Borders are central to the topic of forced migration. A refugee is defined legally as an individual who has crossed a border to seek protection – if an individual has fled their home but has not crossed a border then they are categorised differently, as an ‘internally displaced person’. Refugees are therefore created by borders and the act of crossing them. Borders also connect to forced migration, however, because they are places where we find violence, particularly violence directed towards migrants. Borders produce violence directly: think of the barbed wire fences, towering walls and patrols of armed guards that make up the world’s border zones. Borders also produce violence indirectly because, in trying to avoid these barriers and to reach safety undetected and un-intercepted, migrants often choose to travel using longer and more dangerous routes. They may elect to embark on a longer crossing across the Mediterranean, for example, or they may try to reach the United States by crossing the Sonoran Desert. Beyond these physical forms of violence, borders create forms of structural violence that jeopardise the lives of forced migrants. Borders are a central component of the systems which divide the Global North from the Global South and which therefore perpetuate global inequalities.

Given the far-reaching effects of borders and border violence, it may seem surprising that many borders are actually incredibly arbitrary, drawn up very quickly with very little thought given to the consequences that lines on maps have on the ground. We can think, for example, of the borders that divide the African continent into separate states (44% of which are simply straight lines), the 1948 border between India and Pakistan (which was decided upon in just five weeks) or the strange little bump on the Jordan–Saudi Arabia border which has been nicknamed ‘Winston’s Hiccup’ because people joked that Churchill must have hiccupped, causing his pen to slip, while drawing this line. Borders, as these examples show, are created – they are constructed by particular groups at particularly times with particular goals, rather than existing as natural divisions which separate obviously different groups of people. Borders don’t represent differences between the communities that exist on either side of them – they create these differences.

What is more, what looks on maps like a simple, solid border line that, we would assume, affects everyone equally is, in reality, much more of a porous barrier. Borders let some people through while excluding others. It is easy for businessmen or tourists to travel relatively easily across most of the world’s borders (simply by showing a valid passport or filling in relevant visa forms). It is easy for money to travel effortlessly from one country to another. However, it is almost impossible for poorer immigrants to move across these same spaces without meeting with the violence of states. Hence, borders affect different groups of people differently and the violence of borders is selective, targeting certain, ‘unwanted’ groups on the move.

Select Reading and Resources:

A fantastic overview of how borders create violence: Jones, R. (2016) Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move. London: Verso.

A book showing the on-the-ground realities of border creation, looking at how the creation of the border between India and Pakistan in 1948 affected individuals on both sides: Butalia, U. (2017) The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of
India. London: Penguin.

A short video showing how the current border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic has been shaped by violence and racism:

A website run by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) charting the numbers of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who have perished or disappeared in attempts to cross borders:

A look at how borders are experienced differently by men and women, focusing on the experiences of women arriving in Kos in Greece: Freedman, J. (2016) ‘Engendering Security at the Borders of Europe: Women Migrants and the Mediterranean “Crisis”’, Journal of Refugee Studies 29(4): 568-582.


Published by Discussing Displacement

Discussing Displacement is a blog dedicated to explaining some of the key ideas and arguments within Refugee and Forced Migration Studies.

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