In February 2018 Professor Nick Gill was invited to give a seminar at the University of Swansea on the topic of ‘Spatializing Immigration Law: Access, Presence, Justice’.
Law tends to be space-blind, meaning that it often does not account for the importance of space, place and time to the experience of legal processes and ability to exercise rights. This is perhaps most obvious in relation to the notion of universal human rights, which gesture towards a refusal of the complexities, contingencies and constraints that space introduces to everyday life via the claim of omnipresence. The sub-discipline of legal geography has gone some way towards highlighting this, but there remain important conceptual impediments to maximising the critique that geography can and should be able to mount against the space-blindness of law. This paper begins by setting out these impediments and goes on to explore a set of resources with which to renew attention to the issues of ‘access to’, and ‘exclusion from’ legal justice, drawing in particular on work in sociology by John Urry, among others. This work resists the opposition of absence and presence and distinguishes various different types of presence, which, I argue, is a promising way to critique and engage with the law critically from a geographical perspective. Employing evidence from extensive empirical work with asylum seekers claiming refugee status in the UK, US and continental Europe, the paper shows that refugees are frequently both present and absent during important parts of the legal proceedings that they experience. The law’s over-emphasis on bodily or textual presence, however, often conceals these complexities. By highlighting this effect, the paper demonstrates that thinking about the relationship between law, space and refugee migration in terms of multiple forms of absence and presence is an important way to reveal how exclusions from legal justice arise. More broadly, the paper argues that recognising the multiplicity of presence is a promising way to spatialize immigration law.