Vacarme 89 / Cahier

Borders, migration, and the urgency of imagination.


Poorly represented and little known in France, border studies rethink the field of migration.

There is no doubt that the effective abandonment of asylum by governments in Europe, North America and Australia inspires a sense of urgency. The closure and militarization of borders, the preventable deaths of refugees and migrants at sea, in the desert, in camps and in prisons, and the criminalization of rescue and solidarity heighten the sense that there is no time to waste on philosophical reflection. At stake is not only the lives and deaths of those crossing borders but any remaining pretense of commitment towards preserving life as a baseline value in collective responses to displacement and migration. In the face of violent confrontations with people crossing borders, a great deal rests on the frontline activists (and unsuspecting fishermen) who continue to rescue and to hold states and publics to account for their causal role in the loss of life that is now commonplace at and around borders.

Meanwhile, scholarship on borders and migration proliferates. It tends to take two forms. The first is explanatory and tries to identify the conditions of possibility for the current global border regime. It asks: how did we get here? This is important work because it brings to light the logical systems, historical patterns, and constellations of power that work to both mask and to justify the violence entailed in border policing. This type of work reminds us that border policing in its current form is contingent and not inevitable. The second type of scholarship focuses on policy and regulatory structures that can mitigate the worst excesses of the global border regime, restoring principles and practices of asylum and human rights. This work provides crucial arguments that stand in the way of naked violence, and make a real difference in legal and political interventions into specific cases.

Both forms of scholarship have limitations. The first form of scholarship is deconstructive in its approach, and often stops short of providing reconstructive alternatives. The second takes as given the fundamental structures of the global border regime (state sovereignty, citizenship, border control itself) and does not come to grips with the way those structures reproduce hierarchies of status and illiberal limits to freedom of movement. Neither approach is centrally focused on an equally important question: how do we move on from here?

Entertaining more ambitious ideas about a world beyond borders often attracts charges of utopianism and indulgence. From this perspective, more radical ideas are not just pointless but strategically unhelpful to the point of being dangerous. Against the rise of populist and anti-immigrant parties in democracies across the globe, radical propositions for alternative worlds can be thought to add fuel to the fire: deepening opposition, hardening polarized perspectives, and driving the political mainstream towards a more authoritarian “centre.”

This kind of backlash may well be real, but so are the risks that come with letting fear of a backlash dictate the limits of public debate and the kinds of scholarship considered to make important contributions. Right at this moment when the world is witnessing the stark and uneven effects of global warming, over-development, and inequality – all of which contribute to the drivers of displacement and none of which are addressed in any substance by the current border regime – the limits of the possible with respect to borders and migration risk reduction to a different arrangement of the status quo. Fear of a backlash means an ever-narrowing sense of political feasibility threatens to eclipse the role of imagination in transformative politics. Without imagining a different world, it’s very hard to get there.

In that spirit, I want to raise five ideas that entail imaginative thinking about a different kind of world. None of these ideas may be intuitively obvious starting points for thinking about alternatives to the current border regime. Yet I want to suggest that they offer pathways that are urgently needed to restore a sense of possibility to the question: where to from here?

1. Borders are not what they seem

The rhetoric of border control is all about fixed lines, solid containers, an inside and an outside that is clearly demarcated. But the actual agencies that do border control don’t use that kind of language. They use words like continuums, corridors, zones, and gateways. This is because their job is to facilitate mobility of a desirable kind as much as to interrupt the mobility of the unwanted. It is also the case that border control increasingly takes an offshore or externalized form, where states operate outside their own territory, in others’ sovereign territory, or create zones that are designated as being offshore, even while they are geographically onshore. In just this way, Australia “excised” its island territories and later, the entire Australian mainland, from its own migration zone. [1]. As a result, asylum seekers arriving by boat are no longer able to apply for asylum within Australia and are removed offshore to camps that are paid for by Australia but ostensibly run by Pacific states. The legal fictions surrounding onshore and offshore distinctions with respect to border control are similar to those that generate offshore financial centres. In both cases, states work hard to deliberately create jurisdictional ambiguity, that is, shifting lines as to who owns what, and which laws and regulations apply where. This is no longer the shady terrain of a few rich villains, parking their funds in dubious offshore accounts. Rather, it is standard practice in the global political economy, and increasingly in the global conversation on how to do border control. If we are attentive to this, then many of the justifications, and certainly the rhetoric, of border control stop making sense.

2. Sovereignty is not a foregone conclusion

In the mid-twentieth century, as colonized peoples struggled for independence, it was not a foregone conclusion that independence would take the form of a sovereign nation-state, or that citizens’ primary form of identification would be with that nation-state. In fact, different ideas circulated amongst intellectuals, activists and politicians including the notion of con-federations that linked former colonies to former centers of empire in forms of political association that were not the same as sovereign states. [2]. Some of these alternative ideas about post-colonial formations acknowledged the entanglement of colony and metropole, historically and into the future, and aspired to a mechanism for ongoing accountability between the two parties. These ideas were never realized. Post-colonial states replicated the sovereign state form. Entanglement continued of course, but more often than not in the form of neocolonial relations: structural economic adjustment, puppet regimes, military interventions, and resource extraction, all also drivers of displacement and migration today. Against this ongoing colonial dimension of the movement of people across borders, what would it mean to revisit those mid twentieth century aspirations and to take them seriously? How might we work with and against those ideas in thinking about the forms of political association that might be possible and desirable today? What if we read these anti-colonial aspirations not as failed projects but as realistic starting points through which to question whether sovereign border controls are the obvious and inevitable outcome of the possibility of sovereignty?

3. Sovereignty is not singular

The assumption that nation-state sovereignty is the only kind of sovereignty is contested by Indigenous peoples. At first glance, Indigenous sovereign claims might be taken to contest the rightful holder of sovereignty (as in: it’s my land, not yours; I was here first) rather than to disrupt systems of rule that rest upon singular sovereign authority. But many indigenous scholars and activists argue that what is at stake in Indigenous relations to land, law and governance is not reducible to what Aieleen Moreton Robinson calls the “possessive logics” of sovereign territorial state claims. [3]. This may be true even while the language and concepts deployed to make Indigenous claims (land, territory, rights, embassies, passports, and sovereignty itself) is designed to be legible and authoritative within the legal systems and epistemes that prevail. Such language is strategically useful but should not be assumed to convey a full and accurate expression of Indigenous forms of law. So what might be learnt by serious engagement with Indigenous forms of law that stem from relations to place that exceed what is articulatable under a Eurocentric sovereignty paradigm? One need not assume that Indigenous law is a superior form of law in order to ask this question. Nor is it necessary, or perhaps even possible, to identify a singular or pure form of Indigenous law untouched by colonial encounter. That Indigenous forms of law are alive in the present already tells us that sovereign state territoriality is not the last word on international political geography. Learning from other forms of law might generate insight into how to relate to our human and non-human ecologies in ways that are less politically zero-sum.

4. Citizens and migrants do not necessarily have opposing interests

In the United States, a dramatic mobilization against racialized forms of policing has emerged in recent years, most promimently in the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). Analysts of the M4BL have been slow to acknowledge the extent to which it is linked to organizing for immigrant rights and border justice. For example, when Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi initiated the #blacklivesmatter hashtag they were also leaders within organizations advocating for justice in immigration. Migrants and marginalized citizens have typically been pitted against each other as competitors for jobs and for scarce state resources. However, the M4BL and migrant organizers are now in conversation as to how their constituents share exposure to related forms of surveillance, violence, exploitation and neglect and how narratives that pitch them as opponents work to undermine their effectiveness in what might be reconceived as a shared anti-racist struggle. Arguments about warehousing surplus labor populations via the mass incarceration of African Americans are being related to arguments about terrorizing precarious labour populations via random deportation of undocumented immigrants. Arguments about the vested interests in privatized prisons and privatized prison services are being related to arguments about the vested interests in expanding immigration detention. [4]. These kinds of analyses generate an opening for citizens and migrants to reassess the types of constituencies in which they locate themselves. The international transfer of (border) policing strategies and security technologies further expands the geography in which constituencies affected by racialized policing might be understood. [5]. Partly for this reason, and partly because citizenship has failed to deliver the same measure of rights to African Americans as to others, the citizen/alien divide is not the key frame of reference around which these struggles articulate local and global points of connection and difference with others. What if we looked to the intersections between these struggles in order to see what other frames of reference might serve to mobilize, energize and politically align different constituencies, nationally and transnationally?

5. Poetry may be essential

We are over-burdened with information about the violence of border policing. Evidence abounds of laws broken and rights abused. Report after report documents the deaths of those crossing borders, the detention of children and adults for months and years, the permanent encampment of refugees, and the plight of stateless peoples, exiled and homeless. Legal cases are argued, statistics compiled, photos and footage released. Journeys in which people are left to die are reconstructed with forensic technologies. Such evidence becomes an object of dispute in itself. Is the count right? Can’t statistics and images be made to demonstrate any case you want? Was the law in fact broken? Who wrote the law? Does it apply where you say it does? Law and statistics are battlegrounds where states go to great lengths to deny that they are breaking the law; they use contending laws to legitimize and rationalize their approaches. They compile statistics differently in order to support their case. Law, scientific research, data, and documentary evidence remain crucial tools in struggles over borders. But when people are called to reckon with their own implication in and acquiescence to the violence of border policing, it may not be the “data” that moves them. Different modes of communication - poetic, literary, cinematic and broadly aesthetic - act as vehicles for truths that are more than the sum of accumulated facts. These are forms of knowledge and witnessing that cut through the obfuscations of bureaucratic, scientific and legal language; these are forms that move people in different ways. A particularly compelling case for the power of the literary form is made by Kurdish Iranian refugee, Behrooz Boochani, whose novel, No Friend But the Mountains, [6] was written during his six years imprisoned in Papua New Guinea at the hands of the Australian Govt. Boochani, who has more reason than most to comprehend the urgent necessity of dismantling the current border regime, chooses to write in a poetic form precisely because the journalism, in which he is trained, has failed to cut through. For Boochani, it is only through a poetic form, broadly conceived, that we can understand what makes his and others’ imprisonment possible and what it would take – in ourselves – to generate substantive change.


Anne McNevin is a professor at the New School for Social Research in New York. She works on how spatial mobilities, international migration and borders transform political communities, citizenship and sovereignty in the context of globalized global governance. Her recent work has focused on the governmentality of migration management in the Indonesian context.
Among her publications:
•Contesting Citizenship: Irregular Migrants and New Frontiers of the Political. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
•(with Manfred B. Steger, eds.) Global Ideologies and Urban Landscapes, London and New York: Routledge, 2011.
•“Hospitality as a Horizon of Aspiration (or, What the International Refugee Regime Can Learn from Acehnese Fishermen).” Journal of Refugee Studies, 2018. (co-authored with Antje Missbach)
•"Luxury Limbo: Temporal techniques of border control and the humanitarianisation of waiting" International Journal of Migration and Border Studies, 4(2), 2018 (co-authored with Antje Missbach).


[1See Ghezelbash, D. (2018). Refuge Lost: Asylum Law in an Interdependent World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2See Wilder, G. (2015). Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

[3Moreton-Robinson, A. (2015). The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[4See for example, Valdez, I., Coleman, M., & Akbar, A. (2017). Missing in action: practice, paralegality, and the nature of immigration enforcement. Citizenship Studies, 21(5), 547-569; Loyd, J. 2019. “Prison Abolitionist Perspectives on No Borders” in R. Jones (ed.) Open Borders: In Defense of Free Movement. Athens: University of Georgia Press, pp. 89-109; Paik, A. N. (2017). Abolitionist future and the US sanctuary movement. Race & Class, 59(2), 3-25.

[5See Davis, A. (2016). Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

[6Boochani, B. (2018). No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison. Sydney: Pan Macmillan Australia.