Issue 2 Editorial: Border Solidarity

Rather than mere utopian naiveté, the idea of “open borders” is a guiding political vision. But its meaning doesn’t always translate easily into the here-and-now. This issue of Crisis Magazine gathers together a range of progressieve perspectives on EU border politics with the aim of shifting the discussion beyond simplistic interpretations of a right-closed/left-open binary.

Donya Alinejad and Maral Jefroudi

In 2020, levels of migration to Europe once again remained below the highs of the 2015 “migrant crisis.” And yet, the salience of migration as a political and social concern intensified. Humanitarian organizations working in border zones have expressed concerns that the new EU migration policy framework represents a continuation of “Fortress Europe,” and the death toll at Europe’s sea borders continues to rise. Violent, right-wing attacks on camps have become routine on border islands as anti-immigration parties campaign in European heartlands. And reports of Europeans’ “compassion fatigue” for migrants crossing deadly sea routes circulate in the mainstream press. Five years on from the migration peak period and the political continuities suggest that the “migration crisis” was never about a mere rise in migrant numbers. Rather, Europe’s border politics arena is a site of escalating political frictions.

In this battle, there seem to be surprisingly few clear alternatives offered to the dominant, deadly-by-design securitization agenda. In the face of catastrophes like the continued fatalities at dangerous border crossings and the burning of Moria camp that left 1300 without shelter, calls for “opening the borders” are an intuitive crisis response. This is often meant not as an immediate, naïve demand but more as a guiding political horizon. But then, what does it mean for the here and now? This issue of Crisis Magazine focuses on the theme, Border Solidarity. It argues that a left politics of international solidarity requires analyses and initiatives that do not focus on the EU border as an isolated site of crossing, but on the many ways border regimes, and the factors that fuel them, reach far beyond sensationalized border zones.

Overemphasizing border excesses risks playing into the anti-immigration right’s success at drawing attention to border security spectacles. The political right’s vociferous and ideologically framed opposition to migration may act as a rhetorical trap that doesn’t necessarily correspond to drastic differences in their immigration policies from other parties. As Maya Goodfellow points out in her book, Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats, “ideological foes have found common ground in characterizing migration as a problem.” The right’s closed border rhetoric has been effective in shifting the overall discussion about immigration to its talking points, especially in the absence of clear alternative policy proposals. And under this political consensus, the right benefits from claiming the securitization agenda as its idea. Arguably, its opponents have a strategic interest in avoiding getting caught in amplifying any absolute, right-closed/left-open dichotomy regarding nation state border politics.

Private arms firms are well-served by the right’s nationalist narrative of closed borders, despite their own ideological indifference and relative invisibility.

In this issue’s first article, Mark Akkerman draws attention to the political economy of the EU border regime. Akkerman traces how the same companies to which EU border security is outsourced are responsible for the creation of new refugees in the Middle East and North Africa through private arms contracts with “human rights violators and repressive regimes.” Far from being an easily delineated zone at or even near the (contested) physical boundaries of Europe, the new face of the militarized EU border manifests in EU military missions to stop migration, such as the one that took place at the Libyan coast under the title, Operation Sophia. EU states thus try to locate their barriers to entry further and further from their shores in a project of border externalization that treats migration as though it were a military threat to Europe. Private arms firms are well-served by the right’s nationalist narrative of closed borders, despite their own ideological indifference and relative invisibility.

In her article, migration law researcher, Mariana Gkliati, traces the events around the burning of Moria border camp. She demonstrates how these were a consequence of migration policy and asylum law in Europe as it has developed over the last decades. The result has been consistent pressure on entry point countries whose reception systems, facilities, and local populations strain under the concentration of arrivals, producing human rights concerns. Calls for greater intra-EU solidarity between member states in the form of fairer responsibility sharing for reception have largely gone unanswered in the new pact negotiated in the wake of the Moria fires, Gkliati argues. Despite protest and solidarity initiatives on the ground, the result is a degree of reproducing the structural conditions that contribute to the strict limits on refugees’ onward mobility and relocation elsewhere within the EU, thus maintaining dangerous population congestion issues.

The article by migration scholar and political scientist, Raluca Bejan, extends the point about unequal responsibility sharing for refugee relocation by pointing to the deep power inequalities between EU countries. Looking at Eastern European member states, she argues that economic inequalities between EU member states have become institutionally enshrined into a range of intra-EU policy agreements negotiated on the basis of a severe power imbalances. These agreements, Bejan argues, are responsible for the linked precarity of both internal- and external-EU migrants. She suggests that the potential for grassroots international solidarity exists in recognition and redress of these unequal terms within the Union. Bejan’s piece also draws a causal link between a core-periphery power skew that is endemic to the EU integration project and the kinds of discrimination and migrant labor exploitation that Eastern European nationals in Western Europe experience. While borders have been opening up to Eastern European labor mobility, migration curbs instated by wealthier countries like the UK have only meant advantageous terms for such countries, creating a precariat of Eastern European workers.

Without significantly strengthened labor protections, open borders aren’t a progressive cause, per se.

Eastern European migrant agricultural and care workers emerged as exemplary figures of these exploitative conditions during the pandemic, showing that without significantly strengthened labor protections, open borders aren’t a progressive cause, per se. As Bejan points out, their journeys were regularized for the purpose of extracting their cheap labor. Inequalities between poorer and richer EU members states parallel global inequalities that drive labor migration. It is therefore important to recognize that in light of decimated labor protections, states currently have a vested interest in receiving a degree of irregular migration, despite their border policing and outward claims to sovereignty. As Karim H. Karim argues, drawing on Stuart Hall, “globalization-from-above and globalization-from-below do not always work in opposition.” Mirroring border securitization with a simple focus on universal freedom of movement can fail to account for these contradictions and challenges for left-wing politics.  

It can also fail to see the broader picture of migration. Much of global migration is indeed driven by economic inequalities. But despite what some leftists figures have posited as “root cause” explanations for international migration, migration to Europe cannot be boiled down to simple matter of global economic disparity. The situations from which people flee are located beyond the border, and our internationalism must take these realities seriously rather than celebrate border-crossing, as such. Migrants are not necessarily engaging in resistance by moving across the boundaries of nation-states, neither in intention nor in outcome. And while the category of migrant may symbolically subvert the colonial divisions of the global order of nations, the same cannot be said of most actual migrants. Ignoring this may deny migrants the complexity of their own perspectives and interests. An internationalist border solidarity must therefore not only respond to the violence of the border, but also seek to understand causes and experiences of migration.

The single largest group of irregular migrant arrivals to Europe in 2019 were Afghan nationals, and this Issue’s third article focuses on Afghan migration to Europe. It demonstrates how inextricable economic exploitation is from political persecution and the violence of war when it comes to understanding people’s motivations for migration. Based on long-term anthropological research in Afghanistan, authors Melissa Kerr Chiovenda and Andrea Chiovenda discuss how forms of regional mobility that have been indirectly made impossible by decades of war result in limitations on social development and economic self-sustenance, especially for many young Afghan men. They also argue that a national lens for understanding Afghan migrants’ motives is insufficient when ethnic persecution intersects with the more indiscriminate violence of war. The authors caution that the complexity of many Afghan refugees’ trajectories make it difficult for their claims to be given fair consideration once they arrive at EU sites of reception.

The growing complexity of migrants’ stories and journeys exemplifies an increasing global complexity in which there are often no clear-cut ideological reasons for which refugees flee their countries.

Left-wing solidarity movements have an important stake to claim here. The growing complexity of migrants’ stories and journeys exemplifies an increasing global complexity in which there are often no clear-cut ideological reasons for which refugees flee their countries. This condition contrasts with the situation after WWII, on the basis of which today’s conventions were drawn up, and from the ensuing Cold War, that saw them utilized. In both historical moments, there were strong ideological motives for countries to accept refugees and construct clear political narratives of their plights. This new situation leaves room for a political reformulation of humanitarian values and conceptualization of human rights that moves beyond old models and rethinks human dignity for the global politics of today. It offers the possibility for articulating a more explicit left politics of anti-authoritarian egalitarianism across borders.

Nazanin Froghi’s article presents a first-hand account of border-crossing that is marked by complex and continued mobility. An Afghan national, Froghi fled Iran after having sustained a life and gained an education, there. Drawing inspiration from Eric Maria Remarque’s novel about the lives of German refugees in the early months of WWII, Froghi borrows the term “the marble life” to describe her ongoing experience of living in various states of limbo. Her piece details her Mediterranean crossing as well as everyday life in Moria camp and on the Island of Lesvos over the span of a year; from the wretched conditions, to right wing attacks, to the first Covid-19 cases and lockdown, to the fire that reduced the camp to ashes. It also traces her personal development through the journalistic training and experience she gained through a solidarity initiative that supports refugees to tell their own stories. Froghi’s voice is unique in a media context where reporting is restricted as journalists are often disallowed from entering camps, and coverage is fragmented due to short news cycles and demand for soundbites and spectacles.

Froghi’s indictment of EU authorities holds them responsible for turning a blind eye to the obvious need for alternative ideas of border management. This point is echoed in various ways by all the issue’s authors, including Barak Kalir and Celine Cantat. The piece by these two migration scholars highlights a troubling gap between the EU’s investment in academic research that produces knowledge about effective migration management and EU policymaking, which seems detached from the expert knowledge produced. Their article draws on their experience as migration researchers and highlights their solidarity intervention on behalf of EU-funded migration scholars. Their initiative emerged in response to the Covid-19 crisis at Europe’s borders, and involved petitioning for greater engagement on the part of policymakers with the work of scholars.

In this emergency context, the authors express concerns that reflect those raised on a large scale about the pandemic’s impact on migrants and refugees. For example, the Head of the Migration Policy Institute Europe has raised concerns about governments’ Covid-19 responses exposing an underlying lack of committent to the European asylum system. And the 2020 Mixed Migration Review discusses warnings raised about the “normalization of the extreme” in 2020, as some governments seem to have taken advantage of the Corona-crisis to push through legally dubious migration measures and use the pandemic to further scapegoat migrants as an additional (public health) threat.

Imaginations of refugees as strangers that imperil safety and security have long circulated.

Such fearmongering tendencies go well beyond pandemic-driven assumptions about migrants as menace. Imaginations of refugees as strangers that imperil safety and security have long circulated. The final article in this issue is by Shahram Khosravi, Professor of Social Anthropology, whose academic work deals with borders and migration. Khosravi’s essay is a poetic reflection on how collective imaginations of outsiders, strangers, and border crossings are not politically neutral ideas about the unknown, but are repositories of suppositions and expectations. Weaving together a range of intellectual influences with personal anecdotes, Khosravi’s account invites us to consider the limiting effects of borders on how migrants are seen, heard, imagined, and understood in Europe.

The pieces brought together in this second issue of Crisis Magazine help advance an idea of solidarity that does not begin and end at the border or celebrate its crossing. But it also avoids oversimplifying root causes for migration. Rather, it traces border politics to many sites of actual and potential resistance. Developing alternatives to the dominant border securitization narrative should take the-here-and-now seriously without letting it limit the imagination of alternatives that are, as yet, out of reach.

Photograph: Kostas Papadakis