Written by:
Gracie Mae Bradley and Luke de Noronha

Making the case for abolishing borders

Read time:
7 minutes

Making the case for abolishing borders

Gracie Mae Bradley and Luke de Noronha’s powerful and thought-provoking book Against Borders argues that borders harm all of us – by dividing families and workers, fuelling racial division and reinforcing global disparities – and must be scrapped. In this edited extract, the authors explain why it is vital that anti-racists join the fight for abolition. 

Politicians of various stripes repeatedly proclaim that controls on immigration are necessary and have nothing to do with racism. Racism is morally abhorrent and evil; immigration controls are legitimate and necessary. And yet, every far-right or racist political movement is explicitly anti-immigration and anti-migrant.

The language used to describe unwanted migrants has all the markers of race. People on the move are animalised – think ‘swarms’ – and depicted as bringers of crime, disease and cultural pathology. And, so, states respond by denying people from the right to move, settle and access the protections of the law.

When we examine racism through the prism of mobility, we can see how it changes with time and context. Bordering practices perpetuate colonial inequalities, but also produce new forms of racial injustice: the refugee camp, the bordering of the seas, and the implementation of enormous biometric databases, for example.

Anti-racists need to be alert to how racism shapeshifts and how different articulations of racism nourish and reinforce one another. In the British context, we can observe that the demonisation of eastern European migrants since 2004 built upon the anti-asylum politics of the late 1990s and 2000s, all amid a deepening moral panic about Muslim extremism in the context of the 'War on Terror', and ongoing fears about Black youth, serious violence, and ‘gangs’.

‘The racialised outsiders change form even as old tropes are repurposed’

The racialised outsiders change form even as old tropes are repurposed and combined in new ways; our anti-racist politics must therefore nurture connections and coalitions between differently racialised groups – perhaps especially among newly arrived migrants.

For example, the majority of detainees held over recent years in British Immigration Removal Centres are Black and brown, many of them nationals of the UK’s former colonies; and yet, the top three nationalities deported since 2016 have been Romanian, Albanian and Polish.

In this context, differently racialised migrants should not be seen as competitors for meagre privileges, but as people whose shared violation might be the ground for coalitional, radical anti-racist politics. Clearly there is a connection between the young Black non-citizens accused of gang affiliation by police, and the Romanian rough-sleepers swept up by immigration enforcement teams, both of whom are then detained and deported.

We need to be better at making these connections; it should be impossible for people to think about racism and borders in isolation from one another. The fates of all who are excluded, expelled and caged are intertwined. Communicating this fact requires a historical understanding of how colonialism structures our present, certainly – but also the capacity to identify the connections necessary to challenge new articulations of racism and nationalism.

‘The public outcry focused on the enforcement of violent borders against the wrong people’

The Windrush scandal concerned people who moved from the Caribbean to the UK before 1973, and were caught up in the ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy: denied access to employment, housing and healthcare, and in some cases deported. As Commonwealth subjects who had moved before 1973, they were entitled to an unconditional right of residence (‘right of abode’); but under the hostile environment, they became reclassified as ‘illegal immigrants’.

The public outcry focused on the enforcement of violent borders against the wrong people. Politicians and commentators of all stripes repeated the claim that these individuals were citizens – not illegal immigrants.

The harm done to Windrush migrants was isolated from the treatment of more recent migrants who were impacted by the hostile-environment policy – people who were also illegalised, forced into destitution, detained and deported.

The resolution to the scandal was thus to be found in redress for the Windrush migrants alone, rather than in a total overhaul of the system that denies non-citizens access to the basic means of life – in other words, an end to the hostile environment.

In general, campaigns for citizenship for particular groups of migrants function to reinforce the notion that you have to be a particular kind of person – a citizen, an insider, someone who belongs – to access fundamental rights. This is a reformist demand insofar as it does nothing to undermine the assumption that only citizens can make claims on the state to basic rights, dignity and freedom from coercion.

‘As people committed to border abolition, we need to ask: What lies beyond citizenship?’

Non-reformist demands would call for rights for non-citizens – for the establishment of the non-citizen as a person with rights against the state – potentially recuperating the long-unfulfilled promise of human rights. This would mean that access to rights would no longer be predicated on citizenship status, which has increasingly been constructed as a ‘privilege’ in the context of the ‘War on Terror’.

In short, we argue that anti-racism should centrally include people subject to immigration controls (non-citizens), without trying to resolve the problem by simply turning them into citizens. This does nothing to challenge the logic of exclusion, or to protect the wider population of people excluded from membership. As people committed to border abolition, we need to ask: What lies beyond citizenship?

When anti-racists ignore the mutually constitutive nature of racism and nationalism, they become reconciled to the nation, and seek redress for racism within its comfortable confines. This often means seeking representation within its dominant institutions.

In its crudest form, this might mean celebrating the fact that the current UK government is the most ethnically diverse yet, with Black and brown faces in high (authoritarian) places. But it is also visible in various calls for diversity in boardrooms, police departments and elite universities. Clearly, Black and brown bosses, billionaires and police chiefs will not help the majority of Black and brown people.

We should also recognise that demands for diversity in institutions like universities and large NGOs can function to displace and silence more radical demands for changes to the structure and strategies of these institutions – and even their potential dismantling and the redistribution of their resources. The banal politics of representation works as a distraction.

‘Problems arise when we assume that racism is about inequalities between citizens’

Of course, there are many anti-racist initiatives that do important work while still operating within the confines of the nation. Groups challenging institutional racism tend to focus on what we might call second-class citizenship: the ways in which racialised citizens are excluded and discriminated against despite their formal membership.

Some of these anti-racist programmes help all people subject to racism, including non-citizens; but immigration controls are usually not part of the picture. Problems arise when we assume that racism is about inequalities between citizens, even when we know many racialised people in the UK lack citizenship.

So, while we fight against structural racism in schools, workplaces, and the healthcare and criminal justice systems, we should also recognise that borders exclude people from accessing education, employment, free healthcare and fundamental rights to due process in the first place.

We must avoid playing into the idea that racism is bad because it ‘divides the nation’ or ‘excludes citizens’, as though we all agree that citizenship is a good thing, and support the ideal of full and equal membership only for the nation’s insiders.

‘Anti-racists must seek the abolition of borders’

Anti-racists must seek the abolition of borders. People campaigning for racial equality should be struggling against all immigration controls, just as migrant-rights advocates should be thinking about the weight of racism in determining migration policies and their impacts. We can learn from Black freedom struggles that freedom from racism means the freedom to move unchained – emancipation being inseparable from the right to locomotion.

In pursuit of border abolition, we need to cultivate alternative ways of imagining collectivity beyond and against race and nation. We would do well to remember that modern ways of thinking about peoplehood, identity and territory are fairly new, and that their hold over us is never total.

As we become increasingly conscious of our shared vulnerability to climate change and global pandemics, we urgently need to develop planetary sensibilities and a commitment to a world held in common. Abolishing borders must be central to this project.

Gracie Mae Bradley is director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, a founding member of the Against Borders for Children campaign and former director of Liberty. Luke de Noronha is an academic and writer working at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre, University College London. Against Borders: The Case for Abolition is out now. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.

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