The idea of borders and immigration control is something many of us take as just a fact, myself included. I used to think that the lines drawn between nations were lines that were always there, unchanged. I bought into the thinking that immigration was to be controlled, otherwise chaos would obviously descend. But none of these things are true. Borders were drawn by people, not the land. They aren’t real. And our movements aren’t meant to be surveilled and controlled.
Yet I still couldn’t imagine a world without borders. Not unsurprising, considering the state has pushed the idea of borders for centuries. To the point that it’s become deeply ingrained in our society’s way of thinking. Well, I couldn’t imagine or see this world, until I read Leah Cowan’s Border Nation.
Border Nation showed me that border abolition is entirely possible. Not some utopian concept like many would have you believe. I read this book in one evening, nodding my head at every page whilst furiously making notes. It’s a brilliant and eye-opening read into the violent and oppressive nature of borders, and how we as a collective can move beyond a life with borders. It takes you through the various aspects of border and immigration control, including the cause and effect of the Home Office’s hostile environment, and debunks many of the embedded myths around migration.
“Border Nation showed me that border abolition is entirely possible. Not some utopian concept like many would have you believe.”
It begins with a look at the long history behind borders and migration, rooting the concept of borders in Britain’s history of colonialism and imperialism. Cowan takes us all the way back to the time of James Cook and the ‘discovery’ of Australia in the 18th century, and brings us up to recent events with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. She writes of the importance of this history, in that “the context of Britain’s imperialist past matters, because the colonial projects and the wealth Britain extracted from them set the stage for the settlement of migrant communities in the UK.”
Cowan then looks into how Britain has whitewashed its history of migration in chapter two, and instead pushed the myth of the migrant ‘outsider’. A myth that has well and truly thrived. As the child of migrants, it’s something I’ve seen for myself when people tell me to “go back” to where I came from or to “go home”. There’s this belief that immigration is a new and modern concept for this country. A belief that before recent immigration, Britain was just a nation of white people. And this is a myth that is bolstered by the media. An industry which plays a significant role in building and maintaining our borders.
“The context of Britain’s imperialist past matters, because the colonial projects and the wealth Britain extracted from them set the stage for the settlement of migrant communities in the UK.”
The relationship between borders and the media is explored in the fourth chapter, diving into how the media vilifies migrants with the use of dehumanising language, oppressive imagery, and the reinforcement of negative stereotypes. Cowan works through many examples of how the media affects how people view and think about immigration, with notable examples being the case of Shamima Begum, and the framing of immigration throughout the Brexit debate. “The racist rhetoric spewed by world leaders.. has a powerful impact on how society views migrant communities, which in turn steers government rhetoric, policies and immigration laws as parties frantically compete to dance most exuberantly to the beat of their perception of the electorate,” she explains.
When we think of borders, we tend to think of controls and enforcement at the points of entry in this country, like airports. But borders aren’t just policed and enforced when people enter the country, but also whilst they’re within it. And this is what chapter five delves into; how the hostile environment has pulled in a range of institutions when it comes to border control, effectively turning them into de facto border guards. Cowan looks at how healthcare and the NHS is intrinsically linked to the Home Office through data sharing, how ‘right to rent’ checks have placed a duty on landlords and estate agents, and how counter-terrorism strategies – such as Prevent – have meant teachers have to report any signs of ‘extremism’.
“The racist rhetoric spewed by world leaders has a powerful impact on how society views migrant communities.”
And of course, borders and immigration can’t be discussed without mentioning its roots in capitalism, which is also explored. All detention centres in the UK, with the exception of one facility, are run by private security firms. And many of these firms also run our prisons. These private firms use immigration to turnover a huge profit, whilst providing inhumane living conditions for migrants living within these facilities. Cowan writes about the ‘profit motive’ and looks at how capitalism intersects with all aspects of border control, from detention centres to deportations. “For as long as these ideas.. that people subject to immigration controls are inherently ‘criminal’.. live and breathe in the public consciousness, profit will continue to roll in for the companies facilitating the abuse of incarceration and deportation through the deprivation of freedom and agency.”
Border Nation has given me the knowledge to sit down and properly reassess how I view borders and immigration controls, especially in a time where the hostile environment is strengthening those controls even further. Border resistance is a must. It’s a book that I’ll definitely keep coming back to again and again, and I think you should too.
You can get your copy of Border Nation from Pluto Press.
Shahed Ezaydi is the Deputy Editor of Aurelia. @shahedezaydi
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