Written by: Lisa Motzig
Edited by: Elpida Dalietou


In recent years, migration policies such as the new EU Pact on Migration and Asylum have implemented increasingly restrictive border controls targeting irregular migration, even as research has consistently demonstrated that irregular migrants always find ways to cross borders by adapting their strategies accordingly. In this sense, the objective of these restrictions – controlling irregular migration – remains largely unfulfilled. Migrant agency appears to be a recurrent blind spot in EU decision-making, thus explaining the ineffectiveness of policies in place. By shedding light on the diverse ways through which migrants challenge, circumvent, or protest EU borders, this paper intends to characterise irregular migrants’ agency in those border spaces. It begins by examining the EU border as a space of exclusion hindering direct confrontation, then as a space of precarity shaping everyday resistance. Finally, it considers the EU border a social space where intersecting factors generate varying forms of agency. Ultimately, this paper concludes by calling for further research and suggests alternative approaches to engaging with political communities.


In April 2024, the European Parliament voted in favour of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum initially proposed in 2020. This Pact covers a wide range of regulations and policies, with a strong emphasis on border controls. Specifically, it plans to expand the use of border procedures to process asylum requests directly in border places (Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs, 2023). This approach reflects the European Union’s aim to manage migration flows by gathering individuals within defined areas in the hope of better processing legal claims to entry and better countering illegal ones. However, the reality is not so black and white. The term ‘migrant’ is defined by the UNHCR (2021) in opposition to a refugee as a person moving for reasons other than persecution and war, whether they are economic, educational, or else. This distinction has nevertheless been widely criticised and obscures a much more fluid reality that this paper will try to overcome to discuss all those people trying to enter the EU without documents (Schindel, 2017). Moreover, there is no clear consensus over the use of terms such as ‘irregular’, ‘undocumented’ or ‘illegal’ to qualify those “people who stay in the country without official permission”, whether they entered illegally or overstayed their legal visa” (Engbersen, van San, & Leerkes, 2006, p. 210). This paper adopts the term ‘irregular’ which appears to be the most neutral word (Vasta, 2011). In recent years, migration policies such as the new EU Pact first introduced in 2020 have implemented increasingly restrictive border controls targeting irregular migration, even as research has consistently demonstrated that irregular migrants keep coming irrespective of restrictions in place (Massey, 2020; Tiberghien, 2009). In fact, faced with securitarian state policies, migrants simply adapt accordingly and come up with more creative – and often more dangerous – strategies to enter a territory. Yet, EU decision-makers often overlook the agency displayed by irregular migrants in resisting or circumventing border controls when they adopt border policies that will likely be ineffective. Therefore, studying the agency of irregular migrants within border spaces becomes particularly pertinent. Border spaces, going from Lesbos to Calais in the case of the EU, embody at the same time spaces of historical state power, a key priority of the new EU Pact and the space of the ‘migration crisis’ par excellence (Brambilla & Jones, 2020). Besides, agency is often perceived as suspicious when associated with migrants, as it drives the person further away from victimhood and closer to criminality and illegality (Fassin, 2005). This paper will understand agency as the room for manoeuvre – neither a choice nor a freedom – that irregular migrants have despite politics of border control, from open protests to everyday resistance (Balzacq, 2015; Mainwaring, 2016; Xhaho, Çaro, & Bailey, 2021). It should be clarified that this focus on migrants’ agency does not negate the existence of structural constraints that significantly shape irregular migrants’ actions, mobility and rights advocacy (Mainwaring, 2016). Rather, the aim is simply to elucidate the various ways and conditions needed for irregular migrants to contest border politics. In other words, to describe how even in ‘bare life’, illegal migrants can develop ‘paradoxical modes of agency, and even resistance, by turning the state’s abandonment to one’s own advantage’ (Schindel, 2017, p. 18). Therefore, this paper will aim at characterising irregular migrants’ agency in EU border spaces. After a brief literature review, the paper will delve into the difficulties faced by irregular migrants to start collective mobilisations in border spaces, thus driving them towards acts of everyday resistance instead. Finally, the paper will shortly reflect on other factors influencing migrants’ agency before concluding on the remaining gaps in research and the political implications of this topic for EU migration policy.

Literature review & methodology

While border spaces have been recognised as sites of struggle where alternative agencies and new political possibilities are shaped (Brambilla & Jones, 2020), scholarly attention regarding migrants’ agency has predominantly centred upon destination spaces and how irregular migrants can shape their lives on a territory where they have no rights (Bloch, Sigona, & Zetter, 2011; Ellermann, 2010; Schweitzer, 2017). Therefore, there remains a dearth of case studies and analyses of irregular migrants’ agency at EU borders apart from a few exceptions (Mainwaring, 2016). Nevertheless, existing research makes it possible to assess that irregular migrants have room for manoeuvre, as underlined by Balzacq (2015) in his examination of resistance, emancipation or resilience within the framework of critical border studies. 

Besides, migrant agency has become a burgeoning area of research to better understand international migration (Mainwaring, 2016). This literature – spanning from citizenship studies to critical border studies – is usually divided into two approaches that may be summarised as ‘bare life versus autonomous migration’ (Rygiel, 2011; Woods, 2016). The first perspective is based on Agamben’s notion of ‘bare life’, which qualifies the condition in which an individual finds himself/herself when excluded from the political community. In bare life, the irregular migrant is not a political subject with rights, but a person defined by its lack of agency, lack of security, and lack of political voice (Nyers, 2006). In this sense, the migrant becomes the “negative counterpart of the citizen, paradoxically included in political matters only by virtue of their exclusion” (Nyers, 2006, p. 51). This approach understands migrants as living a structural bare life especially when they are in a ‘state of exception’ depriving them of any powers, such as detention centres or refugee camps in border spaces (Rygiel, 2011; Woods, 2016). In response to this vision, a second approach was developed in the last two decades to highlight migrants’ agency and their capacity to use mobility as a resource for political actions of resistance (Rygiel, 2011). This paper will largely rely on this second approach of autonomous migration to consider the ‘room for manoeuvre’ or the agency displayed by irregular migrants (Rygiel, 2011; Woods, 2016).

Finally, referring to the notions of ‘agency’ but also ‘resistance’, ‘contestation’ or ‘strategies’, in recent years much research has focused on the diverse ways through which irregular migrants could protest border policies and thus express their own agency outside the citizenship framework (Mainwaring, 2016; Schindel, 2017). Most scholars have adopted an approach considering specific instances of irregular migrants’ open resistance and transgression such as organising a protest, going on a strike, or allying with NGOs and lawyers (Brambilla & Jones, 2020; Nyers, 2006). An alternative approach looks at the everyday forms of agency which can comprehend individual acts of desperation, or the negotiations undertaken by irregular migrants to survive (Mainwaring, 2016). In the words of Tazzioli, De Genova, & Mezzadra (2015, p. 80), migrant struggles not only account for “more or less organized struggles in which migrants openly challenge, defeat, escape or trouble the dominant politics of mobility (including border control, detention, and deportation)” but also “the daily strategies, refusals, and resistances through which migrants enact their (contested) presence – even if they are not expressed or manifested as ‘political’ battles demanding something in particular”. 

This paper will delve into both dimensions to provide a complete overview of irregular migrants’ agency at EU borders. To do so, it exclusively relies on an extensive bibliography and desk research, aiming to provide the most exhaustive perspective of irregular migrants’ agency possible.  This endeavour serves as a first step towards more ambitious research on the subject.

The EU border: a space of exclusion largely preventing open resistance

The phrase ‘contesting the border’ often evokes images of direct acts of defiance such as strikes, sabotage, or civil disobedience. However, in practice,  organised protests at EU borders are the exception rather than the norm. Indeed, migrants need several resources and conditions that are hard to find in border spaces to be able to organise an openly political action (Ellermann, 2010).

First, a key takeaway from research on collective mobilisations seems to be that having a stable situation and remaining in the same location over the long term is favourable to developing forms of organised resistance (Ellermann, 2010; Mainwaring, 2016; Monforte & Dufour, 2011). This explains why organised protests of irregular migrants happen more regularly in destination countries than in transit and temporary locations such as border spaces. But even in these cases, they remain occasional and rarely successful. One example can be taken from the Republic of Cyprus where one can connect the absence of migrant protests to the absence of big detention centres keeping individuals in the same place over a long period of time, or the absence of NGOs to support irregular migrants’ claims (Mainwaring, 2016). It appears that the more marginalised an individual is from society, the harder it will be for them to organise or participate in collective acts of resistance. In fact, individuals without a legal status – such as irregular migrants – often refrain from openly contesting border politics due to the risks of visibility and identification. Indeed, staying under the radar is often the most effective strategy to enter and remain in a country without legal documentation. By speaking out in the public sphere to demand rights and integration within EU societies, irregular migrants risk arrest and deportation by immigration authorities, in which case they would ironically lose any chance to access the wanted rights (Papadopoulos, Fratsea, & Mavrommatis, 2018). These difficulties can be illustrated by the experience of the No Border camp established by migration activists in Calais in June 2009. Although the activists’ clear objective was to show solidarity with irregular migrants in Calais and organise political actions together, this coordination with migrants was rendered difficult by the fact that many migrants were only staying in ‘the jungle of Calais’ for one week on average and did not have time to dedicate to the organisation of political mobilisations (Rygiel, 2011). Moreover, the tense situation in Calais between the police, the local authorities, and the migrants indicated that many migrants “may be too scared to come to the camp” and to engage with activists (Rygiel, 2011, p. 12). This eventually proved justified as the No Border camp drew a lot of political attention which resulted in the destruction of the camp by the police in September 2009 (Rygiel, 2011). 

On the other hand, some scholars argue that it is precisely the people in the most precarious situations – meaning in bare life – who can resort to desperate acts of resistance when they have nothing left to lose (Ellermann, 2010; Schindel, 2017). Monforte & Dufour (2011) agree that a political mobilisation coming from irregular migrants is extremely unlikely considering the structural constraints they face, such as very limited resources, the lack of a clear collective identity, the fear of being caught and the following risk of deportation. However, despite all those obstacles, irregular migrants’ agency has been expressed through collective actions and protest strategies in several moments and places throughout Europe (Chimienti, 2011; Monforte & Dufour, 2011). These rare moments of mobilisation tend to happen under similar conditions. First, irregular migrants need a window of opportunity that will make their claim perceived as realistic and timely (Chimienti, 2011). This can be a policy shift perceived as particularly unfair or a related event in the news triggering momentum for action. Then, irregular migrants tend to organise and protest border politics when they have a shared sense of pain and a shared perception of injustice (Chimienti, 2011). Chimienti (2011) underlines that creating that sense of belonging and shared awareness of injustice is extremely difficult for isolated irregular migrants staying under the radar in destination countries. On the contrary, it would make sense for such feelings to emerge more easily in border spaces where irregular migrants are gathered in camps or detention centres, thus providing a more favourable context for collective mobilisation. Finally, getting the support of public opinion – or a section of it – is always helpful to spark and justify a protest action (Chimienti, 2011).

It is only by compiling these conditions that irregular migrants can hope to go from isolation to collective action against EU border controls. The occurrences are rare, but they do exist and deserve to be mentioned if only to underline the creativity and agency that irregular migrants put into these actions of resistance. In other words, the mere existence of these actions proves that irregular migrants are not passive when confronted with restrictive border policies targeting them as undesirable (Papadopoulos, Fratsea, & Mavrommatis, 2018). For instance, there have been several cases of protest actions in Malta where migrants are detained in overcrowded detention centres for long periods of time. In the early 2000s, migrants’ protests succeeded in influencing the Maltese policy of mandatory 18-month detention and raising awareness of the poor conditions of their detention (Mainwaring, 2016). After the media coverage of the death of a detainee in 2012, migrants’ protests and legal actions also led to a reduction of the detention limit to 6 months and the end of the mandatory detention of asylum seekers (Mainwaring, 2016). More recently in 2019, migrants detained in the Hal Far immigration reception centre burned staff cars and slightly injured a policeman in a violent cry for freedom (Al Jazeera Media Network, 2019). Similarly, the Italian island of Lampedusa has been a recurrent space of irregular migrants’ actions protesting their detention on the island and EU regulations forbidding them to leave Italian territory. Surges in arrivals in recent years have overcrowded the island’s detention centre, thus triggering the anger of detainees who set fire to the centre in 2011 and 2016 (Scherer, 2016). In these few examples, irregular migrants showed agency by seizing an opportunity (like the death of a fellow detainee or an overcrowded place) to express – sometimes violently – their shared sense of pain and injustice and thus contest the EU border regime.

In those border spaces, it is also common for irregular migrants to form alliances with lawyers and NGOs to legally contest EU border policies (Ellermann, 2010). This serves as a means for them to access precious resources such as legal expertise, time, and institutional or organisational support (Papadopoulos, Fratsea, & Mavrommatis, 2018). Again, the situation in Malta offers a good example since legal actions taken by migrants in the early 2010s resulted in a decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR, 2013a, 2013b) condemning Malta’s detention policy as a “defective national system hindering human-rights protection”. Moreover, the ECHR (2011) also ruled against the return of an Afghan asylum seeker to Afghanistan after being seized by a group of migrants and NGOs in Greece, thus showing how NGOs can be intermediaries in championing migrant causes and agency in different spheres (Mainwaring, 2016). The Calais No Border camp was also in a certain way an example of solidarity and networking between irregular migrants and activists coming from France, Belgium and Great Britain to demand rights of movement. The stated objective was to erase material borders but also imaginary ones between citizens and non-citizens, legal and illegal, migrants and non-migrants, in order to promote a common humanity (Rygiel, 2011). These actions show how developing a culture of solidarity among migrants but also between migrants and NGOs or lawyers can lead to political mobilisations in EU border spaces to demand freedom and rights.

Finally, it is important to highlight that in most of these collective actions, irregular migrants rarely get what they ask for, whether freedom or papers (Chimienti, 2011; Papadopoulos, Fratsea, & Mavrommatis, 2018). At best, some protesters can obtain regularisation but structural policy changes are often not reached through these means (Chimienti, 2011). These limited results constitute an additional argument to justify irregular migrants’ limited resort to open political actions. This brings considerations back to basic political questions of who can speak, who can act, and what is left to do for those who cannot speak or act in the political sphere (Nyers, 2006).

The EU border: a space of precarity shaping everyday resistance

This section will thoroughly examine the question of what options remain for irregular migrants to contest the politics of control in EU border spaces. Often referred to in the literature as ‘everyday resistance’ or ‘desperate acts of resistance or resilience’, these remaining options include passive noncompliance, deception, de-identification strategies, or even extreme measures such as self-harm or suicide (Ellermann, 2010). This paper argues that these acts, even though not expressed as political actions per se, communicate the political creativity and the diverse possibilities of agency available to irregular migrants (Brambilla & Jones, 2020). 

The previous section indicated that organising a collective mobilisation and openly challenging states’ policies is extremely difficult for irregular migrants, in large part due to their precarious status and situation. The border can in this sense be perceived as a peak of precarity, where bordering a country equals bordering detention, deportation, or death. Indeed, when confronted with life-or-death situations in border spaces, irregular migrants can resort to strategies of self-harm and perform victimhood in the hope of being rescued (Schindel, 2017). In this sense, playing the helpless victim to not be considered a threat to EU member states can be understood as a way of manipulating common perceptions entrenched in EU border policies (Mainwaring, 2016). A striking example can be found in the numerous cases of migrants coming from the Mediterranean Sea (especially before 2015) and voluntarily deflating their boat once the European coast is near, in the hope of being rescued by the Greek or Italian Coast Guard (Schindel, 2017). These acts cannot constitute acts of empowerment but rather acts of desperation. Yet, they show agency in the sense of the potential room for manoeuvre available for irregular migrants to contest border politics. Other extreme examples witnessed in EU border spaces include hunger strikes, the sewing of one’s lips, or suicide (Nyers, 2006; Schindel, 2017). This informs us that in dramatic conditions of bare life, the body, which is often the only resource that irregular migrants still have, can become a means of resistance (Schindel, 2017).

In fact, the role played by the body in everyday resistance is simply the answer to border policies centred around the control of individuals, including their bodies. For instance, migrants trying to enter the EU without legal documentation often aim at escaping the fingerprint process which would identify them in a European database and limit their mobility. Research has thus shown how many individual strategies used by migrants are centred around the issue of identity, or rather de-identification (Ellermann, 2010; Vasta, 2011). Becoming invisible is in truth a great resource for irregular migrants’ agency as migration flows get more and more monitored (Papadopoulos & Tsianos, 2007). While some migrants refuse to be fingerprinted by border guards, others resort to mutilation with chemicals or razors to erase their fingerprints and remain forever unidentified (Ellermann, 2010). Migrants coming from Morocco, Senegal, or Mali and trying to cross the straits of Gibraltar to enter Europe resort to similar strategies. They are called ‘the burners’ in reference to the practice of burning their identity papers when arriving at the Spanish border to avoid being sent back to their country of origin (Papadopoulos & Tsianos, 2007). By burning their documents, they voluntarily lose their identity and enter this ‘dehumanisation’ process to become invisible and unreachable. This is done consciously even though it further complicates the claim of political rights: “as the burners say, if you want to cross the Spanish borders, it is not sufficient to burn your papers, you have to become an animal yourself” (Papadopoulos & Tsianos, 2007, p. 4). Moreover, making changes to one’s body and tampering with legal documents can help build a flexible identity: migrants can transform their voices, hair, accents, or gender to create an alternative identity and facilitate their mobility in EU border spaces (Schindel, 2017). In this sense, William, a Congolese asylum seeker, narrates how an acquaintance from Burkina Faso lent him his passport to cross the border between Turkey and Cyprus: “Because we are Africans and the police, immigration, they see someone from Africa, so they just look like this, it’s the same person. Although the faces are not the same! [laughs] (Interview: August 2009)” (Mainwaring, 2016, p. 8). Even when avoiding direct conflict with EU member states, irregular migrants’ agency as described above remains subversive to state control, since their strategies are often efficient in circumventing border policies (Mainwaring, 2016). 

However, border spaces cannot be reduced to spaces of individual acts of desperation. On the contrary, the border often gives irregular migrants the conditions to maintain social relations, negotiate, cooperate, and share knowledge, especially in camps or detention centres (Papadopoulos & Tsianos, 2007). These social interactions matter even when they are not undertaken with the objective of a collective political action. Extensive research has analysed the role of networks and networking in border spaces: migration network theories have underlined the essential role of friends, relatives, and co-nationals in helping the migration process, in gathering advice, or in seeking (financial) support (Mainwaring, 2016; Vasta, 2011). For instance, irregular migrants can make use of their network to find the best spot to be rescued in the Mediterranean Sea (Mainwaring, 2016). They often negotiate with smugglers to find a way in, or create friendships to travel in groups and make use of each other’s resources, or negotiate conditions of their entry with border guards (Black, Collyer, Skeldon, & Waddington, 2006; Mainwaring, 2016). These social relations developed throughout the migration journey and especially in border spaces are very valuable resources for irregular migrants. In a somewhat surprising way, EU border spaces can even become temporary resting places to create communities. This argument is explained by Rygiel (2011) through the example of the jungle of Calais in 2009. In this camp, irregular migrants actively engaged in ‘practices of citizenship’ even though this border space was created specifically to be a place of non-rights for non-citizens (Rygiel, 2011). In fact, many social relations were ongoing in this border space in part because the camp was open and near the city of Calais, thus encouraging connections between irregular migrants of different origins, the population of Calais, NGOs on the ground, etc. Through these social exchanges, irregular migrants have been able to gather resources in the form of transnational social networks to facilitate the transition from one border to another and to better navigate EU policies of border control (Rygiel, 2011). This also demonstrates irregular migrants’ capacity to create a ‘community on the move’ in EU border spaces: their resilience leads them to recreate a sense of home and belonging even in places where they are openly unwanted (Rygiel, 2011). 

In short, these everyday acts of resistance focus on immediate individual gains and short-term objectives instead of structural policy change (Ellermann, 2010). They are more often individual acts than collective ones (Ellermann, 2010). However, these indirect confrontations with EU border policy made by individuals without rights matter. By small acts of influence over their personal situation, they show agency and question European and nation-states’ politics of control (Brambilla & Jones, 2020; Mainwaring, 2016). In this sense, their agency positions irregular migrants as political agents even though they are excluded from the political sphere (Nyers, 2006; Schindel, 2017). 

The EU border: a social space of intersecting factors creating varying agencies

Finally, characterising irregular migrants’ agency in EU border spaces requires a short reflection into some social factors directly affecting the expression of migrants’ agency. A border space is essentially a social space that will not be invested in the same way depending on a migrant’s legal status, gender, economic situation, etc. These social factors affect migrants’ migration journey, their actions, their choices, and consequently the expression of their agency (Papadopoulos, Fratsea, & Mavrommatis, 2018).

First and foremost, it’s important to acknowledge that the mere existence of border procedures inherently introduces a hierarchy of legal statuses, citizenship, and precarity levels. While some irregular migrants may have the option to seek asylum, others will not be given this opportunity (Rygiel, 2011). These discrepancies significantly influence how irregular migrants can navigate their circumstances and assert agency (Monforte & Dufour, 2011).

Secondly, it is possible to analyse border controls not only as a tool preventing migrants from entering but rather as a process filtering a desirable workforce (Duez & Simonneau, 2018; Papadopoulos, Fratsea, & Mavrommatis, 2018). This idea directly refers to the liberal paradox according to which the increasing liberalisation of the world economy coexists with tighter control of migration flows. This situation provides EU member states with a cheap labour force that is “flexible, vulnerable and prone to heavy exploitation” (Papadopoulos, Fratsea, & Mavrommatis, 2018, p. 201). The border can therefore turn regular citizen workers with economic rights into vulnerable non-citizens with fewer rights but a remaining necessity to work. In other words, the current system offers economic gains to EU member states without political losses. This further explains why irregular migrants looking for a job or trying to keep one can hardly engage in political mobilisations and endanger their precarious economic situation (Rygiel, 2011). The more precarious and the more economically unstable an individual is, the less likely they are to express political agency. Therefore, the relationship between economic precarity and agency is relevant and should be studied in the context of EU border spaces (Papadopoulos, Fratsea, & Mavrommatis, 2018).

If this reflection is reminiscent of Marxist theory, this is no coincidence. Indeed, some scholars have compared examples of (irregular) migrants’ protests in EU countries to the dynamic of a new proletariat, coining the expression ‘precariat class’ (Papadopoulos, Fratsea, & Mavrommatis, 2018). The precariat class refers to those migrants working without documents and in poor labour conditions in EU member states, who could one day awaken to their group interests and organise collective actions to defend their rights. This idea is summed up by Elias, a Bangladeshi migrant interviewed by Papadopoulos, Fratsea, & Mavrommatis (2018, p. 207): “The problem is our weaknesses. We remain, each one of us, apart from each other and isolated. We are alone until we get together either by sector or join the working class. And until we all organize, the situation will not change… The positive outcome is that the agricultural workers and Greek workers alike have understood that the employers are very harsh and that they may kill them if they ask for their wages (…) We have fought for our rights. And we are proud of that.” In fact, economic concerns are often at the heart of irregular migrants’ political actions to demand rights. Most migrants want to be regularised to work in better conditions (Chimienti, 2011). This could also go the other way: irregular migrants in EU border spaces could negotiate EU restrictive border policies despite their vulnerable position, precisely because they can leverage their economic value. This strategy has already been used in destination countries. In the United Kingdom, the migrant domestic workers’ organisation Waling Waling spoke in the public space as economic actors to demand political rights (Anderson, 2010). For this reason, it is interesting to study migrants’ agency and class analysis in tandem, as suggested by Papadopoulos, Fratsea, & Mavrommatis (2018).

Thirdly, it is also possible to look at irregular migrants’ agency through a gendered lens (Mainwaring, 2016; Xhaho, Çaro, & Bailey, 2021). For instance, in the case mentioned earlier, the vulnerable migrant labour force exploited by EU member states is often female. The Waling Waling movement was essentially composed of migrant women, who felt empowered by their work and their new role as primary breadwinners within the family, thus leading them to clearly express their political agency (Anderson, 2010; Xhaho, Çaro, & Bailey, 2021). At the border, agency is also gendered. While women at EU border spaces may more easily adopt a victimhood narrative, migrant men may sometimes perform aggressive masculinity to contest EU border policy (Tyszler, 2023). A relevant illustration can be found at the Morocco-Spain border of Ceuta and Melilla, where migrant men try to jump over the fences delimiting the border (Tyszler, 2023). The action is extremely dangerous and requires impressive physical skills. Success is rare and often belongs to the healthiest and youngest migrant men (while almost no women try the jump). These men attempting to jump mostly come from Sub-Saharan Africa and are called warriors or soldiers. They perceive their agency as an act of extreme bravery in the ‘border war’: “We are the warriors of a war we did not choose” (Tyszler, 2023, p. 30). Although this tactic is rarely effective, it still gives them more chances of success than any other, as related by some men who tried other ways and ended up in detention (Tyszler, 2023). Many examples of collective – often unsuccessful – attempts can be accounted for in recent years. On June 24th, 2022, around 1,700 individuals mostly coming from Sudan and South Sudan attempted to cross the Melilla border as a group. Those who succeeded in jumping over the fence were brought back to Morocco by border guards, and at least 37 people died (Bremner, 2023). This example is only one of many highlighting intersections of gender and agency. Therefore, analysing these intersections is needed to get a better understanding of irregular migrants’ agency in EU border spaces. 

Finally, other factors deserve to be further researched and considered. Ethnicity, nationality, age, or education levels can influence migrants’ agency in diverse ways. Their intersections are a second level of analysis also needed to characterise in a more comprehensive way irregular migrants’ agency in EU border spaces.


To conclude, this paper has sought to unveil the conditions and diverse shapes that irregular migrants’ agency can take in EU border spaces. It has shown that these particular places provide space for rare collective mobilisations, frequent everyday resistance and thus varying degrees and forms of agency. This overview indicates that in most cases, irregular migrants’ agency is expressed through everyday individual actions rather than collective mobilisations to demand rights. These means of action characterise people who cannot act as regular citizens, those who have no right to demand rights. Yet even these ‘weapons of the weak’ are inherently political since they constitute a protest of mobility politics and border regimes (Mainwaring, 2016; Vasta, 2011). Further research and case study analyses are needed to pursue these considerations, differentiate agency along class, gender or age factors, and finally delve into two political implications. First, the fact that irregular migrants are not passive objects but active subjects reacting to those policies trying to control them reveals that restrictive policies of border control are doomed to fail in their objective of countering irregular migration (Mainwaring, 2016). Whatever the means developed by states to stop migration flows, migrants will counter them with more sophisticated strategies to keep crossing borders, even if they need several attempts (Mainwaring, 2016). In this sense, migrants will always have room for manoeuvre, though in a very limited manner. Moreover, looking at irregular migrants’ political agency not only questions the use of securitarian policies but also notions of national and European citizenship. In fact, the conversation on agency shows the ways in which irregular migrants directly or indirectly challenge state policies and their prerogative to decide who belongs in the political community and who does not (Chimienti, 2011). For those who cannot circulate freely, who cannot vote, who cannot participate in political life in the traditional sense, other means exist to engage with politics in creative ways. Therefore, looking at irregular migrants’ agency at EU borders could be a first step to pointing out alternative ways of engaging with a political community outside of citizenship. 


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