Movement as Political Act

Reece Jones, Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move

Verso, 208pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781784784713

reviewed by Dominic Davies

In January 2011, 15-year-old Felani Khatun began the return journey from India with her father, where he had been working without a visa, to their home country of Bangladesh. The family had been working illegally because acquiring passports is such a densely bureaucratic – and for Felani’s family, far too expensive – process. Instead, Felani and her father paid a smuggler $50 to arrange for their crossing. Though pre-2000 the border had been lightly guarded, terrorist attacks in Mumbai and some of India’s other major cities led first to the construction of fencing, and then walls, along the subcontinents borders, manned by a proliferating Border Security Force (BSF) which is now the largest in the world. Under the cover of the early morning mist, Felani climbed the smugglers’ small bamboo ladder over the border fence.

Her traditional dress, a shalwar kameez, became caught on the barbed wire and she began to panic. The noise promptly drew the attention of a nearby border guard who, shockingly, followed his orders to shoot-to-kill. After being shot, Felani’s body remained hooked, askew, on the barbed-wire fence for several hours. She did not die instantly and asked for water to be passed to her. As the fog lifted, her body could be seen from a distance. This shockingly Christ-like story of prolonged suffering at the hands of border violence garnered international attention, though the outrage that it first evoked has dissipated with time. Similarly, the condemnatory calls for action made in response to the photograph of the body of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, washed up and face down on a Turkish beach, may have been vocal at first. But it was not long before the realities of this border violence was diffused by political and media recourse to a rhetoric of populist nationalism, both in Europe and elsewhere.

The story of Felani Khatun, which Reece Jones recounts halfway through his new book, Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move, conveys the horrific consequences physical border controls as infrastructures from walls to fences to watchtowers proliferate across the world today. Similarly, it points to the strategies of dehumanisation that inform current political and mainstream media representations of migrating humans and, in turn, their violent ramifications. But Jones’s argument in this slim and highly readable book, though vocal in its condemnation of these first two issues, runs even deeper. In a strategic layering of contemporary stories of violent border control with accounts of Medieval history, institutional critiques of the UN, and an emphasis on the ecological failings of the nation-state system, to name just a few, Jones shows how the very concept of borders, historically, culturally and even psychologically, is an inherently violent one. Most importantly, Jones’s claim that borders are responsible for almost all contemporary forms of violence lead him to a set of radical solutions that suggest new ways to understand and combat, albeit implicitly, the aggressive nationalist populisms that are shaping so many political formations across the world today.

Focusing on the physical violence ‘at the border’, Jones’s early chapters at first seem a little obvious. In its opening pages, the book offers a synthesis of much recent – and undoubtedly excellent – journalistic and academic work on new border technologies, but not much more than that. Written in a disarmingly accessible style, such a contribution would still be no bad thing. However, Jones’s conception of ’violent borders’ expands well beyond this a one-dimensional understanding of the titular phrase – that is, simply as the physical violence experienced by migrants at the border. Though many studies have focused on violent border technologies, for Jones these are not the causes of violence. Rather, the technological militarisation of borders is simply an enhancement of the inherent violence of the very notion of the border and the racism and hyper-nationalism that the border signifies. It is in Chapters Three and Four, after the almost obligatory accounts of the physical realities of Fortress Europe and the US-Mexico border have been undertaken, that Jones begins his real critical work, building an argument that culminates in some solid policy action points conveyed with a lucidity lacking in many similar public-oriented hybrids of academic study and polemic.

Perhaps Jones’s most important contribution is his radical reevaluation of the concept of ‘citizenship’, generally taken by liberals to be a social good. Viewing citizenship in relation to the borders that necessarily constitute it, Jones argues that this concept is in fact as violent and discriminatory as the historical travesties of slavery and other kinds of exploitative indentured labour. By placing citizen’s rights over human rights, the concept of citizenship necessarily deems some people to be ‘more human’ or ‘less human’ than others. Borders are the lines that segment the world into hierarchical scales, exacerbating the social and economic privilege of some and the poverty of others. Chapter Five’s surprising diversion through a history of peasant resistance to the internal borders instituted through the enclosures in Medieval England, which broke up the population in order to isolate pools of labour within the UK, allows Jones to show how the external borders of the 20th and 21st centuries play a similarly fundamental role in disenfranchising and subjecting workforces to exploitation on a global scale. By restricting human movement between nation-states, borders allow different citizenries to be valued differently, thereby creating regulated, vulnerable labour pools in developing countries that are unable to move outside of their precarious circumstances.

However, Jones does not argue that borders divide the world into a simple binary of developed or developing nation-state blocs that are, respectively, homogeneously wealthy or homogeneously poor. Jones shows how the restriction of the movement of labour across borders – when combined with the contrasting fluidity of borders for corporations, products and capital in general – actually contributes to the impoverishment of working class populations in richer countries as well. By trapping the world’s poorer populations inside their nation-states, borders create a cheaper labour pool that undermines the job opportunities for the working class the world over.

It is fundamental to understand and re-articulate this basic analysis in our current historical moment. Trump’s Presidential campaign was in large part only successful because he harnessed the disenfranchisement felt by America’s de-unionised and increasingly impoverished working class. Trump’s outrageous executive order, which attempted to ban all Muslims from entering the US is indicative, is indicative of the way in which the figure of the migrant is waved wildly in the air as a distracting scapegoat, concealing these broader structural – though in fact, shockingly obvious – conditions. Trump’s rhetoric fundamentally (perhaps intentionally) gets it completely wrong: it is not the movement of people across borders that is the problem, but the movement of capital. The implications of Jones’s analysis are that policies based on this fundamental misunderstanding of border control are not going to alleviate, but actually exacerbate, the conditions that have led to worker impoverishment in countries across the globe.

Jones is attuned to the dark ironies of the ways in which European imperialism’s artificial borders – for example, the partition of India and Pakistan, or the Sykes-Picot Agreement – have led to conflicts which create migrants who are in turn now subject to the violence of Europe’s external borders. These historical processes serve to bolster his argument. But the nuance comes with Jones’s reevaluation of borders as constitutive of the contemporary world order, as he argues against other radical theorists of neoliberalism, such as Wendy Brown, who claim that the contemporary surge in global border enforcement is a symptom of the collapse of the nation-state. Conversely, for Jones this physical re-entrenchment of national borders ‘represents a rearticulation and expansion, not a retreat, of state power.’ Conceding that the nation-state is actually more powerful than ever before allows Jones to offer damning critiques of the institutions that conceal this reality, most notably the UN. In his comments on the UN’s ineffective efforts to combat climate change, he shows how that institution’s apparently transnational remit is in fact predicated on the sovereign authority of states, thereby reinforcing them. By reproducing the nation-state system, the UN is equally complicit in the reproduction of global inequalities as they are organised through and across bordered states. Meanwhile, efforts to combat inherently cross-national issues such as climate change will remain ineffective so long as they are orchestrated and implemented through an organisation predicated on the authority of individual states, rather than an authoritative and collaborative form of global governance.

Jones’s solutions to these predicaments are infused with anti-border sentiment, and build on the idea of an effective global government that is able to override the authority of nation-states. This is certainly not to make Jones sound conspiratorial, and though a cynic might find these solutions idealistic, they are put forward with astonishing lucidity. If freedom of movement within states is a human right, so it should be on a global scale, and the fact that citizens of some countries can practice this movement while others cannot is again indicative of the de-humanisation of a vast majority of the world’s population. But there are real economic benefits beyond these moral hypocrisies: though opening borders might temporarily disrupt the lifestyles of the wealthy, it would also allow host economies to grow. It would remove the poverty trap of off-shore labour forces in the developing world and thus force wealthy corporations to source workers at home. And by increasing the wealth of poorer workforces through concrete policies such as a global minimum wage, the planetary consumer base would expand and poorer populations, becoming richer, would be less inclined to migrate in the first place.

These are clearly bold and unfortunately, at least in the near future, unrealisable goals. However, Jones’s conclusion remains optimistic as he mobilises the obvious, physical border violence inflicted on migrants such as Felani Khatun toward a deeper recalibration of the contemporary global dispensation of sovereign nation-states – the structural and other kinds of violence that are symptomatic of a bordered world. ‘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’, writes Jones. Though this may in the short term result in ‘a further hardening of borders’ and an increase in the ‘xenophobic responses’ of host countries, he is adamant that by reframing ‘movement as a political act’, the eradication of borders can be reconfigured as a means to alleviating the multiple kinds of violence that they continue to inflict.