I Migration, (trans)borders, and the freedom of movement
Proliferating borders in the battlefield of migration Rethinking freedom of movement
Borders and migration have been for a long time at the center of my research and political agenda. And although the original focus of my work in the early 1990s was Italy, with its peculiar migratory history, I have been relatively quick to expand the scope of my research, in particular through my participation in research and activist networks first in Europe and then in other parts of the world, including North Africa, the United States, Australia, and India. How to make sense of the global dimension of migration, how to let it conceptually and empirically resonate even in the most grounded and local investigations, has been and continues to be a crucial question driving my own work. Latin America has been particularly important for me in this respect, and I am happy to say that a collective book I coedited with two Mexican friends - Blanca Cordero and Amarela Varela - has just come out in Spanish. In that book, América Latina en movimiento. Migraciones, límites a la movilidad y sus debordamientos (2019), we attempt to take migration as a lens to grasp wider processes that are reshaping Latin America as a whole, focusing in particular on the tensions surrounding its borders and on the proliferation of a set of heterogeneous boundaries within national and metropolitan spaces. This is a project quite close to the concept of this book.
Our purpose here is to discuss “liquid borders,” with a specific focus on the issue of migration. And we are invited by Mabel Moraña to do something more than that, which means “to face our ghosts, name our fears and define, once for all, the world we want.” A quite ambitious program, indeed! And I must say that I like it. But let me start by saying that “liquid borders” is an image with multiple and ambivalent meanings. It definitely points to the mobility and heterogeneity of borders, which has been underscored and investigated in many ways within the field of border studies over the last decades. Far from being encapsulated by the solidity of a wall, which is only one possible instantiation of the border, borders are indeed quite elusive formations. Their multiple components, legal and geographical, political and cultural, linguistic and otherwise, are not necessarily bound together by a "line traced in the sand” (see, for instance, Mezzadra and Neilson). The cartographic representation of geopolitical borders as limits of a specific and discrete “national” territory, marked by a particular color on the world map, has been shattered and challenged by the increasing awareness of the relevance of processes and flows that traverse those limits without necessarily acknowledging their relevance and even legitimacy (see Cowen). Border control, in the United States no less than in the European Union, externalizes the operations of borders, involving neighboring as well as more distant countries and projecting the shadow of the border far away from the territorial limit they are supposed to embody (see for instance De Genova, Mezzadra, and Pickles, 73-77). A wide array of limits and boundaries crisscross national and metropolitan spaces, harnessing and channeling in a selective way the mobility of specific subjects through a variable economy of visibility and invisibility (see Balibar, “Uprisings”). Even more importantly, borders are constitutively contested institutions and fields of struggle; the challenge posited to them by people on the move makes their "solidity” nothing more than a claim (Mezzadra and Neilson).
This is of course not to say that such “solidity” has no real manifestations, be it in the walls that proliferate in the world 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the barbed wire, in the fences, or even in the more sophisticated digital technologies of control that curb, stop, or even destroy the bodily movement of migrants in many parts of the world. We need to carefully map such manifestations, and we need above all to take action against them - with any means necessary. Nevertheless, as Brett Neilson and I write in Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor (2013), from a theoretical point of view, we cannot reduce the border to a wall; we need a more sophisticated framework to make sense of the complex interplay of inclusion and exclusion, of the high selectivity and flexibility that characterize the operations even of the seemingly most “solid” borders. Also, a unilateral focus on traditionally geopolitical borders can be misleading today, if we are to take seriously what Etienne Balibar ("We, the People”, 109) wrote 20 years ago speaking of the fact that borders - far from simply existing “at the edge of territory, marking the point where it ends” - “have been transported into the middle of political space.” This is again a movement that we have to follow, tracking the multiple metamorphoses of the border within the space it should simply circumscribe. The violence that is constitutive of the very concept of the border takes multifarious shapes in that process, as well as the challenges it continuously encounters.
“Liquid borders” is therefore an image I feel at ease with, since it conjures up notions such as the mobility, flexibility, heterogeneity, and even elusiveness of borders. As I just said, these are for me important notions for the critical study of borders. But “liquid borders” also reminds me of the title of a video installation by Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani (“Liquid Traces”) on the case of the so-called left-to-die boat that they investigated in the framework of the project “Forensic Oceanography” (Heller and Pezzani). A migrant boat sailed from Libya in March 2011 and drifted for 14 days in distress, notwithstanding the presence of NATO military vessels engaged in the strike against Gaddafi, which noticed the boat but did not intervene. Sixty-three migrants died aboard. From this point of view, “liquid borders” immediately refers to the operations of borders at sea, to maritime borders. Coming from Italy and being engaged both as a scholar and as an activist in several projects to support migrants in their travels across the Mediterranean, I am of course acutely aware of the relevance of such
Proliferating borders 19 a topic. There is a need to stress that, historically, borders are directly connected with the land. The ways in which the sea has been partitioned, legally and politically organized through the establishment of heterogeneous zones, overlapping jurisdictions, and corridors, are a crucially important chapter in the history of European empires. Historian Lauren Benton provides a fascinating account of that chapter in her A Search for Sovereignty (2010), while a recent special issue of the journal Global Networks (2019), edited by David Featherstone, further-advances our understanding of the intertwining of maritime networks, oceanic spaces, and transnational class formation. As Heller and Pezzani, along with many others, contend, the liquid space of the sea has been in recent years a crucial field of experimentation with border control, with momentous implications also on land. The complex maritime spatiality composed of territorial waters, contiguous zones, exclusive economic zones, search and rescue (SAR) zones, and high sea, as well as the interlacing of heterogeneous legal orders in the maritime space, has been acted upon and manipulated by national and supranational actors of migration control (see Heller, Pezzani, and Stierl). While the Mediterranean is an obvious instance in this regard, one thinks here also of the “Pacific solution” in Australia (see Rajaram). In both cases, legal and political arrangements that target migrants at sea imply shifts in territoriality (apparent in the case of Australia, with the excision of remote territories from the country’s migration zone) and profound transformations in the migration regime. This is a point that should figure prominently in our research agenda on borders and migration.
Mentioning the Mediterranean allows me to come more directly to the main question I want to address in this talk. Our conference takes place in hard times, and this is a circumstance that implies specific responsibilities we cannot escape. In Europe, after the summer of 2015 (the “long summer of migration,” as critical scholars and activists call it), we have been experiencing a hardening of borders and a renationalization of politics across the continent. Even Schengen borders (which means borders within the European zone of "free and unrestricted movement of people”) have been selectively closed from time to time. Border fences and walls proliferate across the so-called Balkan route, where hundreds of thousands of migrants had opened up a way toward freedom in 2015, challenging the European border regime. Viktor Orbán, the hyper-nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister and fetishist worshiper of walls and barbed wire against migrants, is not anymore isolated in Europe. Matteo Salvini, the Deputy Prime Minister in Italy until last August, has, for instance, followed his lead. One of the main slogans of the Brexit campaign, “Take back control of our borders,” is translated onto aggressive campaigns of the far right against migration in several countries, ranging from Spain to France, from Germany to Italy. Images of migrants tortured and detained in camps in Libya as well as of shipwrecks in the Mediterranean rarely spark public outrage and indignation. But such images tell us a lot about the predicament of migration in the current conjuncture, while humanitarian NGOs that operate at sea are criminalized and ports are often closed to ships that perform rescues of people in distress.
Is it simply a European conjuncture? I would definitely not say that. You are all familiar with the situation in the United States, with ICE raids and efforts to further fortify the Southern border, with family separation, attacks on asylum, and bombastic rhetoric against migrants. But even beyond Europe and the United States, we are confronted today with a tendency toward the hardening of borders and the spread of racism and hostility against migrants. Think of South Africa, where racist attacks on migrants multiply and become ever more violent across the country. Think of the dramatic change of attitude toward migrants and refugees in Brazil in the age of Bolsonaro. Think of India, of the wild campaign against Muslim migrants from Bangladesh (dubbed “termites” by Amit Shah, the President of the ruling BJP), a campaign that is particularly virulent in such states as West Bengal and Assam (where the publication of the final version of the National Register of Citizens has recently stripped about 1.9 million people of their citizenship). Unfortunately, the list could easily go on. Is there a connection between such different instances of hardening of borders and criminalization of migration? I think that this is indeed the case, that they are all part - each one with its peculiarity - of the global political conjuncture we are living through. To put it shortly, this is a conjuncture characterized by a surge of nationalism in many parts of the world (including such important powers as Russia and China), and by the emergence of various degrees of combination between nationalism, authoritarianism, and neoliberalism. Migrants are among the first targets to be attacked in such a conjuncture, which implies the emergence of new formations of racism and sexism (and not by accident, women who refuse to abide by the patriarchal order are also immediately under attack). But precisely for this reason, migration provides us with an effective lens to investigate the weakness and instability of the current global political conjuncture. And it can also contribute in a powerful way to the establishment of political coalitions capable of subverting it. Speaking of migration today necessarily implies speaking of the more general political conjuncture we are living through in the contemporary world.
Such political conjuncture is anyway far from stable, and there is a need to carefully investigate the heterogeneous tensions crisscrossing it. One could say for instance that the surge of nationalism we are currently witnessing does not fit in a smooth way the kind of production of space that is connected with contemporary operations of capital. Borrowing the terms employed by world system theory (see Arrighi), we could even say that we are confronted today with profound contradictions between “territorialism” and “capitalism.” The development of Trump's "trade wars” with China may be an effective instance of that. Needless to say, the relation between territorialism and capitalism has never been smooth, but today’s capital deploys an unprecedented ability to produce its own spaces in a global perspective. Critical scholars of logistics, like Deborah Cowen and Keller Easterling, have recently emphasized this point, stressing the relevance of the web of supply chains, shipping routes, logistical hubs, infrastructural projects, cables, and data centers that build the skeleton of contemporary global capitalism. Although we know that capitalism is capable of mutating and adapting to completely different political "environments,” there are definitely powerful tensions
Proliferating borders 21 and contradictions between the logistical operative logic of contemporary capital at the global level and the current surge of nationalism.
This is something that has important implications also for the field of migration. Over the last couple of decades, we have been critically investigating the border and migration regime connected with neoliberalism (see Hess and Kasparek). There has always been a tension within that regime between different logics, discourses, and actors, in particular between the economic valorization of migration and the primacy of security - a tension that critical scholars have often interpreted as giving way to an oscillation between biopolitics and “necropolitics,” to borrow a term introduced by Achille Mbembe. The economic valorization of migration, in any case, has always figured prominently in the actual working of what we can call neoliberal migration and border regimes. Often employing the notion of “human capital” (whose traces are apparent also in the “Global compact for migration”) to detect the “skills” and productive potential hidden even in tumultuous and ungovernable migratory movements, theories and practices of “migration management” have fostered a flexibilization and diversification of recruitment schemes (see Mezzadra). In very general terms, we can say that what drove the development of such schemes was the “dream” of a “just-in-time” and “to-the-point migration” (Xiang). I was speaking before of logistics, and I can say now that such a model prompts what can be described as a logistical turn in migration management, according to a kind of delivery rationality.
With different nuances, such logistical rationality was implemented in many parts of the world since the beginning of the 21st century. In a study I co-coor-dinated in Berlin with my friend Manuela Bojadzijev, we investigated the ways in which the million refugees who arrived in Germany in 2015-2016 (mainly although not exclusively from Syria) were put to work (or “integrated into the labor market,” as the official discourse has it). In our research, we demonstrated, for instance, the relevance of what I was calling the logistical turn in migration management, focusing in particular on the roles played by a panoply of heterogeneous agencies in the intermediation of the encounter between migrant labor and capital (see Altemied et al.). The German case is important here. The attempt to put hundreds of thousands of refugees to work was an amazing success from the viewpoint of the government and of the capitalist actors supporting it, a success certified by official statistics. It was the confutation of the rhetoric of emergence and threat that surrounded the refugees' arrival in 2015. And nevertheless, that rhetoric has become more and more aggressive and loud in the following years, it has led to the contestation of such successful politics as the one I just mentioned, and it has even compelled Angela Merkel’s government to change them. Here we can see how the “nation,” or a specific form of nationalist rhetoric and politics, can become a limit to capitalism with respect to migration (and this is definitely not restricted to Germany). This is something we must remain aware of, since it is a defining feature of our global current conjuncture and predicament and a potential root of its instability.
One can say that today in the working of border and migration regimes in different parts of the world, what I was calling before the "biopolitical” component hasbeen obscured and displaced, and “security,” with its “necropolitical” implications, is the absolutely dominant logic. Nationalism and authoritarianism take “porous borders,” to recall a phrase often used by critical border scholars over the last two decades, as a symptom of a kind of lack in the nation’s body, as a wound that has to be healed through walls and barbed wire. A major shift is definitely signaled by the criminalization of solidarity and humanitarianism, instantiated by the attacks on a group like “No More Deaths” in Arizona, the indictment of French citizens for giving food and shelter to illegalized migrants, and the war waged by Italian governments on NGOs operating in the Mediterranean (see Smith; Tazzioli; and Tazzioli and Walters). I speak of a shift here because humanitarianism has long been part and parcel of the neoliberal border regime I have synthetically sketched before. The governmental turn of what Didier Fassin calls the “humanitarian reason” has been apparent in many parts of the world since the 1990s. Humanitarian actors have been incorporated into the working of the border regime, with implications that I have been criticizing along with many other scholars and activists for several years. I think this critique is still valid and relevant today, but I have always been aware of the fact that the incorporation of humanitarian actors into the borderregime implied tensions within its working and the opening up of potential spaces for migrants and refugees (Mezzadra and Neilson, chapter 6). The criminalization of humanitarianism, which is currently a powerful although contested and far from smooth tendency, eliminates those tensions and closes those spaces. It definitely shifts the ground for the critique of humanitarianism.
We have to start again from the “massacre of the human,” to put it with Frantz Fanon, that takes place in borderlands and in maritime border zones. And we have to link the claim for the right for non-state actors to intervene in such space to the movements and struggles of people on the move. We have to remember that, as African American thought teaches us since the 19th century, the experience of being human is absolutely peculiar in the case of people whose humanity is contested and denied by the violence of slavery and colonialism and their contemporary mutations. This is a fact that looms in a clear way behind the chant “We are human” in migrants’ and refugees’ rallies in many parts of the world. This is a claim that opens up the space for a rethinking of the very meaning of the “human,” challenging any paternalistic and even colonial understanding of humanitarian intervention. More generally, there is a crucial need to emphasize the subjectivity and agency of people on the move if we are to politically understand the stakes looming behind the tensions and conflicts surrounding many borders today. It is in this sense that I speak of the battlefield of migration (see also Mezzadra and Stierl). Too often we see only destitution and desperation, violence, “necropoli-tics,” and death at the border. We are right to describe such phenomena, of course, but in order to effectively criticize them, we have to emphasize the stubbornness, the amazing determination, the moments of individual and collective struggle of people in transit. It is this subjective stubbornness and even autonomy of migration that challenges the politics of control and composes a battlefield that reproduces itself well beyond the border - a battlefield that characterizes migration as such.
“La frontera estd cerrada, pero vamos a pasar” (“the border is closed, but we will cross”). This is a phrase taken from a Honduran song circulating among migrants’ caravans in Mexico (“En caravana" by Chiky Rasta), which very effectively instantiates the “stubbornness,” which is constitutive of the current global battlefield of migration. It resonates with the chant “Freedom, freedom” that you can hear from migrants who successfully land in Europe - and indeed in many migrant rallies not only in Europe. The claim to be human is immediately linked with the claim to be free - to be more precise, with the claim for a freedom that is directly practiced in migration. I am not proposing any idyllic picture of migration; I do not forget that migration is crisscrossed by moments of coercion and violence, which are so apparent and tragic in the experience of migrants’ caravans and Mediterranean crossings. Nevertheless, I want to emphasize this other side, the subjective determination of migrants and the intensity with which they re-sig-nify the basic notion of our philosophical and political vocabulary, such as being human and freedom. It is starting from such subjective aspects that we can begin to think about the roles that migration can play in the building of political coalitions capable of the struggle against the combination of authoritarianism, nationalism, and neoliberalism that characterizes the current political conjuncture. It is particularly the emphasis on freedom that can resonate with other movements and struggles that already today make such political conjuncture unstable and weak.
I am convinced that today we must resist the temptation to frame the politics of migration in merely “defensive ways,” simply advocating the respect of human rights, of the rule of law, or of some kind of humanitarian standards. What is needed is a much more ambitious project capable of taking as its point of departure the claim and the material exercise of freedom by migrants and of developing all its implications in a wider political framework. What we need is a politics of freedom of movement. It is on such a politics that I would like to conclude my talk. As you know, there is a lively debate today surrounding the issues of freedom of movement and open borders, particularly in the United States. Allow me to mention a single book, Open Borders: In Defense of Free Movement, edited by Reece Jones, and a single paper, “The Case for Open Borders” by Suzy Lee, recently published in the journal Catalyst. The book edited by Jones gives a good overview of the discussion, while Lee’s paper is particularly effective in discussing the question of labor from the angle of open borders and migration. Freedom of movement and open borders have long been discussed in political and legal theory according to a unilaterally normative approach. The rigorous and influential work of Joseph Carens is a good instance of that. Today, we are witnessing a shift toward more nuanced approaches capable of taking into account the relevance of normative orders and at the same time of emphasizing the roles played in conflicts surrounding borders by material practices and interests as well as by a panoply of heterogeneous actors. Far from being imaginable as the result of the smooth development of a normative logic, freedom of movement emerges as a field of struggle and contestation, while several scholars emphasize the need to take its practice by migrants as a necessary point of departure. Such a shift has important implications also for the way in which we imagine the spatiality of freedom of movement, which necessarily becomes multi-scalar. While the national level remains important, the struggle for freedom of movement has clearly transnational moments (also considering the transnationalization of border control), while cities become strategic sites of action and experimentation, as solidarity, refuge, and sanctuary cities demonstrate in a contradictory but powerful way.
What we need today, I want to repeat it, is a politics of freedom of movement, the capability to take the moment of struggle and claim it as a generative root of its productivity. From this point of view, freedom of movement must be further qualified, remaining aware of the fact that there are several liberal and even neoliberal formulations of freedom of movement following the blueprint of market freedom. In the situation I was describing before, characterized by tensions and contradictions between nationalist policies and capital even in the field of migration, I do not exclude the possibility of tactical convergences. But the politics of freedom of movement that I have in mind is, to put it in two words, decidedly anti-capitalist. Let me say on this point that I find highly questionable the use in some parts of the left (to be more precise: of the nationalist left) of the Marxian notion of the "industrial reserve army” to address the relation between labor and migration. Without going into the details, in such use a notion that was originally forged to blame capital is distorted and instrumentalized to blame migrant workers. Having said this, the problem of course remains that capital exploits migrant labor and is interested in having at its disposal a precarized and fragmented laborforce, liable to be blackmailed. Again, the point is struggle; it is to develop a political reading of migration focused on rights and not on “flows,” to pick up the terms employed by Suzy Lee. A politics of freedom of movement cannot be separated by a politics of labor capable of valorizing the protagonism of migrant workers and of forging coalitions beyond any opposition between “autochthonous” and "foreign” workers.
I know that this is a difficult project, but ambitious projects are always difficult and ambitious projects are what we need in hard times. The politics of freedom of movement that I have in mind can be operationalized in many ways, and there would be much more to say about its concrete articulations and the problems it raises. But let me conclude by saying that such a project cannot be only a migrant project; it cannot and does not address only migrants. Freedom of movement concerns the behaviors and desires of a multitude of subjects. And what we need to do is to collectively work toward the building of an imaginary capable of sustaining a politics of freedom of movement, of demonstrating that a society based on freedom of movement is more free, happy, and wealthy than society huddled in fear behind walls with militarized defenses. In a way, I understand also our conference as a modest contribution to that task.
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