Thoughts on Violent Borders by Reece Jones

Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move by Reece Jones provided a high level overview of borders and the structural and literal violence they cause in various different ways. It examines the actual death toll at borders (40,000 in the last decade alone), as well as the violence caused by less examined issues such as the unequal access to wages and labor regulations and the unequal impacts of environmental change and loss of resources through over-exploitation. The blurb calls it “A major new exploration of the refugee crisis, focusing on how borders are formed and policed”.

The state is a boundary-making institution that legitimizes the exclusion of others from land, resources, wealth, and opportunity through legal regimes and military power. States make exclusive claims to land and resources, define who has access by creating and monitoring social boundaries of belonging, and enforce these exclusions with legally sanctioned violence, such as the right of the police to use force. The structural violence of borders is at the foundation of the state in its role as a collector, protector, and exploiter of resources and labor. (Page 164)

Violent Borders begins with an examination of current borders and their trends to militarization around the EU, the US, and various other places including India, Bangladesh, and Australia. Through these examples, we see the death toll caused at these borders as people desperate to escape war and poverty attempt to cross them. Here we see the most obvious and reported upon violence caused by borders – individuals shot trying to cross, or dying during their journey, and the ways in which the border enforcement directly envisions and plans for theses deaths. For example, forcing migrants on the US-Mexico border to more remote and dangerous areas where death tolls will be higher and which, officials and planners imagine, will make people decide the risks aren’t worth it.

Using the example of Andrew Carnegie, Jones next shows how free movement during a specific point in the past allowed those experiencing poverty and the loss of jobs, in large part due to industrialization, to move elsewhere for better opportunities. As states have moved to create immigration policies, the industrialization of countries outside of Europe leaves the poor and newly jobless with no escape possible as there are no settler-colonies accepting immigrants. This highlights the ways in which so-called developed nations benefited previously from free movement and benefit now from restrictions on movement. A history of border creation through the ages from the Magna Carta, which allowed for free use of the public commons, through to the current age of private property and fences highlights the ways in which the wealthy have long benefited from these borders.

Borders, which currently affect the movement of people but not goods, impose limits on free markets which results in violence in terms of low wages, lack of regulations, and so on around the world. Workers in the US were historically able to agitate for better working conditions and create unions because the majority of goods came from within the border, meaning that any regulations were applied broadly across all competitors. The increasing globalization of goods allows companies to now get around these regulations and laws, which aim to protect workers, because state borders constrain the regulations and wages, but not the goods.

…while global institutions like the WHO and free trade agreements allow corporations to operate across borders, regulators and workers are contained by them. (page 132)
As long as labor is contained by borders and not protected by basic labor and environmental standards, the systems of exploitation will continue regardless of whether individual companies change their practices. (page 138)

Borders also allow states the ability to focus on resource exploitation and extraction within their own areas in disregard of global impacts. The expansion of exclusive economic zones in the sea is leading to increased resource exploitation – despite the popular theory of the “tragedy of the commons”, history shows that states look out for their own interests at the expense of global needs. Border walls disrupt animal habitats and change water ways and migration patterns. Borders make impossible any true action on climate change as each state looks out primarily for its own interests rather than global interests.

The structural violence of borders concentrates the negative impacts of borders on more vulnerable places and contains the affected people to those areas through movement restrictions at borders. (page 153)

Thus, the book argues: borders have been created, borders cause violence, and the only legitimacy that they have is that which we give them. Jones ends with three ideas and options for moving forward to a world allowing free movement of people and access to resources and opportunities. Jones argues that those in a privileged position are currently privileged in part due to their exploitation of others, and free movement as both a human and civil right is necessary. He also argues for global regulations on working conditions, which would improve job conditions around the world and create more jobs everywhere, including Europe and the US. Lastly, he argues for global environmental protections and responsibilities as well as limits on free property.

The exclusion of others from resources and opportunity is based on the idea that the in-group should be protected no matter what, with little regard for what effect it might have on the other and without questioning why there is a distinction between “us” and “them” in the first place. Rather than hard lines around nations of people and their homelands, political borders are systems for controlling land and resources and limiting the movement of people. The “nations” they enclose are not long-term historical realities, but new political communities that developed with the emergence of states and borders. (page 168)

Overall a well-written examination of the visible and invisible violence caused by borders, and a look at how we can envision and create a more just and free world. My only complaint is the comparisons of serfdom and current global working conditions to slavery. I understand the modern-day slavery movement and the ways in which the working conditions, low wages, and lack of options are termed slavery, but it also seems disrespectful to historical slavery which was a completely different thing – forced work, being sold as chattel, no wages, no changes for escape, families being torn apart. What is termed modern-day slavery, in my opinion, should have a different name.

A recommended read and it seems like this will be a great introduction for my current reading project on borders, immigration policies, and refugees. I’m looking forward to see how these themes interact with the topics of my next reads.

*This was the ONLY one of the seven books I looked into regarding borders, immigration policy, and refugees which my library had in general circulation. Many of the others were there, but only a reference copy. Very disappointing, especially in this current political climate, as reading on this topic seems especially relevant. 

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  1. Pingback: Thoughts on Undocumented by Aviva Chomsky | amy reads

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