By Ray Acheson
Writing about the 1918 influenza pandemic, historian Esyllt W. Jones notes that “an epidemic represents a moment of marginality between life and death, between chaos and order; it is a border region where the meaning and membership in the community is imagined and re-imagined.”
This feeling of being between life and death, between chaos and order, has dominated in recent months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It can be especially felt, perhaps, in the United States, where police brutality, structural racism, the violence of neoliberal capitalism, and the material realities of militarism are coalescing on the streets of US cities, giving rise to and simultaneously repressing protests for racial justice, for freedom and dignity, for life itself. The questions about meaning and membership in the community, particularly for Black lives, are starkly present in every move and every breathe.
In this “moment of marginality” described by Jones, we are meant to feel marginalised, yet we are the majority. In this moment of what can feel like chaos, the structures of coercive state violence want to restore “order” — but what order? An order that controls and presses those who seek justice; that suffocates and shoots Black people with impunity; an order that has the one per cent looting the wealth and well-being from the rest of us. An order that reinforces the borders that are designed and deployed to keep the majority marginalised.
The pandemic of borders
If the pandemic itself is a border, as Jones suggests, what can it show us about the borders we have drawn in our world? Does the border between life and death of the pandemic match, for example, the borders we have constructed around our countries; or the borders within our communities, borders based on race, class, sex, gender, sexuality, ability? What can the border of the pandemic teach us about the violence of our borders? The pandemic creates dispossession — of our lives, our communities and families, our livelihoods. It displaces people through economic hardship, physical separation, social isolation. Physically, the virus makes it difficult for people to breathe; metaphorically, it does the same to many — people feel cut off, suffocated, confined, marginalised through social distancing and economic hardship.
The borders between people within our countries also make it hard to breathe. “I can’t breathe” were the last words of many Black people killed by police in the United States, including most recently George Floyd. The divisions deliberately constructed through the systems of slavery persist today, upheld by those who benefit from the privileges and power it grants them. These systems also inform and instruct the ways in which the United States — as well as other countries built on white supremacy, the genocide of Indigenous nations, and the enslavement of Black and other people of colour — operate to keep out those deemed “other” in defiance of international law, human rights, and morality.
In this sense, the borders of our supposed “nation-states” make it hard to breathe. They dispossess and displace. Whether lines on page on maps, or systems of walls and checkpoints, borders separate people physically, socially, politically, economically. They demarcate lines of privilege and oppression. They are mechanisms of extraction, exclusion, and exploitation. They determine fates of countless human beings based on random geographic location — based on where you born, how much money you have, if you can get a passport, if you can get a visa, if you can afford to travel, if you are allowed to travel, if you can find work, if you can get asylum.
These conditions themselves are based on historic and ongoing acts of physical and structural violence, starting with colonialism.
In many of our minds, borders are fixed and clear. We have grown up in a world with borders, with set demarcations between countries, with ideas about the sanctity of national sovereignty, patriotism, and nationalism. But borders are relatively new, especially in the form we think of them now. Europe’s modern-day borders only really began to emerge in the decades after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. And with the demarcation of countries in Europe throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, colonisation of territories abroad massively expanded. Many borders around the world were not established by the people that live within them, but by colonial forces who paid no attention to ethnicity, language, history, or needs of local populations and environments.
In the 19th century, the Europeans got together and carved up the continent of Africa, deciding who could pillage and plunder which population, which lands. The UK government decided the borders of South Asian countries. Some borders, such as that between the United States and Mexico, were set by force, through war against Mexicans and genocide of Indigenous populations. Those establishing settler colonial states, like Australia, Canada, and the United States, paid no heed to the multiplicity of nations already living on the land. The Europeans arriving took what they wanted, established systems of private property, land enclosure, and extraction, and displaced and murdered Indigenous communities along the way.
The economic, political, and cultural privileges that colonialists and imperialists have accrued over the past few hundred years are now protected by borders, which as Reece Jones exposes in Violent Borders, create and exacerbate inequalities and serve to maintain dominance by the wealthy few. As economic inequality between states, and between people within states, has skyrocketed, borders have become essential tools to “protect and secure not individual nations but the international class of wealthy nations,” as Jeff Halper explains in War Against the People. The ratio of Gross Domestic Product between the richest and poorest nations went from 22:1 at the beginning of the twentieth century to 267:1 by the year 2000. In this situation, “the experience of the vast majority of people worldwide becomes one of impoverishment, marginality, exploitation, dislocation, and violence.”
Colonialism has served well the interests of capitalism, enabling imperialist forces to extract and exploit their way to the pursuit of endless accumulation of wealth, privilege, and power. Thus, is it no surprise that the establishment and entrenchment of the concept of borders has been structured to serve the capitalist system. This system allows the free flow of money and corporations between borders while constricting the movement of people, creating the perfect conditions for exploiting workers and the environment with impunity. The effects of this exploitation are felt globally, but they are carried out unevenly across the planet.
Trade agreements between states, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), are part of the system where borders are “open” for capital but closed for people. The method of capitalist accumulation enshrined in these trade agreements ensures the maintenance of low wages and dangerous working conditions in the “global south” and the exploitation and repression of undocumented workers in the “global north”. As Reece Jones documents, various countries have different wages, environmental regulations, taxes, and working conditions. “While corporations are able to operate in many countries in order to take advantage of these differences, workers are usually contained by these borders and regulators are unable to enforce rules outside their jurisdiction. The problem crosses borders, but the solutions are contained by them.”
Or as William Robinson puts it, “Global capitalism exerts a structural violence over whole populations and makes it impossible for them to survive in their homeland.”
Another of capitalism’s violences that makes it impossible for people to survive in their countries of birth is its violence against the environment. Wealthy countries extract fossil fuels and minerals for consumer goods from around the world, despoiling forests, plains, rivers, lakes, oceans — much of it land and water protected by Indigenous nations.
Toxic substances used in mining, oil spills, dams, and other measures of resource extraction contaminate and destroy land and water, putting the environment as well as people and animals in harm’s way. Usually there is no compensation or remediation by the corporations or governments responsible for the harm.
The same countries doing the extracting and exploiting are also disproportionately responsible for the pollution that has led to our current climate crisis, burning carbon at greater rates and being more energy-intensive per capita than the countries that now suffer the most from rising sea-levels, droughts, and increasing disastrous weather events. Millions of people will be driven from their homes by environmental degradation and the climate crisis over the coming decades — many already have been. Yet the countries and corporations that have led us to this crisis hide behind their borders, shirking their responsibility for climate change and for the people displaced by it.
The same dynamics of inequity can be seen in armed conflict, another driver of migration. Many wealthy, industrialised countries produce and sell weapons for profit, weapons that fuel conflicts and violence around the world. In Libya, for example, warring factions are supported by various governments that are supplying weapons despite the arms embargo. The acting UN envoy in Libya warned, “From what we are witnessing in terms of the massive influx of weaponry, equipment and mercenaries to the two sides, the only conclusion that we can draw is that this war will intensify, broaden and deepen.” More than 370,000 people have been displaced by the conflict in recent years. In Yemen, which a coalition led by Saudi Arabia has been bombing since 2015 with weapons supplied by the United States, United Kingdom, and other major arms exporters, over 24 million people are in need of humanitarian aid and more than 3.6 million are displaced.
Meanwhile, a steady stream of US guns have been flooding Mexico and Central America since the early 2000s, contributing to rising paramilitary, gang, and cartel violence, as well as gender-based violence. In Mexico, ten women a day are killed, at least 60 per cent with guns. The United States also trains officials throughout Latin America in violence and oppression. Many of the soldiers and other state personnel that have graduated from the School of the Americas, for example, have trained have gone on to lead genocides against Indigenous and local populations, often with weapons also provided by the United States through military aid packages.
The failure to provide refuge
Thus, the brutal impacts of colonialism, capitalism, climate change, and conflict work in tandem to create vast numbers of people on the move. Right now, around the world, about 70 million people are unroofed and on the run. By 2050, predictions are that number will rise to 250–500 million. Possibly half a billion people will be migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in just thirty years.
This crisis is not, however, migration itself, but the global response to it. The crisis is caused by the militarisation of borders, the incarceration and brutalisation of those seeking refuge, and the denial of fundamental human rights to life and movement.
This “unprecedented crisis of uprootedness,” explains writer John Washington, is caused by people being pushed from their homes by violence, upheaval, hunger, poverty, and then being denied a new home. “When we take those two actors into account — first all the elements that push people out of their homes and then the politics of nativism or cold-heartedness … that denies them a new home, that erects borders around nations and communities and hounds people within those communities, that throws them into detention centres, to modern gulags — combines to create another unprecedented crisis, an amalgamated crisis of global apartheid.”
This denial of refuge, of dignity, of life — that is where the real crisis lies. And it is where the concept of borders becomes most hardened, with a proliferation of walls, weapons, and other violent apparatus to keep people “out” and othered.
The rise of the Migra State
In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, there were 15 border walls around the world. Today, there are more than 70 — and that number is rising. In some situations, borders are marked by electric fences and razor wires, in others tall walls, in others high-tech systems known as “smart walls” that include systems of cameras, drones, sensors, and radar.
As the walls go up, so too does spending on “border reinforcement” — a benign term that accounts for the migrant-repressive state apparatus such as agencies like the US Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), surveillance technologies, networks of checkpoints and patrols, databases, detention centres, and local police. The US government has spent over $324 billion on border and immigration enforcement since 2003 and employs about 50,000 people in various border enforcement and immigration control roles. It’s important to note that while this “border battlescape” and migration detention machine has come under particular public scrutiny under the Trump regime, in particular due to the “Muslim bans,” the separation of children from families, and the growing violences of ICE, this system has been being built for years by various Democratic and Republican administrations.
Meanwhile, the European Union (EU), which has already spent billions on “border security,” plans to spend another $38.4 billion over the next six years. Frontex, the EU’s border and coastguard agency, “is turning into a €10bn super-agency” with a 10,000-person standing corps. It “connects surveillance data from all EU member states, and beyond the external borders.” Just last week, the EU signed a contract for a massive biometric database, while police forces across the EU are looking to establish a facial recognition database network.
Due to these developments, La Migra, Spanish slang for immigration officials, is becoming synonymous with entire countries. Determined to keep out migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers—often in violation of international law — these counties are working together to not just build and enforce walls but to make the entire process of movement more difficult for the majority of people in the world. “Without such an iron fist, there is no other way the yawning gaps of global inequalities can persist,” writes Todd Miller in Empire of Borders. “Wars are no longer about the animosity between nation states, the new long war is rather ‘pacification in the name of enforcing the hegemony of transnational capital’.”
It is in this context that the US government enforces its borders not only along US territorial borders but also throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Asia, as Miller shows. US Border Patrol operates in dozens of countries around the world and equips and trains immigration officials in many others. Geographers Jenna Loyd and Alison Mountz have documented in Boats, Borders, and Bases how the network of the 800 US military bases around the world, both active and decommissioned, have become “material grounds of refugee and migration-control operations.” The colonial bases on these “edges of American empire,” they write, provided the foundation for “building up today’s historically unprecedented detention, deportation, and border apparatus.”
Another failure of “deterrence”
This “global battlescape” of border security is all part the effort of wealthy Western governments to work together make sure that migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers have as difficult time as possible entering their countries or even making it to their shores. Many of the efforts to prevent those seeking a new life abroad from obtaining entry are based on policies of “deterrence”. Make it is hard as possible for anyone to get in, the theory goes, and others won’t even try.
But much like the theory of nuclear deterrence, deterring migration simply does not work. People desperate to survive gang violence or armed conflict or climate change or economic despair will undertake dangerous actions to try to secure a better life — any life — for themselves and their families.
The deterrence policies of the United States — such as shutting down border crossings near urban areas, for example — have driven people to cross instead through the desert, where many die of thirst, hunger, or exposure. The deterrence policies in Europe have driven many to making dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean Sea, at the bottom of which many bodies of refugees now lie. The deterrence policies of Australia have likewise drowned many migrants coming from Southeast Asia and have left the rest in perpetual internment in squalid conditions in “offshore” prisons. Over 75,000 migrants are known to have died since the mid-1990s. Many more have disappeared, or the deaths simply haven’t been recorded.
“As well as forcing migrants to take more perilous routes and put their lives in the hands of smugglers,” notes Charlotte Gifford, “increased security increases the risk of human rights abuses at the borders themselves.” Officials from the United States to Slovenia often don’t allow people to even ask for asylum, in violation of international law. Officials lie on the forms they fill out for applications, don’t ask the right questions or give proper information, including legally mandated information.
Violence against refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants is also extreme. Along the Balkan Route in Europe, for example, it includes violence by border guards, police, private security, and terrible conditions at camps run by the UN International Organization for Migration and funded by the EU. Many of these camps are were people that have tried to make it Western Europe have been “pushed back” — a process by which authorities prevent people from seeking protection on their territory “by forcibly returning them to another country. By pushing back those seeking safety and dignity over a border, states abdicate responsibility for examining their individual cases.”
Pushbacks are in violation of international and EU law, human rights groups explain, “because they undermine people’s right to seek asylum, deny people of the right to due process before a decision to expel them is taken, and may eventually risk sending refugees and others in need of international protection back into danger.” According to the reports collected and collated by the Border Violence Monitoring Network, of 708 documented illegal pushbacks against migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers since 2016, over 90 per cent involved some form of violence by officials. In May 2020, Greek police were found rounding up asylum seekers living in the country and forcibly expelling them to Turkey. Greece has also been using tear gas against migrants at the Turkish-Greek border.
Gender-based violence, particularly sexual violence, is also rampant in border areas. The UN Development Fund for Women reports that at least 60 to 70 per cent of women migrants who cross the border alone experience sexual abuse. “The danger is even greater for migrants from Central American countries, who must pass through two militarized borders — between Guatemala and Mexico and between Mexico and the US,” where “sexual violence often occurs while being robbed, as ‘payment,’ or in exchange for not being apprehended or detained by immigration authorities.”
Trying to prevent migration through deterrence does not change the root causes of migration. It only endangers the lives of endangered people even more and punishes those trying to flee unlivable conditions. The same is true with militarisation of borders.
Militarisation of La Migra
As we have pointed out in many other blogs in this series, the pursuit of capitalist accumulation has required vast investments in militarism: in weapons, soldiers, and wars to protect the wealthy elite interests in extraction and exploitation around the world. The “enforcement of borders” is no exception. The militarisation of border apparatus is about securing investments for resource extraction while “silencing and criminalizing opposition and controlling mobility,” as anthropologist Rebecca Galemba shows in the context of Mexico.
Border militarisation “includes the pervasive influence of military strategies, culture, technologies, hardware,” and the deployment of former military personnel as police, explains Reece Jones. It means that the use of force and preparation for armed conflict are used as the guiding principles for “protecting” and securing the border.
The “homeland security” industry is predicted in the 2020s “to exceed more than $700 billion, doubling its revenue in 10 years,” notes Todd Miller. In Europe, military budgets in several countries including Poland, Romania, Finland, and Sweden are growing, while UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain maintain already high levels of spending on militarism. This spending is not just about national militaries but also border control: as reported in The Guardian, “An integrated border management fund and an internal security fund will make more billions available for national police and border guards, forces that look increasingly militarised.” It is “investing billions in infrastructure and hardware produced by military and hi-tech corporations, including drones and surveillance technology.”
Thales, Airbus, and Leonardo are among the companies benefitting most from “border security” spending. According to a report from the Transnational Institute, “Thales, which produces radar and sensor equipment, is currently developing border surveillance infrastructure for EUROSUR, the European Border Surveillance System. Meanwhile, Italian arms firm Leonardo was awarded a €67.1m ($73.7m) contract in 2017 by the European Maritime Safety Agency to supply drones for EU coastguard agencies.”
Also benefitting from the “border security” boon are Israeli weapons companies. Developed in Israel’s apartheid laboratories of Gaza and the West Bank, the surveillance technologies and related systems are exported to governments around the world. For example, the “Integrated Fixed Tower” being built in Arizona by the Israeli company Elbit Systems is comprised of 55 towers equipped with cameras, heat sensors, motion sensors, radar systems, and a GPS system. This system is not just used to monitor the US-Mexico border: it also used to persistently surveil the Tohono O’odham Nation’s reservation that is roughly one mile from the border. This is not the only example of “border security” tools being used for domestic policing. Drones belonging to the Customs and Border Protection have been used for surveillance against the Standing Rock protests in 2016 and now to crack down against protestors rallying against white supremacy and police brutality.
This is not a coincidence. A Pentagon programme, described in an earlier blog about police brutality, has since the 1990s transferred about $5 billion in military equipment to police forces and Customs and Border Protection. But more than that, the US-Mexico border is “an ideal location to observe how police and military combine into an all-encompassing logic of perpetual war, surveillance, and security,” Jones notes. “The historic distinction between the internal and external roles of the police and military has blurred, and the border is a key site where the emerging security state is visible and where privileges are maintained by restricting movement through violence.”
While there is much more to say about the militarisation of borders, one particular irony is that “the factories that will produce the border fortresses” designed by US and Israeli companies “could end up mainly located in Mexico,” as Miller warns. “Ill-paid Mexican blue-collar workers will manufacture the components of a future surveillance regime … all of which may well help locate, detain, arrest, incarcerate, expel, or even kill those same workers if they try to cross into the United States.”
Detention, violence, and deportation
Integral to the militarisation of borders are efforts to criminalise the people that try to cross them. Thus, an essential part of the “bureaucratic razor wire” of borders is detention. If people survive the deserts, seas, bullets, and beatings, and manage to make it to a country of possible refuge, many are then arrested and incarcerated—sometimes for days, sometimes for years. The conditions in detention centres from Australia to the United States are like concentration camps due to the overwhelming violence, abuse, and degradation.
On any given day, there are about 50,000 asylum seekers and migrants in detention in the United States. Even more are detained across Europe, with the highest numbers currently in France. Australia is currently detaining nearly 10,000 migrants, mostly in “offshore” detention facilities.
“It’s not always clear who learned how to inflict this brutality from whom,” writes John Washington in The Dispossessed, “but the United States, Mexico, Australia, and Greece, among other countries, all consign asylum seekers to prolonged or indefinite detention, solitary confinement, physical abuse, unsanitary conditions, death threats, racist, homophobic, and gender-based hate from guards, and deadly neglect.”
While not a detention centre, the migrant camp in Moria, Greece, hosts nearly 20,000 people in an area about one square mile. In January of 2020, the group Are You Syrious reports, “field researchers counted 90 toilets and 90 showers inside of Moria, and another 30 sanitation units in the adjacent overflow camps. Food rations distributed fall short of caloric needs, compromising the growth and immune systems of its residents. For years, doctors in Moria have struggled to contain a host of environmentally-driven health issues: respiratory illnesses, scabies, lice.” At the camp in Velika Kladuša, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnian police have entered the camp and beaten migrants.
In Australia, the Human Rights Commission has found that the government has actively tried to make its detention centres more like prisons, including constructing walls and using restraints on detainees, and continues to detain people without justification and for far longer than any other country. There have been many instances of violence, deaths, and suicides of detainees in the offshore camps.
In the United States, children are separated from their parents and put in cages without care; people are crammed into confined spaces surrounded by razor-wire, some of which are open air; people have to share foil blankets and tarps; they are denied showers, a change of clothes, diapers, soap, sanitary products, and toothbrushes for weeks at a time.
In all countries, but particularly in the US and Australia, detainees are held for long periods of time before, in most cases, being deported. During this time, as documented by John Washington in relation to asylum seekers in the United States, they are often misinformed about their situation, not given proper legal counsel or interpretation at hearings, and pressured to consent to deportation before ever having their case for asylum even heard.
Profiting from detention
Of course, since this is a capitalist system, many corporations are profiting from all of this violence. In the United States, where the “zero tolerance policy” introduced by the Trump administration in violation of the Refugee Convention has resulted in separation of families, many of the administration’s corporate friends benefited financially. The migrant detention industry in the United States, just like its prison-industrial complex, is mostly privatised. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracts out 70 per cent of its 200 detention facilities, which are spread around the country, to GeoGroup and CoreCivic. When the zero tolerance policy was announced, the stocks of both groups “increased 5.9 percent and 8.3 percent, respectively,” documents John Washington.
Private companies also run detention centres in Australia (where the government tried to conceal the identities of its contractors), the United Kingdom, and Italy. Other countries vary: the Netherlands and Sweden operate their own facilities; in Germany they are managed by regional governments that contract some services to private companies; in France the regional and local authorities operate the centres but contract NGOs to provide services.
In relation to the deal the EU made with Libya, several former and current officials of the International Organization for Migration and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees have accused these agencies of “of ignoring or downplaying systemic abuse and exploitation in migrant detention centres in order to safeguard tens of millions of dollars of funding from the EU.” In turn, they argue, the EU uses the UN agencies “to sanitize a brutal system of abuse that its policies are funneling tens of thousands of vulnerable people directly into.” Volunteers and activists along the Balkan Route have made similar claims.
Borders and COVID-19
Those people, of course, have been made even more vulnerable by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Europe, the Border Violence Monitoring Network has found that the public health measures enacted at camps and detention centres have been militarised and have exacerbated human rights violations at borders. Military forces have been deployed at borders and camps in Slovenia and Serbia; pushbacks, removals, and deportations have persisted and even increased, using COVID-19 as a justification for not letting people in or expelling those already there. This marking of people as “public health risks” also means the movements of those in camps have been further constrained and access to soap, hand sanitiser, and masks has been limited or non-existant. “Within the context of the viral pandemic, the physical rights of people-on-the-move have been suspended in both settlement and transit,” warns the Network. “Protections against inhumane accommodation and detention have been cast aside with the mass confinement of tens of thousands of people in the Western Balkans and Greece.”
Others have found that security measures like lockdowns, isolation, and surveillance, disproportionately impact migrants. In France, for example where people had to carry documents proving their address if they left their house, this is impossible for homeless asylum seekers. “Failure to produce these documents results in a significant fine, denying refugees access to supermarkets and other shops where they could obtain necessary food and hygiene items.” In Bosnia, the government used the opportunity of COVID-19 to forbid movement of migrants and refugees, who are now in lockdown in camps run by the IOM where they are subject to violence by both police and security contractors along with scarce food and tight spaces. In Serbia, the government issued a temporary halt to asylum, which means people cannot initiate or resolve their asylum procedures. The army, as noted earlier, has been deployed at the camps to ostensibly “protect migrants from getting infected,” but this has trapped people inside.
“These securitised responses to COVID-19 bodes ill for the future, as reactive policy soon establishes itself as an enduring mechanism of control,” warns the Border Violence Monitoring Network. “In the aftermath of COVID-19, whether and how such unlawful treatment will be lifted is an open ended question.”
In the United States, this question seems less open-ended. The treatment of migrants in detention is already closely connected to the treatment of all incarcerated peoples. High rates of infection have spread across the country’s detention centres, jails, and prisons during the pandemic. Campaigns to “Free Them All,” which are seeking the release of all people from detention and incarceration, have been launched across the US; some cities have responded while others have refused. Thus many migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees that have made it to the shores of the US—and other countries—are not only now fighting for a new life but for life itself.
Undoing border imperialism
To return to the comment from Esyllt W. Jones that an epidemic “is a border region where the meaning and membership in the community is imagined and re-imagined,” the COVID-19 pandemic provides the opportunity to undertake this vital work. Not just because the spread of the virus is out of control in detention centres and camps, but because what the pandemic reveals to us about our national and global inequities must not be ignored or forgotten but must instead be undone, deconstructed through urgent action and replaced by something new.
There are urgent actions that national governments need to undertake immediately: demilitarising and disarming borders; ending the cruelty at detention centres and ending detention altogether; abolishing agencies like ICE; stopping pushbacks and unlawful refusals of entry; protecting and upholding the rights of refugees and asylum seekers; decriminalising labour migration; facilitating safe and humane border crossings; providing housing, healthcare, and necessities for everyone within their territories regardless of nationality, immigration, or criminal conviction.
This comprehensive disarmament of borders is essential. But we can’t just disarm the apparatus of borders. We need to also disarm the system of borders.
Ultimately, appeals to make the migration, asylum, refugee, and immigration processes more “humanitarian” or “humane” still rely on the state as being the site of protection and well-being for migrants. But, as Bridget Anderson, Nandita Sharma, and Cynthia Wright argue, “migrants are not naturally vulnerable; rather the state is deeply implicated in constructing vulnerability through immigration controls and practices.” Furthermore, this approach continues to treat certain migrants as objects of control and rescue rather than as human beings. It also treats their migration as the problem, something that needs to be fixed; “consequently, people’s mobility is seen as only ever caused by crisis and as crisis producing.” It also reinforces the construction of a migrant — who counts as a migrant, who is determining that? The migration of people from the “global north” within western countries, or even to the “global south,” is not problematised in the same way. Referred to as “expats” instead of immigrants, their movement is largely unimpeded by borders.
All of this means that border control and immigration policies, even if humane, continue to produce inequalities between people. They continue to demark between here and there, between those people and our people. “Borders are not only ways of dividing nations, cities, and land,” writes Todd Miller, “they are also ways of dividing people, corralling people, organizing people, producing compliance in people, extracting profit from people.” Borders are prisons, confining people and forcing them to live in conflict, in camps, in poverty, amidst rising seas and expanding deserts.
Thus the demand of those calling for the abolition of borders is instead for every person to have the freedom to move or not to move.
This would involve establishing equitable human rights globally — the rights of being a person. In contrast to rights of property, consisting of the right to exclude others from enjoying that which has been privatized, the right of persons consists of the right not be excluded. Joseph Nevins also describes this in his appeal for “the right to the world”—a right to mobility and to share our planet’s resources sustainably.
Mutuality and promiscuous care
Beyond the responses of racists and nationalists, a typical reaction to this kind of “no borders” politics is that it will lead to people flooding “liberal democratic states,” which will impact the most disadvantaged within those countries by overwhelming social services and well-being. But this reaction needs to be deconstructed. These states right now are prominently reliant on the violence of the capitalist system, on the division of people, the exploitation of labour, and the destruction of the environment. Borders are not designed to keep people safe; they are designed to maintain vast economic inequalities and assure the provision of cheap labour, lax regulations, and a hoarding of wealth.
Opening borders means opening them for labour, which will strengthen protections for people and planet, and it means opening them for human rights, which will improve the lives of all. This approach would dismantle the differentiated systems of labour and environmental regulations that currently create the necessity of migration in so many parts of the world and that oppress so many within certain countries in order to generate wealth for the few in other countries. While people would have equitable rights, the environment and labour would also be treated equally. In this sense, a “no borders” politics calls into question not just the legitimacy of the global system of nation-states but also of capitalism, especially neoliberal extractivism and exploitation of workers. “Anything else means we remain subservient to capitalist system that banks on its ability to divide and exploit us all,” as Justin Akers Chacón noted in a recent webinar hosted by Haymarket and Verso Books.
Which brings us to another important thing. Abolition—of police, prisons, bombs, or borders—doesn’t just mean eliminating one thing and then having a vacuum. It also means building something in its stead. Abolition is a positive approach that highlights not just what needs to change but also the possibilities of alternatives. It also means not looking to “reform” systems, but to dismantle them. Almost all reforms suggested for police, prisons, or immigration alike are aimed at whitewashing and maintaining the status quo. We must break free from the idea that tweaking the system can bring justice, security, or equality, and instead think about what new systems are needed to achieve real change.
This, of course, requires a willingness to seriously consider and construct alternatives. It requires imagination and determination. It requires us to think beyond what we have been taught about what to fear, who to love, and how to care.
More than a century ago anarchist Gustav Landauer asserted, “The state is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships.” Harsha Walia suggests we can do this “through collective solidarities and responsibilities to each other rather than to the state or systems of power.” An open borders politics necessitates the nurturing of relationships of mutuality with others. It requires “the collective and public recognition of all bodies, all abilities, all genders, all experiences, and all expressions as inherently valuable, and by virtue of their very existence, as distinctly human,” explains Walia. It also means valuing nurturing, love, healing, transformative justice, connections to each other and the Earth. It means, as Washington suggests, building communities “that are willing and able to receive those in need, not merely incarcerate or expel them. Practically, this means bolding and emphatically resisting federal law. It means building on ICE-out-of-community efforts, and it means taking immediate, active steps toward offering sanctuary, offering love and welcome to people.”
This approach also supports feminist environmental and ecological demands for political economy, including degrowth politics — downscaling resource and energy demands in our societies and ending the plundering of the environment and oppression of those providing “cheap labour,” including women. It also supports calls for a culture and practice of “promiscuous care” — the proliferation of our circles of care beyond immediate kinship in expansive and nongendered ways.
Undoing the borders of our imaginations
If all of this sounds impossible or fanciful, keep in mind a few things.
The main limitations on how we “order” our societies and how we pursue “safety” and “security” are set by those who benefit the most from the systems within which we currently operate. This is not the majority of people in the world. It is undeniably skewed towards privileges for white people of a certain class living in Western states. When we think about “protecting our communities” from mass immigration, or when we think about what the purposes of our borders are, we need to keep this in mind. Who are we protecting ourselves from? Who are we harming in pursuing “security” through borders, in particular through the global system of militarised border regimes that exist today?
Are we protecting our social services of our “welfare states,” which already only benefit the few within our countries, that have not prevented mass inequality and poverty within the countries utilising borders to keep “others” out? Or are we really protecting the systems that produced the inequality, poverty, conflict, and climate crisis in the first place?
In this moment of uprising against systemic racism, white supremacy, and police brutality in the United States, we must also ask ourselves how the racism we may reject within police forces and other institutions of state power manifest themselves in and through borders: through the agencies that enforce them, through the military equipment and training that guard them, through the biometric and surveillance technologies that monitor them, through the camps and detention centres that constrain and degrade human beings. These systems are connected. They are based in a presumption that some lives matter and others don’t. That some people count and others are expendable, disposable.
Ultimately, we need to wrap our heads around this political project of care, of peace, and of justice in a comprehensive way. Not just justice for this community or care for this state, but for everyone, everywhere, all of the time. This is what the abolition of borders can bring to us, metaphorically and literally.