Post by Leanne Weber. Leanne is Associate Professor of Criminology, Director of the Border Crossing Observatory and Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. She is the Convenor, with Alison Gerard and Marinella Marmo, of the ANZ Society of Criminology Thematic Group on Crimmigration and Border Control. Her books include The Routledge International Handbook on Criminology and Human Rights (with Elaine Fishwick and Marinella Marmo); Policing Non-Citizens; Stop and Search: Police Power in Global Context, (with Ben Bowling); and Globalization and Borders: Death at the Global Frontier (with Sharon Pickering). This is an abridged version of an article of the same name published on the Border Crossing Observatory website. This is the final installment of the Border Criminologies themed series on 'Crimmigration and Australian Border Control'. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has elicited soul-searching on a global scale, about whether rapid changes in how we communicate and interact, the expectations we place on government to promote our welfare, and how we care for the environment, might transform the way we live beyond the crisis. In this speculative blog piece, I re-visit the terrain covered in a previous project aimed at imagining a possible future of transformed borders, and consider whether the pandemic might bring into view the changing social, economic and political conditions that could support a relaxation of national borders.

Australian state and federal governments, like many others around the world, have implemented emergency laws restricting citizen movements, increased police enforcement powers, and introduced mobility-tracking surveillance technologies in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. While tightening of borders on biosecurity grounds is reasonable under the extraordinary conditions we now face, nation states have often gone beyond what is necessary for this purpose. It may therefore seem like a strange time to be questioning whether the COVID-19 pandemic could be the catalyst for a more open, and less strictly bordered world. This possibility is certainly not yet on the horizon. Still, I can’t help but speculate, as Anna Triandafyllidou has done, whether the current coronavirus crisis ‘bears within it the seeds also of transnational solidarity and the transcendence of national borders’ by ‘serving as a reminder that we have obligations not only to our own citizens and residents but also towards our joint humanity’.

The possible transcendence of national borders was the subject of an earlier project of mine. I asked authors contributing to an edited book Rethinking Border Control for a Globalising World, to engage in a thought experiment in which they imagined a ‘preferred future’ characterised by ‘peace at the border’.  Rather than indulge in a utopian dream, I asked them to identify the fundamental changes in material conditions that could create conditions of possibility for a differently bordered world, and to identify any aspects of globalization that were already moving us in that direction.

Each author was asked to engage in the thought experiment from the perspective of a different ‘border domain’. These domains were identified by asking the question – ‘What interests and values are national borders mobilised to protect?’ Examples included regulating access to the labour market, defending national culture, preserving social security for citizens, or creating physical security from outside threats, which are all commonly used by governments to justify stringent border controls.

Rather than revisit the detailed arguments advanced by the authors in answer to these questions, in the interests of brevity I will focus here on the three short commentaries that concluded the volume, and consider what the COVID-19 crisis might contribute to realising their visions. Three world leaders in their fields - Rainer Bauböck (citizenship theory), Saskia Sassen (globalization theory) and Nancy Wonders (border criminology) – were asked to contribute some ‘blue sky’ thinking to the question of how a ‘preferred future’ of relaxed borders might be achieved.

Rainer Bauböck’s contribution stayed closest to a state-centric framing. He offered several tightly argued predictions about possible avenues for border relaxation, one of which was the enactment of bilateral agreements for free travel between particular countries, as more countries came to see benefits for their own citizens in opening up access to citizens from elsewhere. In fact, as countries begin to loosen travel restrictions imposed during the pandemic, and are ‘forced to rank different forms of movement’, a mutual ‘travel bubble’ proposed by Australia and New Zealand has been touted as a possible model for the future. While this prospect does not provide a solution to the hardening of borders in the Global North to arrivals from the Global South, it does offer a realistic first step.

Saskia Sassen argued in her commentary that novel forms of bordering were emerging out of globalization comprising assemblages of non-state agents with the capacity to create new forms of ‘enclosure’ within and outside the state. This was creating truly global institutions with decision-making authority, in contrast to the current international order which was beholden to the interests of individual states. Problematically, these structures were serving the interests of transnational corporations, so the challenge was to create similarly supra-national enclosures that supported the interests of the world’s populations within this ‘newly bordered transversal space’.

The pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in one international organisation, the World Health Organisation, and revealed its reliance on state funding. At the same time, a new message is being expressed by other UN Bodies urging a global effort across a range of emerging planetary challenges, while potentially de-centring the role of states. The UN head of sustainable business has referred to COVID-19 as a ‘fire drill’ which demonstrates the ‘need to tie together social equality, environmental sustainability and health’ under the banner of human rights. Whereas the state-based system has failed on this agenda, she envisages corporations being at the forefront of these transformations, ushering in what UN Secretary General, António Guterres, describes as a ‘fair globalisation’. How these proposals will play out in terms of the control of national borders is another question, but they exhibit some of the features described by Sassen of truly global enclosures (as opposed to international institutions) that mobilise authority and distribute resources in new ways across national borders.

Nancy Wonders’ imagined pathway towards peace at the border also de-centred the state. However, her vision cast the world’s populations, rather than global corporations, as the main agents of change. Wonders argued that the act of border crossing itself was a transformative process of ‘bottom up’ globalisation, and predicted that ‘it is likely that nation-states will become even less able to control their external and internal borders in ways that provide for human security as transnational challenges like climate change wreak havoc on a world ill prepared for the kind of geopolitical and economic transformations that now seems inevitable’. Now that we are indeed on the cusp of upheavals of this magnitude, there are some indications that global activism related to borders and other planetary issues is converging, as posters appear in public places declaring that ‘Climate Justice is Migrant Justice’ (see inserted image).

It may seem paradoxical to look to the future relaxation of border controls at a time in which unprecedented constraints are being placed on human mobility. However, the pandemic, while it may give rise to many counter tendencies, has also given us the ability to imagine a transformed world, as we live through unprecedented changes in how we live and relate to others. But would a future world that is better equipped to deal with planetary problems necessarily be a world in which national borders play a far less significant role? Imagining our preferred future doesn’t make it happen. But it may be an important step in identifying pathways that could take us there.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Weber, L. (2020). Could a Pandemic Kickstart the Re-Bordering of the World?. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/07/could-pandemic [date]