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"Borders": An Essay by Robin Celikates (Keywords: Refugees; Nationalism; Pandemic; Critical Theory)


White house on hill

Artwork by Blane De St. Croix

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 2 ("The New Basics: Society").

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While borders may in general no longer be serious obstacles for those whose passports score high on the Global Passport Power Rank – with Germany, the US, and France consistently in the top 3 –, the pandemic and the accompanying border closures have reminded even the privileged that the border regime is not a unified geopolitical space in which people move according to the same logic. Rather, it is a highly fragmented and stratified space in which the effects of the colonialism of the past and the imperialism of the present combine with arbitrary state power to establish a mobility hierarchy that can at times shift abruptly but that in general mirrors global power relations (with countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria that have been subject to endless wars and military interventions at the bottom).


The pandemic has also highlighted the deadly ways in which the spread and impact of the Coronavirus has been profoundly shaped by social and political practices – such as tourism and travel –, institutions – such as governments and their advisors –, and structures – such as massive inequalities along class, race, and gender lines. All of these are part of systems of border- and boundary-making that are at the same time historically variable and subject to collective political agency, as well as entrenched and resilient. The international border regime is one such system.


It is worth remembering that in the early days of the pandemic (and in some cases all the way up to the present day) governments across the world resorted to closing their borders, more or less explicitly likening the threat of the virus to the “threat” of “uncontrolled” migration, while it should have been clear all along that the virus’ spread did not respect any borders, and that any effective and sustainable response, including vaccination and prevention, would need to be coordinated on a transnational scale and require global cooperation as well as massive redistribution and sharing of resources, including vaccines, medical knowledge, and medical equipment, such as ventilators and protective gear.


The precarity and vulnerability the pandemic imposed on people is distributed in a radically unequal fashion, both within societies and across the globe.

The kind of disaster nationalism to which powerful and wealthy countries resorted – closing their borders, hoarding vaccines and medical equipment, leaving migrants and refugees in limbo or to die – could be countered by insisting that we are witnessing a pandemic in the literal sense, i.e., a health crisis that affects not just a part of the population but all (pan) people (demos), thus highlighting the inefficiency of the border regime. But this response only tells half the story, as the precarity and vulnerability the pandemic imposed on people is distributed in a radically unequal fashion, both within societies and across the globe. In the rich countries of what is often called the Global North, the virus disproportionately affected (and continues to affect) workers in underpaid jobs, in supermarkets, warehouses, hospitals, delivery services, and informal care, as well as the homeless and the imprisoned. Not surprisingly, these are often migrant and racialized groups whose working conditions have already been shaped by precarity, uncertainty, and increased exposure to risk prior to the pandemic.


This dynamic has been even more pronounced in the case of refugees and irregular migrants. The catastrophic effects of the pandemic have been especially harsh at the border, in a form that is both intensified by the border but also made invisible by the imaginary and ideology of the border. This imaginary and ideology make it seem as if the unsustainable way of life lived in the Global North at the expense of exploited, dominated, and abandoned populations elsewhere and at home is disconnected from what happens outside of the borders of one’s society. Migrants and refugees seemingly show up at “our” borders from out of nowhere and for reasons that are completely unrelated to one’s own political community and its past and current place in the world order. The public amnesia that is connected to this ideology is an essential part of what the late Charles Mills calls “global white ignorance” – the refusal to acknowledge “that a system of illicit racial empowerment and disablement inherited from the past may still be at work, reproducing unfair privilege and handicap at different racial poles through a wide variety of interlocking societal mechanisms.” The international border regime and the way it excludes, marginalizes, racializes, and governs migration is not only an essential part of this system, it is an essential mechanism for its reproduction.


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Against this background, it is hardly surprising that during the ups and downs of the pandemic, refugee camps repeatedly became the crucible of the crisis just as they exemplified the structural violence of the border regime more generally. Take the camps at the borders of the European Union, for example in Greece, where tens of thousands of people are confined under hygienic conditions that are hard to imagine, without the ability to wash their hands, let alone practice social distancing or access any reliable medical help. This is neither a natural condition nor an accidental by-product of an otherwise well-functioning border regime. Just like the thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean, it is the direct effect of political decisions taken by the EU and its member states, and of the acceptance of these decisions by the citizens of the EU.


Instead of recognizing the emergency and collectively organizing to help – which is always a possibility as the reaction to the refugees fleeing the Russian war against Ukraine in countries such as Poland and Germany exemplifies –, the EU member states again left Greece alone, resulting in the Greek government’s decision to place the camps under lockdown. Unfortunately, this declaration of moral bankruptcy is not a surprise but continues a dismal EU record that has only intensified since the “summer of migration” in 2015, when the mass political agency of refugees – and especially the march from the Budapest train station to the Austrian and German borders – forced politicians to open the borders. In recent years, political elites repeated the slogan “2015 shall not repeat itself!” – not in reference to the crisis experienced by refugees but to the temporary decision to open the borders that their concerted action forced upon Austria and Germany.


The indifference towards the suffering of refugees at the EU’s borders fits well with the logic of disaster nationalism that the hollow rhetoric of solidarity barely manages to disguise.

The indifference towards the suffering of refugees at the EU’s borders – or rather: the EU’s exercise of its “power to make live and let die” – fits well with the logic of disaster nationalism that the hollow rhetoric of solidarity barely manages to disguise: every state is on its own, the virus is “othered” as a foreign threat or “invasion”, and the closing of borders intensifies what Nicholas de Genova has called the “border spectacle” that is supposed to assure citizens that their government has everything under control.


Against this background, the illegitimacy of the border regime, especially in its catastrophic effects on refugees in camps in Greece, in the forests at the Belorussian-Polish border, at the US-Mexican border and elsewhere, needs to be publicly exposed, documented, and denounced. Indeed, the illegitimacy of this regime is overdetermined and goes beyond the incontrovertible fact that in its current form it violates international law and creates a permanent humanitarian catastrophe. From a normative perspective, the injustice-generating and injustice-preserving, freedom-restricting, and undemocratic character of the existing border regime has also been rigorously demonstrated and in daily political contestations by refugee and migrant movements themselves.


Nevertheless, insisting on this illegitimacy is insufficient as it underestimates the complexity of the border as a social institution as well as the powerful forces of naturalization that make borders seem part of the intrinsic make-up of our world, especially for those who are exempt from their daily terror as well as the slow institutional violence they exert – from the arduousness and arbitrariness of visa procedures to the fact that refugees and migrants never really cross the border, never really manage to leave it behind, but continue to be crossed by it. The normative case against borders, at least in the form in which they currently exist, thus needs to be supplanted by a critical theory of the border.


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Critical theory, however, is still grappling with its legacy of methodological nationalism, and has had little to say on these issues in the past. So we need to turn to critical migration studies and its lessons that build on the knowledge generated in practices of migration as well as migrant and refugee activism. Migration itself, and the struggles it gives rise to, have played an essential role in theorizing, denaturalizing, and politicizing the border regime in ways that go beyond mere normative, moral, or legal problematization. They suggest that the so-called “refugee crisis” was in truth much more a crisis of established state-centred understandings of borders and of migration (and of the types of subjects refugees are supposed to be), and a crisis that borders inflicted upon migrants, rather than the crisis of a properly functioning border regime caused by uninvited migrants.


Minimally, the shift in perspective that these struggles suggest involves what Sandro Mezzadra calls “seeing like a migrant” instead of “seeing like a state,” and requires us to move beyond the dominant understanding of the refugee and the migrant, of borders, and of migration from the point of view of stasis, of non-movement, and of states who claim the authority, and the capacity, to unilaterally control and regulate movement with the bordering practices and apparatuses. In contrast, what is called for – and what the practice of migration prefigures and generates as knowledge – is a more complex understanding of migration that is not primarily determined by lack, anomaly, or failure, and that challenges ahistorical rationalizations of fundamentally racist forms of exclusion and selection. It also calls for and generates a more complex understanding of borders as heterogeneous social institutions that are intrinsically political and open to struggles, while at the same time operating as devices of naturalization that remove actual borders from politics and struggle. In short, seeing like a migrant involves foregrounding the following three insights:


1. Borders do not simply have a derived or secondary status – as if they were simply drawing the line between those who belong and those who don’t – but they are essentially productive, generative, and constitutive of the difference between citizens and migrants, and between different categories of migrants (“deserving” refugees versus economic migrants) that are fundamental to the restrictive ways in which most people think about the borders of political communities, citizenship, and belonging today (this is a point made prominently in the work of Etienne Balibar, amongst others).

2. Borders are no longer exclusively or primarily “at the border,” at the “limits” of the state’s territory, but they have proliferated toward the interior as well as the exterior of the political community and been diffused into “borderscapes,” following those not deemed to belong around as they move. This is especially true for the transformation of the EU’s border regime as investigated by Bernd Kasparek and others.

3. Borders do not simply enable the exclusion of noncitizens and migrants, and the inclusion of citizens and guests. Their porosity and imperfection are part of their functionality and design, enabling a form of differential inclusion and selection that does not just block irregular migration but filters it. This filtering function also operates in accordance with the demands of contemporary labour markets (as analyzed in the work of critical migration scholars like Manuela Bojadžijev and Serhat Karakayali), and due to its necessarily imperfect realization opens up some space for migrant agency at the border.


One implication of these lessons is that a border is never just a border, a gate to be opened or closed at will – although such gates do of course exist and can remain closed with fatal consequences. This becomes especially apparent, and scandalous, both in times of a pandemic in which governments race to close their borders as if this would stop a virus that has already exposed this way of thinking about borders as naïve and fetishistic, as well as in times of war, when governments may selectively decide to open their borders, open them half-way and only for some, or not at all.


A border is never just a border, a gate to be opened or closed at will – although such gates do of course exist and can remain closed with fatal consequences.

If we look for vectors of politicization and change in this situation, we again need to turn to migrant and refugee movements and struggles. An especially powerful example is provided by the already mentioned 2015 march of refugees from the Budapest train station to the Austrian and German border. The political iconography of the march came to symbolize the collapse of the EU’s border regime as well as the capacity of refugees and migrants to collectively assert and perform their right to mobility, protesting the lack of safe and legal routes across the borders of Europe. As Majd, one of the refugees on the march, put it in a documentary available on the website of The Guardian: “When we walk, we make our decision. We don’t wait for others to give us solutions. Stand up my people. We all stand up, go walk”.


In 2015, and on countless other occasions before and since then, it was actual migrant perspectives, practices, and agency that politicized the question of borders and led to a genuine political break, breach, or opening – an opening that in 2015 not only subverted the EU’s border regime but also fundamentally challenged how migrants and refugees are represented. They managed, at least temporarily, to break down the dualistic grid of securitization and humanitarianism, manifesting the political and epistemic agency of those usually depersonalized in the vocabulary of “floods,” “flows,” or “streams.”


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In a world in which nation-states claim a unilateral right to control their borders – both the borders of their territory and the borders of membership and belonging –, migrant and refugee movements have the power to challenge a whole way of life and a political imaginary that abstracts from its own structural implication in the production of the conditions that violate migrants’ “right to stay” as well as their “right to escape”. Prominent slogans of migrant movements, such as “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us,” exemplify this power, and point out the web of entanglements, both historical and present, that sustain it. They thus provide a necessary antidote to the obsession with borders and boundaries that the defence of the system of illicit empowerment relies on, fuels, and exploits.


What would it mean to reorient our political practice and theory, including state-centred concepts such as citizenship and the border, around the alternatives and potentialities that migration and border struggles open up?

To point out that borders are always subject to border struggles and that migrants are involved in these struggles as agents, and thus should not be regarded as merely passive victims in need of help or as parts of objective flows and waves, is not to romanticize the structural violence of the border regime that indeed functions as a set of deadly obstructions of the freedom of movement enacted in migration, nor is it to romanticize the various conditions from and under which people migrate and flee. Rather, the fact of migration and the border struggles that result from it urge us to ask: What would it mean to reorient our political practice and theory, including state-centred concepts such as citizenship and the border, around the alternatives and potentialities that migration and border struggles open up?


The reality of the border regime and the way in which it contributes to making the pandemic – but also climate catastrophe, fascist and sectarian violence, imperial and civil wars – into a catastrophe for the most vulnerable on our planet confronts us with what in the end amounts to a simple choice: we can either affirm this regime and continue to naturalize it, thus sliding down the slippery slope towards a struggle of all against all, or we can contribute to the manifold struggles by refugees and migrants alike that aim to denaturalize and politicize the border regime, to expose its violence, to make it less catastrophic, to transform it and, in the end, to abolish it.


Robin Celikates is professor of social philosophy at Freie Universität Berlin and a member of the editorial team of Critical Times. He specializes in critical theory, civil disobedience, democracy, collective action, recognition, migration and citizenship, and methodological questions in political and social philosophy.

 

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 2 ("The New Basics: Society").

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