Ever Harder Borders

Michael Chessum

The Adriana, a fishing boat, left the port of Tobruk in Libya early on 10 June in an attempt to reach Italy. It was carrying up to 750 people, including more than a hundred children. After almost four days at sea, the boat’s engine broke down and it was left stranded fifty miles off the Peloponnesian coast. In the early hours of 14 June, the boat capsized, with hundreds trapped in the hold and no one on board wearing a life jacket.

This is a vision of hell. It is also a glimpse of the future. The Institute for Economics and Peace has estimated that by the middle of the century more than a billion people will be at risk of displacement because of ecological threats. Our politics will be increasingly dominated by the question of border policy. The countries of the Global North will either have to soften their borders, transforming their domestic debates on migration, or harden them, making graveyards of their seas and borderlands.

There is no doubt which looks more likely. The European Union deploys ever more resources to prevent migrants reaching the continent, and more than 27,000 people have disappeared in the Mediterranean since 2014. The UK’s post-Brexit border policies amount to a withdrawal from international conventions on the rights of refugees. Under the latest legislation, people are not permitted to claim asylum unless they arrive by an official route, which is impossible for most refugees. Anyone entering the UK ‘illegally’ will be banned for ever from claiming asylum or applying for citizenship, and so will their family. The government now plans to ‘house’ asylum seekers in offshore barges.

A key part of the new border regime is the siphoning away of public sympathy and attention. On the day the Adriana sank, the UK media focused on the Westminster circus of the Privileges Committee and its denunciation of Boris Johnson. The BBC uncovered evidence that the Greek authorities were lying about their role in the disaster, but this did little to boost the story’s profile. The five hundred deaths barely appeared on UK front pages, and after two days the story hardly featured in the news at all. For some time, many media outlets insisted on reporting only the ‘confirmed’ deaths, which stood at around eighty, even though it was evident that hundreds had been on board and were now missing. Previous sinkings with mass loss of life – such as the boat that went down off the coast of Calabria at the end of February, killing at least 94 people – were long forgotten.

On 18 June, the Titan submersible went missing in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean carrying five wealthy tourists. The incident received worldwide rolling coverage of the unsuccessful search for survivors, which involved several navies and research vessels. The US Coast Guard sent push notifications to the mobile devices of anyone interested in following the search, and the White House briefed that President Biden was ‘watching events closely’. When it was confirmed that the craft has suffered a catastrophic implosion, almost every daily newspaper in the UK ran with the story on their front page, with many carrying portraits and profiles of the five dead men.

The mass drowning of migrants does not meet the media’s criteria for a human-interest story because the victims have been dehumanised. Centuries of racist conditioning have led us to this point, but there is a new strategy at work, too. Donald Trump and Suella Braverman have an air of performative stupidity, and it comforts the liberal commentariat to believe that the far right’s spell in power is a blip. But their project is deadly serious and for the long term. Trump’s ‘big, beautiful wall’ and the UK government’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. The core narrative of the nationalist right, that migrants and foreigners are to blame for falling living standards, now dominates the mainstream. It feeds popular demand for the militarisation of our borders.

Across Europe and the Western world, the establishment parties of the centre and centre left are at best hesitant about presenting an alternative vision for how we might handle migration in an era of ecological collapse. In the European Parliament, the social democrats oppose the worst excesses of the far right’s immigration policy but support the basic principle of hardening Europe’s borders. Emmanuel Macron’s presidency has brought some of the most authoritarian immigration measures in France’s history. Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is focused on exposing how the Conservatives have ‘lost control of our borders’. The Danish Social Democrats have used their time in government to ramp up deportations and enact mass evictions of migrant communities; they even briefly pursued an offshore detention agreement with Rwanda.

By contrast, the nationalist right knows what it wants and is dragging mainstream opinion behind it. Today’s inhumane migration policies are a warm-up act. ‘Stop the Small Boats’ is a slogan with which many nominally progressive politicians are at pains to agree. But behind the slogan is a wider agenda – to soften public attitudes for a crime against humanity. If the recent Greek boat disaster is anything to go by, the strategy is a success.


  • 23 June 2023 at 9:55pm
    Aron says:
    "The mass drowning of migrants does not meet the media’s criteria for a human-interest story because the victims have been dehumanised."

    I'm not sure this is quite right. As many commentators on Twitter have observed, news stories involving a race against time for survival – Thai football team, Chilean miners – tend to receive very wide coverage, perhaps because they activate an emotional response similar to the one provoked by a bomb timer ticking down in a film.

    The real problem is that the capsized boat story aligns with, rather than contradicting, our expectations – migrant deaths by drowning have become completely normalised. This is a similar problem to the many thousands of life-years lost to pollution from burning fossil fuels, which receive far less coverage than the (far, far smaller) number of deaths from nuclear accidents.

  • 24 June 2023 at 11:20am
    staberinde says:
    The 1 billion migrants figure is interesting.

    Progressives seem torn over which narrative to push. On the one hand, 1 billion cannot be interpreted as anything other than "a flood" - it's a figure that can only be seen in overwhelming terms. And the it plays to the dehumanising frame of the immigration debate that many of us find repugnant. Indeed, this piece is curious in that it asserts the overwhelming flood while attempting to make us consider the humanity of individuals.

    On the other hand, the "green Left" is quite fond of the 1 billion figure as it is thought to create urgency in response to the climate crisis. "Do you want a billion climate refugees? Go vegan, give up your car and holidays, ban fossil fuels." It's imigration as a threat.

    I had ChatGPT do some dirty maths for me. The UK's population is roughly 5% of the West's, and it's land area is 0.63% of the West's.

    If we were to take our "fair share" if the billion by land area, we would by 6.3 million people. If we took our "fair share" by population share, it would be 50 million more people.

    The problem with the first figure is that if assumes the new population can be accommodated in the Canadian wilderness, the underpopulated American mid-West, the Scottish Highlands, and the Scandinavian Arctic.

    The problem with the 50 million figure is, well, obvious.

    I'm not sure the 1 billion figure is in any way helpful in making a more progressive case for a looser border policy.

    • 27 June 2023 at 2:13pm
      Richard L says: @ staberinde
      The term the article uses is 'at risk of displacement'. That does not mean that they all have a burning desire to move to Stockport. The UNHCR estimate is that more than 80% of refugees remain within their geographical region of origin and, presumably, the one billion includes those internally displaced within nations, so I'm not sure how far one has to move to become a refugee. In any event, the evidence is clear that developing nations bear the brunt of demands from human displacement. We could start by helping, which could be done at a far lower cost than building walls, defending our borders or enacting deportations.

    • 28 June 2023 at 11:22pm
      staberinde says: @ Richard L
      Well that undercuts the entire thrust of the article. The article I read didn't argue that the West merely needed to accommodate 200 million migrants over the next decade or so, and therefore the North's growing illiberalism and inhumanity are a huge overreaction.

      No, the article cites the 1 billion figure to present the notion of national borders as futile.

      Like the vast majority of people, I like borders and I like migration. In moderation. We will always face a trilemma of numbers, dignity, and cost. It seems the Right is willing to give up on human dignity at the drop of a hat. And that some elements of the Left have no interest in moderating the numbers at all. I think we can have a well-managed migration and borders system that keeps numbers below 200,000 a year while respecting the humanity and dignity of all involved - but we need to pay for it. In foreign aid and development, in using trade as a weapon against authoritarian regimes, in addressing the climate crisis, and in intervening militarily to degrade the forces that oppose the spread of liberal democracy.

      I find it depressing and revealing that both Left or Right want to turn a trilemma into a dilemma.

  • 24 June 2023 at 3:32pm
    Delaide says:
    “… the establishment parties of the …. left are at best hesitant about presenting an alternative vision for how we might handle migration in an era of ecological collapse.” Yes, but what is a realistic alternative vision?

  • 26 June 2023 at 4:29am
    Beaver says:
    Delaide asks for realistic alternatives; there may not be an easy answer to this question, but surely we have to engage with that difficulty rather than accept this slide into apathetic dehumanisation-by-default. I'd also like to say thanks to the World Service who did cover the incident in detail and with many comments from both survivors and grieving relatives.

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