Mediterranean journeys in hope

The limits of borders

Borders are constructed to separate people, but they become a permanent point of contact and violence between the two sides.

Janina Pescinski
6 May 2016

Migrants wait in a 'reception camp' in Spielfeld, Austria, on the Austrian-Slovenian border on 22 October 2015. Michael Gubi/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc)

The ongoing flow of migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean has resulted in a migration management crisis in Europe. Borders are seen as the first line of defence for solving the problem by keeping migrants out, hence the current lockdown of Fortress Europe. Individual European states have implemented various policies that harden their borders in an effort to turn away migrants. Hungary has built a fence along its southern border, Austria is following suit by erecting barriers at southern border crossings. The Greece-Macedonia border has been closed, leaving over 50,000 new arrivals stranded in Greece.

But when an impediment is created at one point of entry, the border to be crossed simply shifts elsewhere. The land routes through the Balkans have been cut off, and Greece is no longer a viable point of entry because of the EU-Turkey deal. While policymakers may have hoped that the effect would be for migrants to just stay home, the reality is that those desperate to move will find new routes and strategies, with potentially dire consequences. Already we have seen that this is true in the Mediterranean: to bypass the closed borders new routes are opening across the sea to Italy. The human cost is enormous, as we saw when 500 people reportedly drowned in the Mediterranean last week.

For these lucky few the world is almost borderless, whereas for the vast majority who do not have these privileges the border is all too real.

Another result of closing borders is increasing the market for smugglers. Smuggling is a business: smugglers provide the service of helping people to cross closed borders, for a fee. Contrary to EU policy that frames smuggling as a cause of migration that can and must be combatted with stricter border control and policing, smuggling is a reaction to circumvent more rigid borders, as the many of the voices featured on openDemocracy’s Human Smugglers Roundtable attest.

The rhetoric justifying these exclusionary migration policies becomes a vicious cycle in public opinion: governments close the borders to keep out the migrants, serving as state-sanctioned confirmation that those individuals are ‘not wanted’. This increases xenophobia and prejudice as well as precipitates highly visible, seemingly desperate attempts of migrants to ‘get in at any cost’. This further stokes fears and prejudice while justifying the next round of even more stringent migration policies.

Problematising borders

The current European attempts to control migration are predicated on an understanding of the border as a barrier, but the concept of ‘border’ is neither singular nor static.

Throughout history the conceptions of borders and their management has changed, as traced by a current exhibit at the museum of the history of immigration in France. This looks at borders as socially imagined entities, as political constructions, as components in defining identities. It considers how borders have been established because of fear of groups as well as how borders create or enhance fear of other groups. In doing so the exhibit poses important questions about borders, but at the same time it inadvertently reinforces certain consequences of borders. For example, certain migrants are referred to as ‘illegal’, a problematic term that reinforces the ideas that unsanctioned migration is definitionally a crime and that anybody engaging in unauthorised movement is a criminal. Ultimately, the exhibit opens the question: what would a borderless world look like?

Borders do not apply universally to everyone who encounters them. Certain people are allowed to cross while others are turned away. Visas are granted to some on the basis of nationality, economic status, or level of education, among other factors, all of which taken together make certain people ‘desirable’ and therefore worthy of crossing the border unchallenged. For these lucky few the world is almost borderless, whereas for the vast majority who do not have these privileges the border is all too real. It is not only an unjustifiably arbitrary system, but it’s also volatile. The line between ‘wanted’ and ‘unwanted’ (as defined by the foreign ministries) is always moving, as the gradual enlargement of the EU and now the possibility of a British exit starkly attests.

When states establish rigid borders they are not ridding themselves of what is on the other side, instead they are permanently tying themselves to that. Restrictive policies require constant enforcement, the walls and fences require maintenance and patrol, and this necessitates an unending stream of financial resources. In this latest deal with Turkey, Greece and the European Union have not rid themselves of the people across the border. Instead, they have tied their fate to Turkey in a way that necessitates constant cooperation and understanding with those on the other side. In this way borders do not represent a clean division, but rather a point of contact.

The border as a site of hope

Hardening borders are, in part, a consequence of the increasing securitisation of migration. This entire system is predicated on a dehumanised view of migration: those crossing the borders are not individual humans, but numbers. Migration does not have to be approached as a security threat – instead it could be seen as a humanitarian endeavour. A humanitarian approach to migration puts every migrant’s individual humanity at the centre of migration policy by recognising and upholding their human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees a person’s right to leave one’s country and the right to seek asylum, but no parallel right to be welcomed by another state. Facing the number of people who are claiming their agency to enjoy their rights to leave their country or to seek asylum, it is up to governments in Europe to volunteer a humanitarian response of hospitality rather than hostility.

One crucial aspect of this is creating safe and legal migration routes. It means recognising the agency of every person who crosses a border, and treating them with dignity rather than considering them as abstract numbers to be shuffled from place to place.

Migrants themselves imagine the borders of Europe as a site of hope. The resilient hope of migrants is evidenced by their refusal to leave border zones and points of transit. Migrants maintain the hope that eventually they will be able to cross those borders to reach something better that waits on the other side.

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