Violent Borders: In defence of ‘the right to move’

Sunday 22/01/2017
The cover of Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move.

Reece Jones’ Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move traces the history of the nation-state from a territory defined by its front lines to an exclusive area of governance. He masterfully frames the European migrant crisis as a by-product of the failed and elitist concept of state borders.
“Prior to the emergence of states, people were free to move as they pleased,” Jones writes.
The book describes how walls historically bound great cities, with the primary task of protecting the wealth within. As cities became states and states developed legal systems, the right to move was addressed in different ways, culminating in violent modern-day border conflicts.
Early documents reserved the privilege of movement to noble elites, with most citizens bound by their legal status as slaves or serfs. The Magna Carta officially designated the right to travel in and out of England to a select few, “without fear” of kings. Although freedom of movement for the poor was not explicitly limited, it simply was not considered, writes Jones. He uses such instances as precursors to a critique of the current global attitude towards the movement of people.
As serfdom died out by the 19th century, Europe experienced a brief period of relatively free movement, spurring the need for nation-states to establish a new form of control over resources and land. The concept of citizenship emerged as this new model, with identity documents and more secure state borders eventually defining political communities as they are today.
Jones points out that just as the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 served to organise the system of borders in Europe, state beneficiaries of that system drew similarly arbitrary lines elsewhere in their search for resources in distant lands.
Zones of influence were colonised in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas, often without consideration of ethnic or linguistic divisions. Jones argues — quite rightly — that the eventual decolonisation processes of the 20th century brought about the creation of boundaries that often failed to meet local needs and that continue to hamper peace at the borders.
Africa is a prime example. While there are only 54 African countries, more than 1,500 languages are spoken, a fact that the de-colonisers of the 1940s did not respect. Jones cites Africa’s approximately 50 active independence movements as a consequence.
Foreign misadventures created a map whose appearance is etched not by local social contracts but by an often-tactless European exit strategy.
The increasing militarisation of state borders, Jones argues, comes because of countries fighting against their dwindling power in a world of supranational organisations such as the United Nations.
The Mexico-US frontier, for example, had only 3,000 Border Patrol agents in 1990 but by 2010 that number had increased to 20,000; 33 people were killed by Border Patrol there from 2010-15.
The India-Bangladesh border, designed by the British, has seen more deaths than any other, with India’s Border Security Force killing more than 1,000 people from 2010-15.
In Europe, despite talk of removing borders dominating the narrative in the 1990s, migrant violence is increasing; 23,700 migrants have died attempting to reach the European Union since 2004 due to increasingly rare routes of safe passage.
“The European migration crisis demonstrates the structural violence of the global border regime,” writes Jones.
Violent Borders puts questions of movement and intrastate inequality in a historical perspective that once glimpsed cannot be unseen. It firmly, and convincingly, maintains that borders are nothing more than state tools for maintaining control of resources and populations, the beneficiaries of which are often the rich while those who suffer its intrinsically violent wrath are the poor who seek safety within its walls.
“The violence of borders goes hand in hand with protecting the privileges that borders created,” Jones writes.
Jones does not offer solutions to the migrant crisis or other issues, such as environmental damage, induced by the “global border regime”. He writes: “The system of states, borders and resource enclosures is embedded in our culture and our way of life and permeates many aspects of our existence to the point that it is difficult to imagine life outside of it.”
Instead, he shows how by simply moving, people can fight against the domination and unjust exclusivity of wealthy countries, painting migrants as rebels in this sense.
Jones dismisses the common misconception that borders are “natural” or “eternal” in any way. He argues instead that humans require the right to freedom of movement just as much as the rights guaranteed by their artificial countries.
The value of Jones’ work is in its breakdown of the us-and-them mentality that is so persistent in the story of borders and that is undermined by the migrants of today in what author Simon Springer (Why a Radical Geography Must be Anarchist) terms the “revolution of the everyday”, a revolution that Jones says should be encouraged.
“Refusing to abide by these enclosures and movement restrictions is a political act that can expose the violence of borders and the inequality of the global border regime,” Jones says.
Despite its abstract conclusions, Violent Borders is an excellent read delivering a deeper understanding of the structural issues underlying the restriction of movement of people between states and the intrinsic violence Jones’ claims it breeds.