The Need to Fight Border Regimes Worldwide

In March 2001, a random group of travelers, artists, and aid workers gathered on the rooftop of a budget hotel in Essaouria, Morocco, a town best known for inspiring the Jimi Hendrix song “Castles in the Sand” – at least according to legend. Among the people sharing stories by candlelight into the early morning hours were the two authors of this article: Franklin Charles Graham IV, a Peace Corps volunteer from Washington State, returning to Mauritania at the end of an in-service vacation; and Gabriel Kuhn from Austria, who was about to explore West Africa.

We became friends and met up again in Mauritania a few weeks later. Together, we visited one of Islam’s most renowned historical centers of scholarship, Chinguetti, a Saharan town fighting for survival amid encroaching sand dunes. A year later, after Franklin finished his Peace Corps service, we met up again in Franklin’s home state of Washington. Gabriel was visiting the United States where he attended university studies in the early 1990s. We hitchhiked along coastal roads through Oregon to Northern California, camped on beaches, trekked in national parks, foraged blackberries, and met mostly friendly and a few not-so-friendly folks along the way.

Different activities prevented us from meeting during the next several years. Franklin pursued and finished a PhD in Geography at West Virginia University. He returned to Africa numerous times for research and travel. Gabriel continued his travels until moving to Sweden in 2007 where he focused on writing and translating. By 2009, both of us believed a reunion and new adventure was overdue. Neither of us could predict how the changing nature of travel would scuttle our plans.

In the spring of 2010, Gabriel planned a three-month speaking tour of the US. Over fifty events were scheduled. In January, however, he was denied travel authorization by the US government and the tour was cancelled. Meanwhile, however, Franklin was close to finishing his PhD studies. As an alternative, we planned on meeting up in Europe after Franklin’s graduation in the spring of 2011. Once again, we were denied, when Franklin became a detainee in the United Kingdom’s immigration system for three weeks before deportation back to the US.

The reversal of fortune that we experienced is foretelling of today’s immigration policies. We are white, university-educated, economically privileged citizens of First World countries. If immigration policies stop us from visiting each other’s continents then how do immigration policies impact the billions of non-white and less privileged peoples of the so-called Third World?

Our sufferings are minor. It is disappointing to have plans of a reunion scrapped but it is far from tragic. We still enjoy many privileges and we can meet in places where we are both welcome, like Cuba, Myanmar or Russia. Nonetheless, our cases are overdue warnings of irrational, unjust and inhumane immigration policies. Every year, these policies cost thousands of lives and shatter millions of dreams, keeping people from “living, loving, and working where they please,” as the Arizona Repeal Coalition puts it.

A Global Village for the Rich

Increased mobility is commonplace in describing the (post)modern age. Individuals are moving more than ever for education and professional careers. The travel industry is booming. People are migrating in unprecedented numbers. The world has become complex, diverse and a veritable meeting ground for people of all walks of life. At least so the story goes.

This is, however, only a part of the story. It is true changes in mobility have occurred. Passenger flights across the globe increased enormously over the last thirty years. Yet, the increase in mobility is also tied to an increase in control, both politically and economically. Global citizens do not necessarily profit from or improve their lives because of increased travel options. In fact, increased mobility contributes significantly to the ever growing gap between haves and have-nots. Increased mobility means, first and foremost, increased mobility for the rich and not those of lesser means.

The privileged – whether it is First World state, private corporation, or wealthy individual – are the ones making modifications and rewriting the laws that dictate mobility, not the general populous. The changes do not bridge the gap between the rich and the poor but only deepen it further. First World citizens earn significantly more money, their assets are in currencies that are relatively stable, and they can access online discounts on airfares. They can also obtain visas easily, if they are demanded at all. If a visa is needed and difficult to obtain, say, in the case of North Korea, then this is considered an indication of the country being a pariah, a rogue state.

An ordinary person from the Third World cannot easily board a plane and visit other nations. This is partially due to the cost of travel but it is also because of a difficult, strenuous process to acquire a visa. Third World citizens are required to provide more documents and wait longer for approval (if it is granted) to travel. They face quotas and lottery systems. As a result, many of them attempt to reach other countries, particularly those of the First World, by clandestine and dangerous means. Thousands die every year during these attempts and many more are detained and deported. Armies are employed and walls are built to keep these “unwanted” people away from First World opportunities. FRONTEX, the European Union (EU) agency managing operational cooperation at the external borders, introduced military patrols, high-tech surveillance and detention camps along the EU’s borders, the US-Mexican border fence is continually expanded and fortified, Israel plans and builds on various frontiers, and so on. The partnership of increased mobility for a few and increased control over many is illustrated well in these examples. It is not mobility per se that is valued or considered an achievement. Rather, mobility is perceived as a threat as soon as people are mobile outside of the patterns laid out by the nation state system, First World privilege, and state control.

On an individual level, even the privileged citizens from the First World can fall victim to this. The abovementioned incidents in the US and the UK were not the first times we encountered problems with national immigration systems. In September of 2007, Franklin was questioned and later detained for a night for being a solo backpacker in the metro area of Tunis, Tunisia. The local officials never see an independent traveler through their jurisdiction because most visitors come to metro Tunis in large groups on package tours. More serious and occurring in December of the same year, Franklin was detained by the Nigerien military regarding a rebellion that took place in northern Niger. He was in Niger to study food security issues among pastoralists but the connection pastoralists had with the rebels in the North made the Nigerien government wary of allowing Franklin to continue his research. The authorities eventually pushed Franklin to leave Niger.

Gabriel was denied entry into Canada because he did not produce a detailed itinerary of his travel plans nor a satisfying explanation for how he reached a British Columbia border post without his own vehicle. Gabriel also came close to deportation from Papua New Guinea but evaded this through a last-minute pardon by the chief of immigration at Port Moresby Airport. There were other times Gabriel needed to jump through numerous bureaucratic hoops to obtain visas for countries that usually welcome Austrian citizens.

Albeit the official explanations for all these incidents differ and commonly mask prejudice and flimsy paranoia – reaching from lack of funds and disrespecting border officials to ecological risks and protecting national security – the main reason was always the same: the individuals were moving without a solid plan (backpacking; hitchhiking), they had an ambiguous financial situation (student; freelance writer), they provided dubious contacts (critics, sometimes dissidents, to the country in question), all of which makes officials from Ottawa to Niamey suspicious. In this sense little has changed from the days when B. Traven denounced the absurdities of global passport bureaucracy in the 1926 novel The Death Ship.

Whenever we encountered problems with immigration officers, we were either able to procure the documents and references that were needed, or we simply traveled a different route. Most people from the Third World, however, trapped in similar circumstances cannot adjust to such barriers that easily. Their goals, their livelihoods, their family’s expectations are at stake. They might use all their money, including their family’s resources, for a single attempt to obtain a visa or cross a border. In addition, if caught by immigration officials they are thrown into detention faster and often remain there longer. Meanwhile, the privileged fly from New York or London to Paris or Tokyo for a weekend of shopping and partying, praising the convenience of more inexpensive flights connecting the continents. Obviously the new mobility is a Bonheur for a few, fairly complicated for some, and nothing but hypocrisy and misery for most.

Keeping Out the Damn Radicals

Immigration authorities are not very forthcoming with explanations for travel bans due to matters of national security. This is particularly true in the case of the United States. Gabriel’s travel ban, however, is almost certainly linked to political activism. There are three evident reasons to end up on the notorious “No Fly List” preventing non-US citizens from visiting the country: a violation of US immigration law, a criminal record, or an entry in a security agency’s watch list. Gabriel never violated US immigration law nor does he have a criminal record. He was, however, interrogated by a FBI anti-terrorist agent during his last visit in 2005. The travel ban can have only come from this encounter.

Travel bans due to political reasons are often referred to as “ideological exclusion.” This policy has a long history, not least in the US. In 1903, the Anarchist Exclusion Act was signed by Theodore Roosevelt, which, after some amendments, led both to the refusal of would-be radicals visiting the country and to the deportation of resident anarchists lacking citizenship. Most notably, 249 non-naturalized anarchists were deported to Europe in December 1919, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. After World War II, US immigration shifted its attack towards communist ideology and their entry forms demanding a denouncement of the ideology before entering the US gained worldwide notoriety.

The Patriot Act of October 2001 marks a new wave of ideological exclusion, although it is not as blatant as previous attacks on anarchist and communist ideologies. In the act, the banning, detainment and deportation of individuals is not referred to ideological conviction but rather to a broad definition of terrorism. Terrorism can be anything from violent acts to the publishing of articles or books that are critical to current US domestic and foreign policy. About ten thousand people are prevented from entering the US because of this. Once people are labeled “terrorists” they are harder to defend than people who simply have diverting political opinions. This has made it difficult to organize broad resistance to the Patriot Act in the US. Most US citizens continue to believe that the act helps protect the country. This also explains why ideological exclusion largely goes unnoticed, unless it concerns high-profile cases, for example the renowned academics Adam Habib and Tariq Ramadan.

In January 2010, as Gabriel was preparing his tour of the US, various organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Pen American Center, and the American Association of University Professors, campaigned for the allowance of Adam Habib and Tariq Ramadan to travel to the US. Both had been banned from entering the country for a few years. Eventually, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, issued a waiver that allowed them to return. Sadly, Tariq Ramadan declared/responded in an interview on Democracy Now! by stating that “it is quite clear that there is a shift in the American policy” and that “the banning of scholars is quite over, they want to change this, and they want to engage in open, critical dialogue, and I think that this is the way forward…”

What Tariq Ramadan failed to see – or chose not to see – is that the US State Department signed waivers exclusively for him and Adam Habib because their cases had become an embarrassment for the US government. This has nothing to do with policy change. The fact that it needed the Secretary of State to sign special papers clearly identifies these cases as exceptions. The official documents made available by the New York Times stated explicitly that the waivers “shall not have any application with respect to other persons.” In other words, nothing changed for 99.9% of the people affected by ideological exclusion. If anything, it is now even harder to campaign on their behalf, because people consider ideological exclusion even less of a problem.

Ramadan’s statements contributed to this. It is a key aspect of liberal politics to focus on the individual. Ramadan found that ideological exclusion is no longer a problem because it is no longer a problem for him. But will Hillary Clinton or another Secretary of State intervene on behalf of the overwhelming majority of people placed on the No Fly List? Only collective action will bring a true change in immigration policies; action on the behalf of everyone, not just notable scholars whose reputation brings sympathies and support from the privileged to their side.

The implications of ideological exclusion are evident. If expanded and implemented systematically, the related measures can undermine, even destroy, the communication, exchange, and networking of various social groups and movements. One of the most frightening aspects implied in ideological exclusion is the global implementation of secretive and non-transparent means of surveillance and repression used in the name of national security. To a very limited degree, Franklin experienced this when he was detained in Niger, but his nationality, mission, and quick departure assured he would not experience the harassment and violence that others, most likely from the Third World, would experience. Nonetheless, if these measures continue to expand they can undermine the communication, exchange, and networking of various social groups and movements. To combat this global trend there must be global resistance.

The Profitable Business of Locking People Up

Franklin traveled to the UK on September 20, 2011. His reasons were to see Scotland (his heritage), to meet with editors who helped him publish in the past, and to meet up with friends in the London metro area before crossing over to Continental Europe. The UK Border Agency, however, became suspicious about his intentions. Franklin was honest and forthright with his answers. He said he would be looking for work but that his plans were to live and work in Africa, not Europe. This candid response, however, only made the UK Border Agency more suspicious and they searched his luggage to find resumes and curriculum vitae. They denied him entry into the UK on suspicion that he would seek out work and/or overstay his visitor visa. They intended on deporting him immediately back to the US.

Franklin decided to appeal the UK Border Agency’s decision and in doing so, was detained at Harmondsworth Detention Centre, a fifteen minute drive from London’s Heathrow Airport. The detention center is reputed as the largest facility for irregular migrants in Europe. Men of various nationalities are found here at any given point in time, such as the countries of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, The Sudan, Iraq, Russia, Sri Lanka, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Algeria, Senegal, Albania, Iran, Bangladesh and Jamaica to name the most common ones. The guards snickered to Graham that he was going to meet quite a number of colorful characters during his time at Harmondsworth.

In the three weeks that Franklin spent there, he not only met but had long discussions, sometimes formal interviews, with these colorful characters. These men were not criminals. They had struggled to live better lives before the UK immigration separated them from their families, their fiancées, their work, their studies, and from their everyday routines. These men may have lied or forged a signature or number to come to or stay in the UK, but they did not do it out of amusement. They were pursuing a respectable life and doing their best to preserve it. They come from countries with very few career opportunities, no matter one’s amount of merit, skills or excellent grades in school. They were trying to escape the shame and frustration in failing to provide for themselves and other family members.

When Franklin asked these men how they found the conditions at the detention center, the responses were universal: the food is fine, the guards are decent, the internet, video games, sports, religious centers, and health facilities are good, but none of this could ever compare to a life of freedom on the outside. They wanted to work. They wanted to be responsible for their own food and other necessities. They wanted to be with their families. They preferred to pay taxes compared to being held in a facilities where taxes pay for their lodging and food. Their lives are not in Harmondsworth; their lives are in East London, Manchester, Sheffield, Bristol, and Birmingham.

Take, for instance, Mohammed Keweste, an Eritrean that Franklin interviewed at Harmondsworth. Mohammed served the Eritrean Army in the 1990s but faced conscription once more a few years back. Fearful for his life and ability to provide for his wife and children, Mohammed fled Eritrea for Europe. He first worked illegally in Italy but was caught and compelled to seek asylum with a European country. Italy did not grant him refugee status but the UK did. As a refugee, Mohammed was given basic government housing and 35 UK pounds a week for food and basic necessities, but, he was not allowed to work. This, of course, was not sufficient to send remittances back to his family in Eritrea. Mohammed did not explain why he was being detained but it is likely he was working illegally in the UK to earn money for his wife and kids. When Franklin asked Mohammed about the current state of his family, Mohammed replied he did not know. Before Mohammed’s detainment the Eritrean Army approached his wife demanding 50,000 Nafkas (the Eritrean currency) for her husband’s “dissertation.” For a mother of six who earns 750 to 950 Nafkas per week in the Asmara market that was impossible. Mohammed believes his family fled for the Sudan or Libya, but is not 100% certain because his detainment by UK immigration officials severed his previous means of communication. Mohammed concluded the interview by saying, “I know I am worthless to my family in here [the detention center]. If I am going to be able to help them, I need to leave this place.”

What many in the detention center are unaware of is that the ever increasing specter of immigration control is big business. Even in the current global recession, private corporations that are contracted out by national governments to run detention facilities are posting record profits and looking to expand their operations, not only in the UK, but also throughout the EU, the US, Canada, and Australia. It is not the Statue of Liberty in New York’s harbor calling out to the rest of the world, “Give me your tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to be free” anymore. Instead it is the private corporations who run these detention centers, as they are profiting from the destruction of many peoples’ lives.

The private company contracted out to run Harmondsworth, GEO Grop, Inc., is a good example. The UK government pays GEO Group 111 UK pounds (approximately 180 US dollars) for each person detained per day. The Harmondsworth Detention Centre currently has 600 beds with a 95% overall occupancy rate. This amounts to 23,378,550 UK pounds or 37,449,000 US dollars per year before salaries and operating costs.

Harmondsworth is not the only detention center run by GEO Group in the UK, either. GEO Group is responsible for others in Colnbrook, Dover, Brook House, Campsfield House, Yarlswood, Oakington and Dunguval. GEO Group is planning to expand some of these operations in addition to building new ones in other parts of the UK.

Fight Border Regimes Worldwide!

The United Nations in various charters declares that people have the right to mobility, freedom of thought, and pursuing a meaningful, productive life. The practice and allowance for everyone to experience one or all of these rights is, however, perverted by political and economic practices. The practice of banning people from travel because of their ideological expression in the name of national security is a further retardation of basic human rights. Simultaneously, the implementation of greater control over immigration coupled with the unfounded fears people have over irregular migrants has created a growth enterprise where a few corporations are able to capitalize on the destruction of peoples’ lives.

We wrote this piece together to highlight a structural global problem that we experienced a glimpse of. We, others like us in the First World, and the vast majority in the Third World would like to be completely transparent to immigration officials when traveling. But the border regimes are not just for many. As we pointed out, the consequences for us are negligible in comparison to the consequences others suffer. We are still able to meet if we want, even if it has become unnecessarily complicated. The privileges we owe this to also allow us access to media outlets where we can tell our story, thereby raising awareness about the thousands of overlooked cases. We therefore urge people to turn their attention to the voiceless victims of today’s border regimes and, if possible, dedicate some of their time and energy to campaign against this injustice. Here are some websites where one can start: