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Dossier 19/02/2014

How states keep control of migrants

Biometric technology is often associated with a certain idea of control and supervision. It is the main reason why Western countries develop biometric identification, but not the only one.

Faced with increasingly significant migration flows, European countries have introduced a number of databases aimed at improving their instruments for controlling immigration, such as Eurodac for asylum seekers, the Schengen Information System for illegal or non-admitted migrants, and AGDREF for all the records of the French Ministry of Immigration. As Keith Breckenridge notes, most of these countries “have applied drastic and extensive biometric identification systems to migrants and visitors, without facing much opposition.”

Biometrics and geopolitics

The situation is slightly different in countries of emigration. While many countries in Africa are keen to carry out a census to put an end to perennial debates about demography, to limit recurrent electoral manoeuvring and to identify people who are not nationals in, what the author considers, an almost discriminatory way, biometric identification is sometimes used for another purpose: to increase a country’s geopolitical influence by mobilising the social and symbolic capital built up by expatriates in their host societies.

Countries of emigration have recently come to realise that the financial and social wealth of their transnational communities is no longer inaccessible and that they could even capitalise on it, both from an economic and from a political point of view. The emergence of network websites for diasporic communities has resulted, in particular, in making this accumulation of symbolic capital more visible. In order to channel interactions between their expatriates, several countries such as Morocco, Turkey and India have set up a “network of networks”, a form of extended virtual nationalism, to maintain a link with their expatriates and resources.

The state beyond the boundaries of the state

In the Philippines, for example, a multi-purpose electronic card, created by biometrics firms, was introduced in order to combine several services in a single device. It serves as a passport, a bank card, a card for access to health care in the host country and as voter’s ID. These cards, which recreate important geographical and functional continuity for migrants and foster mobility and locality, on the one hand leverage the impact of “habitèle”, a concept introduced by Dominique Boullier to refer to wearable digital technologies that provide access to various worlds and services, and on the other hand reflect the appropriation of our immediate and wider environment. In other words, this type of card is a link, proof of belonging to an “original” network, which helps migrants to integrate and, in the longer term, to accumulate social, economic and cultural capital (and to reclaim it).

The researcher Dana Diminescu points out, “this question of belonging has become closely linked to forms of access”, and the founding concept of the nation-state, as threatened as it may seem, can find other forms of existence. In her opinion, contemporary trends in international migration do not spell the end of the nation as we know it. On the contrary, at a time when the current borders, which are built on files and data, are undergoing intrinsic change and operating as a network, territories are expanding beyond their historical boundaries, thereby allowing countries to invent different ways to develop a new form of nation-state – remotely.


Onomastics, a further technique of remote nationalism, was used for a long time during the cold war by the secret services to deduce a person’s ethnic origin based on his or her surname. The technology now involves powerful algorithms. Used by private companies, onomastics enables ethnic statistics to be extracted from a database containing customer files, for example. States wising to reconnect with their diaspora for political or economic reasons are strongly interested in this software. This was the case for Ireland in the 1980s, when it was one of the poorest countries in Europe. By tracking down Irish migrants who had made a fortune in the United States, the country managed to attract enough investors to revitalise its economy. Lithuania is currently using onomastics software to capture the attention of wealthy migrants and to identify networks of business people located overseas whom the country could tap into.


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