Updated: Nov 21
In the age of globalisation and the climate crisis, is it time to reconsider the concepts of nationhood and borders?
Our world has more borders than ever before. Walls, barriers, fences, and their repressive border policies are visible across the political and physical landscape. After the Cold War, only 12 border walls existed worldwide. The number is now 74, with most built since the 2000s. What these boundaries divide is our ability to achieve a cohesive global society, and what they create are the seeds for further polarisation and conflict. The UNHCR reported last year that the worldwide number of forcibly displaced people had surpassed 100 million. These borders help to control, contain, funnel, and ultimately stop your mobility. "Cui bono?" Who benefits from the concept of artificial division? Obviously, not the people.
Birth of a Nation
Nations and borders have existed for millennia, but their rationale, design, and operation have changed alongside industry with ever-changing technologies. Our current system is only 350 years old, resulting from the 1648 Westphalia peace treaty after decades of European religious war. Its basic principle grants a regional monarch or ruler the powers to control religion, government, and taxes, interconnected by laws and enforced by the military machine. Back then, political dominance in feudal Europe was impossible to measure on a map; introducing borders provided a pivotal and explicit separation of the elite from the masses.
Over time, including the greater need for efficiency, the monarch's sovereignty led to the rise of nationalism to subjugate the lower classes further. As a result, we witness the birth of nationhood and nationalism—the elite-led celebration of difference that the helpless and ignorant swallow. Through mass marketing and class indoctrination, nationhood carried culture and stories of belonging for those inside, providing a veneer of superiority and value for each strata of society.
After industrialism replaced religion, nationalism became a means of corralling resources and establishing colonies, wealth, and empires. Expansionist powers have constantly redrawn and erased borders to widen their sphere of influence, resulting in countless skirmishes and two world wars.
The relevance and efficacy of nationhood and borders must be questioned due to the transformation of the societal paradigm and all the challenges we face today. The traditional concept of borders is evolving thanks to the complex interplay of technology and the need for social mobility. What does this mean for our future? And could we reset the whole notion of borders altogether?
Symbolism vs Reality
The efficacy of physical borders is debatable. Take the U.S.-Mexico border wall, for instance. Despite its political symbolism, its practicality in curbing migration is questionable. Boundaries are more about projecting an image of power and control than effectively managing migration.
Border policies are a stain on society, and they fail to recognise the real victims. In this vein, the British government's attempt to transfer refugees reaching its shores to Rwanda, 4,000 miles south, is a bid to "outsource" its borderline for ineligible immigrants. In 2019, U.S. Border Patrol agents were sent to Guatemala to exert pressure on local law enforcement to reduce migrant flows to the United States. Or Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, which was accused in 2021 of training and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard as a proxy border force to return migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Africa, where they were held in appalling militia-run prisons or detention camps funded by U.S. humanitarian aid. After 9/11, the goal of identifying terror threats drove this trend of reaching beyond national borders and traditional sovereignty. It has become a worldwide tool for projecting buffer zones to protect the wealthy.
Globalisation and Technological Impact
In an era of globalisation, the function of borders extends beyond physical lines on a map. The British government's digital border initiative and the U.S.'s online migration portal exemplify a shift towards managing borders through data and technology. This digital transformation raises critical questions about privacy, surveillance, and the digital divide.
The concept of borders in the modern era, especially in the context of globalisation, has evolved significantly. Traditionally, borders were seen as physical demarcations separating geographical entities, but this view is rapidly changing. The emergence of digital technologies has led to virtual borders that transcend traditional physical boundaries and have moved to the financial arena.
The British government's digital border initiative is a prime example of this shift. This programme likely involves using technology to monitor and control the flow of people and goods into and out of the country. It might employ various data collection and analysis forms, such as biometric data, to enhance security and streamline immigration processes.
Similarly, the US online migration portal represents another facet of this digital transformation. Such a portal could be designed to manage immigration processes electronically, providing a platform for applications, status tracking, and potentially even virtual interviews. This system would make immigration procedures more efficient and accessible, but it would also raise concerns.
These developments bring critical questions regarding privacy and surveillance to the forefront. The use of technology in managing borders inevitably leads to the collection and analysis of large amounts of personal data. This raises concerns about how this data is used, stored, and protected. There are fears that such data could be misused for surveillance or fall into the wrong hands.
Moreover, the digital divide is another significant issue. Not all individuals or countries have equal access to digital technologies and the Internet. This inequality could lead to unfair advantages for those with access and disadvantages for those without. It might create a scenario where some people can navigate these digital borders more quickly than others, leading to disparities in immigration and travel opportunities.
Such developments are inevitable, especially in the wealthy, data-obsessed global north. But it raises the question: What happens to less technologically advanced people? Could the poor and unfortunate without digital presence be 'bordered' out of large parts of the world? Could this be the point? Even for data-rich citizens, the implications could be more apparent. The individual has always been central to universal human rights. As seen in China, data-driven state surveillance has become a tool for authoritarian social control, bordering behaviours, rewarding patriotism, and punishing non-patriotism. We are a long way from border posts and patrol guards.
Climate Change and Human Migration
Climate change profoundly challenges the traditional concept of borders, reshaping how we understand and manage national and international boundaries. As the effects of climate change intensify, certain regions of the world are becoming increasingly uninhabitable due to factors like rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and deteriorating ecosystems. This environmental degradation is leading to, and will likely continue to lead to, unprecedented levels of human migration.
This migration, often called climate migration, poses a significant challenge to static, unchanging borders. People displaced by environmental factors will seek refuge in more habitable areas, often crossing national boundaries. This movement is not just a temporary phenomenon; in many cases, it represents a permanent shift in population dynamics, as returning to their original homes may no longer be viable for many climate migrants.
This situation demands re-evaluating how nations and international bodies view and manage borders. Traditional border control policies, which often focus on national security and immigration control, may not address the complexities of climate-induced migration. These policies usually do not consider the humanitarian and environmental factors driving such movements, ultimately leading to potential conflicts and humanitarian crises.
Furthermore, climate change necessitates a shift towards global cooperation. Its effects are global in scope and do not adhere to artificial borders. A collaborative international approach is essential to address climate migration challenges effectively. This includes developing comprehensive strategies that address the immediate needs of climate migrants and the long-term goal of reducing the environmental impact that drives such migration.
In this context, we must also reimagine how we define territories and nations. The concept of a nation based on static geographical boundaries becomes less relevant in a world where populations are shifting due to environmental factors. There may be a need to develop new frameworks for citizenship and residency that are more flexible and accommodating to people displaced by climate change.
In summary, climate change is not just an environmental issue but a profound challenge to the traditional concept of borders. It forces us to confront the limitations of current border policies and requires reimagining how we define territories and nations. Addressing this challenge demands a shift towards global cooperation and developing new, more humane, and flexible approaches to national and international boundary management.
Let's Rethink Borders.
Borders—as we know them—are crumbling. Many cling to the illusion of walls and fences, not to mention the fallacy of nationalism spread by the elite. Still, these barriers and borders have already become symbolic spaces that merely arrest the global movement of the poor and disenfranchised. So much for...“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” A country's greatness and true genius lie in its diversity and openness.
Humanity has no borderline. According to a 2020 study, most people have lived in the same, strikingly narrow slice of Earth's climate space (where the mean annual temperature is 11–15 °C) for at least 6,000 years. With global warming, this human climate niche may move more in 50 years than in six millennia. If humans in the future avoid living in places they've never lived and follow niche migration, the study predicts that 3.5 billion people will be on the move. If people don't move, by 2070, one-third of humanity could live in conditions best found only in a desert.
Today's walls and political borders are divisive and destructive, but we, the people, must urgently rethink restrictive movements along these artificial borders. Will borders harden through technology or crumble under the pressure of humanity?
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