Image: Mana5280 (Unsplash)

In today’s modern interconnected world, a tin of baked beans has the ability to travel to almost any part of the world with little to no restrictions, whereas humans are still subjected to some form of restriction of movement. How is it possible that inanimate objects have more freedom than humans do? The European migrant crisis which started in late 2014 has seen over 1 000 000 people arrive in Europe, mainly undocumented migrants from North Africa, Syria and Yemen. Another 350 000 have lost their lives attempting to migrate via the Mediterranean sea. These people have fled their countries for various political, economic and social reasons for a better life in Europe. In light of such an exodus of people into Europe, the migrant crisis has fueled debates all across Europe regarding the nature of borders and immigration policies. Additionally, the rise of Donald Trump in the United States of America (USA) and far-right political movements like AFD (Alternative for Germany), National Rally (France) and Party for Freedom (Netherlands) gaining prominence in Europe has further catalysed debates about borders and border controls.

Borders have long existed in various informal and formal forms with different applications throughout history. These barriers to freedom of movement have dramatically increased in the last 100 years. The ability to move freely and migrate from one part of the world, regardless of the reason, has been a major part of human history. Many major empires like the Roman’s, were dependent on migration to grow their economies and human capital. There are mainly two types of borders these are political and geographical. The political border is the traditional and most dominant one which exists as a result of human agency and the state creation process as per the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The state is a nonphysical juridical entity which has sovereignty over a geographical area and control of the people within this area.

The second type of border is a geographical one. Historically it has been the most common type of border, prior to 1648 and the 1933 Montevideo Convention on Statehood, geographical borders refer to natural objects which create obstacles for human interaction. These include oceans, rivers, forests and mountain ranges. Political borders are often formalised around geographical borders, for example the Amazon rainforest is a natural border which separates Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. It, therefore, made sense for the political borders to follow these same demarcations. In some cases, however, geographical borders do not inform political borders and can override this formation such as, the Turin Mountain ranges in the north of Italy. Most of the mountain ranges occupy the north of Italy and borders with France and Switzerland, however Italy’s borders include a large part of the mountain. Historically during the Roman Empire, the Turin Mountain was seen as a border to protect the empire from the North, from foreign invasions. As we can see by this identification, borders in the modern political sense are highly subjective and are as a result of policymakers of the state machinery. Political borders establishe the “us” and “them” narrative, who is to be included in the sovereign state and who is to be excluded. Historically, political borders have also included religious, cultural and linguistic elements in the creation of such borders. This aims to represent and encompass a group of people to a sovereign state with a “specific identity”. By linking identity to the state, the state is able to exert a certain amount of control and influence on its citizens.

In the formalisation process of these political borders policymakers make geopolitical and economic calculations in the demarcation of its borders, for example the world’s youngest state, South Sudan, its political borders are formed along the lines of demarcation based on religion. The borders of South Sudan was established to create a territory for the predominantly Christian indigenous Nilotic people. As a result of colonialism some of the world’s political borders (majority in the developing world) have not been created through geographical or political means but instead, some were imposed such as the Scramble for Africa. The Scramble for Africa was when colonial powers divided Africa into various groupings with little or no regard for informal borders or traditional internal migration of indigenous Africans. Some of today’s modern conflict zones in Africa are as a result of imposed borders by colonial powers with little to no regard for the identities of local African communities. Research on various intra-state African conflicts like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR) and Sudan have highlighted that the forced groupings of people together, with different identities are but one of the reasons for continued conflict in these states.

Linked to borders is the idea of human movement and restriction of it. Human migration is as ancient as humankind itself. The ancient Greek and Byzantine empires all encouraged migration, as this would bring new skilled workers and they would contribute to taxes and armies. The constant migration of new human capital was vital to the economic development of these ancient empires and therefore, it was encouraged. There have been numerous times in history when the movement of humans was encouraged with little to no restrictions, such as the early renaissance periods of the 14th and 15th century, as well as the late 17th and 18th century when states needed to increase populations of their states as a result of the various wars. Most notably, immigration to the USA in the late 1900s was massively popular with over an estimated 4.5 million people leaving Europe in search of the “American Dream”. That being said, there have also been attempts to limit movement throughout human history depending on the situation. The earliest restrictions were established under serfdom in the Roman Empire in the third and fourth centuries AD, these restrictions also established the earliest kind of passport control. This feudal system did not allow the movement of people if not granted by their lords. The first most modern attempt to establish passport control is accredited to England under King Henry V in 1414 who created a document to help identify British subjects living abroad in foreign lands. Additionally, the slave labour practices and establishment of colonies all over the world by European states established involuntary migration.

Most experts on border controls and migration, arguably, cite the 1920’s at its peak. In 1920, the idea of a worldwide passport standard emerged in the aftermath of the First World War, championed by the League of Nations (LoN). A year later, perhaps recognising a political opportunity, the USA passed the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and later the Immigration Act of 1924 limiting the inflow of immigrants. The emergency? Too many newcomers from countries deemed a threat to the idea of American identity and extra pressure on the American economy. So how would the USA identify an immigrant’s country of origin? By a newly minted passport. The establishment of the passport in the 1920s and exportation of it through the LoN and later the United Nations (UN) has helped solidify human migration control with our identities linked to a passport. In today’s modern world it is impossible to travel without a passport.

Two critical ideas to highlight out of all of these points, firstly borders are as a result of human agencies, we create them, we decide who is in and who is out. By defining our territory, we establish the state’s human capital and what natural resources the state might have. Wars and various conflicts around the world are continuously fought over disputed border demarcations, essentially the border helps you to claim what is “yours”. An interesting piece of information to consider is the flexibility of borders and that of google maps. Google Maps are often seen as the “de-facto authority” on maps, as the UN’s Cartographic and Geospatial Information body (UNCGIB) is severely underfunded and only meets once every 4 years. States depend on Google Maps to help identify and reaffirm borders, as in the case of South Sudan and Kosovo when google helped determine the border area. As mentioned, however, borders are controversial and some times vary for different states. For example, accessing Google Maps from China will show all the disputed territories of Bhutan and India being a part of China, whereas if you access Google Maps from India, the map will look different. This highlights the political nature of borders, human agency and how fluid borders are.

the second critical idea to highlight is that passports and restriction of movement is a political choice which restricts or encourages economic choices. The massive influx of people, together with economic and social conditions lead to the creation of the passport in the 1920s in the USA. The passports helped further entrench the “us” and “them” narrative by establishing who your people are, this way the state knows who it is responsible for and who it is not responsible for. The passport, much like borders, is highly fluid and is a tool of human agency, and can be used to give you a strategic advantage or disadvantage in the world. A British citizen, for example, can travel to 164 states without any restrictions (Visa) whereas as a Zimbabwean can only travel to 68 states which may hinder that person’s ability to prosper economically if they chose to migrate. This is an extremely unfair process, you cannot chose where you are born. Why should someone who is born in worn-torn Syria not be allowed to migrate for a better life?

It is also important to remember that a passport from a specific nation does not always imply that the owner of such passport, identifies with that nation-state. There are various loopholes such as investments in developed states to earn citizenship and black market passports which can help alter your “identity”. An investment of 500 000 Euros in Portugal or 1.5 million Euros in Cyprus, for example, will guarantee you EU citizenship. An investment in London of over 5 million pounds will guarantee you a special investor visa. On the other hand, a black market passport for the EU or the USA will cost you over $15 000. This demonstrates how fluid the concept of identity and borders can be to certain people within a society.

As for those who deemed borders necessary, it is often rooted in one of two reasons. The first being national security of the state and her people. Borders are vital to maintaining the security and safety of the state and her people from threats like terrorism and conflict. This especially holds true for areas with high conflict around disputed borders such as India and Pakistan or borders which are known for transnational organised crime activities such as the borders between USA and Mexico. These security threats may hinder economic prosperity. The ability of the state to protect its territorial integrity remains within the realm of the state and its national security. By liberalising the borders completely you would weaken some of its national security and reduce the importance of the state. The second reason for pro-border support is the ability of the state to maintain the “identity” of her people. This links to earlier historical debates on borders and how borders are important to constituting a state’s national identity. These are often societies which are either highly homogenous or wish not to pursue ideals of a multicultural society or these are states wishing to protect certain economic aspects of their economy. Strict border controls like in the 1920s and more recently through the migrant crisis, are often argued through the rationale of protecting the state’s identify from outsiders, ensuring economic stability and dispelling the idea of multiculturalism.

The restriction of movement through the establishment of passports is highly controversial and can be seen as a counter-movement in light of the modern globalisation process. The control of human movements has continuously ebbed and flowed throughout history, from no control to a lot of control and is very much dependent on the political and economic conditions of that time. In conclusion, formal and informal borders have long existed, however, the way in which modern borders and restriction of human movement are applied is very much rooted in discriminatory practices which institutionalise the “us” and “them” narrative. If we are to move to a more peaceful, tolerant and prosperous global community then we need to rethink borders.

Jervin Naidoo is the founder of The Art of Politics and works as a lecturer and researcher in the Department of Politics Science at the University of Pretoria.

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