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Maartje van der Woude studies open borders

Sending migrants back. Open borders. These are the kinds of words that are used, but what does the situation really look like at these borders? Professor of Law and Society Maartje van der Woude, an expert in crimmigration, is researching precisely this.

The inside  of the door to Maartje van der Woude’s office is divided into large sections, each marked with a year, and in each square there are dozens of coloured post-its covered with notes. A colourful plan with a firm deadline: it all has to be finished in 2021. 'Will it be finished?' 'Most definitely!' 

Open borders

Maartje van der Woude has a further four years for her research on the border areas in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Poland, France and Spain. The borders between these Schengen countries are open, but that does not mean that everyone can pass through them unchecked. What measures are taken in these areas, how are they implemented and what do the local inhabitant think about it?

Van der Woude was awarded a VIDI subsidy of 800,000 euros from the The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) to carry out the research. Three PhD candidates are now off travelling to seek out the answers to some of the research questions, and Van der Woude herself is working on two major surveys in Leiden: one for organisations that are involved in controlling the borders and one among residents of the border areas where the research is focused. 


Van der Woude is a specialist in crimmigration, the combination of migration law and criminal law. ‘Crimmigration law’ is a major field in the US and it was introduced into the Netherlands in 2010 by Joanne van der Leun, dean of Leiden's Faculty of Law. Since then, the two professors have been committed to making the subject more known. There is now a magazine - Crimmigration and the Law - and Van der Woude regularly teaches classes to courts, rehabilitation agencies and the police. 

The term stands for a development to which she is opposed, because security and 'foreign people' should not be lumped together. Still, she sees just that happening at three different levels. 


In the first place it is apparent in legislation and regulations, where, for example, criminal migration occurs when illegal residence is made punishable - something that is also regularly advocated in Dutch politics. Then, the infringement of an administrative provision (migration or aliens law is a form of administrative law) has criminal consequences, and migration law becomes criminalised. This is the case if criminal offences lead to the expulsion of a person.

In terms of practical implementation, the second level, Van der Woude sees that the role of law enforcement agencies is changing. In addition to being enforcers of criminal law, they are also supervisors of migration law, but: 'When and why do they choose which approach?' This is a question she also asked the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee (KMar) as part of an earlier study. Originally, it was this body's task to prevent illegal migration in border areas; later, KMar's responsibilities were broadened further to include dealing with identity fraud and human trafficking. Today, fighting crime is another important task. This is a shift from 'monitoring foreign people' to 'guaranteeing security', where security and 'foreign' are treated as two sides of the same coin. 


And finally, in the public and political debate foreign people and (threats to) security are continually being related to one another. 'It's mainly about risks to individual and national security. The media reported around six months ago, for example, that the IS terror group is using the refugee crisis to get terrorist fighters into Europe. But there was - and still is - little no evidence of this.' 

Something that Van der Woude particularly notices is 'how many half-truths and myths there are doing the rounds, and how poorly informed people are.' Scientists really do need to be socially engaged, she believes. 'Scientists have to learn to listen properly to people who have opposing views, and take feelings of fear and insecurity seriously. Using empathetic but critical reflection, and with facts, figures and insights from research we have to sketch a more realistic image of the current state of affairs. Not only of the actual extent of "the danger" of, for example, mobility, migration or terrorism, but also the real influence that the law can have in removing this danger.'

Overshooting the mark

Measures and authorities can at times overshoot the mark, and cause the very kinds of developments they are trying to prevent: 'Just take for instance the broadening of the possibilities for asking people to show their ID, and increasing possibilities for carrying out searches as a preventive measure. If such powers are applied disproportionately to particular population groups without there being any concrete suspicion - think in particular of Moroccans and non-Western migrants - they can have a stigmatising and polarising effect, which can in turn lead to radicalisation. With this approach, tackling terrorism could, in the worst case scenario, actually lead to terrorism.'

This article appeared earlier in Leidraad, Leiden University's free alumni magazine. Text: Malou van Hintum. Photography: Marc de Haan.

Heineken Young Scientist Award

Van der Woude recently heard that she is one of the four young scientists to be awarded a Heineken Young Scientists Award by KNAW. Van der Woude is  receiving the award in the field of Humanities for her research on the exchanges between the law and the public debate on such themes as terrorism, migration and cross-border criminality. 

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