This essay is one of the more coherent parts that I’ve written for my undergraduate course. It has already been graded and I’ve edited it slightly to get rid of the obscure referencing because I won’t be including a bibliography.
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The past decades have seen an epoch of border fetishism, where they are invoked, chiefly, to designate difference (and therefore, weariness and hostility). Consequentially, the status of ‘illegal’ migrant has been readily used to strip citizens of political rights and divest a person of their humanity. The morality of this becomes muddied for many in the context of a post-colonial and expansive neoliberal moment. As Koshravi describes in his book, ‘Illegal’ Traveller: An Auto-Ethnography of Borders, “just as rivers, mountain ranges and deserts, borders are presented as primordial parts of nature” and thus helping to construct a collective defensiveness toward a ‘nation’s story’. Based around shared ideals, histories, attitudes and myth, borders serve as an essential reference for a communal sense of identity. Many modern academics would argue that these ideas–and the role of notions of nation sovereignty in sustaining them–are intrinsically tied to our own desires for individual autonomy and self-determination, but at a national level.
However, challenging these narratives–and the ‘othering’ which they encourage–should ultimately be the primary aim of any anthropologist in their work. In paraphrasing Marx’s vivid image of money’s relation to capital and the markets which it services, I would draw an immediate comparison to the inherent violent roles that modern nation-state borders play: “If the border-crosser arrives into a world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek, then the border-transgressor arrives dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt”. I would use this to pose the question of what defines an illegal (border-transgressor) and what defines a legal (border-crosser) traveller and how, if at all, are these definitions reconfigured through refugee status, citizenship rights or shockwave events such as wars or conflicts. In an attempt to give an answer to some of these questions, I will be drawing from three ethnographies which all detail an anthropologist’s fieldwork on borders, identity and what those experiences can tell us about how they are navigated and militarised in a contemporary political climate.
Nowhere in these texts is the question of citizenship and (il)legal status so evocatively put as when Koshravi describes his experience of being detained in a border prison cell whilst attempting to flee Iran (and forced conscription) during the war with Iraq in the 1980s. He would witness countless landings and departures of international airlines, filled with people that he refers to as having ‘surplus mobility rights’ because of the accessibility of crossing nation-state borders for those passengers, while he himself was fixed in immobility. As I have mentioned, borders represent an essential reference for a nation’s sense of collective identity and therefore, violating border regimes is also seen to violate ethical and aesthetical norms. In Koshravi’s earlier essay, and precursor to ‘Illegal’ Traveller, he highlights why this act is such a contentious one, in noting that “’Illegal’ border crossing challenges the sacred feature of the border rituals and symbols. It is seen as a criminal act deserving of punishment. A ‘transgression’ based on a capitalist-oriented and racial discriminating way of thinking, borders regulate movements of people”.
With these attitudes so ingrained, crossing borders for many can feel like a transgression, a disruption to a respected political order and an internalising of shame on these bases is quite often part of the punishment. That being said, borders can also be sites of defiance and resistance. As mentioned, Koshravi had just come out of high school when military service would come knocking at his door and those of all able young men. During the Iraq-Iran war, as with many other conflicts, it was seen as a duty to become martyrs for your country, to jump onto a live grenade with pride. To come back from the front lines alive was a chance that Koshravi did not want to take and so he crossed borders to escape martyrdom. Not only are borders contentious sites symbolically for those who cross them without whichever documentation and credential is acceptable for the time, but they are also–in contrast to common perception–opportunities for border patrols themselves to act above the law (a ‘whatever is necessary’ approach) and the spaces can even become beneficial for them, as “border crossers without papers are robbed by the guards before being taken into custody”. These are sites of an occupation of sorts; vulnerable migrants are blinded by rubber bullets, humiliated in front of border guards and soldiers, their possessions damaged, their water supplies spilled, their bodies beaten and urinated on and there are even large numbers of shootings and fatalities.
While Koshravi’s experience in fleeing the conflict is perhaps one that we can recognise in part, as the cruelty of border regimes is relatively well-known (though, not necessarily opposed), there are also auto-ethnographies and retellings of border-crossing to Western nations where migrants arrive from across seas and are met with a different kind of hostility. In De Genova’s ethnography, he describes the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 attacks and the United States’ proclamation of their “War on Terror” and how this impacted global border sanctions, including with the heightened demands on citizenship and the eroding of civil liberties. The real result of this is that the regular juridical status of citizenship itself is made more exclusive through policy, while political debate and mass media coverage will identify migrant ‘illegality’ as a self-evident ‘problem’. The divide here comes from the presupposition “that there is something inherently suspect about the human beings who migrate”. Typically, the legal status of a migrant ever since the events of September 11th has been defined by the ‘terrorism effect’ and through one of (or all) three things: i) the previous place of residence ii) legal history iii) whether or not the migrant is able to ‘offer’ the state which they are trying to enter capital gains (e.g. a member of a workforce). This system inherently discriminates against those who, as we’ve highlighted, are forced to transgress border regimes or who are unfit for work and/or do not have a work placement which they will be entering into soon upon arrival into the country.
When we look at the totality of the structural function of borders (as a means ‘protect’ against the class and/or race-based conflicts which are their foundation), these paradigmatic scenes manifest on a micro level too. As we see during the apartheid regime in South Africa, where borders were felt in all but name with the separating of the township and white urban centre from the rural homelands. Exercising sovereignty in these ways mentioned–where borders are designated and emphasised as means to protect a populous from ‘the threats’ that lie outside them–is to, as described by Mbembe in Necropolitics, “exercise control over mortality and to define life as the deployment and manifestation of power” and signifies a strong social relation to the state. Through reordering politics, the sovereign power does not merely exclude the undesirable persons but penalises and regulates them by petrifying them into immobility in detention centres, by ignominious and terrifying forms of deportation, or by racialised internal border control – that turns the citizen into a quasi-citizen. As Balibar puts it ‘some borders are no longer situated at the borders at all’ in geographical or political senses of the terms. Borders have become invisible borders, situated everywhere and nowhere. Hence the undesirable persons are not expelled by the border, they are forced to be borders.
It seems that the way to interrogate the nature of borders should not necessarily begin from an epistemological standpoint of the state and its function, either historically or in the present day, but rather from the starting point of seeing freedom of movement as something like a basic human entitlement. Though, as discussed, borders are not arbitrary by design or something to raise awareness of for them to go away – they serve a primary function. Migrant illegality and more specifically, the exclusivity of citizenship “is a crucial form for operationalizing the more general separation and abstraction of the political from the immediate processes of exploitation, which manifests itself ubiquitously in the reification of “the” state as a greater or lesser monopoly of “legitimate” coercive violence, exercised spatially over a delimited territory”. Perhaps, then, any intellectual enquiry into the careful negotiation of freedom and death which borders operate should begin and end with the role of capitalism itself.