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The politics of exhaustion: Externalised ‘Hostile Environment’ in the British-French border zone



The past decades of accelerated globalisation and global mobility have witnessed a concomitant growth in border control methods [1]. The United Kingdom has devised to deny leave to enter (a policy of ‘non-entrée[2]), through its extraterritorial ‘juxtaposed border arrangements’ with France which have led to the creation of a border zone, ‘stretching from Calais and Grande-Synthe in northern France to the capitals of Brussels and Paris if not further afield’ [3]. Here, prospective asylum seekers are trapped in a violent bottle-neck scenario, unable to move forward, yet without any evident ways out of their predicament [4]. While the internal manifestation of the British border control, through the ‘structurally embedded’ border domestically [5], has been thoroughly studied, dissected and captured within the concept of ‘hostile environment’ [6], relatively limited academic attention has been accorded to the nature of the technologies and ‘tactics of bordering’ [7] constituting its external aspects[8].


Drawing on extensive field research [9], this paper argues that the externalisation of the British border control to France is contingent upon a harmful strategy, implemented by France in its role of ‘containment state’ and defined as the ‘politics of exhaustion’ [10]. This is a raft of (micro) practices and methods strategically aimed to deter, exclude, and control, by influencing the choices and intention of people on the move who have been profiled as ‘undesirable’. 

The politics of exhaustion: An articulation

Ritualised forms of (in)direct violence and abuse 


First of all, the politics of exhaustion involves overtly violent forms of physical police brutality at the hands of state officials, such as national police, the general reserve (known as Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, CRS) and the national gendarmerie. These forms of violence are relatively well-documented and widely known [11]. Meanwhile, there are also some more subtle and banalised forms of police abuse inherent in the politics of exhaustion, which can be particularly harmful when ritualised. One 17-year-old Eritrean boy interviewed by Refugee Rights Europe explained: 

‘I don’t know where to begin about the police violence in Calais. The sprays and the beating have happened to me so many times while sleeping and while on the road.’ [12]


A Sudanese interlocutor in his thirties shared his understanding of the purpose behind the ritualised (in)direct violence abuse: 

‘They are trying to make us give up our goal. […] They [would do] everything they are able to do – to make us give up. For example, beating people, taking their clothes off, putting the people in basements – naked, or taking shoes from people to make them walk for more than two hours without shoes in the winter.’ [13]

Another Sudanese man, whom I interviewed in London following his arrival in the UK, explained: 

‘[…] I think [the police in Calais] sometimes try to torture you, even by their words – they assault you by words.’ [14]

The most pertinent form of ritualised violence takes place during evictions of living spaces, which in many periods have taken place every 48 hours. The evictions are an exertion of power, discussed in a subsequent section below. 


Withdrawal of care and the manufacturing of vulnerability 

Another inherent component of the politics of exhaustion is the withdrawal of state care and simultaneous hampering of third sector aid work, which contributes to the production of additional vulnerabilities among the displaced people in the area. A British church minister with longstanding engagement in the Calais area explained to me: 

‘We’ve been at food distributions where [riot police] have turned up and forbidden the distribution from taking place. We had a box of ready meals and started walking towards the line of [police officers] wearing our official vests marking that we belong to an association. They started beating our hands until we dropped the box with food.’ [15]

In line with Claire Loughnan [16] who has theorised the notion of ‘active neglect’ and Thom Davies et al. [17] who explore the notion of ‘violent state inaction’, the withdrawal of care and hampering of aid in northern France can be understood as a strategic state practice, through which the state intends to produce suffering in order to control people [18]. This manufacturing of vulnerability has become particularly tangible during the period of the Covid-19 pandemic threatening the health situation in unsanitary camps and settlements since spring 2020 [19].

Dispossession of living spaces and personal belongings 

Regular evictions of living spaces have emerged as a routine practice ever since the demolition of the Calais ‘Jungle’ camp in October 2016. The activist group Human Rights Observers reported that the number of evictions doubled in Calais in 2019, increasing from 452 for the duration of 2018, to 805 in the first 10 months of 2019[20]. During these raids, which take place at regular intervals such as every 48 hours, living spaces of vulnerable individuals are evicted by heavily geared CRS officers, who use tear gas or pepper spray whilst confiscating tents, sleeping bags, and other personal belongings. 

A group of mental health experts and therapists operating in the area commented:

‘…disruption of sleep, destruction of tents and confiscation of basic necessities, even drinking water, is taking its toll on people’s mental as well as physical health in worrying ways, appearing to have tipped many people beyond their ability to draw upon their own coping mechanisms, into mental health conditions which can lead to long-lasting damage.’ [21]

Various interlocutors have also highlighted the occurrence of confiscation of personal belongings by police in other contexts: 

‘Some [police] are taking stuff off the guys, they took 300 euros from a guy as well as his two mobile phones. […] I saw a lot of things done wrong by the police […] and this is why I don’t want to stay here.’ [22]

Uncertainty, and undercurrents of threat 

There is another noteworthy aspect attached to the acts of dispossession and evictions of living spaces which is utilised by the authorities to produce exhaustion, namely the sheer uncertainty and undercurrents of threat which permeate people’s daily existence in the area. One of my informants, a British academic, explained: 

‘Even when there was no physical violence, there was the waiting for the violence to come. Always hiding, hiding stuff, themselves, their true identity. […] It must be draining and exhausting, it’s insidious violence. Uncertainty is a form of violence in this context. People seem really stressed in times where everything seems calm.’ [23]

Meanwhile, a woman from eastern Africa explained: 

‘Sometimes police would stand and talk to us normally, and suddenly take out the [pepper] spray. Sometimes they would beat people randomly, it could be a boy or a girl.’ [24]

A Sudanese man in his early twenties explained to me that the uncertainty of police raids is exhausting and difficult to deal with. He recounted:

‘The police came [unexpectedly] today. They took everything, my tent, and clothes. […] I was away to have breakfast […] and brush my teeth because I didn’t think they would come today. The police come all the time, but for two days they didn’t come, so I thought it would be OK. And then everything was gone, my bag, everything. We cannot trust any person here.’ [25] 

Shrinking and defoliation of public spaces


Another aspect of the politics of exhaustion is the shrinking of public spaces available to displaced people, leading to the continuous uprooting from resting and socialisation spots and confinement of people to smaller areas. Fences, razor wire, and spikes have been erected across Calais, targeting people’s preferred spots, forcing localised displacement and a continuous sense of uprooting. 


From 2019 onwards, acts aimed at shrinking the public spaces available to displaced people have also been accompanied by defoliation which exposes people to the public eye and removes any potential for concealment and protection. For instance, the woodlands in which displaced people are gathering have now been largely cut down or trimmed, laying bare the existence of the displaced communities and depriving them of privacy.


Forced (im)mobility 

Forced (im)mobility is also used to exhaust people, by convoluting their journeys and delaying their recourse to a solution to their predicament. Forced immobility primarily takes the shape of detention in the northern France area; often in the form of short periods spent in detention, followed by the release of the individuals again shortly thereafter, without anything constructive being accomplished.


As regards forced mobility [26], on the other hand, my respondents over the years have often spoken of being caught by the police, and then driven to remote locations where they would be released again, left to cover the way back on foot. Others have been removed to other European countries under the Dublin Regulation following detention, and have subsequently jumped on trains and other forms of transport to make their way back to the area [27]. An older man from Sudan discussed the notion of forced (im)mobility as follows: 

‘Some guys came [to Calais] from Italy and asked for asylum in France, and [the authorities] sent them back to Italy, and Italy gave them no assistance and asked them to leave Italy. After that, they [came] back to France. France won’t give them papers, so now they try to go to the UK but they are stuck.’ [28]



It has been argued in this paper that the UK’s border control arrangements with France are contingent upon an inherently harmful set of (micro) practices and methods, best understood as a ‘politics of exhaustion’. This is a sophisticated technology of border control and mobility governance, which aims to deter, exclude, and control through the mental and physical exhaustion of individuals. 

Collectively, this raft of practices contributes toward the production of meaninglessness, emptiness of existence, loss of hope and exhaustion; a strategy aimed to deter, exclude and control groups of individuals exercising mobility. The concept ‘politics of exhaustion’ thus sheds light on the gravity of the harm produced through the external aspects of the British border, which therefore arguably merit similarly high levels of scrutiny as the internal manifestations thereof, defined as the ‘hostile environment’.

Notes and references


I am indebted to all of the individuals who agreed to participate in the interviews and discussions during my field research, many of whom demonstrated a source of resilience and strength of human spirit that I have never witnessed before. I am also indebted to my interpreters, who joined me as colleagues and friends, and who shared with me a sense of mutual support at times when the stories of human suffering became next to unbearable. To Tom and Maria, thank you for your patience, understanding and support over the years. 

Notes and references

[1] Bosworth, Mary; Franko Aas, Kanja; and Pickering, Sharon. 2017. ‘Punishment, globalization and migration control: “Get them the hell out of here”’. Punishment & Society, 20 (1), 34-53: 35.

[2] Hathaway, James C. 1992. ‘The Emerging Politics of Non-Entrée’. Refugees 91, 40-41.

[3] Welander, Marta. 2020. ‘The Politics of Exhaustion: Immigration Control in the British-French Border Zone’. Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration 8(2), 33-38. 33.

[4] The UK’s border arrangements are contained in the 1991 Sangatte Protocol, the 2003 Le Touquet Treaty, and later bilateral agreements. These arrangements mean that safe and legal routes to seek asylum in the UK from other European countries (specifically, via France) are next to non-existent. This is not referring to resettlement schemes of prospective asylum seekers or individuals with refugee status from other parts of the world.

[5] Weber, Leanne. 2013. ‘From state-centric to transversal borders: Resisting the “structurally embedded border” in Australia’. Theoretical Criminology, 23(2), 228-246.

[6] See e.g. Bowling, Ben, and Westenra, Sophie. 2018. ‘“A really hostile environment”: Adiaphorization, global policing and the crimmigration control system’, Theoretical Criminology, Epub ahead of print; Goodfellow, Maya. 2019. Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats, London: Verso; Hiam, Lucinda; Steele, Sarah; and McKee, Martin. 2018. ‘Creating a “hostile environment for migrants”: the British government’s use of health service data to restrict immigration is a very bad idea’, Health Economics, Policy and Law, 13(2), 107-117.

[7] De Genova, Nicholas. 2017. The Borders of ‘Europe’: Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering. Durham: Duke University Press. 

[8] In contrast to the relatively widespread, if intermittent, political and media activity directed at the migratory situation in northern France, a sustained academic interest has arguably been slower to take root, with some important exceptions. See in particular Millner 2011; King 2016; King 2019; Agier 2019; de Hasque and Lecadet (eds.) 2019; Hicks and Mallet 2019; Davies and Isakjee 2015; Davies et al. 2017; Ansaloni 2017; Reinisch 2015; Rygiel, 2011; Ansems de Vries and Welander 2016a, 2016b; Sandri 2018.

[9] The paper draws on extensive first-hand field research among displaced people in Calais, Paris, Brussels and London in 2016-2019, which included participant observation and 75 interviews with displaced individuals, aid workers and volunteers. A full methodological note and a reflexive journal are kept by the author as part of this broader research effort, but could not be included within the scope of the current overview paper. 

[10] Having first written about, and attempted an early theorisation of, the politics of exhaustion alongside Leonie Ansems de Vries in the context of the demolition of the Calais ‘Jungle’ camp (Ansems de Vries and Welander 2016), I am basing this article on field research and observations conducted in 2016-2019 as part of my PhD research, hosted at the University of Westminster. The concept ‘Politics of Exhaustion’ has previously featured in the work of Dominic Pettman (2002). His work After the Orgy: Toward a Politics of Exhaustion identifies and examines the dynamic tensions of various apocalyptic discourses, in order to highlight the complex constellation of exhaustion, anticipation, panic, and ecstasy in contemporary culture. This is entirely unrelated to my work and has in no ways inspired or informed my proposed conceptualisation of the politics of exhaustion in the context of human mobility. 

[11] Human Rights Watch, 2017, ‘France inquiry finds police abused migrants in Calais’ (accessed on 22 May 2020); Refugee Rights Europe, 2016, ‘The Long Wait’ (accessed on 22 May 2020); Refugee Rights Europe, 2017, ‘Twelve Months On’ (accessed on 22 May 2020); Refugee Rights Europe, 2018, ‘A Brief Timeline of the Human Rights Situation in the Calais Area’ (accessed on 22 May 2020).

[12] Refugee Rights Europe 2017, 20.

[13] Interview in London in August 2018. 

[14] Interview in London in November 2018.

[15] Interview in London in March 2019.

[16] Loughnan, Claire. 2019. ‘Active Neglect: The New Tool for the “Externalisation” of Refugee Protection’. University of Oxford: Border Criminologies, 16 June 2019.

[17] Davies, Thom; Isakjee, Arhad; and Dhesi, Surindar. 2017. ‘Violent Inaction: The Necropolitical Experience of Refugees in Europe’. Antipode, 49(5), 1-22.

[18] The notion of ‘active neglect’, elaborated by Loughnan (2019) in the context of Australian externalisation provides a useful lens for understanding the withdrawal of care in northern France. ‘Active neglect’ is defined by Loughnan (2019) as the removal of government support services combined with the erosion of hope and wellbeing amongst refugees and asylum seekers through unfulfilled promises and refusals. In a similar vein, Davies et al. (2017) write about the violent consequences of state (in)action (2017:1) in informal makeshift camps in Europe, including the camp in Calais in 2015, and argue that inaction can be used as a means of control.

[19] As of mid-April 2020, the French authorities have taken a number of steps to address the Covid-19 situation in the area, including daily buses taking people to accommodation centres, some provision of water and soap, Covid-19 information sheets, and so on. However, organisations operating on the ground report that the measures are largely inadequate, and individuals continue to return to the informal settlements after having stayed in state accommodation for a couple of nights. 

[20] Amnesty International. 2019. ‘Abuses and impunity continue to worsen along the French-British border despite mounting evidence’ (accessed on 22 May 2020).

[21] See e.g. Lloyd, Bobby; Usiskin, Miriam; Press, Naomi; and, Welander, Marta. 2018. ‘Mental Health in Displacement – A Widespread Yet Largely Overlooked Crisis’. University of Oxford: Border Criminologies, 15 October 2018.

[22] Interview in Calais in December 2018.

[23] Interview in London in August 2018.

[24] Group interview in London in March 2019.

[25] Interview in Calais in August 2018.

[26] Tazzioli, Mariana. 2017. ‘The expulsions of humanitarianism. The hampered channels of asylum in France, lo Squaderno, 44, 29-34. Tazzioli, Mariana. 2020. ‘Governing migrant mobility through mobility: Containment and dispersal at the internal frontiers of Europe’. Politics and Space, 38(1), 3-19. Tazzioli highlights how displaced individuals’ movements are “controlled, disrupted and diverted not (only) through detention and immobility but by generating effects of containment keeping migrants on the move and forcing them to engage in convoluted geography” (Tazzioli 2020, 3).

[27] See also Ansems De Vries, Leonie, and Welander, Marta. 2016. ‘Calais demolition: ‘mission accomplished’, the Politics of Exhaustion and continued struggles for mobility’, Open Democracy, 25 November 2016.

[28] Interview in Calais in December 2018.

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Marta Welander

Marta is the Executive Director for Refugee Rights Europe, where she and her team work tirelessly to secure the human rights of refugees and displaced people in Europe. A passionate advocate for human rights, she has over 10 years of experience working for non-governmental organisations, including the Democratic Progress Institute where she served as Deputy Director prior to founding Refugee Rights Europe in 2016. She is currently a Trustee for Safe Passage International, and Amnesty International has recognised Marta with two award nominations: the 2020 Brave Award and the 2018 Suffragette Award. Marta has written about asylum and migration, human rights, and humanitarian efforts for multiple online publications and is a visiting lecturer at the University of Westminster, where she is currently earning her doctorate degree. She holds a MA in Democratic Governance, a MA in International Relations, and a BA in International Relations and Arabic.  

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