Thinking of the struggle for the freedom of movement as moments when people refuse the border and oppose the state – either intentionally or unintentionally – poses a challenge. Migration is an issue so deeply shaped and inscribed by the state. As Aaron Zolberg suggests, the very definition of migration – as movement across territorial borders – presupposes the existence of the state (Zolberg 1981). We may refuse the border and oppose the state, but too often it’s also the state that we have to appeal to if we want to secure greater freedoms. We demand rights from the state, when it’s the state that denies us rights in the first place (cf. Arendt 1973 ). This paradox creates a dilemma for any struggle that opposes the state. It’s a dilemma that comes up time and again in grassroots struggles of all kinds, and can be better illustrated in the case of no border struggles through a few examples.We may refuse the border and oppose the state, but too often it’s also the state that we have to appeal to if we want to secure greater freedoms
In the UK a common way of showing solidarity with the struggle for the freedom of movement is to visit people held in detention prisons. It’s a way of offering practical and emotional support to the imprisoned, and showing that they’re not forgotten just because the state tries to hide them away. Groups have held numerous demos outside such prisons, while the inmates have held hunger strikes and demonstrations and taken direct action from the inside. Both have strengthened each other. Visiting people in detention is also a way of better understanding the lived experiences of those directly affected by border controls. It’s the basis for taking further action against such places. In numerous cases, access to information about ‘life inside’ has led visitors’ groups to make complaints and publish information about poor treatment, which has resulted in improvements. This has positive effects for those who are subject to imprisonment, but it undermines any aim to end immigration detention altogether, because it suggests that the problem can be solved through better treatment, and not the end of detention itself.
Ultimately, detainee visitors’ groups end up struggling with the idea that, while they oppose detention, what they do also reinforces the idea that immigration detention is legitimate.
In Greece the struggle for the freedom of movement has led to three campaigns for the mass regularization of illegalized people in the country. In each case people have debated how legalization effectively reinforces the state’s right to decide. Regularization amnesties are time limited, with conditions that disqualify large sections of the illegalized population. They often pave the way for harsher migration policies too (Nyers 2010). As such, such amnesties refine and redefine the regime of control, even as they bring about real material improvements for many at that time (DeGenova 2002). Resistance to the border always seems faced with the dilemma of how to refuse the state while also engaging with it. I think this is the main dilemma of any kind of politics that seeks to refuse the state, and I return to this dilemma time and again throughout my book No Borders.
People and groups adopt different strategies to negotiate this dilemma. This can lead to conflicts between those who resist in different ways. Some resist by engaging with the state in order to secure further freedoms. People launch campaigns that demand regularization, or that demonstrate that our cities are places of sanctuary (cf. Cissé 1996; Squire and Bagelman 2012). For others, however, the very fact that such freedoms are controlled by the state is the site of struggle. Such differences can be a dynamic force that generates diversity in our resistance. But such differences become problematic when they are seen as absolute, incompatible and insurmountable. They risk weakening such struggles at a time when it is more urgent than ever to mount a forceful collective and diverse resistance against the steady infestation of border controls throughout our social world. How to enact a radical politics when so constrained by the state? How to find common ground when our aims sometimes appear like opposites?
This dilemma leads me to modify my question: How do we resist borders, in a current reality in which borders proliferate?
No Borders is my attempt to understand a certain kind of struggle against the border regime, and it came about because of my own involvement in this struggle. How I came to write this book and to ask these questions is the result of an evolution in my own thinking around how migration affects me and how I want to live my life.
Ten years ago I worked for a refugee rights organization that (among many other things) lobbied government for positive changes to the refugee regime in the UK. We demanded an end to the detention of children, and at best got assurances that safeguards would be put in place to protect their welfare while in detention. We demanded an end to the destitution of refused asylum seekers, a situation that people at the end of the asylum process still face. We reserved our energy for refugees, but said nothing about all the other people who arrived without permission. We didn’t go there, and I put that decision and distinction out of my mind. I remember we always said that we weren’t a political organization, but a humanitarian one. That statement seems naïve to me now.
Lobbying didn’t bring anything like the kind of changes I had in mind. It felt like dreaming small. And the uncomfortable feeling I got from focusing only on the rights of refugees never really went away. I left that organization and found myself involved in more grassroots projects supporting travellers of different kinds. I started to think, why was it that refugees were legitimate travellers but others weren’t? If everybody had the right to travel, then maybe the system that prohibited that was wrong. Looking back now, that thought process seems naïve too. But we’re not taught to question the very basis of the system that we live in. It was a very simple thought, but it took me a long while to reach it.
Reaching that conclusion opened up a whole new world. I started to visit Calais and spend time with other people who came to that city and who identified in some way with the idea of the freedom of movement. We distributed clothes, tents, wood and building materials to people who were stuck in that city trying to cross to the UK. We cooked food together, hung out, held parties, visited people in the detention prison there. Others opened squats where we and other people could rest. We lived together with people trying to cross. I went to my first No Borders camp in Brussels in 2009 and was blown away by how well 800 people managed to meet their needs inclusively, collectively and creatively in this wonderful temporary community. I have stayed involved in Calais, and through those experiences become connected to a vast network of people and places that continue to try to make those wonderful, collective, creative (and sometimes less temporary) communities. This thing I’m a part of, this movement, for want of a better word, feels fierce and loving. It feels like an intensity of living. It’s a way of being that doesn’t so much point out what’s wrong with the system (although a lot of that happens too), but is other to it.
So in some sense, No Borders is not really about migration at all, but about a certain way of being that’s other to the system; that creates or has the potential to create supportive, collaborative and non-dominating communities of people of different backgrounds. It includes anti-deportation campaigns, detention visitor projects, language clubs, No Borders camps and detention prison blockades, but it’s also connected to the ways people create other communities more generally, from squatting and occupying land, to holding free parties. Migration is a point of orientation, but not the entirety of what I’m talking about here. I ask the questions I do and pose the dilemmas I do because these are issues I have come across time and again through my involvement in the struggle for the freedom of movement. And when I say ‘we’, I’m talking about all of us who share the feeling that the freedom of movement is everybody’s freedom. It’s from this standpoint that I talk. In asking these questions, I hope that we can better understand this practice, become more fierce and loving. Like Paul Chatterton, ‘I want to galvanize dissent, normalize critique, and make radical alternatives seem like real possibilities for our times’ (Chatterton 2008: 426).
So, how do we resist the border, in a current reality in which borders proliferate? On the one hand, this question speaks to those struggles against the border that exist in the here and now (how can we resist?). On the other hand, it points to a possible future (is it possible to create a world free of borders?). No border struggles are utopian, to the extent that they always negotiate between an existing reality that’s highly bordered, and a borderless future that appears to be always ahead of us. As one interviewee put it, ‘We’re always on a walk towards no borders … It’s a constant aspiration and tension’ (interview, Anon. 4). It inherently involves changing the present by thinking beyond what is.
Yet this connection with what is also makes no border struggles incredibly realistic. A friend suggested that ‘no borders is happening all the time, and that the time perspective for struggle is now … that the time to live is now, with all its bitterness and defeats but also with its victories and joy’ (interview, Anon. 9).
Critical resistance speaks to that intent to contest the status quo and bring about radical – utopian – social change (Hoy 2004). Put another way, critical resistance is about doing and imagining, practice and theory. Yet to set theory and practice apart from each other can rob critical resistance of its power.
Critical resistance, then, comes from the feedback loop between theory and practice. A word for this feedback loop is praxis. It’s a grand-sounding word for something that people are doing all the time. Whenever we critically reflect on our experience and how the world could be, and we put into practice those reflections, we are engaged in praxis (Bell et al. 1990; Freire 2005 ; Moss 2004). No borders, as a particular politics, is already inherently praxis-based in that it seeks to go beyond what is, think about how things could be otherwise, and then put that into practice. I have sought to mimic this process in this book, and this book is the outcome of a praxis-based approach. It has meant I have sought to weave practice and theory together. This approach is reflected in my desire to create scholarship that’s directly relevant to existing struggles against the border now, and a research method that embedded me in those struggles and that used my experiences of activism as a subject of study. This approach has also compelled me to transgress the borders within theory; to not be ‘faithful’ to any one theory so much as to use them as tools that can contextualize and shed further meaning on a no borders politics.
This has also meant I’ve been strategic in my use/choices, focusing on those theories which help me to elaborate on what a no borders politics means, rather than providing an exhaustive review of certain concepts. Approaching knowledge in this way enables me to draw out the tensions and dilemmas that appear in a somewhat utopian politics when practised in reality. I’m not seeking to impose a single theory upon this movement, but to shed more light on its diversity.
This is an extract from the Introduction to Natasha King’s No Borders