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There is no justification for borders in normal times. Post-pandemic, let’s abolish them

Politics treats national boundaries as sacred. But these arbitrary lines do incalculable harm
March 1, 2021

Twenty years ago, 21-year-old Mohammed Ayaz was trying to get to the UK. Initially, he’d travelled from Dadahara, northwest Pakistan, to Dubai to work as a labourer. But he ended up being exploited. His salary wasn’t what he’d been promised and there wasn’t enough to start paying off the debt he’d racked up in flights, agent and visa fees—it barely covered his food.   

So Mohammed decided to move to the UK. He travelled to Bahrain, headed for the airport and early one morning, broke through security and stowed away in the undercarriage of a plane. “He always spoke about going to work in America or England,” Mohammed’s brother, Gul Bihar, explained, “but they don’t give visas to poor people like us.”   

“Bordering sorts people, creating the desirable and the unwanted”

Mohammed never made it to this country alive; he likely died from the freezing cold and lack of oxygen. He fell from the plane and was found in a West London car park in 2001. His body landed just metres from where 19-year-old Vijay Saini’s body was discovered four years earlier, having made a similar journey from Delhi with his brother, who survived. Both deaths were a consequence of bordering.   

Anyone questioning the validity of borders is written off as an idealist: borders are often presented as immutable and almost natural, guaranteeing security by separating one nation from another. But these arbitrary lines are active and all around us, causing precarity, suffering and death. From visa regimes and passport checks to detention centres and surveillance, bordering is an act. It sorts people, creating the desirable and the unwanted.   

The rich can move around the world with relative ease, while this same freedom is considered dangerous in the hands of the poor and people deemed racial “others” (concepts like “partiality” litter the history of UK immigration law, and were essentially created to keep out people of colour rather than white commonwealth citizens). Multinationals can smoothly relocate their operations to find “cheap labour,” while those of the working class who are “allowed” to migrate often face dehumanising constraints. Many move merely to try and survive, but are then given only threadbare rights and insecure, time-limited stays. Humanity matters little in this economistic system. Temporary pandemic travel restrictions may make sense, but they don’t justify ongoing bordering in “normal” times.

It’s possible to sand down the harshest edges of the border regime by making changes, like ensuring those who move are given the full gamut of rights. But still human beings will be sorted, excluded and exploited. Bordering itself is part of the problem. So reform isn’t enough—save perhaps as a first step to abolishing the whole system. Because the aim should not be just to change how peoples’ movement is “controlled” in an appallingly unequal world: it should be to create another world altogether.