Cartography of migration flows

On: April 27, 2010
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About Radmila Radojevic
I am a communications professional from Montreal, Canada. Much of my experience is in the cultural sector and community-driven initiatives. I worked and volunteered for various community and art groups in Montreal (CKUT, university and community radio station, Studio XX, a feminist digital arts organization, Maid in Cyberspace, an annual arts festival organized by Studio XX, Eyesteelfilm, a social documentary film company etc.) Currently doing my MA at UvA. My main interests are in data visualization and locative media.


It has been acknowledged today that geography and cartography are not neutral or objective scientific practices but are ultimately about relationship between power, space and place. Yet, it was only at the end of 80s /early 90s, with development of critical cartography, that traditional definition of maps as scientific artifacts was challenged. It was argued at the time that maps construct knowledge and therefore need to be analyzed in their socio-historical context; they are social documents. Maps are also recognized as a weapon that may be used for both – exercising power and/or resisting it and promoting a social change.

According to Jeremy Crampton, critical mapping which highlights the politics of mapping is one of the current cartography trends. Especially in migration cartography, it has become a tool of counter-knowledge, “a polemical weapon”, in an effort to influence political debates and migration policies (Walter 2007).

To further examine this claim, I will point to an article by William Walters, ‘The contested Cartography of Illegal Immigration’. Walters analyzes in which ways cultural practices and in particular mapping and cartography contribute to the making of (he borrows Ferguson’s concept) “anti-politics machine” [1]. Then he shows us the mapping practice which can contest it.

According to Ferguson, the two aspects of anti-politics machine are 1) expansion of bureaucratic power of the state as the effect of institutionalization and 2) depolitization of both poverty and the state. For instance, expressing social issues such as migration or refugee in statistics terms alienates it from political realm and turns it into something ‘quasi-natural’ “(“like annual rainfall”). In this way, these issues are framed as security issues. They become ‘technical matters’, rather than deeply political or economic concerns.

Walters points to a particular type of migration mapping which adds to this depolitization effort “at the level of every day graphics, images and inscriptions”. Visualizing migration (or making migration visible) is here devoid of any political and economical context which renders economic transformation (deeply affecting migration flows) invisible. This type of mapping practice he calls a phenomenon of anti-political economy. Such map is ‘Breaking Point’.

Breaking Point’ was published in New York’s “Times’ special issue on Immigration, on the 20th of September 2004. The main topic of this issue revolved around alarming ‘permeability’ of U.S. borders (in particular between U.S. and Mexico), despite the state’s massive investment in border securitization. One of the articles was accompanied with the map to help visualize this crisis.

Breaking Point

A striking characteristic of ‘Breaking Point’ is the choice of geo-representation of the border, as a relief landscape which helps framing the border space as passive and inert (natural = indifferent = neutral). Yet, there is no such a thing as ‘objective, scientific’ space. Space is never passive, never inert, as Lefebvre argued, but always produced by human’s socio-political relations, therefore a constructed space. Especially very tense, militarized space of the U.S.–Mexico border.

On top of this ‘neutral’ map space, there are supplementary layers of information (information boxes located on the upper side of the border only). Two of them are of human interest type – informing us about the violation of illegal migrant movement from the South to the North on the surrounding (U.S.) communities (the local hospital is closing as expenses increase from caring for illegal immigrants, the cattle is lost to the broken fence troubling landowners). Bellow the map – supporting statistics of the alerting immigration flow, bar charts and graphs. The map quite bluntly lacks any political and economic context, any complexity. It has no information/statistics relevant to the ‘other’, such as deaths occurring at the border. This selectivity reveals the map for what it is – a social document, a particular way of looking at the world/issue, a cultural artifact.

Walters, however, offers an alternative mapping practice:

‘Cartografía Crítica del Estrecho de Gibraltar’ (Critical Cartography of the Strait of Gibraltar) is very much different kind of cartographic practice. It was a critical mapping exercise that provided an alternative view of migration at Gibraltar’s border. Gibraltar’s border is known by the locals as ‘Estrecho’ (‘the narrows’), but also as ‘Entrance to the Fortress Europe’ due to the shortest distance from Africa and Europe. It has become one of the most controlled borders in the world after Spain joined the Shengen agreement. Besides being severely militarized, the border is augmented with technological surveillance, S.I.V.E. – the Surveillance System of the Straits, and has been increasingly ‘populated’ with detention centers. The flow of migrants is constant and persistent. Small boats and rafts crowded with African residents from multiple countries arrive almost daily. However, the winds and currents around Gibraltar are strong and unpredictable, and many people die of starvation or drowning while attempting to cross the strait.

The project took place in June, 2004 and was a collaboration of ‘Hackitectura’, (an artivist collective “a posse of architects, hackers and social activists experimenting in the emerging territories of recombining spatial cyborgs composed by physical space, ICT networks and bodies”), Indymedia Estrecho (network of Independent Media Centers) and diverse groups of other participants (artists, activists, filmmakers, net-artist and whoever else ‘pluged in’).

Project´s codename was Fada’íat (which is a word game — it means both “through spaces”, as well as a satellite dish and a space ship, in Arabic language). After months of preparation, the ‘no border lab’ was set up in the medieval castle in Tarifa, and was located in front of the detainee migrant camp. The infrastructure was set up (“the tools for counter-hegemonic action”) to interrupt the regulated border ‘flow’ by establishing the Wi-Fi connection between Tarifa’s castle (Spain) and Tangiers (Morocco) through connecting to a satellite dish with the ‘two somewhat special antennas’ ( The lab ‘circumvented’ a physical divide virtually connecting people on both sides of the border and simultaneously enabling a global activist network. Significantly, this was an unprecedented event in the area.

It was a tactical performance, a gesture of deteritorialization. The space of border was configured as heterogeneous and turbulent (“a temporary battlefield”), contesting the usual representation of a controlled, contained, secured and neutralized border. ‘Hackitectura’ described the project as “an attempt to deprogram the system of automatism in our experience of geography… the flux of aggregated data has generated a geographic algorithm… a multiplicity of counter hegemonic flows, of bodies and data.” (

As an outcome of the project, a 2-side bilingual map was printed (also digitally distributed over the net). The two sides visualized different aspects of the border: Side A mapped the immigration phenomenon in its complexity (by showing militarization, migration, communication, social movements around the border).

Side A

Side B mapped the network of social movements connecting both sides of the border, sort of circumventing it (by showing their collaborative projects since 2002, and tentative projects for 2005).

Side B

The subversive intent of the map is obvious at a glance –the base map has flipped the Euro-centric point of view and the North Africa is above Europe. The map is ‘rhizomatic’, more of an assemblage, reflecting on the multiplicity of issues around migration. This in particular makes it very powerful, as it renders the geo-political border space into a space of tension, conflict and in a state of permanent transformation.

As part of the Visualizar’08 Database City activities, Medialab-Prado (a program of the Department of Arts of the City Council of Madrid) has invited collaborators of the Gibraltar project to experiment with further developments, expending it into more complex visualization project. The idea is to upgrade it by using the benefits technology offers to make it more participatory, updatable, and ‘live’.

With the rise of digital technology, new mapping tools have emerged opening interesting possibilities for advocacy in promotion of human rights issues and/or engaging communities in the local concerns. The advantages of interactivity such as zooming in and out, real time updates, and information layering have been changing the ways we think about, produce and use maps. New ways of map production and distribution facilitated by technology enables public and citizen engagement in mapping practices. “Cartography is being undisciplined”, writes Jeremy Crampton, “freed from the confines of academic and opened up to the people”. FOSS (Free and Open Source Software, associated with the development of Unix operating system) has been creating a ‘paradigm shift’ in cartography providing the access (for those that have it, which is spatially uneven) to inexpensive mapping tools (Crampton, 2009).

Map hacking, map mash-ups, ‘crowdsourcing’ are some forms of emergent open-source geo-web.They could clearly benefit the project, making into a more effective activist tool. The project is currently in development and here is its Wiki page. The goal is stated shortly: “Representing the Strait of Gibraltar as a geopolitical territory traversed by multiple flows of conflict and struggle and making this representation in real-time so that it can be a useful tool for social movements.”

The reality of contemporary migration mapping has faced the challenge of needing to visualize much more complex flows, as there is no way to isolate dominant fluxes of migration of stable points of arrival and departure as it was at the time of Westphalian states. The migration movement has become unpredictable and random which could be better reflected in interactive rather than static mapping of migratory fluxes.

[1] In his book “The Anti-Politics machine’, Ferguson uses this concept to deconstruct the ways in which ‘development’ works in Africa. By creating an imaginary object, of a ‘less developed country,’ ‘development’ justifies itself, despite its failure to resolve its stated aims, such as decreasing poverty

Crampton, Jeremy. [2008] “Cartography: Maps 2.0.” Progress in Human Geography, 33(6)

Mezzadra, Sandro. [2008] “Between Center and Periphery: The Labyrinth of Contemporary Migrations”
available online:

Walters, William. [2010] “‘Anti-Political Economy: Cartographies of “Illegal Immigration” and the Displacement of the Economy’, in J. Best and M. Paterson (eds) Cultural Political Economy, London: Routledge, 113-138.

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