To what extent do borders operate as a form of violence in world politics

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  • Published On: 09-12-2023

To what extent do borders operate as a form of violence in world politics


In the recent years, an increase in the use of negative and pejorative language around the ‘boat people’ or refugees who seek humanitarian assistance from western nations have led to questions around ethics in politics and humanitarian values because the use of such language has been seen as a way of skewing and obscuring “considerations of human responsibility and ethical concerns about hospitality” (Pugh, 2004, pp. 54-55). This essay critically discusses how borders have been used by politicians around the world to deny certain peoples and groups humanitarian assistance or pushed them into conditions that are inhumane and pose violent threat to their lives. The essay argues that the increase in pejorative discourse around ‘boat people’ and refugees in general, as well as securitisation of citizenship laws and policies has led to a form of violence that is associated with borders because it affects human rights of those who are affected by such policies and laws.

Borders as form of violence in world politics


Borders are important in that they mediate the social and political relations between different actors at different times and at different scales; moreover, borders can be contested in the sense of while the political and territorial aspects of borders may be visualised as one thing, social practices, human relationships, and institutions may symbolise borders as another (Paasi, 2018). While the globalisation process has led to some opening of the borders for the movement of people and goods which caused optimism for a possible and relatively ‘borderless world’, the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States changed this optimism and related events in Middle East with the war on terror and displacement of people in these states led to the closing of borders in the face of refugee crises from the different parts of the Middle East and South Asia (Paasi, 2018)

Refugees and those who are seeking humanitarian assistance in other states have found themselves as increasingly unwelcome; the political attitude to refugees is exemplified by a statement made by then UK PM David Cameroon where he described refugees from Syria as ‘swarms of migrants’ trying to break in to the UK from Calais (Taylor, 2015). The choice of words was thought to be dehumanising and unethical by a number of other political figures including, Nigel Farage, who stated that he would not have used “language like that” to describe the Syrian refugees (Taylor, 2015). This is not to say that Cameroon’s choice of words was a rare instance of such language being used by a mainstream politician in a western country; research shows that there is an increase in the use of such pejorative language hinging on showcasing refugees as security concerns around the world with words such as ‘flood’, ‘influx’, or ‘wave’, being commonly used to suggest an overwhelming number of refugees and immigrants coming from third world countries and words such as “unwanted invaders” also being used to suggest that the refugees or immigrants need to be removed from the country (The Migration Observatory, 2013; Parker, 2015). An example can be seen in how Czechoslovakia President Zeman described the need to deal with Syrian refugees in 2015: “I am profoundly convinced that we are facing an organised invasion and not a spontaneous movement of refugees” (Tyler 2017, 5).

Such language suggests an increasing emphasis in some countries about the unwanted or undesirable nature of refugees. Because refugees come predominantly from third world countries undergoing humanitarian crises, a racial and ethnic context of desirability or undesirability of those who are coming in can be adduced. This has implications for the refugee and citizenship policy of the states where an increasing securitisation approach can lead to denial of humanitarian assistance to refugees in a way that can make a plausible argument that borders are being weaponised. For instance, in 2015 when President Zeman made the statement of an organised invasion from Syria, only 71 Syrian refugees were granted refugee protection as against 1,525 applications made (Tyler 2017). In other words, more than 1450 refugees were refused assistance at a time when Syrians were caught in a major humanitarian crisis. This problem with dehumanising refugees and immigrants and using the narrative of securitisation to deprive individuals of basic human rights is now witnessed increasingly in many western countries of the world. Furthermore, tools of law and policy are used by governments to legitimise inhumane treatment of the refugees and immigrants. Politicians and governments have been able to make stricter rules with respect to immigrants and refugees and thereby reduce immigration through two methods: equate illegal immigration with criminality; and using the immigration law to “irregularise” people by making it difficult to attain regularisation of immigrant status and “otherising” the immigrant (Calavita, 2005). Thus, immigration detention policy is being used by governments, including in the UK to make immigration less attractive. An example can be seen under the Immigration Act 2016 which allows the government to detain immigrants. Calavita (2005) has argued that immigration law is used as a way to irregularise people. Moreover, the construction of legality of immigration itself can be seen to become more emphasising on the ‘desirable’ characteristics of immigrants, in terms of race and ethnicity; in the UK, this can be seen in how the National, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 is used to ensure that immigrants are vetted on the basis of language as it requires that English test and citizenship exam is to be administered to immigrants to determine their suitability for immigration into the UK.

Borders become a form of violence when they are used to create a specific and different framework for individuals who may enter a state or not enter, based on their race and ethnicity; this may be especially so when denial of entry into the state may also lead to violation of human rights of those who are denied such entry. Research indicates that states have increasingly imposed illegitimate distinctions between citizens and noncitizens which then lead to physical expulsion, disenfranchisement, exclusion from access to public benefits, and acts of violence and discrimination and that such actions are heightened abuse risks for racial and ethnic minorities (Goldston, 2006). In effect, what happens is that the potential for racial discrimination for denationaliaation and restrictive access to citizenship increases because states exercise their discretion on how to frame national policy on citizenship, using the border as a method, in a way that uses race and ethnicity as important grounds for denial of citizenship, denationalisation, and even entry into the state under humanitarian grounds (Goldston, 2006).

The use of borders to exclude people has implications for human rights of those who are affected by such policies. One of the serious human rights implications is in the use of security based policy to deal with immigrants and refugees; this includes use of immigrant detention not only with respect to adults but also children. In this context, it has been pointed out that “detention imposes serious hardships by its nature, depriving individuals of the ability to work and earn income, attend school, and maintain relationships” (Kalhan, 2010, p. 46). Immigration detention and similar security based policy has effects such as economic, emotional, and psychological harms for detainees, their family members and children (Kalhan, 2010). Despite there being sufficient literature on such harmful effects of immigration detention, the UK government has chosen to adopt this method as well as other greater restrictive controls under the Immigration Act 2016 so as to make the UK less attractive to immigration (Vargas-Silva, 2015). The difficulty with the approach taken is to conflate illegal immigration with other forms of unregularized immigrant status, such as of refugees, which have been criticised for its propensity to deal with both illegal immigrants and forced migrants and refugees in the same manner (Crawford, Leahy, & McKee, 2016). As one of the causes for undocumented immigration is also humanitarian crisis which is a form of forced immigration, there is criticism of the approach to use immigration law and policy in a way that does not distinguish between forced and illegal immigration and uses security based discourse to deal with both. The security based discourse tends to treat all immigrants from a criminalisation perspective (Crawford, Leahy, & McKee, 2016). Thus, the law tends to treat all undocumented immigrants as security threats and does not distinguish those who are forced to migrate due to various factors like environmental reasons, wars, and other such crises (Gibney, 2008). Ultimately, a question has to be asked about how this increasingly securitisation discourse around refugees and the use of borders as a way to exclude certain groups reflects on the ethics in politics. This is so because political boundaries as reflected in borders are often coercive in nature and can lead to the exclusion of those who are outside of these boundaries and this is at times seen as an ethical problem (Buchanan & Moore, 2003). Those who think of territorial borders in the revolutionist sense or pluralist sense, tend to view the world as a society; therefore, this view posits that the world society sees the participation of various actors and that there is a “common community of human beings” in this world (Williams, 2006, p. 55). Universal ethical propositions, such as that propounded by Immanuel Kant, are relevant in this content because these propose that the world society is ethically cosmopolitan (Williams, 2006). Seen from this point of view, the current approach of exclusion of groups and communities on the basis of territorial borders would be deeply problematic because it would come in the way of the world society being truly cosmopolitan. However, this view of a cosmopolitan world society would not be in compatibility with the Westphalian sovereignty viewpoint, which sees state as a political unit with sovereignty over a fixed territory (Williams, 2006). Even taking the latter argument into account, and even by disregarding the ethical perspective of cosmopolitan world society, it can be argued that the ethics involved in the politics around immigration are problematic because these are in conflict with humanitarian values. In other words, taking into account the view that the state is a sovereign body politic with the power to create policy around immigration and treatment of refugees, such discretion cannot be used in a way that excludes groups of people, based on race and ethnicity, from human rights.

On the other hand, there is also an argument that immigrants also use or abuse ethics discourse by trading their integrity for political recognition, such as by using illness or other physical or medical problems to secure human rights when other means of regularisation of citizenship have failed (Ticktin, 2006 ). This argument seeks to portray humanitarianism as a form of politics, that is “functioning as a transnational system of governance tied to capital and labour even while purporting to be apolitical” (Ticktin, 2006 , p. 35). The problem with this argument is that while it seeks to elevate the ethical responsibility of immigrants themselves, it lowers the ethical responsibility of the mainstream politicians. By portraying humanitarianism as a form of politics, this argument fails to acknowledge the deeply political nature of immigration and refugee policy of the governments around the world and also fails to hold accountability for the political class and states. Ultimately, this is a state-centred approach that fails to take into consideration individuals and communities affected by the ethics and politics of borders (Paasi, 2018).

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While borders may be thought of as being essential aspect of the Westphalian sovereign state, there is also an argument for a change in ethics around borders from a humanitarian perspective. This essay has argued that the increasing securitisation approach to immigrants and refugees, has led to serious human rights implications for those affected by such policy. States have sought to use their discretion in ways that excludes people based on their race and ethnicity and in ignorance of human rights implications of such exclusion. At the centre of this is also use of pejorative language towards refugees and immigrants which leads to questions around ethics of politics that seeks to exclude those in humanitarian assistance. There is a need to reconsider border discourse from the perspective of the humanitarian argument and not just from a sovereignty argument in order to find ways to accommodate those who are in need of humanitarian assistance.


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Paasi, A. (2018). Borderless Worlds and Beyond: challenging the state-centric cartographies. In A. Paasi, E.-K. Prokkola, J. Saarinen, & K. Zimmerbauer, Borderless Worlds for Whom?: Ethics, Moralities and Mobilities (pp. 21-36). Routledge.

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