Control and migration – from states to individuals and groups

Lukuaika: 4 min.

Kirjoittaja: Saija Niemi

The topic of control and migration has long been discussed from the angle of migration management. The perspective of nation-states and international alliances controlling their geographical areas and borders against migrants of different statuses is prevalent. However, there is also another way to understand control and migration. The Theory of Control Tuning shows how control occurs in migration from the viewpoint of individuals and groups.

The Theory of Control Tuning is mainly based on qualitative data on South Sudanese migration I collected in Finland, Egypt, Uganda and Sudan. The fieldwork was implemented in internal displacement camps, refugee settlements, villages, cities, border towns, authority offices and migration actors’ homes. The Theory of Control Tuning presents the common main concern – the processing of control – of different migration actors, such as migrants of different statuses, local residents and authorities linked to migration.

This common concern occurs regardless of what kind of migration is in question, for instance, internal or international, rural or urban, asylum seeking or employment-induced migration. The processing of control appears both while on the move and while staying put, and it is carried out in connection to migration-related activities like coping in place, encountering authority, linking with others and dealing with knowledge.

Migration actors process control by control tuning. Control tuning explains how migration actors modify control for different purposes in relation to managing events, situations, feelings, objects and people during and in relation to migration. There are particular control-tuning paths where control tuning takes place. These control-tuning paths contain various control-tuning causes, strategies and outcomes as well as intervening factors and conditions.

Reasons and actions related to the processing of control

When a migration actor is not satisfied how she or someone important to her faces control due to behaviour of others, or how she or someone important to her is able to implement control, there is a negative condition and a need to adopt a control-tuning strategy or strategies to transform the control situation. For example, in conflict situations there is often a need to manage ad hoc and transit to internal displacement or refugee camps. Authorities open a camp in order to provide safety and shelter for those fleeing from a conflict.

However, when the conflict reaches the camp due to, for instance, rebels moving closer, authorities and internally displaced persons/refugees need to choose a strategy or strategies to control their possibility to manage the camp and to stay there. Authorities and internally displaced persons/refugees may need to prevent the control of rebels on their own well-being, thus as a strategy they prevent control of rebels by fleeing from the camp.

When authorities face a need to accept forced control of rebels, they are often compelled to surrender the camp to rebels and hand in control to them. Whereas rebels who want to manage people with fear and insecurity, have a need to show who is in control. When rebels reach the camp, they take advantage of increased control by the strategy of forcing control on those who were not able to leave the camp in time.

Results of control tuning

These control-tuning strategies adopted for particular causes lead to control-tuning outcomes that can be satisfactory, dissatisfactory or a combination of the two for migration actors. When a migration actor is not satisfied with a control-tuning outcome resulting from the strategy or strategies she has used, she may adopt the same or other strategy or strategies to change the prevailing control situation. Only when a migration actor is satisfied with the control situation, she experiences a positive condition and there is no need to further seek a change to the control situation.

Through their control-tuning strategies, those fleeing the camp due to rebels taking over, experience a control-tuning outcome of increased control if they were successful in escaping. However, if they were not able to escape, authorities, internally displaced persons or refugees may face non-existent control in the hands of rebels whose control-tuning outcome is forced control or possessed control.

When authorities and internally displaced persons or refugees who managed to flee return to the camp after the rebels leave, they may experience regained control. On the other hand, if authorities open a new camp elsewhere which again will be occupied by rebels, the control-tuning outcome may be lost and fluctuating control for authorities and those staying in the camp as they again need to flee.

Factors affecting control-tuning paths

Even if a migration actor aims at a particular control-tuning outcome, there are various intervening factors that affect control-tuning paths. These can be basic factors such as age, ethnicity or appearance; they can be varying factors such as health, presence of networks or cultural similarities/differences; or they can be control supportive instruments such as different kinds of means and abilities. Many control-tuning paths exist simultaneously so even if one control-tuning path ends, others are often still pursued and new ones begin.

In the example of migration actors surrendering or occupying an internal displacement or a refugee camp, intervening factors that affect which control-tuning strategies are adopted and what are the control-tuning outcomes can be such as the number of authorities and rebels present, gravity of security threat and possibility to use transportation for fleeing.

Understanding the need for processing control

To recognise the need of migration actors to process control can help researchers and practitioners to understand important aspects of behaviour of individuals and groups involved in migration. This can assist in developing, for instance, services and psychological support as well as contribute to a more peaceful co-existence of different migration actors by tackling challenges of co-operation.


Niemi, S., 2018. Theory of Control Tuning: the Processing of Control in Migration-related Place Coping. Department of Geosciences and Geography A 66. Painosalama Oy, Turku.