Transformations Discussion: 21st October

Summary: By Saher Hasnain, DPhil Candidate

The session’s discussion was focused on international borders and barrier functions in the world, particularly in the atmosphere of increased securitization following the events of 9/11. Some of the factors pointed out immediately included the varied ‘relevance’ of borders, comparing countries in the Schengen region of the European Union with borders like the maritime barriers in the South China Sea.

While in terms of territoriality and partitioning particular groups of people, borders could be considered as a fundamental human desire. Even on individual levels, people establish boundaries between themselves and their neighbors and segregate on cultural, ethnicity and language. Considering situations of colonial cartography, countries in South Africa and the subcontinent are prominent examples of divisions based on language, religion and culture. Talking about using (redrawing) particular borders as a potential solution to long-term conflicts, it was agreed that it might not be a solution to issues like the Kurdish conflict.

Using borders as a method of legitimizing yourself was seen as a strategy used by ISIS: their redrawn map of the Islamic states was a major contributing factor to their rise in popularity.

A display of power by border-control personnel was discussed supported by an example of traveling through Uzbekistan and entering Kyrgyzstan with a Russian passport: being detained for no apparent reason, while refusing to communicate to the travelers or their higher authorities. Borders give people power. This can also be observed in the Israeli-Palestinian borders, where people may perish in medical emergencies while waiting to be let through. In such cases, border laws feature very little in the completely personal whims of the border-control staff.

As places of performance, borders can be remarkably interesting; especially in places like Wagah at the Pakistan-India border, where the ‘lowering of the flag’ ceremony has been performed daily since the 1950s, on both sides of the border, and is a matter of great fanfare. The painted flag in Cyprus and the façade of a skyscraper on the Korean borders are other examples of performance and display at borders. Similarly, besides physical performance, the use of metaphors, using a ‘drawbridge’ to control immigration into the UK, contributes to very specific images of a country: the UK is a castle, and a drawbridge will protect it from the Others.

It was also stressed that despite what borders look like on a map, they are enacted in very different ways on the ground. This is particularly evidenced by the Ebola outbreak, which happened in a place where the definitions of community overrode those of international boundaries. Telling people to stay in their own country was functionally meaningless. As another example, some borders follow natural boundaries of rivers or mountains. When this is not done and borders are harsh, straight lines born out of power politics, they override factors like grazing land, ancestral grounds and the natural rhythms of an area. In South Sudan, as nobody knew where the original border was, grazing patterns of cattle owned by different groups were used to try and deduce its ideal delineation. However, most experiences of border drawing in the contemporary world have not been as bottom-up and organic as this.

Other items of interest discussed:

  1. Social borders: Restrictions on visiting other colleges, as a member of university and a college,
  2. Border restrictions tied to economic performance – Western Australia, Catalonia, Belgium, etc.,
  3. Enclaves within enclaves – inhabitants unable to access basic amenities,
  4. Translating paperwork into social displays – bordering practices at the airport: EU/UK vs. everyone else,
  5. The effect of international time policies on perceptions of being forcible withdrawn from the rest of the world,
  6. Borders of sound – areas with the sound of church bells and the call for prayer,
  7. Borders of smell and aesthetics – segregation of slum areas,
  8. Borders as a topic of interest for contemporary art,
  9. Are all people with the same passport and nationality equal under the law?
  10. Political tensions of double citizenship

The session concluded the realization that borders are everywhere, stretch from the individual and institutional scale to the international, can be social, political, geographic and perceived, and signs of them can be easily observed in even the smallest of everyday tasks, like swiping your keycard for your department, or using your fob for the college.

Suggested Readings and Resources:

Mountz, A., (2010) Seeking Asylum: Human Smuggling and Bureaucracy at the Border. UPress

Dr. Hosna Shewly – Durham


About Jonathan Balls

PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Oxford
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