As the toxic rhetoric around immigration, border walls and refugees intensifies, Joana Ramiro speaks to REECE JONES on the violent human cost of militarising imaginary lines
THE remaining unaccompanied children living in the Calais refugee camp, also known as the “Jungle,” were placed in buses and removed from the town earlier this month.
Over 1,500 kids were left in the camp when French authorities started its demolition. Children were left for months in the ever-growing site, with no running water or heating, infrequent meals and no adult support.
We have become complicit in their stories of desperation as we watch day in, day out, on our papers and our screens, the miserable fate of Calais, the unwanted camp, the last stop before reaching Britain.
Calais lies now mostly scorched to the ground. The children who once roamed through its ramshackle streets have been brought over to the Croydon Immigration Centre or to French refuges, while waiting to be granted asylum in Britain. It took a growing political rift apropos Brexit between the British and French governments to have their voices finally heard.
Before then, it seems these children had to die for anyone to pay attention to their cause.
And many did. Last year alone, three teenagers died attempting to cross the border: a 17-year-old Eritrean, who drowned on the Eurotunnel site; an unidentified teen, found dead on the Folkstone side of the tunnel and a 16 year-old Afghan boy, who was hit by the Eurotunnel train and “torn to shreds over 400m.”
Borders kill, and children are, more often than one would like to think, the first victims of these elusive lines, drawn by men who could not be further away from this reality.
It is about this mortal danger that academic Reece Jones has spent his last 15 years researching and writing.
We meet in an east London cafe, quickly before he runs off to speak at another event about his latest book, Violent Borders.
It’s sold out, I understand, because everyone wants to know what to do about the migrant crisis and these border walls that keep popping up, not just in our politicians’ rhetoric, but also around our coastal towns and countrysides.
“In the last 15 years, there’s two big trends on borders: one is the expansion of new security practices, whether it’s more agents, more funding for borders, for walls,” Jones starts, his tone sombre despite the infallible energy of the American accent.
Borders like the one between the US and Mexico, or Frontex outposts between Greece and Turkey, have been subjected to a “militarised view” and around them “a homeland security market” has emerged.
He explains: “A lot of things that used to be for the military are now being sold to security agencies to be used in border spaces, which has changed the way in which these spaces look. I think it’s easiest to visualise it with fences. Trump in the US talks about his big wall to symbolise all the other things that he really means about closing down the space.”
Keeping out the “Big Other,” that’s what these borders are about. With them comes an irrational fear of all difference, used by demagogues like Trump as prime political capital.
Jones tells me that at the end of World War II there were fewer than five border walls anywhere in the world. By 1989 there were ten more. And today there are 70. That’s more than three quarters of today’s border fences being built in under 25 years.
While writing his first book, Border Walls, Jones noticed a second trend: “A dramatic increase in the number of people dying at these walls.”
In the last couple of years alone, over 10,000 people have died trying to cross borders — we’ve all seen the dramatic images of men, women and children, fighting for their lives on the waves of the Mediterranean. Many more die in less thought of borders, not least in the deserts of Arizona. And as Jones painfully points out, there are yet another two months to go until the end of this year.
The reasons behind these deaths are multifold, but in the immediate sense they are linked to the simple fact that borders are far more guarded today than they’ve ever been.
“Thirty years ago it was simply just a lot easier to cross borders than it is now,” Jones says. “The idea with more security is that it will discourage people from trying to come and then they’ll stop coming. But that has proved not to be the case.
“People are fleeing conflicts, are fleeing terrible economic situations, they are fleeing climate change, environmental change issues. The pull of people is not going to stop. Securing borders has only just meant that a lot more people are dying at borders.”
And this cycle of further securitising, militarising even, of imaginary lines between stretches of land or sea, followed by further people attempting to cross and lethally failing, is not set to stop any time soon.
“It seems quite clear that in a lot of countries, in wealthier places, there’s a growing anti-migrant sentiment, politicians that are evoking nationalist narratives. In the US and Britain and in a lot of European countries those are rising. I would say, in the short term, in the next ten years, we are going to see a lot more walls on borders, a lot more border security. The problem of deaths at borders is going to continue to increase, so I would say, in the short term, there is not a positive outlook for these things.”
It’s a question as old as the systems of oppression our world is based upon. Jones suggests “there’s a long history of using movement restrictions to contain the poor in particular places so that their labour can be exploited.”
“If you think about slavery, serfdom,” he adds, “those were all systems for using movement restrictions, keep people in one place in order to exploit their labour to make money out of those privileges.
“The difference today is that restrictions are not within countries, it’s instead between them. But borders, passport controls, ideas on citizenship result in the same thing: pools of low waged labour that can be exploited by corporations that make profit off of it, and protect the privileges that have been accrued in other places in the world.”
So what can we do to stop this increased armouring? What can concerned citizens do about more border controls and forces armed to their teeth, and words of hatred spoken lightly by extravagant politicians in London, Washington and Moscow? Can it all only be dismantled when we succeed in dismantling the systems that rule us?
Jones is rather more discreet when talking about solutions to the problem.
I try the subtle and the brash interviewing approaches. Does capitalism have to end?
I email him a few weeks later, my mind unwilling to accept the dystopian near-future reality, where thousands more walls are built between me and my neighbour.
Jones eventually emails back the hopeful words: “In the longer term, walls always come down and humanity eventually sees the injustice in a particular system.”
Short sigh of relief. I keep reading: “That was true of slavery, serfdom, and colonialism, and it will eventually be true of violent borders that protect the privileges of wealthy countries today.”
Border walls can crumble down. But, as Jones’ himself put it in his very last words to me, “It will take some time.”
Reece Jones is a professor of Geography at the University of Hawaii and author of Violent Borders, which is available from Verso at mstar.link/violentborders