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Bordering in a pandemic: extending the politics of belonging

By Natasha Dyer-Williams

With the global outbreak of Covid-19, we regularly heard the phrases ‘the virus knows no borders’ and the ‘virus does not discriminate’. Many health experts, politicians and media emphasised the message that everyone was at risk of infection and that the virus was travelling fast.

In practice, however, viruses spread in societies that are intimately shaped by oppression. This has been all too obvious in the UK and South Africa – the two countries where I am conducting PhD research into experiences of migration, racism, being and belonging.

In each country, we have seen how oppression along the lines of race and class has merged with other factors to shape the burden of infections and deaths from Covid-19; the ability to subsist during lockdown and the likelihood of being targeted by arrests, fines, and police violence. An important part of this picture, but one that is often forgotten, is the way in which xenophobia – and the borders it produces and hardens – has shaped people’s experiences of Covid-19 and life amidst the lockdown. It is crucial that we think about borders but it is equally crucial to critically reflect on how we are thinking about borders. Looking at how different identities – along the lines of race, gender, class, and beyond – intersect, can help us to understand the importance of borders and bordering without losing sight of people’s diverse lives and experiences. In this blog, I focus particularly on the injustice faced by migrants in cases where multiple forms of oppression intersect.

In the first weeks of the pandemic, many countries responded by closing their borders. We now know that the pandemic spread more quickly in local contexts than across borders (once it had left China). The idea of stopping people from leaving or entering countries, however, has remained particularly powerful. Whilst there can be public health rationales for border management, these closures are not all rational. In March, for example, one of South Africa’s responses to the virus was to announce the construction of a 25-mile fence across the Zimbabwean border. Officials said that this project would help prevent undocumented migrants from spreading Covid-19. At that time, Zimbabwe had no recorded cases of the virus.

Unfortunately, this discourse is nothing new. South African officials are tapping into a historical tendency to blame migrants for the spread of disease. Since the 1800s, migrants have been accused of spreading cholera, tuberculosis, polio and HIV/AIDS, based on the idea that disease arrives with ‘others’ from ‘elsewhere’. Although transmission rates are mostly lower amongst immigrants and refugees compared to peripatetic tourists and business travellers, migrants are still scapegoated.

The challenges of the global pandemic need to be met by greater international collaboration (a trend seen in the scientific community). Instead, governments have continued to tighten borders, increasing isolation and revealing the fraught politics of belonging. In this sense, Covid-19 has served to exacerbate rather than mitigate a growing trend in contemporary politics. The demand to increase immigration control has been made repeatedly in recent years by far-right movements not only in the UK but in Europe, with politicians reigniting and mobilising historical grievances over national identity and belonging. In South Africa, the portrayal and policing of migrants as ‘criminals’ and unwanted aliens’ is part of a political discourse of fear, argues Michael Cosmos, rooted in ideologies of xenophobia, South African exceptionalism, and an idea of citizenship founded exclusively on indigeneity.

The hardening of borders – fuelled by racism and xenophobia – is not something that only affects a country at its edges. Borders run throughout society as a political project of belonging, using a series of bordering practices, including surveillance, detention, removal and obstruction efforts. Migration researchers call this process ‘everyday bordering’, or border construction through ideology, cultural mediation, discourses, political institutions, and attitudes, taking place in almost every social space. These structures discriminate and enact violence not only towards migrants, but to all oppressed groups, including people of colour. In (B)ordering Britain, legal scholar Nadine El-Nany describes this as the lesson British law teaches; that white people are “entitled to space, presence, resources and opportunities, while others are not…they are here as guests.”

In the UK, debates on immigration control well before, during, and after the Brexit vote, have emerged from centuries of racism and xenophobia. Over time, this has resulted in the construction of oppressive border infrastructure, with civilians turned into border guards, and health workers obliged to charge migrants surcharges for certain treatments or report on patients without the right documentation.

The death of Elvis in April this year was a devastating reminder of the deadly consequences of this hostile environment. Elvis, as he is known, was an undocumented migrant who had worked in the UK for over a decade. He died after two weeks of suffering from Covid-19 symptoms because he felt unable to approach the NHS. Elvis is not alone. Reports suggest that many migrants avoid hospitals and doctors’ surgeries for fear of service charges or data sharing between the NHS and border enforcement. This injustice feels particularly cruel give that international migrants in the UK are also more likely to work for social and healthcare services and, as such, have been particularly at risk of contracting the disease.

Gender also plays a crucial role in heightening the struggles that migrants may face both in everyday life and in the midst of crisis. Migrant women subject to immigration control who experience gender-based violence already struggle to access healthcare and support services in the UK. A bill passed in July 2020 exacerbates this, by denying support to migrant women victims of domestic abuse. In the midst of lockdown, where fears of gender-based violence are escalating, the consequences of this could be deeply worrying.

In South Africa too, xenophobia intersects with other forms of oppression, with devastating consequences. South Africa deracialised its immigration policy after the fall of apartheid, introducing new laws to protect migrants and refugees and becoming the nation with the biggest population of African migrants on the continent. For over a decade, however, the country has experienced regular outbreaks of xenophobic rhetoric and violence against foreign nationals. This has been fomented by politicians, who blame migrants for social and economic problems to distract from a record of bad governance, a stagnant economy and political corruption. Sadly, responses to Covid-19 have not been exempt from such manoeuvres.

In South Africa, as in the UK, access to health care is made more difficult for migrants. This is despite a National Health Act that guarantees access to the public health system. For undocumented migrants, the fear of being policed can be part of these barriers. The country has become the world’s most prolific deporter of migrants, with highly militarised borders. Given how Covid-19 can spread through spaces of containment, the detention centres and prisons that hold those on the wrong side of these punitive migration regimes have become particularly dangerous.

As scientists now suggest that halting the spread of COVID-19 can be better achieved through national test and trace strategies than by stopping international travel, we need to challenge government haste to increase border policing and immigration control during the pandemic. We must question whether these measures are really designed to protect people, or are just part of a campaign to further exclude marginalised groups.

Borders, and the policing of them, are not natural or benign lines on a map. Where we place borders and how we police them are political decisions being made (and remade) every day. Knowing this helps us to think critically about borders and bordering practices, and about the role they play in shaping people’s life choices and changes. To do this, we must ask political questions, thinking about how borders work and for whom.

Natasha Dyer-Williams is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh and an international development consultant. She tweets @nrlcadyer.

(Photo by ev on Unsplash)

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