantic. Clandestine journeys now often necessitate transiting the Sahara desert and embarking from points along the North African coast.

    2014, Massimo Sestini / The Guardian

    2014, Massimo Sestini / The Guardian

    Paradoxically, the fixing and institutionalization of borders makes them generators of circulation (Bensaâd 2005: 19). Due to increasing controls both on the African and European continents, trans-Saharan migration is becoming longer, more fragmented, and more dangerous (Collyer 2007). Intended to reduce clandestine migration, increasingly militarized controls often only make such travel riskier and more protracted. Past routes that took weeks now sometimes extend to months or years, with migrants spending significant periods in one of the several “transit nodes” trying to earn money for the next leg of the journey (Gnisci and Trémolières 2006: 9).

    As a response to the escalating risk associated with these clandestine itineraries, the cost of smuggling services or other migrant assistance has increased. West African migrants in Morocco report spending anywhere between 2,000 to 7,000 Euros for the journey across the Sahara (Collyer 2006: 136). These small fortunes are often earned incrementally en route or allocated by family members back home. With greater kin investments, family debt escalates and  migrants become less likely to turn back (Carling 2007; Collyer 2007). The result is a cycle in which border controls, meant to inhibit migration, actually provoke it (Castles 2004).

    While the policy responses of European nations dramatically hampered clandestine migration out of West Africa in the mid-2000s, boats continue to arrive on southern European shores in even greater numbers. The Arab Spring prompted a significant rise in clandestine arrivals on the islands of Lampedusa and Malta (Koser 2012). And according to the UNHCR, 165,000 boat migrants arrived on Italian territory in 2014, more than double the number in 2013. Departing largely from North Africa, boats today are populated overwhelmingly by people fleeing conflict in Libya, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and Syria.

    In response to a 2013 Lampedusa shipwreck, which claimed more than 360 lives, the Italian government instituted Mare Nostrum, a humanitarian program that provided search and rescue operations for boats stranded at sea. While lauded by some organizations as a “life-saving” solution to a growing problem, this intervention has come under heavy criticism from other European countries as encouraging clandestine crossings. Britain’s Foreign Officer spelled out the “unintended pull factor” of Mare Nostrum to the House of Lords in 2014 before announcing that Britain would pull its diplomatic and financial support for any future rescue missions in the Mediterranean, preferring instead operations aimed at “border management” and surveillance. Today, Mare Nostrum has been abandoned in favor of Triton, a program operated by FRONTEX, whose mandate is largely one of border control, and not humanitarian intervention.


    Part IV: Conclusion

    Images of clandestine migrations between 2006 and 2007 serves as evidence and provides logic for the militarization of land and maritime borders between Europe and Africa. Photos of overcrowded boats consolidate the idea of migrants as a “wave” flooding the European continent. Drawing on latent racist sentiments and the desire for sensationalist news, these representations further contribute to the criminalization of irregular youth portrayed as disregarding international law and state sovereignty. Such a representational field evokes the traditional image of African youth as “breakers” of democratic ideals (Honwana and de Boeck 2005).

    These representations also, and somewhat paradoxically, legitimize a growing humanitarian discourse with respect to unlawful/illicit migration and human smuggling. This discourse assumes that young West African migrants are not consenting actors who calculate their decisions to migrate against the backdrop of high unemployment, desires to support family, and aspirations of freedom. Rather, media portrayals and policy documents also characterize young men as “victims” of unscrupulous criminal networks who take their money and overload them in rickety vessels that look as if they might break up under the weight of their cargo. The logical conclusion, ironically, is not to establish safer channels for legal mobility, but to curtail migration because of lives placed at risk.

    Although migration patterns have changed, media representations today often employ the same visual and rhetorical strategies. This image feels strangely reminiscent of the photo above, except now the European couple sits far from the evidence of their deviated holiday. In this case, the headline for this Daily Mail article reads: “Run, they may have ebola! Nudist beach panic over migrant boat from Africa.” Such images and rhetoric continue to reinforce the security-oriented response to clandestine boat migration, which, as we have seen, does not curtail boat migration to southern Europe, but prolongs and intensifies already dangerous journeys.

    The twin histories of photography and anthropology are inescapably intertwined. Early ethnographers often used visual technologies as a way to document and measure “cultures under study,” while early photographers produced images that chronicled historical events in the tradition of Mathew Brady (1822-1896), who documented the American Civil War by bringing his wet plate darkroom to the battlefields. And yet, whereas in the academy, social scientists have been charged—most vociferously by feminist, subaltern, and indigenous scholars—to reflect on their visual productions, photojournalists seem to have escaped the same critical scrutiny.[10] As Christopher Pinney argues, because of anthropology’s preoccupation with “cross-cultural questions of causation, evidence, personhood and monumentality,” the discipline is in a particularly good position “to consider the relationship between images and culture, and images and power” (2011: 11). Recently, visual artifacts have been interrogated as context specific, politically charged and frequently ethically problematic entities. I use the word “entities” precisely because it conjures a kind of physicality and a relationality that photographic images necessarily embody and engage. Though seemingly one-dimensional, photographs are not without substance or personality. And, as this essay argues, they are not without political consequence. As the epigraph from W.J.T. Mitchell suggests, images are not neutral; they are “actors.” They act on and within social relations, and take part in the dialectic process of knowledge production. Importantly, an image’s agency or desire does not exist outside that of its viewer/consumer. “Like people,” Mitchell says, “pictures don’t know what they want; they have to be helped to recollect it through a dialogue with others” (1996: 81).


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    [1] Stephanie Maher is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Washington. She is currently completing her dissertation “Barça ou Barzakh: The Social ‘Elsewhere’ of Failed Clandestine Migration Out of Senegal,” which explores the social and spiritual afterlives of young, predominantly male Senegalese migrants who attempted to reach Europe via wooden fishing pirogues between 2005 and 2010 but were forcibly returned. Drawing on 18 months of fieldwork, this research theorizes failure not as a zone of negation where an intended outcome is missing, but as a space that is productive of novel subjectivities, social relations, and active modes of spiritual striving.  This work has been supported by the Social Science Research Council, The Wenner-Gren Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies.

    [2] A note on the term “youth”: On the whole, the people making these clandestine journeys are considered youth in West Africa. The young men I interviewed were between the ages of 18 and 30 at the time of migration. Though in the West, we may assume that the period of youth legally ends at 18 years, many African youth cannot achieve adulthood because they are unable to perform and sustain a host of social obligations associated with that status, such as entering marriage, sustaining employment, and providing financial support for parents and kin (see Bucholtz 2002, Durham 2000, Honwana 2012).

    [3] From Senegal, the journey represents roughly 1400 kilometers, which takes anywhere seven to ten days if all goes well.

    [4] The paranoia of pollution goes back to the eugenics movement in colonial Britain when the moral welfare of unsuspecting women needed to be protected against the colonized savage (Coombes 1997).

    [5] With budgetary autonomy and legal personality, FRONTEX does not operate independent policing units, but rather manages border control initiatives conducted with Member States.

    [6] Though it has been highly effective, FRONTEX’s methods came under scrutiny by NGOs, such as CARITAS Europe, which accused the agency of not complying with the standards of non-refoulement (Gaydazhieva 2012). While most West Africans were considered “economic migrants,” and thus not protected by the 1951 Convention on Refugees, CARITAS and others (e.g. Human Rights Watch) argued that refugees and asylum seekers were among those who were forcibly turned back.

    [7] SIVE became operational in 1999 across the Strait of Gibraltar. Since then, highly advanced surveillance stations have spread along the entire Andalucian coast, and are now equipped with infrared sensors that can detect vessels 25 kilometers from shore.

    [8] Such a policy transfer dynamic has been described as “border externalization” by some scholars (Lavenex 2006).

    [9] In the amount of 288 million Euros between 2008 and 2013.

    [10] I am not suggesting that marginalized figures like boat migrants are not also actively framing themselves when they are being captured on film. Photography is not always a matter of one-way victimization. The point here has been to trace, however crudely, the connection between media representations and policy responses to clandestine migration in the West African-EU context.