Hierarchies of Mobility


Untitled 1 (At Botany Bay),, 2006. Image courtesy of the artists. 

by Anne McNevin

The image above, which fronts the cover of Contesting Citizenship, is an intervention into the politics of what it means to belong in a country like Australia today.  The artist collective responsible for the image have long worked to draw attention to the hypocrisies of “belonging” in Australia and, more specifically, to highlight the brutality of Australia’s recent history of border policing against asylum seekers. In 2001, the artists boldly projected a famous image of the first British fleet landing in Australia in 1788 on the side of the Sydney Opera House with the caption “boat people” underneath it.  Their work makes the point that all settlers to Australia are ‘boat people’ from an Indigenous perspective. Indeed many settlers share a history of exile and a longing for freedom that belies the hostility expressed towards our newest ‘boat’ arrivals.  

For me, the image above resonates on a number of different levels with identities and insecurities that coalesce in Australia, as in many other places, around questions of citizenship and border control.  Amongst other things, the masked heads in the photograph speak to the disturbing imagery of terrorists filming themselves before committing an attack. The aesthetics of such rituals are part of what has made the so called ‘war on terror’ a compelling cause of suspicion and fear of certain kinds of outsiders.  That the masks in this image are flags, also speaks to the power of a resurgent and parochial nationalism to blind us to the injustices carried out in the name of national security – including border defence. Any number of different flags could have made the point equally, but the fact that they are Australian flags makes the image all the more powerful for those of us concerned, even shamed, by this middle power’s determination to lead the world in policies and technologies  designed to keep asylum seekers out.  

As I write this piece, Australia’s high court is debating the legality of the current Labor government’s “Malaysia solution” to its asylum seeker problem – a deal to return asylum seekers arriving by boat to Malaysia in exchange for already processed refugees.  Many countries around the world will be watching to see if Australia’s offshore experiments in border policing can hold out against the law and against critique from various domestic and international humanitarian agencies.  Like the former conservative government’s “Pacific solution” (offshore detention of asylum seekers in Pacific island states), the “Malaysia solution” is indicative of global trends in border policing whereby states batten down the hatches against people in serious need. 

Why is this happening now? Why have specific migration flows that have long been part of the history of an interconnected world only recently been called “illegal”? And why does the movement of certain kinds of people inspire so much fear and anxiety at a time when cosmopolitanism is the catch-cry of a global age?  These questions are at the heart of the book I’ve written to try and understand the logic behind increasingly pronounced global hierarchies of mobility. In the book, I argue that the hardening of borders against all kinds of irregular migrants (asylum seekers and refugees but also undocumented workers) is connected to the opening of borders to other kinds of traffic – in traded goods, financial products, tourists, business people and so on. I ask what constellation of power underwrites arrangements whereby some are welcome everywhere and others nowhere.  How does that power operate to make arbitrary distinctions between those who are welcome and those who are not seem like matters of common sense? 

Two perplexing conditions inform the rationale for this book. The first concerns the apparent contradictions of the globalizing state. On one hand, states willingly open their borders to global market forces and do so on the pretence that liberalizing borders is the only feasible option for economic growth and development. This opening of borders raises questions about the meaning of citizenship, which has heretofore been based on the notion of a sovereign territorial political community. On the other hand, states are also under increasing pressure to close their borders to certain types of migrants and to maintain a strong sense of bounded national identity. Irregular migrants are caught at the crossroads of these imperatives. Many, as workers, respond to a transnational labor market that is part and parcel of global market forces. At the same time, they are brutally policed as transgressors of borders that are elsewhere compromised by states’ neoliberal agendas. 

These parallel trends suggest that simplistic readings of the contemporary global condition cannot account for the everyday realities that increasingly shape the experiences of citizens and migrants alike. Exaggerated notions of a deterritorialised and borderless world fly in the face of an extraordinary militarization of borders as key sites of defence against flows of unwanted people (irregular migrants and terrorists) and contraband goods (drugs and arms). Yet skeptics of globalization, who doubt the novelty of networks and circuits across transnational space, are likewise faced with the failure of borders to contain these various flows and new modes of communication and transit that challenge our assumptions about limits to time and space. The broader question, positioned between these two crude extremes, is how we are to understand the spatial framing of states, sovereignty, and citizenship in an age that defies “either/or” accounts of rupture or continuity with the spaces of the past. 

From this starting point, the state that pursues both a globalizing and a border-policing agenda is not so much engaging in contradictory policies, as actively rescaling and redrawing state space beyond territorial norms. From this starting point, in turn, it is possible to discern a logic of globalization in its neoliberal form whereby fast-tracked border crossings for certain commodities and persons are connected to heightened surveillance of others. These interlinked dynamics result in new hierarchies—new forms of citizenship based on global connectivity and new forms of alienage based on circumscribed access to mobility. From this perspective, the journeys of irregular migrants cannot be sufficiently explained by “push factors” that originate in isolation from destination states. Irregular migrants should be seen not as aberrant but as immanent subjects of contemporary global capitalism that come into being on account of the trajectories of globalizing states. 

Finally, from this starting point, we also find that irregular migrants are often located in places more akin to a spatially rescaled conception of the state than to clear-cut distinctions between two sides of a territorial border. Undocumented workers, for instance, may be working for transnational production circuits in special economic zones, common throughout Asia and Latin America, where incoming investors are exempted from tax and labour regulations operating elsewhere in the country. Asylum seekers may be detained in offshore locations and excised territories of the kind pioneered by Australia on the Pacific island state of Nauru or on its own Christmas Island over two thousand kilometers from the mainland. Irregular migrants may be safeguarded—at least to some extent—in official city sanctuaries of the kind that San Francisco offers to undocumented residents, or the UK city of Sheffield offers to asylum seekers in a local gesture of welcome that defies the spirit (and sometimes the law) of federal border policing initiatives. 

In special economic zones, offshore centres and municipal sanctuaries  the integrity of sovereign state space is compromised.  Yet this is the very integrity supposedly being defended  by border policing in the first place. Different kinds of spaces that defy our conventional territorial registers are at work in both technologies of border policing and in what I am calling counter-practices of political belonging. This spatial disaggregation and transformation is a crucial factor in my broader inquiry into the dynamics of citizenship. 

The second condition informing this book is the emergence of irregular migrants as political actors. In recent years, irregular migrants have marched, occupied buildings, rioted, gone on strike, petitioned, blogged, written manifestos, and generally brought attention to their long-term presence in countries where they live with the constant threat of deportation. The Sans-Papiers, a coalition of irregular migrants based in France, have occupied churches, government offices, union headquarters, and restaurant chains in Paris. They have demanded that their status be regularised and have contested the very basis on which they are positioned as outsiders. In other cases, irregular migrants have won political privileges despite their lack of legal status. In the United States, irregular migrants have obtained drivers’ licenses, the right to vote for school boards, and “in-state” college tuition, and they have mobilized in huge demonstrations. In each of these cases, irregular migrants are being recognized as a semi-legitimate presence. Administrations sometimes respond to their presence with measures that create an ambiguous status between legal and illegal, inclusion and exclusion, belonging and not belonging. 

How should citizenship be understood against this background of border transgressions and ambiguous forms of status? If the state is said to represent a bounded community of citizens, what happens when the boundaries defining that community no longer act as buffers to a range of global forces? If irregular migrants are policed as illegitimate outsiders, what happens when they seek and obtain political rights in places where they technically do not belong? The stories of people who do not fit into defined categories of citizenship threaten to rupture a particular configuration of global political power that gives the state its raison d’être. Hence, the tightening of borders against such people is as much a defense of the conceptual framework legitimizing those boundaries as it is a defense of material borders themselves. 

Irregular migrants’ growing political activism generates new claims to citizenship that deploy alternative political geographies. These claims are made at a time when the fault lines of citizenship are very much unsettled and vulnerable to challenge. The political struggles of irregular migrants have much to reveal about new lines of social cleavage that punctuate local and global terrains. They also engender new social and spatial terms of reference for emerging political solidarities. It is here that my interest is focused and here that I aim, in my book, to contribute something new to the terms of debate on border control and citizenship.  Alternative solidarities emerging in the struggles of irregular migrants may just have a chance of moving us beyond the current political impasse between the human rights of the migrant and the sovereign rights of the state. 

About the Author: 


Anne McNevin is a lecturer in International Studies at RMIT University, Melbourne and associate editor of the journal Citizenship Studies. She is the author of Contesting Citizenship: Irregular Migrants and New Frontiers of the Political.