Editors’ Note: This is the seventh in a series of articles on books by or about refugees.
In less than 200 pages, Reece Jones, a professor of geography at the University of Hawaii, presents a comprehensive description of the world focusing on just one feature: the political or physical borders that have been imposed on the earth to restrict human movement, and their economic, political and social consequences.
The book, Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move, published by Verso in paperback in 2017, is intellectually ambitious, and makes an ambitious policy proposal. Borders are a mistake, and the harder the border the worse its consequences will be, Jones argues. People will naturally migrate to where conditions are better; to control economic migration, there should be an international agreement on wages, assuring a worldwide minimum wage.
Jones has taken in a vast amount of data and synthesized it into simple statements that have the ring of common sense, and he writes in clear, jargon-free English. His proposal may be Utopian, but the analysis he presents is hard to fault.
The book offers a big picture, but it is helpful in the light it sheds on specific crises. Its first chapter, “The European Union: The World’s Deadliest Border,” is a concise but thorough account of the European refugee crisis that began in about 2014. It explains how European Union nations and other countries responded when millions of people displaced by war sought refuge within their borders and continue to do so.
The book is called Violent Borders to show that crossing a border can be not just difficult but dangerous. Frontex, the E.U. border administration agency, “has estimated that one out of every four people who attempt to enter Europe by boat dies en route,” Jones writes.
The violence of nation-state borders is exacerbated by economic forces that disregard borders in a way that people cannot. One of the causes of the uprising in Syria that led to the continuing civil war was the neo-liberal economic policy adopted by the government of President Bashar Assad. To attract global investment, the administration cut subsidies to agricultural regions that previously had been supported financially by the state. This led people to either join the uprising against the government or to flee the resulting civil war and seek better conditions elsewhere.
Jones’s argument focuses on what happens when borders harden. But while borders may harden, they can also dissolve–though this is perhaps the subject of a different book. One of the consequences of the civil war in Syria has been the effective breakdown of the national border drawn on maps. The points at which people can pass from Syria into neighboring countries are now in the hands of a variety of forces—Turkish, Kurdish, Syrian opposition—as well as the country’s nominal government.
This book is a diagnosis of the problems of the Western neo-liberal economic policy also known as globalization; the refugee crisis is one of its symptoms. “Borders that are open for corporations, capital and consumer goods but closed for workers and regulators are creating dramatic inequalities in wealth and opportunity within individual countries and at a global scale,” Reece writes. For the reader who wants a short but lucid account of this argument, supported by reliable evidence, this book is a good primer.
Other articles in this series: