Empirical Socio-Legal Research on the EU’s Externalisation of Asylum: Amalgamating Texts and Refugee Artworks?

Berfin Nur Osso

Doctoral candidate at the University of Helsinki, Faculty of Law. LL.B. and Minor degree in International Relations (Koç University, Istanbul), MSocSc in International Relations and Political Science (Tampere University, Finland)

Socio-Legal Research on Externalisation?

Refugees (including asylum seekers) often encounter barriers that prevent or restrict their movement before, whilst, or after reaching EU territory. One of the most contemporary specimens embodying manifold forms of borders in the EU context, the EU-Turkey Statement of 18 March 2016, ensued in reaction to the 2015 migration phenomenon. This Statement exacerbated a growing trend in the EU since the establishment of a common asylum system in the 1990s: externalisation of migration management. With externalisation, the EU attempts contain refugees in the spaces of exclusion at its external borders (e.g., Greek hotspots) and ultimately in refugees’ home countries or in third countries (such as Turkey). This materializes with the expulsion of ‘undesired’ refugees from EU territory and its asylum system towards these countries. Externalisation thereby also suppresses refugees’ voices in claiming asylum and enjoying human rights in destination states. Thus, it manages refugees’ ‘access to right to have rights’, namely their access to state territory, asylum (including procedures), and the spaces within which they can enjoy their human rights.

In this contribution, I reflect on the methodology of my doctoral research project that explores the interplay between externalisation and refugee struggles in regaining their ‘right to have rights’ despite externalisation. The interplay I ponder in my project enables to expose the perspectives of both states and refugees as part of the mutually-constitutive externalisation process. To make sense of externalisation, we need to understand how externalisation laws are produced and used in reaction to refugee mobility, and how refugees challenge externalisation laws and practices with their political agency. This demonstrates externalisation as a constantly evolving process within which borders continuously rejuvenate and challenge refugee struggles.

The proliferation of externalisation since the early 1990s in the EU has proliferated scientific research on its impact on refugees and their rights. Externalisation in the Greek-Turkish external border has received considerable attention, notably since the launch of the EU-Turkey Statement. The academic background of these researchers varies within law and other social sciences. Nevertheless, shortcomings exist in legal research that concurrently conducts legal analysis, draws on the methods beyond ‘traditional’ legal approaches, and engages in theoretical and philosophical discussions. Much of the currently available research that focuses on externalisation perceives refugees as the nemeses or the victims of externalisation laws and practices. Conversely, a growing body of research in critical (border) studies investigates externalisation also from the perspective of refugees and focuses on harkening refugees’ voices (see e.g., Fiske, 2016; Thomaz, 2018; Üstübici, 2018; Catalani, 2019; Martiniello, 2022). Hence, there is an urgent need in legal research to address the link between externalisation and refugee struggles by bridging the distinction between the law in the books and the law in its social and political context. While the doctrinal approach falls short of explaining this phenomenon with its own ‘methods’, a theoretically informed and empirically oriented multidisciplinary approach is essential. In this sense, socio-legal studies provides ample grounds for conducting theoretical and empirical research on externalisation.

Amalgamating Texts and Refugee Artworks within Empirical Socio-Legal Research

Addressing the shortcomings in legal research on externalisation, my doctoral project merges a sophisticated theoretical framework with empirical data using qualitative approaches. I engage in empirical analyses drawing on textual and (visual) ethnographic data in the context of the Greek hotspots and Turkey as part of EU’s southern external border. I interpret the research data by developing a theoretical and conceptual framework that combines perspectives from legal theory and critical border studies (e.g., Arendt, 1973, 1998; De Genova, 2017; Huysmans et al., 2006).

The project encompasses three main methodological components: (1) a qualitative content analysis (QCA) of legal documentation; (2) a QCA of non-legal documents; and (3) a visual ethnography and QCA of refugee artworks. First, I aim to unveil how certain concepts, principles, and rules (such as the safe third country concept) are produced in EU law for externalising asylum, and how they are used in practice. In this sense, I analyse the content of legal documentation (legal norms and rules) and non-legal documentation (e.g., policy documents, reports of relevant government agencies, international organizations, and NGOs) through qualitative content analysis. I expose how externalisation laws and their implementation produce certain categories of individuals to manage their access to EU territory, asylum, and rights within designated spaces (such as the Greek hotspots and Turkey).

Second, I seek to reveal how the implementation of these concepts, principles, and rules is perceived and experienced by refugees. I dwell on visual ethnography as a method for collecting first-hand data from the field. In this sense, I analyse the paintings created by the refugees hosted by the Hope Project Greece in the island of Lesvos. To make sense of refugees’ experiences of borders, I attend to the patterns that reflect in the refugees’ artworks their struggles to subvert borders buttressed by externalisation. Utilizing the data I obtain from legal and non-legal documents and refugee artworks, I engage in theoretical reflections on the interplay between externalisation and refugees’ self-emancipatory struggles through political agency. I write up the research findings into four peer-reviewed articles.


Externalisation scholarship is vast, and this phenomenon is largely investigated. What is underinvestigated, particularly in legal studies, is the juxtaposition of the perspectives of states and refugees. The overarching aim of this research project is shedding light on how externalisation in the EU context produces border regimes as the zones of contestation between EU and Member States and refugees. This contestation transpires between the attempts of EU and Member States to control and manage refugee mobility and refugees’ struggles to overcome such attempts. Through investigating the paintings created by artmaking refugees in the Greek Lesvos Island alongside textual data, the research enables bridging the gap between creative imagination and the law. The enriched insights provided with the amalgamation of the analyses of legal and non-legal texts and refugee artworks help us understand the blind spots of EU asylum law and its externalisation. In this sense, socio-legal research elucidates externalisation in its social and political context.

Image by, and with consent of, Nazgol Golmuradi, Hope Project Greece