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Immoral borders:Looking beyond borders and the nation for global justice

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

Global justice cannot be detached from migration and bordering. To achieve justice for all, a truly critical theory of migration needs to critique and look beyond borders and the nation state in its scope. When we do this, we see little reason for strict border regimes at all.

In the wake of 9/11, over 47 border fences have arisen across the world, 19 following the Arab Spring and an additional 7 within the Schengen territory between 2015 and 2016. Increased securitisation has often been justified in response to illegal migration, the threat of terrorism and people smuggling. Likewise, Priti Patel’s newly proposed Nationality and Borders Bill 2021 claims to address these issues - to help those in ‘genuine need’ of asylum, deter illegal entry, and to remove those who have ‘no right’ to live in the UK. However, the bill is emblematic of how reactive, strict border regimes have proven time and time again to further exclude, marginalise and inhibit the realisation of justice for those wishing to migrate. Additionally, as Reece Jones rightly claims, it is representative of how borders are built as a showcase of national sovereignty to post-national powers.

Governing migration through crime and strict border regimes has had severe implications on the livelihoods and conditions migrants must endure. There have been reports of over 2000 migrant deaths at the hands of illegal pushbacks, as well as migrants being placed in unsafe housing facilities deemed ‘unlawful’ by the High Court in the UK. Furthermore, such policies also enforce the lengthy bureaucratic procedure of checking visas and beginning the asylum process. Stephan Scheel’s study, in which he experienced second hand the reality of applying for a visa within the Schengen territory, explained how it was unpredictable, left at the discretion of consular staff. This allowed racial biases often, if unconsciously, to play a role in acceptance. Moreover, migration governed this way overwhelmingly encourages the need for ‘illegal’ modes of migration, as there are little to no ‘safe legal routes’ for migrants to take.

Whilst these individual experiences may not be the reality for every migrant crossing a border, hostile policies and strict border regimes make migrants increasingly vulnerable to harmful conditions. Between 2015 and February 2021, over 18,000 people died crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe. Additionally, more than 61% of refugees have been reported to experience severe mental health issues due to their increased vulnerability to precarious housing or employment situations. Moreover, studies increasingly show that hate crimes against refugees and asylum seekers are growing year on year, with the British Red Cross staff reporting in 2019 at least one hate crime per month against their users. Coupled with the increasing populist far-right rhetoric permeating through Europe, the effort to determine ‘true’ refugees from those who are ‘liars’, only serves to further reinforce the binary that there is an ‘us’ versus an illegal, constant, perpetual enemy that must be fought.

“You don’t understand,” he answered. “My body’s here, but I’m elsewhere.” In Khosravi’s (2010:74) words, this is what exile is about: “my soul did not return in time.”

The words of Ismail, following Fiorenza Picozza’s case study on his journey of migration, at frequent risk of deportation whilst trying to seek comfortable settlement.

Whilst there is such a clear disparity between the wellbeing of those living within a state, compared to those who are stateless or seeking asylum, there needs to be serious radical change.

As Alex Sager illustrates, mainstream political philosophy has largely been slow in assimilating such empirical literature from across disciplines within migration. Ideas of justice that embody the principles of equality are often discussed abstractly at a global level. Theorists such as Joseph Carens explain how John Rawls’ principles of justice should be extended globally, and therefore people should be free to move to whatever state they wish to inhabit. However, this fails to appreciate the dialectical materialism that gives rise to people not being able to move freely, and why some people can move far more freely than others. Overwhelmingly, the case for opening borders is still argued from what Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller call a ‘methodological nationalist bias.’ This bias takes the nation state and current borders as the natural order of the world. However, this seriously overlooks the way in which nation states themselves are responsible for ‘refugee crises’ and the ontological deprivation that follows, for example, varying levels of citizenship meaning you aren’t entitled to work or can apply for housing.

A truly critical and helpful way to theorise migration should, as Nicholas De Genova writes, “be addressed to the task not merely of describing but also theorizing—and critiquing—actual struggles, the real social relations of unresolved antagonism and open-ended struggle that continuously constitute social life.”

Critically theorising migration in order to achieve justice for all therefore means critiquing the way in which states securitise their borders, how they define who is a refugee, and the accommodations they put in place for them. In this way, theorists who consider migration must look beyond the nation in its scope and place the current experiences of migrants, combined with the historical processes of imperialism and colonialism, within the heart of its considerations. When we do this, we see little plausible justifications for restricting the freedom of movement and the need for strict border regimes.


Lauren is a recent graduate in Politics at Newcastle University. She completed a dissertation on the ethics of migration, placing the human cost of borders and citizenship acquisition within the heart of her research. Lauren now works helping to house homeless young people. In her spare time Lauren likes supporting the brave Leeds United boys play in the Premier League.

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