What if we imagine a world without borders?

I’d like to ask you to suspend your disbelief and to imagine a world without borders. Often I think we don’t use our imagination enough and that really distorts and restricts our sense of what is possible. Let’s just imagine a world without borders, a world where we can cross territories without passports or awkward questions from the discriminative border police. I’m asking you to use your imagination, I’m not suggesting that you should just abandon reason altogether, obviously in order to argue for a world without borders we have to understand what borders are and what they do, we haven’t always had borders in the same way we do today and also the way they work is actually very different from how they used to.

To put this into context, here’s an example, 200 years ago we used to transport undesirable subjects of the kingdom, people like rioters and looters. Today we deport undesirable non-citizens, as you can see, how borders work and who they affect doesn’t change, it’s just simply this urge to control the mobility of poor people. Starting from 1388 onwards if you were a poor person who wanted to travel in England from A to B, you needed to have a set of papers that proved that you were not leaving your master in search of higher wages and a better job. By the late 1600s a set of those false documents, would cost between two and four pennies and no self-respecting vagrant would leave home without at least two sets. In the 20th century, just because you had a British passport didn’t mean that you had access to the British Isles.

As you can see, what borders do changes from time to time. Today, one of the functions of borders is that they create international migrants, you’re not an international migrants until you cross a border, that said, it’s important to remember that not everyone who crosses an international border counts as a migrant. There’s a very particular idea of who a migrant is. When we’re talking about American bankers, city traders or even Australian working holidaymakers, these groups are not perceived as migrants, purely because really to put it very crudely a migrant is imagined as a poor person.

Something else happens to international migrants very often, this is the case whether we’re undocumented or if we’re documented migrants which is that you become very dependent on particular people. If you’re an illegal migrant typically you become dependent on a sponsor, that sponsor could be a spouse or it could be an employer or even an educational institution such as universities. What happens then if the sponsor withdraws from the relationship? Then you typically lose your rights to stay, that makes people dependent, this might mean wives dependent on husbands, domestic workers dependent on the families we work for and it makes workers dependent on employers, so it’s not really very surprising that we so often hear employers extolling the virtue of foreign workers. Some people say that migrant workers are so much more reliable and hardworking than in our case British workers, of course they are because if we leave then we’re going to have to leave the country, a place where we’ve already established some roots and probably a place that we already feels it’s our very own.

Lamp post with sticker saying 'Open Borders now'

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash

I’m not asking you to imagine a world with the free market gone mad a race to the bottom for wages and terms and conditions where the poor will suffer the most, this is I think where we do have to use our imagination because to imagine a world without borders is not to imagine a world where migrants and citizens have equal access to low-wage insecure poor work, is not to imagine a world where migrants and citizens have equal access to stingy heavily surveyed and demeaning benefits.

I’m asking you to imagine a much better world that is possible based on the principle that if we share, there is enough to go around. To be clear, It might not be enough to enable us all to live like Richard Branson and Rupert Murdoch it may not even be enough to enable us to sustain the kind of relentless consumerism that really does characterize many of our societies today, but, I believe there is enough to enable us all to live exciting fulfilled ambitious human lives.

I think to imagine a world without borders is really to imagine a world that is dramatically different from the kind of world that we live in today. It’s to imagine a different kind of economy, a rather different kind of society and different kind of politics, where political debate really does matter and make a real difference. I want you also to imagine different kinds of social relations between us, a social relation that in the end isn’t based on fear and this is mine and there’s not enough of it and I’m not going to share, but a social relation that is based on the idea that this is a project we are together and let’s do it together. A common project, true team work.

Now, I know that’s all very well for you and your ivory tower in London as white middle-class man but some of us live here in the real world. I’m a migrant myself, I’m well aware of the nervousness of border control and visa applications and also what is like to be rejected, the frustration and the internal anger. We need to remember that actually borders, are a fantasy. I might be utopian but borders are dystopian, are we ever really going to be able to have hermetically sealed nation-states with with those coming in and coming out being counted knowing exactly who’s here and who’s there?

Let’s just think just for a moment about the tens of thousands of undocumented children who are born around the world and who are living their lives about normal. Now, what are we going to do about them? Are we going to just close our eyes and hope that they go away and ignore this kind of injustice and alienation that’s growing up amongst us? Or , are we are we going to spend billions of pounds of taxpayers money deporting them and their families while evermore undocumented children are being born? Is that rational? Is that sensible? Is that really being realistic? Let’s think about the tons of people crossing borders because they feel threaten in their countries of origins, let’s think about the tons of people who risks their lives by getting on an inflatable boat to cross the sea in the Mediterranean. I think we have to remember that borders are a fantasy, they are a fantasy that sustains inequality and only benefit a small group of people, the rich and the elite at the very top.

There are lots of people working towards a world without borders, even if they’re not actually working on no borders initiatives, there are people who are working on global minimum income, end to prison, end to injustice on the rights to housing and on more just political communities. I believe that actually migration is relevant to all those struggles for social justice and people who are working on those issues need to really be thinking about how migration affects those even if it poses some very difficult questions.

I hope that reading this small article made a sparkle and pose some interesting questions in your head. Keep your mind open, until the next time 👋

Javier Sánchez @jsanchez