Border Control is out of Control

Border Control is out of Control

Ruben Andersson (London School of Economics and Political Science)

It is without doubt one of the most iconic migration images of 2014. On 22 October, some dozen undocumented African migrants are caught on camera by a Spanish activist as they straddle the triple fence surrounding Melilla, a Spanish enclave in North Africa. Outside lies the wild grass and craggy rocks of the Moroccan borderlands; inside awaits a verdant golf lawn. The two golfers, indifferent to the fence-straddlers, are dressed in immaculate whites; the migrants, in shabby rags. To their right a border guard in riot gear eases himself onto the fence, ready to confront those trespassing on the manicured gardens of “Fortress Europe”.

In its juxtaposition of fenced-off rich and poor, the picture sums up a year of dreadful news from the borders of the Western world. More than 3,000 people have perished in the Mediterranean in 2014, a record number. Far-right parties are on the march across the continent, including in my home country of Sweden, building momentum for ever-harsher policies. Beset by UKIP hysteria, the UK now even mulls leaving the European Union on the back of irrational fears of migration, and has sent tall fences to Calais port to prove its intentions to barricade itself against the supposed huddled masses. Beyond Europe, US mass deportations have continued while Central Americans have languished in privately run detention facilities at great expense and misery. Australia has diverted refugee boats and detained their passengers indefinitely offshore, while Israel has unleashed draconian measures against African “infiltrators”. From the Sinai to the Sahara, from Arizona to Oz, a futile and fatal “battle” is being fought against today’s supposed transnational threat – the undocumented, unwanted refugee or migrant.

When I visited Melilla’s barrier in 2010, on my anthropological travels along the new Euro-African frontier for my book Illegality, Inc., the border guards seemed to be winning this battle – if only in the most limited sense. “It’s sold as not being harmful,” said a Spanish civil guard as we stood watching the six-metre-tall triple fencing and its layers of sensors, cameras and razor wire. His ambivalence was mixed with pride: migrants no longer crossed this gleaming divide. Through mass deployments, intense collaboration with Morocco and investments to the tune of €72m in the border barriers, Madrid had, since 2005, pushed migrants away from Melilla and its sister enclave of Ceuta towards the more dangerous sea route. Yet the calm of 2010 was not to last. By 2014 the African migrants were back at Melilla, clambering up the fences and pushed back by the Spanish civil guards, time and again, into the hands of the Moroccan forces. The golf-course picture was but one piece of evidence of this running battle, pitching migrants against guards, with European citizens as their befuddled spectators.

The setback was easy to predict, given the paradox haunting Western countries’ tough-talking approach to migration. Instead of admitting that migrants are a necessity to our ageing countries and “open” economies, politicians keep insisting that migration can be optimally “managed.” In this vision, borders work as high-tech filters, sifting the desirable from the unwanted; rag-clad undocumented migrants from their suited counterparts. Yet such a view is a fantasy in a time of nearly frictionless trade and capital flows, in which our fortunes are intimately tied up with the dreams and miseries of others. The ragged bunch of Africans on Melilla’s fence are not wild “infiltrators” into our world of manicured golf lawns; they are its necessary mirror image.

Yet the golf-course scene, for all its spectacular power, hides more than it shows. While a few thousand people at most are clambering into European countries across the barricades of Melilla or Calais, the latest count of immigrants into EU states stands at 3.4 million a year. As for refugees, the “invasion” fears peddled by some Western politicians are unfounded: in fact, 86 per cent of people fleeing conflict worldwide are hosted by developing nations – putting into perspective the 200,000-plus arriving by sea into Europe in 2014, as well as the flight of thousands of Central American minors to the United States this past summer.

The migration spectacle(1) on Western shores, then, is partial at best. Yet here’s the rub: faced with the paradox of how to manage migration in a mobile world, Western governments have increasingly opted for symbolic measures at physical borders. The UK and French scrambles to “secure” Calais port; the Spanish militarisation of Melilla’s perimeter; the various US border surges of recent years; the callous campaigns against boat refugees in Australia and the sealing of Israel’s African frontier – all these efforts do is offer up a spectacular politics of fear. Even when Obama opened a long-awaited road to legal residence for some unauthorised migrants in late November, he made sure to promise more border security for a simple reason: “Because borders do mean something.”

As the Melilla picture shows, politically investing the border with significance is a dangerous game. More enforcement forces migrants underground and into the hands of smugglers and bandits. It spawns absurd incentives for border forces in the West and its backyards, where the migratory “threat” has become a globalised racket. In Libya, militias now hold foreigners captive in the city’s zoo or lock them up in EU-supported detention centres until their families pay “liberation” fees, mirroring similar hostage-taking by criminals in Mexico and the Sinai. Elsewhere in North Africa, police serially expel, extort and harass sub-Saharan Africans suspected of illegality, as human rights organisations have documented in the past decade. “We lived like animals,” migrants who had scrambled over the fences recalled as I talked to them about their ordeals in Ceuta, Melilla and along Spanish coasts. The ragged crowd atop the fence is a product of our very borders.

Afraid of those trespassing on our ‘golf-lawn’ world, we have let politicians build vast industries to shore up the borders (with a little help from lobbyists). The US, leading the way, has invested more than $100bn in border and migration control since 9/11 and keeps bolstering the $12bn-a-year operations of Customs and Border Protection, including with hugely expensive and ineffective drones. The EU, lagging somewhat behind in its profligacy, has nevertheless similarly poured funds into security technology R&D while bolstering “border management” through pots including the €3.8bn Internal Security Fund. These EU instruments co-exist with large expenditure by individual members states such as Spain, which has in recent years built new detention centres, bolstered its border and migration forces by 60 per cent and forged tied “aid” deals with African states collaborating in the so-called “fight against illegal migration”. And the investments keep increasing. As I show in my book, the illegality industry feeds on failure, with every new “border crisis” bringing further funds. As fences and detention estates grow, the industry consumes resources and ruins lives. In the process, it is not just our moral standing that takes a hit, but also our economies. Labourers labelled “illegal” clean our homes, care for our elderly and pick our fruit – or as one US lawyer recently put it regarding the country’s punitive migration laws, “no workers, no food.”

As intolerance deepens across Europe and as elections draw near in the UK, we urgently need to reframe the debate on border controls. With their spectacular inefficiencies in mind, we may start by asking who actually benefits from the “tough measures” so cherished by governments and much of the media. It is certainly not the “native poor”, as some would contend. It is rather those with a stake in the border game: Western security forces and their third-country collaborators, the defence and security industries, and other powerful groups – as well as smugglers, who have found a captive market among people stranded in limbo. In times of globalisation, bordering has itself become a globalised business, bloated by anxious states oblivious to its efficacy or nefarious effects as refugees drown and willing workers turn their eyes elsewhere.

Behind our cloistered walls, Western nations may in years to come seem like a latter-day Easter Island civilization. While the world went about its business, there we rabbited away at useless border monuments whose significance – like the mind of those Spanish golfers at Melilla’s fence, oblivious in their game – future generations may not even begin to unravel.


Nicholas De Genova ‘Spectacles of migrant ‘illegality’: the scene of exclusion, the obscene of inclusion’, Ethnic and Racial Studies (2013) DOI:10.1080/01419870.2013.783710


Ruben Andersson is an anthropologist and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, London School of Economics and Political Science. His book Illegality, Inc.: Clandestine migration and the business of bordering Europe is published by the University of California Press.


Image Credit: Border at Melilla. Credit: José Palazón Osma (picture used with the kind permission of photographer)