I started writing this on the same day that reports came in of up to seven hundred people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea after an overloaded boat carrying people from Libya to Italy capsized. This disaster was sadly not a one-off. The spring of 2015 shone a light on what was called a humanitarian crisis that, by the middle of May, had resulted in the deaths of more than 1,800 people. I’m sitting here almost one year later and all the figures from 2015 are being outdone by those of this year. More people crossing clandestinely, more people dying.
The figures were horrific, but this crisis didn’t begin now. People had been clandestinely crossing the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa or the Aegean Sea from Turkey since the early 1990s. This was the same struggle that had been going on for more than two decades, just on an unprecedented scale. The mainstream story was effectively the same: an apocalypse, with those on the boats signalling the presence of a vast horde of people just waiting for their chance to cross to Europe; of victims recruited by ‘merciless’ smugglers, the solution largely lying in ‘combating illegal migration’ through more controls. In this way, the ‘human crisis’ that was a problem for migrants became presented as a ‘migrant crisis’ that was a problem for European governments.
The ironic presentation of certain kinds of travellers (the ones European states claim not to want) as victims of circumstance before they reach Europe and criminals set on stealing our resources after they arrive still dominates.
What this discourse passes over, too, is how the controls that are deemed so necessary to stem the flow of unwanted migrants actually create the problem of ‘illegal’ migration.
We live in a world where the movement of the global poor is increasingly seen as a problem and restricted (Balibar 2002; Menz 2008; Snyder 2005). In recent years in Europe we have seen the introduction of biometric passports, the expansion in the use of immigration imprisonment, and recent investigations into the use of military drones along Europe’s external borders (Fotiadis and Ciobanu 2013; Statewatch 2012). None of this is a ‘natural’ state of affairs. Borders are a function of states. They produce territories (countries) by delimiting and securing spaces and their contents/populations (Agnew 1994). They produce an inside and an outside, insiders and outsiders, and establish a system to control whose movement is acceptable and whose is not. They create categories (the migrant worker, the skilled migrant worker, the asylum seeker, the refugee …) and, through the process of categorization, create groups of people who carry a label of non-status (the illegal immigrant) (DeGenova 2002). Within this, migrant illegality is a (non-)status that’s produced by the regime of control and conferred on an individual when their movement is seen as problematic (Squire 2011). The border regime is productive. It produces human illegality, even though people might use such legal loopholes for their benefit too (Ruhs and Anderson 2007; Squire 2011). As Anne McNevin says in relation to ‘irregular’ migration, ‘without reference to the state as bounded and territorialized the notion of irregular migration would cease to be meaningful; what would irregular migration look like if there were no borders, as such, to cross?’ (McNevin 2009: 70).
A few weeks after the disaster in the Mediterranean, I was in Calais, in a self-organized camp of people trying to cross to the UK. Sitting in a friend’s house in the camp drinking tea together, we talked about how the number of people living there had swelled in recent weeks from a thousand or so to double that. All these new arrivals had put pressure on those already living there. My friend’s group had doubled to around thirty, forming an ordered unit of people combining their resources and labour in order to feed and look after each other. Many of these new arrivals were those people who had made the headlines weeks before. Their boat-crossing had been just a fragment of their journeys. Now they waited in Calais for their chance to reach the UK and make a happy ending to what were often years-long journeys.
I mention this because No Borders is not really about border controls, but about how people find ways to practise the freedom of movement despite such controls. It’s a book about practices for free movement, against the border. Because border controls are and have always been resisted (Casas-Cortes et al. 2015; Anderson et al. 2012). March 2015 saw simultaneous hunger strikes in eight detention prisons across the UK, accompanied by a similar wave of solidarity actions. In June that year, a camp of people trying to cross was joined by solidarity activists to form a No Border camp in Ventimiglia, on the Italian side of the border with France. The camp lasted for a further three months. These are just a few examples of the ways that people denied the freedom of movement, and those in solidarity with them, have taken action.
Because to only pay attention to visible and organized activities ‘is to see only the smoke rising from the volcano’ (Holloway 2002: 159; see also Grelet 2001). Beneath that smoke is a huge number of everyday acts of non-subordination and quiet evasions carried out by people who refuse to allow borders to stop them from moving. As the scholar-activists who came together around a ‘Migrations and Militant Research’ workshops attest, the term ‘migration struggles’ encapsulates both organized struggles by migrants and those in solidarity with them, and daily strategies of refusal (because simply to be present where you are prohibited from being becomes an act of resistance, regardless of whether it’s recognized as such or not) (Casas-Cortes et al. 2015). Calais is a testament to how most of the people crossing the Mediterranean in boats continue their journeys, often beneath the gaze of media or governments or us.
Paying attention to these practices doesn’t mean being blind to the operations and consequences of control. I have already talked about how people travelling without permission die in their efforts to cross borders. They are routinely and indefinitely imprisoned if they make it to Europe. They face numerous ways that limit their lives and bar their access to society should they manage to remain (in the UK this means no legal access to work or free healthcare, and living with the continual risk of detention and deportation). Such things produce violent and traumatizing effects. The development of mental illness after arrival is common, as is self-harm and suicide (Athwal and Bourne 2007; Cohen 2008). Yet without discounting all this, even under intense restrictions, acts of liberation still happen.
People protest together and affirm that ‘No-One is Illegal!’; others mount hunger strikes that contest their detention; others maintain safer houses where travellers can stay; still others pass on information about the safest routes and means of passage. All these activities reflect a refusal to be denied the freedom of movement in different ways. These practices form part of the movement against borders, or the no border movement, and this movement is diverse.
Thinking of no borders as a refusal brings into focus how the legitimacy of border controls is also questioned, and hence the legitimacy of the nation-state. People move for a variety of reasons. I can’t imagine anyone ever moves in order to challenge the state, and I’m not suggesting that every act of migration is an act of liberation. But, in the act of moving without permission, or in actively contesting controls that limit their lives, people refuse the border and oppose the state at that moment. The struggle for the freedom of movement is this refusal of the border. I call this a no borders politics and explore what it is as a concept in Chapter 1 of my book.
With these points in mind, the main question this book asks is, how do we refuse borders?
Read on here
This is an extract from No Borders by Natasha King