What Would It Be Like To Live In A World Without Borders?

Borders, we are told, are there to protect us. Establishing a boundary between different countries is meant to help define us as belonging to one nation. It is meant to keep us safe and those who will endanger us, out.
But the border system in its current form is facing a reckoning. The policies and systems that sustain British borders are embedding racist, xenophobic ideas in the public consciousness by telling us that they are protecting us from an influx of refugees. We, in turn, are made to feel that we are being overwhelmed by foreign outsiders who are here to use up social support systems which are already under strain. This affects everyone but particularly people who are read by both systems and strangers as 'not from here' (aka not white) and people who do not have the money or power to fight unlawful deportation and other injustices.
Despite the many problems with the current systems, the concept of living border-free can seem too radical, too impossible, too dangerous an idea. But an end to borders (that is, an end of the barriers to freedom of movement) doesn't have to be seen this way.
We spoke to Leah Cowan, former politics editor at gal-dem and author of Border Nation: A Story Of Migration for Pluto Press. Her book details the ways in which borders shape all of our lives beyond being just geographical boundaries and debunks the myths and misconceptions about immigration and who exactly profits from the system. We asked her exactly why and how borders can be broken down and what this would mean for the future of our world.
Borders have always been in place, right?

'No borders' isn’t a brand-new idea, it's actually borders themselves that are a relatively new concept. Even in the late 19th century, most of the world’s borders could be freely crossed without a passport. To be specific: Britain’s immigration laws which provide the blueprints for the enforcement of borders on British soil could be said to originate with the 1905 Aliens Act. As Nadine El-Enany explains in Bordering Britain, the Aliens Act "primarily targeted poor Jewish people, categorised as ‘aliens’, who were seeking protection from persecution". Before this, laws had been passed in countries colonised by Britain to stop people travelling from the colonies to the central hub of the empire. What this tells us is that Britain’s borders are a fiction, ostensibly created to shut out racialised people from the UK, in order to protect the interests and capital of the rich and powerful.

'No borders' politics or working towards border abolition encourages us to think a bit more deeply about inequality.

leah Cowan
Aren't borders there to protect us?
I think that the question of who or what borders 'protect' is a really important one. Borders seek to regulate or, more accurately, prevent the flow of people from one geographical location to the other. In practice this means that the vast majority of people who are trying to cross borders, perhaps in order to seek work or to flee conflict or environmental degradation, face huge barriers to do so. At the same time, borders enable capital and goods to circulate more freely. This tells us what the priorities are for the people who are making immigration laws and upholding the border.
An example of this paradox is how in the wake of the Brexit vote, the Conservative government pursued trade deals but also sought to end freedom of movement. In a Commonwealth trade speech in 2017, then Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel made it clear that she would "welcome the free flow of trade, technology and ideas" post-Brexit, and then at the 2019 Conservative Party Conference gleefully announced that she would "end the free movement of people once and for all". This is just one example of how borders exist to protect the interests of capital and not people.
I thought we were in a refugee crisis – won't there be a huge increase of people coming in?
On a very practical basis, only 6% of the UK is comprised of towns and cities (including the green spaces within them); 50% is used for agriculture and the remaining 44% is woodland and grassland. It’s also interesting to note that 50% of the UK countryside is owned by less than 1% of our population; maybe a starting point for fairer access to space is the rich sharing the resources they hoard. What this means is that in theory there is lots of room for more people to come to the UK.
More broadly, 'no borders' politics or working towards border abolition encourages us to think a bit more deeply about inequality. We can look at something like the refugee crisis through a more ‘radical’ lens which enables us to address problems at their fundamental, root cause, and try to solve them in a way which puts the valuation of human life at the forefront of our decision-making. The European ‘refugee crisis’ is commonly understood to have resulted from civil wars in Syria, although in this period refugee populations also comprised a significant amount of people from Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea and Kurdistan. The crisis saw a vast amount of people facing horrific journeys, with many dying in the Mediterranean Sea as they fled conflict or untenable situations in their home countries and sought refuge in Europe.
The lack of British humanitarian support to those seeking to cross is shameful, in part because the increase in attempted migrations across the Mediterranean can be tracked back to the 2011 NATO (a military alliance of 30 countries) air strikes on Libya in an attempt to overthrow the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The power vacuum which emerged after Gaddafi’s death opened up a possible albeit still incredibly dangerous escape route for those fleeing this conflict and others. Britain’s response – to resettle minute numbers of refugees – was pitiful.
As a very wealthy country, Britain’s response to the refugee crisis should have been to offer protection to people who have had their lives turned upside down by British military interference. However the ‘appeal’ of Britain should not be overstated; the vast majority of people who left their home country during the refugee crisis had other European countries as their destination. We know this because in 2015, Germany, Hungary, Sweden, Austria, Italy and France received significantly more asylum applications than the UK, despite many of these countries having much smaller populations.
How would we fit everyone? We're already in a housing crisis.
Britain’s housing crisis – which has led to 8.4 million people in Britain living in unaffordable, insecure and otherwise unsuitable homes – has nothing to do with migrant communities and everything to do with the government’s failure to provide enough affordable housing. The solution to the housing crisis is not to maintain the border regime, as migration has nothing to do with decades of atrocious housing policy. A better system of housing for all will be able to keep step with a more fluid population.
But what about the NHS?
Likewise, the current capacity crisis faced by the UK’s healthcare system is due to chronic underfunding by the government. The COVID-19 pandemic has painfully forced this issue to the forefront of public consciousness; in 2020 the very politicians and voters who supported further cuts to the NHS came out in the streets to clap for healthcare workers, drowning out the noise of their own hypocrisy with the din of mealy-mouthed gratitude that did nothing to change workers’ material circumstances and patients’ outcomes. Funding cuts have led to extreme pressure on staff, staff shortages, delays in accessing treatment, a lack of bed spaces and GP appointments and growing A&E waiting times. Meanwhile, immigration policies which introduced fees for healthcare, cutting migrant communities off from accessing vital services including services for pregnant people, have constructed barriers to accessing vital public services. In the midst of this, the government is plotting to continue selling off sections of the NHS, with a view to privatising the whole service to multinational companies. Strain is being placed on the NHS by the government, not by any patient wishing to access its services, irrespective of their immigration status.
Won't open borders encourage more smuggling and a greater flow of criminals into the UK?
Borders don’t prevent smuggling and trafficking, they both increase it and enable more exploitation of people seeking to cross borders. As explored earlier, when people can cross borders freely, they don’t need to pay smugglers to take them across. Furthermore, with the threat of border enforcement removed, once in Britain people will be able to more confidently report abuse in general and modern slavery and exploitative bosses in particular, and access their rights and protections as workers irrespective of their immigration status.

A world without borders is about a world rooted in fairness and social justice rather than structural inequality, which is how the world is currently organised.

leah Cowan
When we think about the idea of ‘criminals’ we should ask ourselves: who is seen to be breaking the law, and why? We know that people of colour and migrant communities are disproportionately criminalised and that law-breaking in part occurs due to a lack of resources. This suggests that inequality and the marginalisation and racialisation of people is what creates ‘crime’. People are more likely to break the law if their labour market opportunities are limited – for example if a person arrives in Britain and their qualifications are not recognised in the UK and they have no recourse to public funds.
Increased border controls and the associated social deprivation this brings, along with the systems of racial discrimination and inequality this entrenches, has the potential to increase criminalisation of certain groups. However, rejecting the border regime is embedded within a politics that also seeks to reduce and end criminalisation through providing sufficient resources, care and support to all.
Isn't a world without borders an unrealistic idea?
Relaxing borders is not a fantasy idea dreamed up by people who have no understanding of how the world works; people have been crossing borders since borders were invented, and we will continue to cross them. A world without borders is about a world rooted in fairness and social justice rather than structural inequality, which is how the world is currently organised. A 'no borders' position does not seek to make the rich richer or shore up wealth for small pockets of society.
No borders requires us to take stock of the harm Britain has caused globally, including to working class citizens and undocumented people in its own country. It also means recognising that the relative affluence and wealth that some people enjoy in the UK might need to be compromised – in order that we can all be safe and comfortable – however, not dipping below levels that the majority of the people in the world would still perceive to be incredibly comfortable. There are practical steps we can take towards abolishing borders; it isn’t a pie in the sky idea. In the UK, we can begin chipping away at the everyday borders that exist by challenging and resisting the hostile environment (which includes discriminatory Right to Rent policies, document checks in healthcare settings and more). We can hold the media to account for the way they report on the topic of migration and support publications that report on things like the ‘refugee crisis’ in a sensitive and compassionate way. We can also have conversations with our loved ones and in our communities about how to support each other, and other migrant communities, to survive and thrive in the UK.
Border Nation: A Story Of Migration by Leah Cowan is out now, published by Pluto Press.

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