Niamh Ni Bhriain – The Deadly Politics of Colonial Borders during the Covid-19 Pandemic

There is a concerted effort by EU leaders to keep people seeking asylum out at all costs, & far too often they pay the ultimate price. At least six people have died each day trying to cross the Mediterranean in recent years.

Niamh Ní Bhriain coordinates the Transnational Institute’s War and Pacification Programme, which focuses on the permanent state of war and pacification of resistance.

Cross-posted from the Irish Broad Left

Covid-19 is causing thousands of deaths every day, but the pandemic is killing in other ways too. Governments around the world responded to the pandemic by shutting their borders to international arrivals and severely restricting people’s freedom of movement. While for some this was unprecedented, for much of the world’s population these borders had already been firmly shut for decades because they were considered too poor, too unruly or otherwise undesirable to be allowed in.

Many of today’s borders that we either defend with our lives or die trying to cross, originated during our dark colonial past. Far from being natural or apolitical, modern borders are colonialist constructs. By reinforcing these borders, we are simultaneously upholding symbols of oppression and a globalized system of power and segregation that separates us according to race, colour and class.

Grassroots anti-racist and anti-colonialist movements are gathering momentum across the US, Europe and beyond, tearing down colonial statues and other symbols that until now were deemed untouchable. Similarly, radical calls to abolish the police and prisons have reverberated from movements protesting systemic racism and are gaining traction in mainstream discourse. Far from upholding the rule of law or making us safer, these violent forces embody institutionalized injustice and inequality, stemming directly from colonialism and the enslavement of colonised peoples.

This pandemic has shown that individualised state-level responses are inadequate in providing a solution to a globalised problem. We need international solidarity and collective action that transcends national borders. Abolishing borders must become a rallying cry of the anti-racist and anti-colonialist movements too.

We must challenge the current border regime, reframe borders as colonialist constructs, demand that they be brought down and that freedom of movement be guaranteed to all, not just those lucky enough to have been born on the right side of them. In the midst of a global pandemic, now is the time to challenge the notion of borders and forcefully destruct the colonial border regime.

Colonialism by another name

For centuries, white European leaders chiselled perfectly straight lines unto global maps, each claiming their piece of the pie. These lines bore no resemblance to local geographical, cultural or linguistic realities and completely ignored the peoples living in these lands for millennia — they were, after all, Black, brown and Indigenous peoples whose lives did not matter.

Although European states were eventually forced to loosen some of their hold over colonised land, many of the borders they invented remain in place and are still largely controlled by former colonial powers today. They have effectively externalised their borders far beyond the geographic limits of their respective sovereign territories. In a nutshell: border externalisation is colonialism by another name.

Border externalisation aims to prevent forcibly displaced peoples from reaching the countries of the Global North where they would be eligible to claim asylum. It is a policy whereby people on the move are contained, often in unsafe third countries, where they are not afforded international protection and are frequently subjected to torture. They cannot advance to safety, but cannot go home either – they are stuck in limbo.

Imagine for a second that upon arrival at a British or US border, the decision on whether to permit or deny you entry was based on advice from Senegalese or Guatemalan officials. Most would think this unfathomable, even ludicrous. And yet, in effect, this is exactly what is happening in reverse.

Western powers continue to call the shots on how governments in the Global South should patrol and control their borders by directly influencing their national border policies. Colonialism is alive and well and will not be truly disbanded unless we address globalised border politics and imperialist power dynamics.

Since 1992, and more aggressively since 2005, the European Union (EU) and its member states have pursued policies that externalise European border control as far south as Senegal and as far east as Azerbaijan. Under bilateral and multilateral agreements, security forces representing various EU nations, as well as the EU’s Borders and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, are deployed to third countries to patrol their borders and train and equip their border guards.

In beefing up its external border security, the EU has built a fortress around itself and simultaneously propped up authoritarian governments across north Africa and the Middle East, undermining democracy, provoking unrest and causing mass displacement.

Similarly, the US has externalised its borders to Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. Since 2014, the US has formally provided training and equipment to Mexican immigration authorities and security forces under the terms of Mexico’s Southern Border Program. Unsurprisingly, reinforcing Mexico’s southern border has done nothing to address the root causes of why people are fleeing countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in the first place and has not deterred them from trying to cross it. Instead migrants are forced to rely on smugglers to take them along even more dangerous routes or they are left in limbo on the southern side of the border unable to continue northward but similarly they cannot return home.

In July 2013, Australia announced that it would detain anyone arriving by sea and hold them indefinitely at offshore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island. This strategy has cost in excess of US$5.4 billion (4.8bn), with more than 3,000 people having been detained on these islands. Even if they meet the requirements to be legally recognised as refugees, the government does not consider them as such because they arrived by sea. They wait and wait for years while being subjected to torture, including psychological torture, leading some to end their own lives as their only means of escaping this limbo.

Private border industry booms

With border externalisation and forced deportation becoming standard practice, the border security industry is booming. Private corporate actors are cashing in by creating lucrative business opportunities out of a political and humanitarian catastrophe.

Indeed, we see that it is increasingly private security companies who set the border politics agenda, having the ear of the most influential policy makers in the corridors of power. In 2018, the global border security market was worth $17.5 billion (14.8bn), with that figure set to grow by at least eight per cent in the coming years. This estimate was made prior to COVID-19 and will likely now be considerably higher.

In putting together the pieces of the border imperialism puzzle, we must not overlook the hugely influential role of these private security companies. In privatising borders, states outsource fundamental state duties to private entities that are not bound by international human rights law to the extent that states are and they are rarely, if ever, held accountable for violations.

Ultimately, private companies are driven by profit, plain and simple, and they will do what needs to be done to increase it. They act in a less transparent manner and are not accountable to the people in the same way that democratically elected officials are. There are often serious conflicts of interest whereby the political leaders who are responsible for boosting the border apparatus are at the same time key shareholders and investors in the very companies involved in fortifying our border security.

It boils down to this: those influencing and in charge of making the political decisions to boost the border apparatus get filthy rich by doing so. They concoct a narrative that justifies the beefing-up of border security measures using the excuse of national security by framing those arriving from abroad as illegal, dangerous and posing a threat to “our ways of living.”

Social and virtual walls

Borders are more than lines delineating physical space and separating one jurisdiction from another. They are a means by which we order and surveil society, reinforcing the race, colour and class divisions in our everyday lives that began under colonial rule and continue to this day.

Insidious walls rise up around people of colour, the poor, migrants and the undocumented, placing them in a perpetual state of fear and insecurity. There are administrative, legal and financial barriers in accessing health care, housing, education and employment. Restrictive regulations set out as part of an imperialist globalized border regime are fed to service providers within our communities, making them gatekeepers who permit or impede access to basic services.

To attend a medical appointment, enrol in school, secure a permanent address or find a job, we need to provide proof of residence or demonstrate financial worth. Those who cannot are forced to live in the shadows. Often, the undocumented will suffer through illness because visiting a hospital may lead to their deportation. In a similar vein, those suffering from structural impoverishment will incur a lifetime of debt that they will never be able to repay should they require medical treatment.

Even though the working class carry out much of society’s most essential labour, as the pandemic has made clear, they remain underpaid and exploited. Their invaluable contribution is made invisible by a capitalist system that refuses to see them. Only when they stop working do they become visible through their absence.

Parallel, clandestine worlds of resistance co-exist where those targeted by this invasive border regime look after and out for each other. Undocumented workers support each other in finding jobs, in cashing cheques, in falsifying documents, in sharing contacts for doctors, lawyers and other professionals who are sympathetic to their status and are not likely to report them – all of this because to live a dignified life within a state that does not recognise your existence is impossible without this kind of solidarity. As the border apparatus expands into every crevasse of our lives, many of these spaces are rapidly disappearing.

As our world becomes increasingly digitalised, so do our borders. Although mainstream discourse has focused largely on the building of walls along borderlines, in reality, virtual walls by way of drones, sensors and other biometric and surveillance technology, are already in place, making even the most remote borderlands virtually impossible to penetrate.

In June, the EU signed a contract for an interoperable digital monitoring system to be rolled out by 2022 that will collect large amounts of personal data from third-country nationals as they enter the Schengen area, including from children as young as six years old. The system’s database will be accessible to hundreds of authorities and thousands of officials across Europe and will hold fingerprints and facial images of more than 400 million people by 2022. This mass surveillance of non-Europeans discriminates against third-country nationals, immediately treating them with suspicion and effectively assuming that they pose a threat.

Covid-19 is speeding up the move towards a cashless society. We are encouraged, and sometimes obligated, to pay by card. The undocumented cannot navigate cashless societies and these measures squeeze them further out of society, making their interaction in social spaces virtually impossible.

Large-scale efforts have been employed to control and prevent the spread of Covid-19 through digital means. Tracking apps have been rolled out and downloaded around the world under the pretext of keeping us safe. This is data collection on steroids. Millions of people, either willingly or under obligation, now have their every move tracked without knowing how this data will be used, stored and destroyed, by whom and to what end. History has shown that surveillance is key in pacifying populations under siege and pre-empting and curbing dissent.

Although digital border surveillance existed or was envisaged before this health emergency, there is now a dangerous blurring of the lines between what is essential to curtail a global pandemic and what is advantageous border politics. The entanglement of health with border securitisation and surveillance puts us in uncharted waters that will become increasingly murky as health becomes more and more securitised.

Border politics during the pandemic

The onset of Covid-19 saw governments double down on border securitisation and unashamedly use the virus as a pretext to introduce a raft of draconian measures that made border politics even deadlier than before.

Despite the legal obligation to guarantee the right to seek asylum, the EU and the US have derogated from their legal obligation to provide international protection, and are pushing back those attempting to reach European shores and deporting migrants arriving to the US before they can exercise their right to seek asylum. This violates the fundamental principle of non-refoulement and is a grave breach of customary international law, international human rights law and international maritime law.

In the EU, Italy and Malta closed their ports and knowingly left boats adrift, allowing people to die at sea. In one case a rubber boat carrying 63 people, fleeing war-torn Libya, was left adrift for a week. Twelve people died of dehydration and drowning and those who survived were forcibly towed back to Libya and placed in a detention centre in Tripoli that is notorious for torture. Various European national coastguards and Frontex were alerted to the boat in distress but did not intervene.

In recent years, NGOs’ capacity to respond has been greatly reduced because of policies that criminalise their activities. This was further compounded by the shutdown of ports in response to Covid-19, forcing them to berth their ships. Let us be clear though – the duty to search and rescue at sea does not lie with civil society: it lies squarely with states. Civil society only does so because states do not.

There is a sustained and concerted effort by EU leaders to keep people seeking asylum out at all costs, and far too often they pay the ultimate price with their lives. At least six people have died each day on average trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in recent years. In reality, though, there are likely to have been many, many more lives lost.

Not unlike Derek Chauvin, the police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck until he could no longer breathe, European leaders too, through their border policies systematically cut off oxygen to thousands of people each year, only they do not get their hands quite so dirty in the process.

And, like George Floyd, the lifeless bodies that sink to the bottom of a sea that surrounds some of the world’s richest nations are also Black lives that do not matter in the eyes of the rich and powerful. The Mediterranean is a sunken mass grave containing the remains of tens of thousands of nameless souls who died at the hands of European leaders.

In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order to deny entry to, and for the immediate deportation of, non-citizens arriving without valid documentation, citing an obscure quarantine law. By July 1, 70,000 people had been deported within hours of arrival, leaving no recourse to seek asylum or challenge their deportation. This public health law facilitated mass deportation on a scale previously inconceivable under immigration law.

Decolonising borders

Human history is a history of migration. It has always been like this, and will always remain so. Out of sheer desperation, alternating degrees of hope and despair, and driven by the human instinct to survive, people will continue to move – fleeing war-torn countries, political and economic violence, or devastation brought about by climate breakdown.

Instead of guaranteeing their freedom of movement and the right to seek asylum, border externalisation and securitisation places them in perpetual insecurity, impeding their onward journey but similarly they are unable to return home. As in Dante’s Inferno, they have been banished to Limbo, the outer most circle of hell. Their crime? Trying to survive.

In June, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that we need to ‘Europeanise’ the Sahel, justifying this statement by pointing to the threat of terrorism. Colonial powers have always found a pretext to justify their domination over foreign lands and the imposition of borders that serve only for the powerful to inflict untold horror on the powerless.

This will continue unless we force an honest conversation about the decolonisation of borders. This conversation must not see borders in isolation or people on the move within a vacuum. It must encompass all that is so fundamentally wrong with imperialist foreign policy, capitalist driven trade deals and globalised markets, and patriarchal power dynamics, that make a dignified life unliveable for much of the world’s population and forces them to move.

Anti-racist and anti-colonialist movements must unite, look outward and transcend borders with their rallying cries, reaching across national and regional contexts. Black, brown and Indigenous lives must matter to us all globally.

We must unashamedly and forcefully decry and demand that borders be dismantled in every sense of the word. We must frame borders as colonialist constructs and unite to bring them down. We must organise – take to the streets, occupy public space, organise among workers; we must stop working, strike, boycott. There is strength in unity. We must not stay silent.

In the words of Irish revolutionary and anti-colonialist Roger Casement, we must “rebel in act and deed” against the imperialist structures and institutionalised racism that underpin our world’s borders.

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