Rethinking borders and the language of movement

Passport control booths when travelling internationally; physical borders, whether lined with barbed wire or marked with nothing but an unassuming sign; bodies of water, even. Borders are literal manifestations of concepts and structures which are both socially constructed and deeply real. It is easy for their arbitrary nature to be normalized, for the complicated bureaucratic labels that monitor people’s movement to appear natural and even justified. Yet protest slogans like ‘nobody is illegal’ and current uproar over border agencies like ICE have succeeded in de-habitualizing the international order’s means of controlling movement. Ultimately, the international language around movement, borders, and people is flawed. The movement of people is differentially labelled and valued, seen as acceptable and valid only in certain situations. Borders are fundamentally exclusive structures which uphold global inequalities.

Certain types of movement are classified as acceptable only for certain populations. Mobility is seen as normal and expected for wealthy, (mostly) white, international elites; Americans who move to France, for example, are ‘ex-pats’ – certainly not ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees.’ Language is everything. A family moving from Colombia to the UK, even with similar motivations as an American family moving to France, are classed as ‘immigrants’ at best. Their mobility is heavily policed and met with labels dripping in condescension. Gender, race, and class play important roles as well. Women and children are seen as helpless victims – imagine an advert asking for money for famine relief, or the popularity of international adoption. Men, on the other hand, are presented arriving in threatening mobs, marked as a terrorist threat or dangerous source of cheaper labor. The darker someone’s skin or the less stable their economic position, the more suspicious and unacceptable their migration. Only certain types of movement and people are considered to constitute a ‘problem’ or ‘crisis’, and these differential labels are based on structural racism, classism, and Eurocentrism embedded in development discourse.

Further, the language of movement carefully distinguishes between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’, between deserving and undeserving immigrants. Although this language is intended to safeguard humanitarian protection for the most needy, the narrow distinction does not accurately reflect people’s lived experience before, during, or after migrating, and ultimately it harms the people it aims to protect. The label ‘refugee’ is positioned as distinct and separate from the label ‘migrant’ – the former flees for political reasons and is deserving of humanitarian aid, whereas the latter is searching for economic opportunities. Economic and political reasons for displacement and movement cannot easily be separated, as poverty and persecution are interwoven. Communities and individuals often shift between categories, as the decision to migrate is not straightforward. Structural causes of poverty and economic insecurity do not make individuals less worthy of movement or respect. Moreover, failing to consider refugees’ economic needs negatively impacts the quality of long-term protection and prevents sustainable, durable solutions. Many organizations see movement as contradictory to providing humanitarian aid to refugees – for example, aid is easier to deliver in a camp setting – but long-term, successful solutions for refugees require access to migration and labor channels. In addition, by separating ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’, states are left off the hook, as they admit some refugees and fulfill supposedly humanitarian goals, while at the same time pursuing political agendas which restrict immigration and only let in a small fraction of individuals in need.

As conflicts become increasingly more complex and enduring, and as likelihood of return becomes smaller, refugees can become trapped in systems of humanitarian protection. The increasing visibility of climate refugees is a testament to globalized forces of persecution which challenge our current approaches to labelling, controlling, and reversing movement. We need to reimagine our labels and frameworks, accounting for nuance in the current international system of displacement and movement. Further, we need to challenge structures of exclusion and inequality which have become naturalized, like borders. Our current system of controlled and limited migration is certainly not the only possible option. Labelling movement and constructing borders is not intuitive; rather, as Professor of Refugee Studies Roger Zetter explains, labels not only describe the world, but construct it in convenient images. Prioritizing the convenience of international agencies and anti-immigrant regimes in the global North over the agency and complexity of migrating people leads to systems which are oppressive and out of touch with reality. Fundamentally, we need to rethink movement.

*Illustration by Juliet Richards*

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