citizenship, international relations

Migration and Human Rights (47): A Phenomenology of Borders

Border, by Banksy

Border, by Banksy

Let’s admit it: borders are an illusion. They don’t exist. The things that do exist are border controls, deportations, entry restrictions, visa requirements, border shootings etc. Those things are real enough and often painful for those feeling the brunt. They are facts in the original sense of the word, from the Latin facere, “to do”. They are things that people do to each other.

But none of those things, not even all those things put together, amount to what we think are borders. We believe, erroneously, that borders are separation lines, separating two or more political and geographical spaces, territories, or pieces of the earth. There’s a real physical, even earthly sense of separation that is implied in the border concept. Borders cut up the earth.

But of course they don’t, really. Borders aren’t facts but ideas, and as ideas they are more or less realized, but never completely real. Those who claim to protect the borders – the “front” in frontière – are not protecting a thing but are rather striving for an ideal, an ideal justified in their minds by a variety of other ideals (culture, prosperity, democracy etc.). The separations are merely fragmentary in real life. This is clear from the fact that people routinely cross borders illegally and without permission, as if there’s nothing there, or at least as if there isn’t a clear separation between territories. They may sometimes find that the difficulty of moving increases and then decreases. Even if they are stopped, shot, caught or deported – which often doesn’t happen – they don’t experience a so-called border. They merely experience an obstacle limited in space, not the territory-encompassing and circular separation that a border is claimed to be.

The lack of reality of borders is also evident from their lack of stability. Below are a few examples. Poland, for instance, ceased to exist completely for some time in its history and its borders fluctuated violently throughout:

Territorial-changes-of-Poland-1635-2009-small

(source)

The Balkans have even given their name to the process of shifting borders:

578px-Balkans_Animation_1800-2006

(source)

Sweden is perhaps an unexpected example of instability:

sweden-through-history2

(source)

This is China, or, better, these are the different China’s throughout history:

china-map

(source)

And here’s France:

220px-French_borders_from_985_to_1947

(source)

In fact, you could pick just about any part of the world and see the same thing. Perhaps because we consume more news than history we tend to see international borders and the shapes of countries as fixed entities. It’s really a big news story when a territory secedes, when countries unify etc. And yet, over a slightly longer time frame, that is normality. You can look at this in two ways:

  • Either this proves the case for strong borders: most of the changes were due to foreign invasions.
  • Or it’s an argument for the lack of importance of borders: after all, if borders change over the course of a few decades, it’s hardly fair to keep people out who didn’t move and who turned from insiders to outsiders through no fault of their own.

My point is that both ways of looking at the reality of borders should retain some validity. If we agree that borders are an idea that can never be realized completely, then the argument is about the degree of realization. Border defenders should realize that there will always be unauthorized cross-border movement because they can’t have their factual separation the way they like it. Defenders of migration, on the  other hand, should admit that “open borders” is not the same thing as “no borders”. Even if it’s just an idea, borders merit some attempt at realization. You can allow limitless immigration and yet try to defend the border against invading armies or immigrants intent on terrorist attacks. This way, your country can remain an independent entity – designed by its borders, or better its idea of a border – while opening its borders to immigrants. Also, you can allow limitless immigration and yet give citizenship only to people born within the country. That’s another way to retain your country and allow immigration at the same time. Hence, immigration restrictionists are wrong to claim that an open borders policy destroys the very concept of the border and equals a no borders policy.

One final image, which should be labeled “who you calling immigrants?”:

BfULY4cCIAAKc9q

(source)

More posts in this series are here.

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6 thoughts on “Migration and Human Rights (47): A Phenomenology of Borders

  1. You put together a very convincing argument about the effectiveness of borders in the modern world.

    I agree that our perceptions of borders should shift since over-emphasizing where one nation begins and one ends can create an US VS THEM mentality. I am a teacher, and many students have an erroneous belief that borders also represent ethnic divisions. When I mentioned that China and Russia would often take each other’s territories they were surprised to find out that ethnic Chinese people live within Russia’s borders and possibly speak Russian and not Chinese!

    In your final point you mention allowing limitless immigration and only extending citizenship to those who are born in the country. In my opinion, this can become problematic if someone immigrates with their parents at the age of 5, grows up in their adopted nation, begins working, and then perhaps encounters a problem with authority such as a minor drug charge. Some countries will send offenders back to their countries of origin just for a minor infraction. This can separate families and put immigrants in a difficult position when they return to their birth country because they may not speak the language or have the social networks in order to be successful.

    Thank you for sharing your post.

  2. Pingback: What are Borders? (2/2) | Pick-Me-Up Tonic

  3. Pingback: What are Borders? (2/2) | Geo Pickmeup

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