Migration, Mobility, and the Plantationocene

From the Series: Plantationocene

Paul Klee (1879-1940). Der Dampfer fährt am botanischen Garten vorbei, 1921, 199. (The Steamboat Passes by the Botanical Garden, 1921, 199). Pen on paper on cardboard. a) 11,9 x 28,9 cm b) 10.4 x 28.8 cm. Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern. Image credits: Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Image archive. Image contrast has been edited from the original.

The hot sunshine in Malta’s open center reminded the men from West Africa of their time in the desert and Libya. They had arrived in Malta by boat a few months earlier and spent time in detention. But it was the arduous journey to Malta that was on their minds. Crossing the Sahara Desert with human smugglers, surviving on only a few biscuits and limited water, had already been difficult. In Libya, their situation hadn’t improved. Many of the men worked in construction, but their Libyan employers often did not pay them. At times, their money was stolen, or they were arrested or beaten by different state and other actors. It was their skin color and existence as migrants that put them in such danger, the men explained. Lifting his feet, one of them described how he was beaten on the soles, such that he was “damaged for life.” His body had been “nice” before Libya, he added. Nevertheless, there are good and bad people wherever you go, the men said, recalling incidents where Libyans also went out of their way to help them and offer support with food and money.

Other migrants were also detained in government-run detention centers or informal spaces of confinement in Libya, at times by criminal groups. Paying money or working in indentured labor was often a way out (see Achtnich 2022a). Whilst Libya has long been a destination country for migrants and the country’s labor market has remained functional despite ongoing political turmoil (IOM 2019), violence and precarious working conditions often prompted migrants to move on. The group of West African men I met in Malta also decided to leave. They spent several days at sea on a difficult and dangerous boat crossing to Europe, a “liquid trap” (Heller and Pezzani 2017, 108) that pushes people into heightened spaces of vulnerability. Upon arrival in Malta, they were marked out as “unauthorized” migrants and had to spend time in detention.

In the open center, a space where people could move to after detention often while their asylum application was still being processed, their main aim was to find work. Many migrants in Malta, however, said that their employment situation hadn’t necessarily improved like they had hoped it would. They were still engaged in precarious and cheap labor, at times underpaid, or unemployed. Depending on the outcome of their asylum application, their employment options and onward movement from Malta were limited, and, for many, the suffering they had already been used to along their journey, continued. Many migrants in Malta felt “stuck.”

These experiences of migrants provide a counter-narrative to the prevailing idea that the Anthropocene is a condition of heightened mobility, involving an escalation in its rate, speed, and scale (Fishel 2019; Haraway 2015). Rather, what the journeys of migrants to and through Libya, and by boat across the Mediterranean Sea, to Europe foreground are the racialized hierarchies of mobility that constitute much of the world today (see also Besteman 2020). Along their journeys, migrants are policed by a range of bordering practices that mark out particular bodies time and time again (see Achtnich 2021; 2022c). The externalization of E.U. borders towards North Africa, as well as the different places of confinement migrants end up in, reveal how immobility becomes a crucial aspect to the dynamic of movement (see Achtnich 2022a). Characterized by periods of waiting, incarceration, or durations of stuckness, immobility is not an aberration but a fundamental constituent of mobility in the racialized borderlands.

Whilst migrants’ lives are shaped by an uncertainty about onward movement, it is also violence that propels them to move on. After arriving on the shores of Europe, they end up laboring under precarious conditions in different sectors of the economy (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013). Looking at journeys as a totality reveals how borderlands such as Libya become vital in creating “surplus populations” and a labor reserve for European countries (Pradella and Cillo 2021). An asylum regime in Malta keeps migrants in legal limbo or in a state of “deportability” (De Genova 2002). Migrants tend to accept precarity and bad working conditions, thus keeping the reserve army of workers in place (see also Pradella and Cillo 2021).

This counter-narrative to a world of escalated and free-flowing movement not only provides corrective to some of the arguments surrounding mobility and the Anthropocene, but prompts us to devise other analytics for understanding our contemporary condition. Immobility is a logic of the plantation, where people were uprooted and “planted” in place to work under inhuman conditions (McKittrick 2011). Whilst the dynamics of immobility here are no doubt different, an attention to this dynamic nonetheless reveals how contemporary capitalism profits from mobile “life itself” (Rose 2007, 3; see also Andersson 2018, 417; Achtnich 2022b), fostering forms of spatial confinement and the closure of future horizons. An alternate set of analytics begins by front staging the lives of those who are rendered into cheap labor.


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Haraway, Donna. 2015. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.Environmental Humanities 6, no. 1: 159–165.

Heller, Charles, and Pezzani, Lorenzo. 2017. “Liquid Traces: Investigating the Deaths of Migrants at the EU’s Maritime Frontier.” In The Borders of “Europe,” edited by Nicholas De Genova, 95–119. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

International Organization for Migration (IOM). 2019. Living and Working in the Midst of Conflict: The Status of Long-term Migrants in Libya. Report. Tripoli, Libya: International Organization for Migration.

McKittrick, Katherine. 2011. “On Plantations, Prisons, and a Black Sense of Place.Social & Cultural Geography 12, no. 8: 947–963.

Mezzadra, Sandro, and Neilson, Brett. 2013. Border as Method, or, The Multiplication of Labor. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Pradella, Lucia, and Cillo, Rossana. 2021. “Bordering the Surplus Population Across the Mediterranean: Imperialism and Unfree Labour in Libya and the Italian Countryside.Geoforum 126: 483–494.

Rose, Nikolas. 2007. Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.