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Strategic Non-Regulation as Migration Governance

by Katharina Natter, Kelsey Norman, Nora Stel

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Submission summary

Authors (as registered SciPost users): Kelsey Norman
Submission information
Preprint Link: scipost_202302_00041v1  (pdf)
Date submitted: 2023-02-27 13:50
Submitted by: Norman, Kelsey
Submitted to: Migration Politics
Ontological classification
Academic field: Political Science
  • Migration Politics
Approach: Theoretical


Over the last decade, critical migration scholarship has been increasingly concerned with how state actors deploy forms of inaction and ambivalent action to govern migrants. Political scientists, IR scholars, geographers, legal scholars, sociologists and anthropologists have mobilized and developed concepts to capture such strategic non-regulation, ranging from notions of standoffishness, ignorance, indifference, ambiguity, adhocracy, and informality in political science and sociology, to necropolitics, ignorance, opacity, obfuscation, non-recording and liminality in anthropology and political geography. Scholars thus seem to agree that the strategic use of non-regulation by state actors is a significant aspect of migration governance. Yet, conceptual and methodological advances remain fragmented and scattered across geographical regions and disciplines. This paper argues that much can be gained by putting the different conceptual and methodological innovations on strategic non-regulation into dialogue. First, consolidating insights from different bodies of scholarly work moves analyses of strategic non-regulation from the fringes of migration scholarship to its center and demonstrates that strategic non-regulation is a core feature of migration governance. Second, bringing these different works together enables us to synthesize the variety of methodological strategies that scholars have devised to empirically locate the elusive phenomenon of strategic non-regulation. Overcoming disciplinary and geographical divides in the study of strategic non-regulation will also be key to advance broader social science debates on the political functionality of policy failure and on the interplay between state capacity and political will - in migration governance but also beyond.

Current status:
Has been resubmitted

Reports on this Submission

Anonymous Report 2 on 2023-9-5 (Invited Report)

  • Cite as: Anonymous, Report on arXiv:scipost_202302_00041v1, delivered 2023-09-05, doi: 10.21468/SciPost.Report.7765


1. This article builds on a growing recognition that, ‘Scholars thus seem to agree that the strategic use of non-regulation by state actors is a significant aspect of migration governance.’ This article goes further, suggesting that non-regulation is a core feature of migration governance. Beyond this the article serves as a useful primer on a broader set of literature on non-reguilation from multiple disciplinary fields.

2. Valuable in helping to reduce the state-centrism and legalism in migration scholarship.

3. A generous engagement with a growing body of literature that has yet to adequately coalesce.

4. A potentially useful teaching tool.


1. The conclusions are valuable but only hinted at early on. As such, the article comes across much more like a literature review than it needs to. The contributions are primarily synthetic and based on others’ work, but there is sufficient analytical content and originality to make more of this from the jump.

2. The introduction to the author’s scholarship is valuable in recognising their positionality and background. However, it now reads as somewhat decadent and perhaps a bit self-promotional. In a longer, book length piece this might be warranted but I found it somewhat distracting from the article’s central themes. Given that much of the author’s research (usefully) appears in the reviews, it also feels somewhat redundant.

3. My only substantive concern is that the authors are still remarkably state centric in their approach. They do well in conceptualising ‘governance’ as something done beyond states, but most of their discussion concentrates on the actions (or inactions) of national authorities and national level policy making (or lack thereof). There’s little about the private sector or national trade organisations and even less about local authorities who are (as we are increasingly being told) critical actors in the ‘localisation’ of migration governance. This includes policing, integration, housing, labour markets, etc. However, the words city, urban or municipal do not appear once in the piece. There is some discussion of local authorities, but largely in passing.


This article seems like an invaluable resource that is truly in line with the journal's ambitions. With some relatively minor changes, I feel that it will be ready for publication.

Requested changes

1. Emphasise the analytical payoff and conclusions earlier and more robustly.

2. Revise the author introductions so as to better facilitate the narrative flow.

3. Speak more robustly about non-state and non-national actors' position in 'non-regulation'.

  • validity: high
  • significance: high
  • originality: high
  • clarity: good
  • formatting: excellent
  • grammar: excellent

Report 1 by Barak Kalir on 2023-5-20 (Invited Report)

  • Cite as: Barak Kalir, Report on arXiv:scipost_202302_00041v1, delivered 2023-05-20, doi: 10.21468/SciPost.Report.7219


I very much appreciate the attempt to offer a new umbrella term to capture the immense variety of strategic non-regulation (SNR) out there in the field of ‘migration management’ or mobility governance. This is a useful contribution for all the reasons mentioned in the article; and not least, because it will hopefully instigate a conversation and synergy between scholars and scholarship that, at the moment, might not recognize SNR as a common thread in their analysis.

The article is written in a fluent fashion and makes for a very engaging read. This is remarkable given the level of analytical complexity and the fact that it’s co-authored by three scholars. The balance that the paper strikes between working towards a high level of abstraction and staying close to empirical evidence is commendable.

I strongly recommend publishing the paper after the authors consider and attend to the following points (in no particular order):

- Not sure why showing that SNR is happening both in the Global North and the Global South helps ‘to dismantle the epistemic divide’. The ways in which we learn about the existence and operationalization of SNR in all these places is quite similar. How does it relate to epistemology? I see it more as an attempt to ‘de-exoticize’ the Global South or to indicate some entrenched (universal?) bureaucratic tendencies.

- On p. 10 you use the example of Colombian migrants (mostly refugees) in Ecuador to show how not all cases of non-regulation fall under SNR as an umbrella term. I read this as being slightly contradictory to the spirit of your suggested term. From my understanding, the term SNR captures a form of governance. That form can work in all directions; obviously, as you emphatically show, mostly favoring state actors, but possibly it can of course also be used by other actors and for different, even opposing, ends. In fact, this is precisely what you demonstrate with respect to the second binary in the conclusion.

- You might want to consider saying something about your positionality in conducting research on mobility in the MENA region as white, female, western, university educated scholars. What has your specific positionality led you to see? What might have it obscured? How did it condition your interlocutors to respond to your presence/questions/research aims in certain ways?

- You might want to consider that much of how bureaucracies work everywhere is the result of muddling through. Especially in the migration field, many policies are the outcome of a patchwork in which no one minister/ministry or even government can be seen as being the sole driver behind it. How should we think about SNR in view of the fact that policymaking is so often the end result of an accumulated pile of regulations, directives, amendments, etc. without a clear and coherent planning behind them. see for example: ‘The Deportation Mess: A Bureaucratic Muddling of State Fantasies’ (

- Given that you are committed to show the full complexity and un/intended consequences of SNR, the reader is left a bit in a doubt whether – normatively speaking – your paper should call on us to preserve or do away with SNR (whenever we reveal its existence). Obviously, there is not a clear yes/no answer to this question (as the paper shows), but maybe you want to qualify your conclusion more clearly in this respect. Is our task as researchers to call out SNR irrespectively of the ways it’s put into work? Or should we also accompany it always with our normative judgement? Thinking here in the most pragmatic way, and playing the devil’s advocaat, are we not running a risk of playing into the hands of policymakers if we simply document and explicate the working of SNR? State actors can then finetune their ways of working around/with SNR to become even more aware of it and thus use it in even more efficiently repressive manners.

  • validity: -
  • significance: -
  • originality: -
  • clarity: -
  • formatting: -
  • grammar: -

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