Skip to content

De-racing the Border

After a few weeks silence due to other commitments, I am returning with the eighth blog post in the series to attend to the themes of borders and mobilities. My comments respond to Reece Jones’s book, Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move which in sum I consider a good example of a lacuna I have observed at the heart of much critical thinking on the nature of borders – their overwhelming failure to consider the centrality of race. I will use the opportunity offered by the reading of this book to consider why I believe a race critical analysis should be central to work on borders and migration, what the dangers of ignoring race might be for an understanding of current urgencies. A broader question of what a reading which conceives of borders as inherently violent without thinking about the racialised nature of this violence means for our understanding of what the border does is one I leave for later on but which is triggered by the reading of this book to which the theme of violence is key. While my comments today will be relatively brief, I see these questions as being of major importance for my wider project on race and relationality; how can we suture in much of the vital work that is done in what we coul call ‘critical border studies’ into a framework that is attentive to race?

Migrants cross the border into Slovenia, October 2015

Reece Jones’s Violent Borders was brought to my attention by a blog on the Verso website entitled, ‘Europe’s Migration Crisis, or Open Borders as Reparations‘. The idea of migration as reparations occurred to me as an extremely useful framework and I presumed the book advanced a theoretical argument towards this. I was disappointed to discover that it does not. Of course, as a colleague remarked to me, when you decide to assign new books for a gradate course there will inevitably be a mixed bag, but I felt this lack of argument was a missed opportunity. It should be noted that it is clear that Jones did not set out to write an academic book (though he is a Professor of Geography), but an accessible book that explains why borders are inherently violent. For this reason, it perhaps was the wrong choice for my class. However, it does give me the opportunity to open up a wider discussion about the problematic ways in which I feel much of the literature on migration, borders and refugees fails to engage specifically with race.

I should note that there is much in Jones’ book to be commended, especially his description of the realities facing people in various settings: migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean or scale the fence at Melilla into the borders of the EU, Palestinians enclosed by the Israeli occupation’s euphemistically entitled ‘separation fence’, and those trying to cross the Mexican border into the USA, and the attendant violence of these everyday acts of mobility. He also traces the origins of the ‘global border regime’ as a function of colonialism and capitalism and considers the specific ways in which borders have been used to demarcate rich and poor and control the latter’s mobility while facilitating that of the former. His argument, as outlined in the introduction, is that

“the violence of borders today is emblematic of a broader system that seeks to preserve privilege and opportunity for some by restricting access to resources and movement for others” (Jones 2016: 5).

His book is useful in laying out some of the methods employed by states to create and compound this status quo, including the consolidation of approaches between nations, such as is evident in the EU’s Frontex border agency, described by Jones, or the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The increasing reference to the Australian or the Canadian immigration regimes as examples to follow for European countries, are also evidence of the growing consolidation of approaches by countries in the Global North to ‘manage migration’. As Angela Mitropoulos argues in her interview with Matt Kiem, Australia in particular can and should be seen as a laboratory for borders as an ‘international industry’ (Mitropoulos and Kiem 2015). Jones does not acknowledge this directly, and in fact his discussion of Australia is relatively short given the significance of the Australian approach to border management, and in particular its status as the originator of mandatory and indefinite detention for asylum seekers in 1992. Nevertheless, Jones draws attention to the policy of deterrence which has become a central feature of the EU’s approach to migrants attempting to reach its shores, citing the incidents of boats pushed back to sea, a central pillar of Australia’s policy of boat turn-backs and tow-backs, as part of its ‘Operation Sovereign Borders‘.

He does not discuss the inherently racialised nature of the very notion of deterrence as a form of ‘future proofing’ against an always apocalyptic vision of a world without borders. Deterrence is in fact the deliberate cruelty to those currently attempting to reach the EU or Australia – most commonly the failure to rescue boats in distress leading to the loss of up to one in four lives of those who attempt to cross the mediterranean (Jones p. 26). It is both insurance against the racial unruliness of the society to come, an argument that is not distinguishable from the moral panic about transforming demographics and the so-called ‘majority minority‘ of the future. But it is also cynically sold as a protective measure shielding migrants from dying at sea by drowning despite the fact that not leaving may precipitate their death nonetheless. Jones does note that the border itself kills as does the strategy of deterrence in more direct ways. Seven people have now died in Australia’s offshore concentration camps since 2014, as noted by detained journalist Behrouz Boochani. The border creates invisibility.

Rescue workers search for survivors after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/AP

Much of Jones’s argument pins on the high disparities in wealth between the Global North and the Global South and/or between the world’s richer nations and those which have been historically exploited by them. He thus acknowledges the colonial past and its long reach into the present in his focus, for example, on the poverty created by unequal labour conditions on a  global scale, referencing the problem of sweatshop labour brought to light by the collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in Chapter 6. He recognizes the continuities that produce these conditions by referencing the significance of ‘slavery and indentured servitude’ for the growth of the state (p. 75):

“While there are still substantial wealth gaps between the rich and the poor within countries, colonialism and capitalism have combined to produce phenomenal differences in wealth between states” (p. 87).

He recognizes that the modern particularity of territorial boundedness has a direct impact on individual quality of life so that borders of various kinds themselves produce the inequalities that then push people to attempt to move beyond them. ‘From the moment an individual is born to the moment they die,’ he remarks ‘they live in a multitude of overlapping bounded spaces  that affect every aspect of their existence’ (p. 93). He lists a number of these boundaries which go far beyond international and state boundaries to include those at local and city level such as school districts, neighborhoods, and even electricity grids. In this sense he is evoking the notion of the border as multiple. However he stops short of extending that multiplicity to the sense meant by Angela Mitropoulos when she claims in a recent interview for Base Publication that,

“if we think of the border as a fixed line of absolute and geographic division then we stop thinking about it as a system of variable processes, and processes which mean that those systems do not smoothly decide unequivocal outcomes.”

In other words, borders are not only at a multiplicity of places but they also regulate a multiplicity of processes and indeed engender more of them. Nevertheless, despite going some way to recognizing this, Jones fixates on the sites of the border and the violences that are reproduced to maintain them. His solutions to the ‘direct and structural violence of borders’ (p. 163), offered in the conclusion, thus fail to embed within them an understanding of why borders of various kinds are continually reproduced. He appeals to a universalist commonality between all humans, united in their impulse towards mobility – ‘a critical part of the humanity and the modern condition’ (p. 162). Thus he argues that ‘the place-based version of history is not natural or eternal; it is a technology of governance akin to a wall, a property deed, and a border guard that legitimates the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and protects the privileges that have accrued through the enclosure of lands and resources’ (p. 166).

His first solution, therefore, is the displacement of nations. In his first mention of racism, he claims that ‘racism, nationalism, and groupism create conditions in which it is acceptable to treat human beings in a dehumanizing and violent manner’ (p. 167). Groupism is a concept he takes from Rogers Brubaker. In the way it is presented, it does little to explain the reasons for which a ‘preference for the in-group’ has taken precedence in what he calls the ‘place-based version of humanity’ which relies on the exclusion of ‘out-groups’ (ibid.). Here, in response, he relies on an overly liberal vision of the possible future based upon a contadiction of his previous admittance of the multiplicity of borders. His first solution to the violence of the border is to allow freedom of movement across them, a proposal with which I entirely agree. However, he makes his case by appealing to the equalization of rights within liberal democracies to groups such as women and racialised people formerly excluded from them. He goes as far as to say that,

“One day, denying equal protection based on birthplace may well seem just as anachronistic and wrong as denying civil rights based on skin color, gender or sexual orientation” (p.171).

However, inasmuch as the policing of the borders of ‘western’ states is as much a reflection of racialised order within them as it is a means of creating a global hierarchy of desirable and undesirable people, this naive hope is an erasure of what is a primary purpose of border ‘management’. Managing migration by regulating mobility, policing the border, mandatorily detaining asylum seekers and deporting those labelled ‘undocumented’ are as much about the regulation of the spaces within the territorial border as they are an attempt to draw and ever tighter distinction between inside and outside. So, arguments against the free movement of people, by constructing the outsider as ‘alien’ (Britain passed the first ‘Aliens Act in 1905 to control Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe), purport that national society – conceived of as a natural and homogenous organism – will be irrevocably diminished by the acceptance of immigrants. Talk of migrants as hordes and swamps denote the idea of migration as overwhelming an always already threatened national society, which paradoxically speaks to the fragility at the core of white/European identity. The regulation of borders reflects the racialised organization of the space within them.

A. Sivanandan: ‘We are here because you were there’

The idea that was suggested by Verso to have been at the heart of Jones’s book – open borders as reparations – could, if it had been argued for by the author, have spoken to the ongoing legacies of colonial domination without which any understanding of the reasons for both migration and its violent regulation is impoverished. It is not only the direct fact that, as A. Sivanandan put it, ‘we are here because you were there’, with regards to the postcolonial migration of the populations of formerly colonized countries to the ‘metropole’. The global ‘coloniality of power’ extends the uneven relationship that Jones identifies and describes newer associations between North and South that encompass not only global poverty and exploitation but also the newer threats posed by environmental crisis (Chapter 7) and the proliferation of western-fuelled wars.

2nd grade social studies textbook, NYC Public Schools

The opposition to immigration in European, North American and Australasian societies in particular – at both a popular and a state level – cannot be distinguished from the racialised order within states, even when that order is discursively predicated upon the idea of the ‘immigration nation’, such as is the case in North America and Australia. In fact, in these countries, in a postracial move, controlling migration is increasingly  portrayed as being necessary in order to protect the multicultural ‘harmony’ that the mythological ‘immigration nation’ has carefully calibrated. These visions of, what Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull calls, ‘successful multiculturalism‘ excise from the narrative the utilitarian reasons for immigration; ‘populate or perish‘ in the Australian case. They also, crucially in the case of the settler colonies, omit to consider the significance of immigration for shoring up demographically against the Indigenous population, thus rewriting the history of the United States for example as one of peaceful migration rather than violent settlement. This was undeniably obvious in a second grade social studies text book in which European settlers were renamed ‘immigrants’.

Aboriginal Passport Ceremony 2014 from Scherry Bloul on Vimeo.

It is an issue increasingly discussed by Indigenous scholars, and those attuned to the ongoing conditions established by settler colonial domination, for example by Aileen Moreton-Robinson in her excellent collection, The White Possessive. The question of who, in a country occupied and settled by European colonizers, gets to determine who crosses the border, has the right to remain, and who is detained and deported was tackled by the organizers of the Aboriginal Passport Ceremony, during which more than 200 migrants were presented with passports in a ‘Welcome to Aboriginal Land’ ceremony by Robbie Thorpe of the Treaty Republic and the late Ray Jackson, as President of the Indigenous Social Justice Association. This event was an important symbolic counterpoint to what has become a maxim of the Australian approach to immigration summed up by former Prime Minister, John Howard, when he stated, ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’

Though the ‘we will decide’ quote is often referenced in discussions of Australia’s particular approach to border control, the preceding clause (as can be heard in the above video of Howard’s speech) is equally important to an understanding of how border control is conceived as intrinsic to the definition of sovereignty along racialised lines. The ‘tolerant nation’ that Howard insists Australians are, permits, a priori, the right of the state to decide who to include and who to exclude. As Angela Mitropulos has noted,

“At stake in every politics of border controls is control over the border of the political. In presenting the act of migration as outside the field of politics, the very definition of what a movement and politics is remains tied to the organisation of democratic representation in a very precise sense, and so, in turn, the terrain in which migration appears as that which must of necessity be controlled, regulated and mediated. For if democracy means the rule of the demos (‘the people’), then the formal emptiness of the proposition of who ‘the people’ are is nevertheless constantly played out along both anthropological and racialised axes of differentiation that are as eager to make of ‘humanity’ the beginning and end of the sense of the world as they are to adjudicate upon the non-human” (Mitropoulos 2006: 9-10).

Australian delegate at the 1938 Evian Conference

Hand in hand with the vision of who the people is – tolerant, welcoming, generous, fair-minded, ‘successfully multicultural’ – goes the intimation that outside the border lie the intolerant, the ungenerous, the unfair and the unassimilable. Arguments about racism being imported with immigration are as old as the invention of the term itself and underpinned both the Irish and the Australian governments’ refusal to allow any more than handful of Jewish refugees to come there during the Nazi persecution. The Irish ambassador to Germany at the time, Charles Bewley, a well-known Nazi sympathizer and antisemite, said, ‘Jewish emigrants in the countries in which they have been permitted to enter have created and are creating grave moral scandals and are a source of corruption of the population among which they dwell.’ Similar sentiments were expressed in Australia.

These histories are consistent with a present in which it has become commonplace and barely remarkable that migrants, particularly those from Muslim countries in an age of unprecedented global Islamophobia, bring with them intolerant and ‘backward’ attitudes, as well as threats to security. This is the logic at the core of Donald Trump’s twice-thwarted ban on travelers (not only migrants) from seven Muslim majority countries. The notion that migrants bring racism with them by, it is suggested, coercing the local population into enacting racism against them is a fundamental insight into how racism is commonly perceived as working. It reveals the extent to which, as Barnor Hesse remarks, the postracial is rudimentary to the Eurocentric construction of racism as an ideology always in excess of or even separate from race itself. Thus, race as a technology of differentiation is fundamental to the border, but is made abstract when racism is constituted as operating in a realm separate from the acts of bordering. Racism, as I have shown throughout this blog series and in my work generally,  is used polyvalently to implicate everyone universally while at the same time being made deniable and ‘debatable’, as Gavan Titley argues. In this way, not only does it become dislodged from historical processes, but it also becomes separable from the actual processes that bring race into being and continually reproduce its myriad violences.

No more was this evident than in two events pertaining to Australia’s offshore detention centre for migrants who arrived to its shores by boat since 2013. In 2014, the detention centre erupted in riots following the detainees being given the news that there was no definite time frame for their detention, that they were free to return to the countries they had fled from and that they would never be settled in Australia. Several people made a break for freedom while others chanted insults and threw plastic chairs and rocks. In reaction, G4S, the company which at the time provided security at the detention centre, called in its riot squad, made up of Papua New Guinea nationals, as well as the local mobile police and dog squads. Reports concur that G4S lost control over its local staff who attacked asylum seekers, including with machetes.

In the ensuing events, an asylum seeker’s throat was slit, one was shot and another lost an eye. Seventy-seven people were severely injured and Reza Berati was attacked from behind and killed.  There  was  blood  on  the  walls,  faeces  on  sheets  as  asylum seekers crouched petrified in and under beds. The then immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, made a statement during which he made the following claim:

“Some   transferees   treated   PNG   nationals   employed   in   the   centre,   in   a disrespectful and racist manner and criticized their country.”

In a more recent incident, this month, during which the centre was attacked by PNG navy personnel including with a machine gun, the present Minister, Peter Dutton contradicted police reports which said that “drunken soldiers … rampaged” through the centre, shooting into the air and indiscriminately assaulting people”, by accusing detainees of taking a small boy into the camp, a fabricated event which he said was the reason for the violence. In both of these incidents, the respective ministers directly and indirectly accuse refugees detained against their will of racism.

In this way, Australia’s regime of indefinite, offshore detention of asylum seekers is not only officially declared ‘not racism’, but the so-called ‘real racism’ of the detainees against Papua New Guineans is used to further justify their incarceration. The fact that Australia’s former colonial relationship with Papua New Guinea and Nauru is what enables the existence of these two island prisons in the first place is also elided in a perfect example of how the language of racism is repurposed in the service of racial rule and the maintenance of the border.

These remarks and examples point towards the reasons for which I have been arguing since the publication of my article, Postracial Silences, that race has to be foregrounded in work on borders and migration. In that article, which centre on the work of what I referred to as mainstream researchers of ‘migration, ethnicity and minorities’ (MEM), I argued that there is a tendency among them to neglect, elide or even deny the salience of race for an understanding of those processes. This leads to the possibility of scholarship facilitating agendas of migration management by providing data on migration ‘stocks’ and ‘flows’, analyzing migrant ‘criminality’ and the purported failures of ‘social cohesion’ in ways that are inattentive to the racial logic that underpins them. However, in that paper, and in an earlier one entitled After Antiracism? (2008), I argued that the failure to theorise race as integral to migration and borders is also a problem among those on the far left end of the spectrum, the scholar-activists engaged in what can be tend ‘critical border studies’. I am particularly concerned about a new focus on mapping migration, such as evident in the work of Lucie Bacon which, as The Funambulist website notes, is examines ‘the migratory phenomenon mapping, which usually occurs the diversity of migrants’ practices, experiences and subjectivities.’ An interview carried out with Bacon on the Archipelago podcast revealed what for me was an uncomfortable willingness to reveal migration routes while claiming a pro-migrant activist perspective. There is a moment at which it is crucial to separate the aims of research from those of the border.

Nevertheless, there are those who deftly combine a critical theorization of the border that is grounded in an activist commitment to its dismantlement with a keen attention to race, but they are not among the majority. Among them are Angela Mitropoulos, Nicholas de Genova, William Walters, Imogen Tyler, Bridget Anderson, Christopher Kyriakides, Yasmin Gunaratnam, Hannah Jones, Liz Fekete, Harsha Walia to name but a few who come immediately to mind. I would be happy to receive suggestions of authors to add to this short list as well as links to work available online which, when I have more time, I can add to the bottom of this post.

These scholars are doing vital work on the role of race in the proliferation of borders of all kinds. These borders also include the extension of the carceral state into the everyday through the diffusion of incarcerations of various kinds and at various levels throughout society, particularly in the US, but not only. Attention has been called to the exclusive focus on prison closures as a derailment from the move from the prison as the site of punishment to the community, the neighborhood and the home enabled by new technologies such as GPS tracking. Likewise the closure of detention centres does not necessarily entail freedom for migrants and asylum seekers forced to live under an exploitative regime with no definite end in the form of secure residence. Control orders, codes of behavior and the omnipresent threat of impending detention and deportation function as means of bringing the border into the everyday. With reference to the ‘code of conduct‘ introduced in Australia at the end of 2014, regulating the existence of asylum seekers on temporary ‘bridging’ visas with no route to permanent residence, Sanmati Verma has written,

“As at December 2014, around 10,000 asylum seekers had signed the ‘code of conduct.’ It is a tool carefully crafted to prolong asylum seekers’ isolation and hypervigilance, and to replicate a form of detention in the community. Both in its symbolism and practice, the code is a form of extended threat against asylum seekers and a reminder of their tenuous and subjugated status in the community at the behest of anyone who may consider their presence ‘disrespectful’ or ‘disruptive.’ It is nothing other than a form of detainment, dispersed into the hands to government agencies, doctors, ambulances, service providers, average citizens who do the detaining.”

The subjective nature of the assessment of what constitutes as a breach of the code extends border control as a responsibility for all, effectively including everyone within the border into the logics of continuous and potentially infinite control over the lives of those considered illegitimately within. Along theses lines, Nicholas de Genova’s work on the production of illegality has been key to understanding how migrants are made illegitimate. He demonstrates how relatively recent changes in policy in the US (1980s) produce the category of illegality thus making it synonymous with an identity. People, many of whom may live unproblematically or relatively invisibly as neighbors, workers, parents of one’s school children etc. are, by being raided by ICE officers, detained, or subject to deportation made into illegal subjects, thus demonstrating the arbitrariness of such a label (De Genova 2002).

The issues raised here point to some of reasons for which placing race centrally into our analyses of borders and migration is essential. I have not touched upon the profit making dimension of the what can be termed the ‘border industrial complex’ as a key feature of the context in which bordering proliferates ever creatively. The role of global ‘security’ firms such as Serco and G4S has been central to asylum detention, but also to incarceration in Europe, Australia, North America and beyond. The work of Serco Watch is worth following to track its interests, especially in Australasia. The work done by XBorder Operational Matters, detailed in this interview with Angela Mitropoulos has also been a linchpin of the analysis of what she calls the ‘public-private partnership’ at the heart of the Australian migration regime.





Alana Lentin