Borders no longer exist only along the confines of a territory – they are now embedded in our societies, rearing their head every time a medical professional checks a patient’s immigration status or a landlord asks for a residence permit. Borders create hierarchies within our communities which are harmful to us all, according to Gracie Mae Bradley and Luke de Noronha, authors of ‘Against Borders: The Case for Abolition’.
Calls for the abolition of borders are often met with scoffs – critics say the idea is radical and utopian. However, modern slavery expert Emily Kenway argues that these demands are also “realistic and necessary” in a recent opinion piece for openDemocracy, highlighting how they “combine fearless diagnoses of our collective problems with practical visions for a better society.”
Two types of abolitionism
There are two kinds of abolitionism, according to Kenway. The mid-19th century exemplifies the first kind, when countries around the world passed legislation that banned slavery. However, this wave of abolition failed to challenge the racist economic system that fostered slavery in the first place.
By failing to address these conditions, historical abolition left the people that were now supposedly free vulnerable to further exploitation. Many formerly enslaved people found themselves trapped working in dire conditions with unfair contracts and facing limited access to accommodation and other services. Sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois concluded that slavery had been abolished “only in name”.
The second brand of abolitionism, according to Kenway, goes further, targeting the social and political systems that give rise to harmful and discriminatory practices. She argues that Bradley and de Noronha’s ‘Against Borders’ exemplifies this second type. As well as advocating for the dismantling of physical borders and immigration legislation, the authors target the set of ideas that lead to the normalization and acceptance of using borders to divide and categorize people, including racism and the concept of citizenship.
Dismantling borders without challenging these underlying systems and notions would not fully eradicate the harm they cause. Borders, according to the authors, are simply a response to the real problem, which they identify as the nation-state. Removing the state’s ability to create hierarchies based on citizenship would remove the need for borders. To succeed, therefore, border abolition should “look beyond the nation-state as the default container of human communities,” according to the authors.
Radical and utopian, but also realistic and necessary
Border abolitionists are often accused of being “pie-in-the-sky at best and dangerous at worst” in Kenway’s words. She writes:
This struggle against the seemingly natural order of things sits at the heart of abolitionism: that’s why it evokes such fearful scoffs from critics. It is frightening to question the building blocks of the world around us. This is abolitionism’s threat but also its promise, because it uses that questioning as a way to reveal new and radical solutions.
Abolitionism forces us to complicate our vision of the world around us, pushing past black-and-white thinking and imagining up better solutions to existing challenges. It’s not simply about removing borders, Kenway explains, “it’s about what can grow in their place once they’ve been cleared away.”
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