By Natasha King
In 2014 a photograph taken by activist Jose Palazón, a member of the migrant rights group Asociación Pro Derechos de la Infancia, went viral. It shows a number of African migrants stuck on razor wire at the top of the fence that marks the border between the Spanish enclave of Meillia and the rest of Africa. While the migrants are stranded atop the wire, some golfers continue their game on a manicured course below.
The message of the photo is blunt: there is a gaping inequality between those living in Europe and those – generally poor, generally non-white – who are excluded from entry. Put simply, border controls are among the most obvious means that relatively wealthy states have of maintaining inequality.
Palazón captured an image of suffering and inequality, but the moment he witnessed can also be seen as one of defiance. For those who surmounted this fence and continued their journeys – just as for the ‘sans papiers’ who have demanded that ‘no-one is illegal’, or for the people who form a network of welcoming places across Europe – their actions can be thought of as moments of resistance where people have practiced autonomy and equality despite forces that seek to institutionalise the opposite. In my PhD thesis I wanted to explore this resistance, what scholars Anderson, Sharma and Wright describe as ‘refusing the border’.
This starting point came out of my involvement in struggles against the border, particularly as part of the No Border Network. I came to be involved in the network essentially because I was – like many people – not okay with the idea that society must be based on the institutionalisation of inequality, but also because the activities of this network suggested that alternatives are possible. No Borders is a radical stance. In being anti-borders it is also anti-state. It often gets dismissed as utopian or too extreme to be politically useful. And yet in the simplest terms, the No Border Network simply expresses an ethic of radical equality. It is about how we prefigure a world that is borderless by it being genuinely equal. It’s about acting towards a world where those people on the fence are as valuable human beings as the ones playing golf.
The No Border Network seeks to nurture refusal of the border. By refusal I mean activities that people use so that they can practice the freedom to move and to stay. My thesis explores what makes up this refusal, in all its diversity. From within this perspective, the central question I asked is: how can we resist border controls?
I explored this question by looking at struggles against the border regime in Greece. In 2010 when I started this project, the country was undergoing a ‘migration crisis’ in addition to an economic one. That year it was estimated that 90% of all ‘illegal’ migration into the EU came via Greece. The struggle between those enforcing border controls and those targeted by such controls was extensive and intense.
I stayed for 10 months in Athens where I was active in a number of different movements of resistance to the border regime, from supporting an occupation of the university by Afghan refugees, to working within anarchist groups in their anti-fascist work. Through reflecting on my experiences I developed the concept of a no borders politics, the main points of which I lay out here:
- From the university occupation mentioned above, to the strategies my friend from Syria used to continue his journey from Athens to the UK, to the African women who ran a support group for themselves, to the anarchist collectives organising with migrants against the take-over of their neighbourhood square by members of the Golden Dawn, it appeared to me that all of these activities either implicitly or explicitly ‘refused’ the border in some way. What their differences reflected rather, was how we have different abilities to resist because of the ways we are differently affected by power (as a white person from the UK with a passport my ability to resist is different from a black person from Africa without documents). A No Borders politics therefore involves a diversity of tactics in the way we refuse. This means that no one particular kind of resistance explains what a No Borders politics is.
- Engaging in diversity also means acknowledging that some practices that might seem reformist can actually be a radical form of resistance, depending on who it is that carries them out. A particular event that took place in Athens while I was there illustrates this point best. This was a hunger strike by 300 men from North Africa who were demanding the right to remain in Greece after having lived and worked there for years without status. The strike lasted 43 days. At the end, when half of the participants were hospitalised, the government made some important concessions, which meant that they were able to remain in Greece ‘officially’. Many people dismissed the strike as reformist. But the fact that people without rights were leading this strike was extraordinary since they were so vulnerable in front of the state.
- Our refusal is most effective when it involves collaboration between different kinds of people. The hunger strike was particularly important in this respect since it brought migrants and natives together to discuss their situation. The strike itself also drew together many different groups. The outcome being that people’s ideas about each other changed as did their political agendas. It is in that transformation – that fusion – that I think we find the most exciting possibilities for radical social change. It can be summed up as working with the dilemma of how, if my own resistance involves fighting for a world without passports, the resistance I make in collaboration with others might involve fighting with them for their right to have a passport.
This understanding of a No Borders politics is the main contribution of my thesis to academic knowledge and practical politics. My aim has always been to raise issues and concerns that are relevant to activists in the hope of developing a more mindful, sophisticated and effective resistance that takes us somewhere new. Ultimately I hope my thesis will add to a growing body of scholarship that proposes that, far from political dreaming, No Borders is a viable and practical political project, one that is already here.
In recognition of the quality of her work, Natasha King was recently awarded the School of Politics and International Relations Best Thesis Prize for 2013-14. Here Natasha outlines the basis of her work and shows how Politics research can help us rethink some of society’s most basic orthodoxies. She is now working on a book to be published by Zed Books provisionally titled No Borders: The Politics of Immigrant Control and Resistance.
Image credit: Wikipedia Commons