Guest post by Robert F. Barsky, professor of Literature and of Law at Vanderbilt University. Robert is the author of  Undocumented Immigrants in an Era of Arbitrary Law: The Flight and the Plight of People Deemed 'Illegal' (Routledge, 2016), as well as a broad array of works on Convention refugees including Arguing and Justifying: Assessing the Convention Refugees’ Choice of Moment, Motive and Host Country (Ashgate 2001)Robert is on Twitter @robertbarsky

Review of Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move, by Reece Jones (Verso, 2016). 

This book joins a canon of scholarship that argues with force and persuasiveness for the ‘right’ to move, and provides clear and eloquently-stated details about how this right has been eroded with the rise of state power and the agglomeration of resources by rulers and owners. The result is that borders have become increasingly violent, and that the many resources that are invested in smoothing the passage for the wealthy and the powerful have been directed at the same time towards blocking, injuring, arresting and killing those who attempt to exercise their international law-ensconced, and historically-rooted, right to move.

I’ve spent the past 25 years advocating for open borders, employing work from a host of quarters that has shown the economic, ethical, practical and legal grounds to justify a position that seems in the past months to have become as urgent as it is improbable. Elections in the UK and the US, and dark electoral clouds forming on the horizons of Holland, France, Germany and elsewhere make this effort more daunting than ever. With this in mind, we turn to books like this one to see what pathways might be carved out beyond the perilous treks currently creating border deaths on unprecedented scales. Reece Jones doesn’t offer much in the way of solace for these lugubrious times, but he provides considerable wisdom, insight, and data procured from many sources, including impressive fieldwork, to back up his explanations for why borders are and are becoming ever more violent. Jones does a remarkable job of bringing historical anecdotes, useful information, and relevant documentation to bear, rendering this already powerful book essential reading for anyone interested in the development of the enclosure, the rise of the state, and the use of ever more sophisticated methods of protecting the wealth and privilege of the powerful over the vulnerable.

Some of the passages are so insightful as to merit notation, repetition, and a subsequent call to arms. Borders, he claims with reference to history aren’t ‘a natural part of the human world’, and have only recently been intrinsic to the practice of state power, particularly in their ever-increasingly militarized form. Borders, he goes on, ‘produce the violence’ that surround them, just as the ‘economic and jurisdictional discontinuities’ that are its hallmarks provide ‘an impetus for the movement of people, goods, drugs, weapons and money across it’. As such, the hardening of the borders, ever the subject of great glee in many quarters, is ‘the source of violence, not a response to it’ (p. 5). These arguments are moral and ethical ones that are deeply rooted in facts, measurable by indicators of who benefits and who loses, who is targeted, by whom, and at what cost.

The historical side of Jones’s work is the most fascinating and depressing, since he shows just how recent are these trends, as recent for example as the Law of the Sea, that was signed in 1982 and came into force in 1994, that ‘extended movement restrictions to 44 percent of the ocean, which it reclassified as territorial seas, exclusive economic zones, and extended continental shelves, just as enclosure in England 400 years earlier turned common lands into private property’ (p. 7). Given how ensconced ideas about borders have become, the reader might be appropriately shocked to read about the relatively recent legislation that denied access to fields and forests, and horrified, one might assume, to see just how much can change in regards to the planet’s allocation of resources in the ocean with a single piece of legislation. The violence associated with such enclosures and restrictions extend far beyond the exercise of military or police power and into collective and structural violence, as we’ve seen in recent border death statistics in Europe, and the existing, and impending crisis on the US-Mexico border. Borders encircle, exclude, limit and segregate communities of people and, as the histories of fences and resource extraction industries demonstrate, they destroy the fragile environment that links us all together, no matter what side of the fence we inhabit.

Jones makes reference to specific individuals, events and trends, and in so doing demonstrates just how complicated and interrelated are the issues surrounding borders. The ‘deadliest border’ (chapter 1) surrounds a ‘union’ that dismantled many national borders, a Europe that a half century ago seemed to promise an ever-widening sphere of ‘free’ movement across spaces that had historically been as entrenched as those between Germany and France, or between Yugoslavia and Italy. The evolution of this union is an important story about the rise of ‘fortress Europe’, and the 805,000 asylum applications filed in the first 9 months of 2015 are a sign not of its success, but of our failure to help those who have been forced by violence and deprivation to take to their legs and flee. The statistics provided are telling as well in regards to disparities between those who have made successful claims (Syrian claims were 98% granted) versus those who, even if equally deserving of international protection, failed (Eritreans, for example). So too do we learn, through insights rooted in a geographical approach, that the most dangerous stage of journeys to Europe is the last one, because by the time smugglers arrive with their human cargo at the Mediterranean Sea, all of their fees have been extracted, so that the final leg has no cost for them, other than misery and death of those they transported. That smugglers are needed at all to bring people to safety is but a sign of the violence of this system, a violence that visas, fences, airline participation in identity checks, and cameras reinforce, even as they allow the privileged few the joys of Registered Traveller,  Global Entry, Nexus or other such First World programs.

In chapter two, Jones brings us to the United States, and offers equally powerful and depressing insights, into a history of a border between Mexico and the US that wasn’t surveyed until 1890, wasn’t patrolled until 1924, and wasn’t militarized in any recognizable fashion until 9/11. Our trajectory since that point in time is illustrated by the numbers; in 2012, for example, the US government spent 18 billion dollars on immigration policing, more than for all other federal law enforcement agencies combined (p. 35). Recent estimates suggest that ‘the homeland security industry will be worth an astounding $107.3 billion by 2020’ (p. 36), a sign as well of the blurring of the distinction between security and policing, and an indicator of growing repressiveness of American society. A source of the manpower required for this massive exercise in violence is the veterans of the wars that are fought by US troops, veterans who suffer the ignominy of poor wages, mental health decline, and significant challenges to reintegration in their home country after tours of duty. Their training, which is designed for battle against enemies, is then brought to bear against the tired and hungry, with predictable results (p. 42).

Reece moves to the global border regime in chapter three to demonstrate how these efforts in the US and EU have become ‘normalized’, and practiced, sometimes with heightened fervor, in countries as diverse as Israel, India, Bangladesh and Australia (p. 48). The India-Bangladesh border for example is the site of ‘the highest number of deaths at the hands of a state security service, India’s Border Security Force’ (p. 56), and India is also the country with the most kilometers of fences and walls (p. 60). The result, of course, is the ‘global poor’, the subject of the next chapter, which begins, rather surprisingly, with the story of a poor and destitute immigrant family called the Carnegies. Reece’s use of cases, fieldwork, and storytelling helps accentuate the force of the lugubrious narrative he recounts, making this book appropriate for a wide array of audiences, from the most general, to the students and scholars in the many fields related to border studies. These stories reinforce his point that ‘it ain’t necessarily so’, or doesn’t have to be, by reminding us of a not-so-distant past when instruments aimed at eliminating obstacles towards freer movement enjoyed high levels of support from ruling powers. The Magna Carta, the French and American constitutions, and of course the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which by their scope and authority would seem to have precluded the kinds of restrictions we now see, can by their (relative) compassion be referred to as beacons of what might be possible, if we would look deeper into the sources of the violence and inequality that our policies are supposedly trying to alleviate.

When Jones moves to the chapter on ‘maps, hedges and fences (p. 89), many elements that contribute to violent borders are identified, demonstrating the dramatic shift that has occurred in their wake in regards to the relationship between human beings and their environment, to the obvious detriment of both. Some of the lines are tangible, but many aren’t; nonetheless, they all have important effects upon ‘quality of life in terms of the availability of public education, infrastructure, government benefits like health care or Social Security, the right to free speech, and access to economic opportunities’ (p. 93). There is heroism in those who have resisted the imposition of such borders, including those involved in the Midlands Revolt, the details of which provide significant hay for the conclusions to which Jones’s horses are galloping. And for those who haven’t worked as closely with historical bases for current practices, Reece’s descriptions of the Peace of Westphalia are illuminating indeed. It is as ironic indeed that those fleeing Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and South Sudan, these ‘remnants of European colonialism, are denied the right to move to Europe to escape the artificial boundaries Europe left behind’ (p. 118).

The final chapters, on ‘bounding wages, goods and workers’, and on ‘borders, climate change and the environment’, are important reading in light of the so called populist revolts fueling current catastrophes in Europe and the US. The effects of the economic boundaries are described in terms of flight of industry, with the concomitant impact upon workers, as well as large segments of the middle class, with indicators such as real wages in the US that rose by 14% from 1973-2013, even as they had risen 300% from 1945-1973 (p. 129). Goods have flowed ever more freely across borders, of course, and it has during the past years become commonplace for us in Tennessee to purchase fish, fruit and vegetables from Thailand or Mexico rather than farmers down the street or fisherman on the nearby Gulf. The effects of this are coming home to roost, but are also ravaging the environment, and ‘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’ (p. 143). It’s these kinds of insights that justify the wide-ranging study undertaken by Reece, and demonstrates the value of thinking across borders, as we think about borders themselves. It’s only at that point that thinking and acting in regards to global governance and free movement can move from being derided as utopian and naïve, and become the harbinger of hope for a desperate planet.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Barsky, R. F. (2017) Book Review: Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move. Available at: (Accessed [date]).