Borders in everyday life

Borders as we know them can be considered a modern invention. This statement may seem strange, because we are used to take for granted the present division of the world territories into nation-states.

If you think about the world, you immediately think about a map where different states are drawn in different colours and are divided by clear lines, that we call borders or boundaries.

The fact that this map has changed frequently throughout times is already an indication of the non-fixity of borders, which historically have changed many times and have also assumed different connotations. Borders, in fact, are a political and social construction, and they are contextualized historically and geographically. Just think about what happened after the fall of the Berlin wall, and how many new borders appeared in the political map of the world, showing how the lines dividing nation-states are neither natural nor immutable.

Nation-states were drawn on the political map of the world in such a permanent way that they are almost considered as natural formations, as the best form of social organization and as the principal source of political, cultural and social identity. The nation-state as we know it, that is a sovereign entity delimited by borders, is the result of the Westphalian treaties in the mid 1600, whereas the present configuration of the political map of Europe is, more or less, the one resulting after the two world wars and the subsequent division of territories. More recent events that changed the configuration of the European political map have been the end of the cold war and the Yugoslavian war, which implied the emergence of new political entities.

The end of the cold war, together with the constitution of the European Union, was initially interpreted as a historical moment when humanity would have finally lived in a globalised borderless world. The EU was making internal borders easy to cross, the iron curtain had fallen, the Berlin wall had been torn apart, and some believed that this was the end of the era of the nation-state as we knew it, and therefore the end of borders.

For bad or for good, history went in another direction, and nowadays borders not only still exist, but they became more and more securitised. There are different factors to be taken into consideration when we analyse the present situation.

From one side, there has been the attempt, with the constitution of the European Union, to put an end to the war for supremacy among nation-states and to guarantee peace for Europe, after the two world wars and the Holocaust experience.

At the same time, the globalisation of capital has involved a process of denationalisation and rescaling of governance that has put into discussion the importance of nation-states, especially in relation to the new features of global financial capital, which is related to multinational entities and moves along transnational fluxes.

Globalisation, however, has also made much clearer how western healthy countries rely on the exploitation of resources from the southern and poorer parts of the world, creating a situation of structural inequalities that has been interpreted as a form of neo-colonialism.

The formation of the EU and the new geopolitical balance among western countries has guaranteed peace (more or less) in Europe and other healthy countries.

War has not disappeared though, rather it just became less visible to us, it moved farer. Besides conflicts related to territorial or sovereignty disputes, like for example those connected to secessionist movements, in the last decades wars have interested a large part of African, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries.

These conflicts have serious consequences in the life of civilians, either for their long duration or for their intensity, and some other times because they triggered interethnic or religious confrontations and therefore involve persecutions and the limitation of personal freedom.

Enduring situations of war, poverty, political instability, authoritarian governments, to tell just some of the possible factors, have been forcing people to move and leave their home countries in search for a better life or, in certain cases, just to survive.

Recent major conflicts in Syria and other middle-eastern and African countries have been the root cause of what has been defined the “refugee crisis”. Hundred thousand people are fleeing from places where it is not possible to live a normal and secure life, and they search for asylum in safer countries in the world.

Migration is not a new phenomenon, since humans have always been moving to discover new lands, to search for better resources, or to improve their life conditions. However, the meaning we give to migration has change throughout time, as well as the management of people’s mobility, and nowadays there are very different categories of people on the move.

The contemporary evolution of globalisation has made connections easier, both online and offline, which means that, for a lot of people, travelling and moving from one place to another have become incredibly easy. The easiness of movement that we experience as European citizens is nowadays remarkable: EU passports, with some differences among them, provide the possibility to move with little restrictions, especially within the EU, but also outside. Different passports mean different access, and this is the most evident inequality that we can recognise when we think about borders and mobility. Crossing a border can be a very different experience according to your country of origin, and not only that.

Borders are designed and managed in order to allow some fluxes and restrict others at the same time, they need to be open or close, secure or permeable, friendly or hostile, according to the characteristics of what or who is crossing them. The sophistication of this bordering mechanism is continuously growing, together with the development of new technologies and new ways to filter the unwanted. Electronic passports, face or fingerprints recognitions, body scans, or other technologies of control that we can experience ourselves when travelling through airports, are all evidences of this development.

On the other side, what scholars have been showing in the last decade or so, is that borders are more and more diffused, pervasive and affect people’s lives in an unprecedented way. This means that the border work, that involves all the mechanisms of control and selectivity operated by the border, does not happen only at the border itself, but is diffused in various moment and places of everyday activities. To give an easy example, the visa system, likewise passports’ regulation, require people to go to an office well in advance, provide documents, apply, and hopefully be granted what they want.

There are other mechanisms of control and surveillance that act far from the border itself, as well as processes that privilege certain people and exclude some others. Think about the so called global nomads always on the move and continually crossing borders, who move along dedicated spaces and have access to a variety of facilities and services. Moreover, they can rely on rights and privileges in relation to transportation, VIP lounges, fast security checks, visa exceptions. They are not affected by boundaries in their everyday nomadic life.

On the other hand, refugees and migrants from poor or war-torn countries in the southern part of the world face prohibitions of movement and crossing. They are affected by borders wherever they go, because they hardly get permissions and visas, and are therefore subject to the risk of interception, detention and deportation. In addition, they need to rely on smugglers and illegal ways to cross boundaries.

As white western citizens, we tend not to realise how privileged we are in the way we access travelling and mobility services, and we give for granted the possibility to ask for a visa and getting it easily. But of course, like any other privilege, this one is not for all, and someone’s privilege means someone else’s deprivation and limitation of mobility. The double function of borders, which have to be at the same time permeable and secure, is clearly reflected in this differential inclusion. Borders have to be selective, and this selectivity operates in a way that makes it very easy for certain people and very hard or impossible for others to cross them.

Clearly, the experience of mobility varies a lot depending on who you are, your nationality, your ethnicity, your bank account, your religious beliefs, your gender.

The criteria of this selectivity are not fix, rather they can change and modify according to new needs, new geopolitical configurations, new fears. Policies related to border management are continuously discusses and revised, as well as policies regarding asylum and migrants’ integration. This showed evidently in recent times, when the topic of migration and refugee welcoming has become pivotal in the political and public discourse, especially in Europe. Different countries have experiences the emergence of populistic and radical movements against migrants and aiming at the closure and securitization of borders, and this has affected political choices as well. Sweden, as an example, which has always been considered a welcoming country with a sophisticated set of policies for asylum seekers, has restricted access to refugees and migrants, and has even reintroduced controls at its Schengen border with Denmark. Sweden is just an example, since controls have been reintroduced at other Schengen borders, that are borders within the EU that should not be subject to systematic control, given the free circulation that is guaranteed to EU citizens. This is another evidence of the fact that borders are artificial and their use, management and meaning can change according to different situations and needs.

To make a closer example, the border between Finland and Russia, that was a highly securitized one during the cold war, when it coincided with the longest section of the iron curtain, in the nineties became a friendly border, with projects of cross border cooperation, economic exchange, and visa facilitations. Its meaning changed completely and, from being a barrier, it became a resource and gave impulse to cross border travels, encounters and reciprocal knowledge. The Ukraine crisis has transformed the situation again since, for example, the sanctions towards Russia by part of the EU have limited the potential of cross border cooperation programs. Even more importantly, a renovated discourse about the return of the cold war, and the danger of Russian politics, have recreated a climate of fear concerning what stays on the other side of the border, and the need to control it. Another factor that influenced this shift has been the illegal entry of undocumented migrants from that border, in the winter of 2015, which resulted in its securitization aimed at preventing more people to enter both Finland and Norway from Russia with the help of smugglers.

These considerations, about the idea and perceptions that we have of borders and migration, have to do with the fact that the everyday bordering process also regards the way in which borders and border crossing are represented and narrated. Newspapers and television programs, in Finland and all over Europe, are daily concerned about securitization, migration, the death of migrants, asylum policies, and related topics. An increasing amount of literature, movies, graphic novels and other popular cultural products also talk about migration and the refugee crisis, and all these representations contribute in the construction of our own perception of the phenomenon.

Different forms of media clearly influence our conception of the world as they are crucial sources of how we make sense of what is happening in the world around us, so this expression of borders work becomes a pervasive daily experience for everyone, affecting our sense of security, our image of the others, and our relation with borders.

In recent time, the increase of fear towards diversity and the attachment to identity features related to the nation-state and to ethnicity, have become a serious issue within the EU. Populistic parties are growing and having success in different countries, border control has been re-established along the inner boundaries of some European countries, walls and fences have been erected in some cases, like on the border between Hungary and Serbia.

At the same time, wars, starvation, political persecutions, and other factors related to geopolitical conflicts or to the devastating effects of climate change, push people to move, and this is not going to end. Migrating is becoming increasingly dangerous, since more control at borders means more illegality to cross them. Smugglers are making a lot of money out of securitization and out of the life of migrants, who continue to move and continue to die along the different routes that open and close depending on border control.

At the beginning of this intervention I argued that borders are a social and political construction, and we saw how this is relevant especially in the contemporary globalised world. It is important to reflect on what we take for granted and understand the historical contingencies that lie beyond that. This is necessary in order to develop a critical thought and be able to formulate a personal interpretation of reality, to better filter information, to understand diversity in a different way, and to be more open to what is on the other side of the border.

Presentation at  UEF Smart Café, Joensuu, November 30, 2017