Performing freedom in the Dutch deportation regime

Laura Cleton, Sébastien Chauvin (2020)

Performing freedom in the Dutch deportation regime: bureaucratic persuasion and the enforcement of ‘voluntary return’

Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 24(1), 2020, p. 297-313.

How do states relate to undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers once they have been formally rejected? A growing amount of research has been devoted to the role of government and NGO workers in executing soft-deportation policy through ‘voluntary return’ programmes. Many of these studies convincingly argue that voluntary return most often is anything but voluntary. However, less effort has been spent answering the question of why, then, departure is still constructed as voluntary and how this construction is realised in practice. This paper explores the work of street-level bureaucrats in charge of expelling unauthorised immigrants from the Netherlands in case expulsion cannot stem from the law alone and deportation workers deploy extra-legal strategies to carry out exclusionary policy goals. In these cases, we show that, in addition to building trust relationships with migrants, government and NGO workers ostensibly emphasise their clients’ self-determination and agency. By examining the performative construction of ‘voluntariness’ in highly asymmetrical interview rituals, this article brings attention to an under-theorised condition of the conduct of conduct in the era of governmentality: if modern bureaucratic power, however punitive, must govern primarily by addressing the freedom of free agents, then it must ensure the interpretation of conduct as voluntary.