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Movement as a Political Act

Syrian refugees on an Italian navy ship after being rescued

Syrian refugees on an Italian navy ship after being rescued from a fishing vessel carrying 443 Syrian asylum seekers, June 5, 2014. Photograph: Massimo Sestini/eyevine.

Joan Quesada teaches sociology at the University of Barcelona, and is an editor of the Spanish-language edition of Monthly Review.
Reece Jones, Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move (London: Verso, 2016), 212 pages, $16.95, paperback.

In 2016, in the face of the refugee crisis in Europe and the xenophobic reaction it sparked in broad sectors of the European population, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek wrote that the task of the Western left was “to build bridges between ‘our’ working class and ‘theirs’ [i.e., the non-Western working class], so that they become united in a joint, mutually supportive fight…. We should put forward a positive, universal project which is shared by all participants, and fight for it. Not only should we respect the others, but we should offer them a common fight, since our problems are common to all today.”1 And this is precisely what Reece Jones’s Violent Borders sets out to do, in a concrete, concise, and clearly reasoned way.

From the first page, Jones makes clear that the question driving his work is that of why states all over the world are often so concerned with limiting the movement of the poor. To find the answer, he proceeds lucidly from a description of the worst consequences of the several kinds of violence exerted at and by national borders, through a critical analysis of the historical rise of borders and their contemporary uses. He concludes by proposing a few universal principles that he deems essential to suppressing border violence and achieving a more just global regime of migration.

Violence at Borders

“Borders should be seen as inherently violent, engendering systematic violence to people and the environment,” Jones writes (10). This is due not only to the direct violence that border patrol agents or human-trafficking mafias inflict on migrants who try to cross state boundaries, but also to the central role of borders in what Johan Galtung termed “structural” violence—the kind inflicted on the poor by depriving them of access to wealth and resources. From this distinction between direct and structural violence, Jones identifies five distinct ways in which borders harm the most vulnerable strata of the global population, namely: the overt violence of border guards and border infrastructure; the high risk of injury or death when poor migrants are funneled toward dangerous crossing points; the constant threat of violence to those who lack proper documentation; structural violence linked to the enclosure of resources and the bordering of states; and the inadequacy of global environmental regulations, something badly needed to protect all life on our planet.

The first and second types of violence described by Jones are vividly illustrated by the number of deaths in recent years among migrants and refugees trying to cross borders. In just over a decade, violence at borders has been responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, with 40,000 estimated casualties between 2004 and 2015.

In the European Union alone, Jones reports, 23,700 people lost their lives in attempted border-crossings during that same period, and 2016 was the deadliest on record, with a death toll of 5,000. As of late October, more than 2,700 people have died this year at sea, trying to enter the European Union.2

As for the United States, a total of 6,029 deceased migrants were found on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico between October 1997 and September 2014, “with the remains of at least 300 migrants being recovered each year along the border since 2000.”3 However, this figure does not include the thousands of casualties that take place yearly on the journey along what has come to be known as the “vertical border,” the route through Mexico that Central American migrants follow from the southern Guatemalan border to the northern U.S. border. Between 2007 and 2013, according to Jones, “an estimated 47,000 migrants died in Mexico” (45).

In both the European Union and the United States, some of these deaths have come at the hands of border guards—between 2010 and 2015, for instance, U.S. Border Patrol agents shot and killed thirty-three people—but the vast majority of recorded migrant fatalities are not directly perpetrated by security officers. Nevertheless, the sharp increase in border security personnel in recent years has made passage into these countries far more perilous. As the easiest crossing points have been gradually closed by the installation of enhanced security and surveillance infrastructure—walls, fences, cameras, drones, movement sensors, and more—and become more tightly patrolled than ever, migration routes have moved toward more dangerous areas, such as the open waters of the Mediterranean Sea or the deserts of Arizona and west Texas, where most migrants to the United States have met their deaths in recent years.

Migrant fatalities are not limited to the borders between wealthy Western nations and their poorer neighbors: border violence is also commonplace elsewhere. In Israel, the repression of protests against the wall and fences separating Palestinian territories from Israeli lands and settlements have already claimed the lives of many protesters. In India, between 2000 and 2015, the Border Security Force killed over a thousand Bangladeshi migrants trying to enter the country. Bangladesh, in turn, has recently restricted entrance to Rohingya refugees fleeing neighboring Myanmar. A Muslim minority in a nation whose population is 90 percent Buddhist, the Rohingya are not only denied citizenship in their own country, but have been the victims of repeated attacks and forced displacements. At the beginning of 2015, the closing of the Bangladeshi border forced 25,000 Rohingya to embark on sea trips in search of a safer place to live. Not only were many of the boats turned away from the nearby Malaysian, Indonesian, and Thai coasts, but hundreds of migrants died during the voyage. Still another deadly place is Australia, where the “Border Deaths Database counts 1,974 deaths of migrants” trying to get from Timor to Australia’s Christmas Island “between January 2000 and November 2015” (66).

These numbers give an idea of the global dimension of border violence, a phenomenon that is not limited to a few rich countries in the global North. But behind these abstract figures and statistical data lie the personal dramas of real people fleeing war, persecution, or poverty in their countries of origin. In researching his book, Jones travelled to visit some of the most active border hotspots to learn first-hand about the conditions of everyday life for migrants in transit and those simply living at a border while waiting for a chance to cross it. Consequently, far from a mere compilation of faceless figures, Jones’s book offers a rich set of personal stories—often told by eye-witnesses or by their own protagonists—that give an invaluable account of the risks migrants face and the hardships of life along border walls and fences.

In the Moroccan city of Tangier, the author witnesses seven Moroccan youths try to reach Europe by clinging to the bottom of a bus and hiding in its engine compartment. In Nador, Jones speaks to a Ghanaian migrant trying to get by on charity while waiting for a fourth chance to get on a boat with his family and sail to Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar. A few months earlier, the man and his family had managed to avoid the raids on the sub-Saharan African migrant camps at Mount Gurugu carried out by the Moroccan authorities, in which hundreds of migrants had been detained and risked deportation.

In El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, Jones meets a witness to the 2010 killing of fifteen-year-old Sergio Hernández Guereca by a Border Patrol agent. The boy had been throwing stones at agents after they arrested his friend for crossing the Rio Grande into the United States. Jones also interviews a Border Patrol public relations officer there, who apologetically explains to him that “rocks are a deadly weapon” (31).

In Palestine, Jones talks to the Abu Rahma family of Bil’in, a village just a few hundred yards from the Israeli fence. Two of their children were killed near the border fence and two others arrested by the Israel Defense Forces. The family’s crime had been their participation in the weekly protests organized against the construction of the border fence, which cut off the village from the fields which are their livelihood. A few months after his visit to Bil’in, Jones learns that another of Abu Rahma’s sons has been arrested and a daughter killed by a tear-gas canister at one of the protests.

Needless to say, these forms of violence have not stopped since the publication of Jones’s book in 2016. If anything, they have grown worse, with the British vote to leave the European Union, Trump’s presidential election in the United States, and the increasing influence of xenophobic discourse in European politics. As I write these lines in late February 2017, the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia carries this front-page headline: “The U.S. Will Hire 15,000 Officers to Carry Out Mass Deportations.”4 Much of the punitive system Trump plans to strengthen is already in place: “before 1986, there were rarely more than 20,000 deportations per year; by the mid-2000s, the number was 400,000 per year.” The trend only accelerated under Obama: “more people were deported from the United States during [his] presidency than during any previous administration” (36). And deportation is only one instance—though it may be the worst—of Jones’s third category of violence, the constant threat to those without proper identity papers.

Violence by Borders

Beyond this direct and indirect violence, the most remarkable fact about national boundaries is that they create stark economic and jurisdictional discontinuities between countries, stimulating the movement of goods, drugs, weapons, jobs, money, and people across borders. From this perspective, borders—and the global system of nation-states they help define—are crucial to contemporary forms of imperialism.

In an era when nation-states are widely thought to be losing geopolitical ground to supranational institutions—such as the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization (WTO)—Jones holds, on the contrary, that current border policies prove that if anything, the authority of states is being reinforced. Let us examine this.

On the one hand, it is true that the WTO and the many multilateral free-trade agreements that have proliferated in the recent decades have promoted the deregulation of transnational flows of capital and goods, imposing on many countries a globalized regime of relatively free competition among giant multinational corporations. On the other hand, these same supranational institutions have often kept in place and even strengthened domestic regulations—on taxes, wages, industrial standards, and much else—that are ultimately responsible for the legal discontinuities between countries, which those same large corporations exploit in order to maximize profits. In particular, companies profit from the discrepancies in labor and environmental regulations, which, combined with the suppression of tariffs and other restrictions on international trade and investment, allow them to manufacture goods or deliver services in states with far lower wages and fewer regulations than those of the main consumer countries where their products and services are ultimately sold. This global mechanism for increasing corporate earnings by minimizing labor and regulatory costs constitutes the main means of controlling cross-border flows of capital, goods, and services.

Maintaining this mechanism requires keeping cheap labor pools exactly where they are, and this is just what borders do. Thus, trade agreements must not touch on labor standards, so that each state is free to shape and enforce (or not) its own regulations. Otherwise, for example, it would be difficult for the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association to advertise on its website the country’s “large low-wage labor force” as one of its greatest attractions for foreign corporations (133). In December 2013, after the catastrophic collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex, the minimum wage in Bangladesh was raised from $39 per month (one of the lowest in the world) to $68. Nevertheless, extremely low wages are not the worst problem for the nation’s workers. As Human Rights Watch reported in 2015: “factory owners want to maximize profits, so they will cut corners on safety issues, on ventilation, and on sanitation. They will not pay overtime or offer assistance in case of injuries. They will not build fire exits or stock fire extinguishers. Many of them treat their workers like slaves” (135).

The global regime of transnational capital also demands that workers not be given the chance to seek better opportunities elsewhere, i.e., allowed to migrate to other countries in search of better salaries and working conditions. This is where border control and migration policies come in. Even if the United Nations Convention on Refugees institutes some basic protections for people fleeing their countries of origin for “fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” the document says nothing about people escaping the structural violence of “life in a filthy, crowded, disease-ridden, and dangerous slum where the only option is to work long hours in a sweatshop for very low wages” (22). The movements of these “economic migrants” are considered “voluntary,” and as such are subject to strict legal requirements, often forcing migrants to choose between returning home or living as “illegal” residents, in constant danger of deportation or worse.

Another crucial discontinuity arises from varying environmental laws in different countries. Naturally, states with the fewest or laxest restrictions on pollution, energy use, carbon emissions, and so on are cheaper sites for production than those with stronger environmental standards. However, the impact of state controls goes far beyond these variations in production costs related to negative environmental externalities. As Jones pointedly observes:

Just as borders are used to limit the movement of the poor by creating pools of exploitable labor, they are used to control the environment by creating pools of exploitable resources, with rules on extraction and access that differ across territories. These enclosures allow some to use the earth’s resources while restricting access and use by most others. The division of the earth into separate political jurisdictions means that the scale of decision-making (the state) does not match the scale of the system (the globe), which can produce overexploitation and exacerbate the challenge of addressing problems that cross borders.

This leads to one of Jones’s most original contributions to our understanding of the tension between economic globalization and the nation-state system: the role of modern nation-states as an expansion of the early capitalist enclosure of the commons.

Hedges and Maps

According to Jones, the enclosures of common land carried out in England and elsewhere from the seventeenth century on were only the first step toward a new system of resource exploitation based on restricted access to land and other natural goods. If these enclosures blocked peasants’ access to common lands and laid the foundations of the modern regime of capitalist property, the next and almost simultaneous step was the drawing and legal enforcement of national borders.5 The novelty of treaties like those of Westphalia (1648) was that they established a system of “modern sovereign states that claimed absolute authority over all the land, resources, and people in a territory based on borders drawn on a map. Just as new cartographic techniques allowed the estates of lords to be mapped and reimagined as bounded spaces, mapmaking transformed how states conceived of their land and their control over their realms” (103). European colonialism extended this system of sovereign states to the rest of the world, instituting national borders that have remained largely intact into the postcolonial era.

The latest stage in this long process of resource enclosure has been the Law of the Sea (LOS) drafted at a United Nations conference in 1982 and first enforced in 1994, after being ratified by sixty UN member states. The LOS not only expanded the “territorial waters” along national coastlines from three to twelve nautical miles, but also created so-called exclusive economic zones ranging from twelve to two hundred nautical miles off the coast, where coastal states have absolute control over all marine resources, including fisheries, minerals, and fossil fuels (115). The result has been the further expansion of a world political and economic system that “seeks to preserve privilege and opportunity for some by restricting access to resources and movement for others” (5).

Migration, Labor, and the Environment

Jones’s account of this global system of territorial control could be summarized as follows: the recent hardening of borders has played a crucial role in the worldwide “race to the bottom,” whereby corporations produce in the cheapest places possible, profiting from discrepancies in national labor and environmental regulations. Far from functioning as institutions of global governance, the existing international organizations instead protect states and their powers, granting each “the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies.”6 In a time when a global system of territorial and resource control is more needed than ever, the structure of global politics makes it all but impossible to overcome state barriers to global governance.

Meanwhile, in the ideological realm, an upsurge of racism, nationalism, and nativism in many wealthy Western states hinders efforts to address the root causes of migration and displacement, and promotes protectionist policies designed to maintain or enhance existing disparities between states. As Jones puts it: “The distinction between outside and inside, between native and foreigner, pervades the political discourse in countries around the world because it is part of the foundation of the state as an institution. The place-based version of humanity plays a powerful role in the contemporary public discourse in many countries, as migrants are represented as a threat to the economic, cultural, and political system of the state” (167).

What is to be done? Jones proposes three basic principles: free movement of people between states; global standards for working conditions; and global rules for environmental protection and limits on private property. The immediate effect of lowering barriers to free movement would be a dramatic reduction in the number of deaths at borders. It would also help reduce the vast inequalities in wages between rich and poor nations and regions. Addressing fears that such changes would unleash a flood of migrants into a few overwhelmed rich countries, Jones points to the entry of Eastern European states to the European Union, which initially caused similar concerns. In fact, he writes, nothing of the sort really happened: after all, “many people prefer to remain in a place that is culturally comfortable,” as long as they can get by and make a living (173).

Outlining his proposal for global labor standards, Jones notes that “many of the gains made by workers in the United States and Europe in the middle of the twentieth century are currently undermined by the lack of protection for workers in other parts of the world” (174). Instead of reinforcing differences between countries by promoting a world system of insular states, as some xenophobic nationalist organizations are doing in Europe, workers around the world should join in a common fight for “a global minimum wage, global standards for working conditions, [and] global social safety networks for the poor” (175). This would be no other than the “common fight” that Žižek proposed, the “positive, universal project which is shared by all participants” that we should put forward.

Jones’s third proposal, for global regulations on environmental degradation and global warming, is a timely reminder that the future of humanity itself is at stake. It is plainly irresponsible to leave environmental protection measures in the hands of territorial states that use such regulations as a means to lure foreign investment. Here too, the scale of decision-making must urgently match the utter scale of the problem: “Perhaps a new institutional infrastructure dedicated to the environment needs to be created that has the ability to overrule state sovereignty on issues that affect the global environment” (176). And not only the harmful environmental effects of the world state system must be reversed, but also the damaging consequences of the current right of private landowners to exploit their property without limits. A new notion of property is needed, one that puts social good before private interest.

Amid these deep disparities between states, the act of moving across borders becomes a way of re-politicizing the very idea of states, borders, and nations—concepts that have for centuries been taken for granted and excluded from debate. Thus, the decision of migrants to cross borders challenges “the state’s schemes of exclusion, control, and violence,” Jones writes (180). “They do this simply by moving.”


  1. Slavoj Žižek, Against the Double Blackmail (London: Allen Lane, 2016). The quotations here are the author’s translations from the Spanish edition, La Nueva Lucha de Clases (Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama, 2016), 74, 115.
  2. Operational Data Portal: Mediterranean Situation, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, accessed October 31, 2017,
  3. Tara Brian and Frank Laczko, eds., Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost during Migration (Geneva: International Organization for Migration, 2014), 54.
  4. La Vanguardia, February 22, 2017.
  5. See, for example, Ellen Meiksins Wood, “The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism,” Monthly Review 50, no. 3 (1998): 13–31.
  6. Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Annex I: Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, 1992,
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