Refugees, Labour and Violence: Rethinking “borders” while in the Scottish Borders

Last month, I holidayed in a region of southern Scotland called “The Borders.” As the boyfriend was raised in one of its charming towns, I had a built-in tour guide. He showed me all the fluffy sheep, the gorgeous green rolling hills and told me stories of the Borders’ sparkling history of violence and raiding.

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This vantage of the Tweed valley and Eildon Hills is called “Scott’s View,” as it is reputed as one of Sir Walter Scott’s favourite views.

This lush swath of land held a contentious political boundary that separated Scotland from England. Between the 13th and 17th centuries, this magnificent countryside became ground zero in the quest to define those two nationalities. Repetitive small conflicts and systematic raiding dominated the region due to a group of mercenaries called the Border Reivers. Equipped with bows and arrows and mounted on little ponies, they were notorious for stealing, raping and fighting for live stock and lands.

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Queen Elizabeth I was so impressed with the Border Reivers ruthless success, that she once said, “with ten thousand such men, James VI could shake any throne in Europe.”  (photo: wikipedia)

Today, traces of the intense violence are still present in the abandoned peel towers that dot the countryside, where residents would hide from invaders. One particular peel tower called Smailholm Tower was made popular by Scotland’s cherished author, Sir Walter Scott. As a child battling polio in the late 1700s, Scott stayed with his grandparents at Sandyknowes farm just beside Smailholm Tower and even played in its ruins.

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Smailholm Tower was one of hundreds of defensive fortifications that dotted the countryside. Inside was often a local laird and enough room to house the sheep and cattle, a major resource for the Border Reivers.

Due to the strong oral traditions among the local farmers and shepherds, Scott also learned about the Border Reivers’s raids through workers on the farm, including his auntie who would sing to him. Years later, Scott transcribed and modified some of these folk tales, popularising them through his writings and publications. In one fell swoop, Sir Walter Scott’s renditions of these stories soon came to define an entire portion of Scotland’s (heavily disputed) land and (blood-soaked) history into the romanticised nation we know today.

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Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott’s family home, is now a B&B and museum.

While Scott’s impact upon Scotland is indisputable – he seemed to be a remarkable and eccentric man – the Scottish Borders as a specific region made me stop and think. Scotland and England would eventually find peace (to an extent) so that the violence would stop, but what do such borders achieve?

Are borders entirely arbitrary, or do they serve a useful purpose? What do borders accomplish? How do borders define a group? Do they cause more peace or more violence? Do we still need them? Or should we build more?   

I’m not the first to ask such questions, especially in recent history. Just last month, it was the 70th anniversary of India and Pakistan’s creation. Or, it was the 70th anniversary of one of the bloodiest legacies that ever came from drawing a border.

In the immediate post-war era, calls for Indian independence from British rule could no longer by ignored by Westminster. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Congress and Muslim League, demanded the creation of a Muslim state. With British PM Clement Atlee’s strong support, Lord Louis Mountbatten and Cyril Radcliffe were responsible for hastily drawing a boundary that essentially cut Punjab and Bengal almost in half.  But the problem was that millions of Muslims lived in what would become Hindu-majority India, while millions of Hindus and Sikhs lived in what would be Muslim-majority Pakistan.

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A photo from 19 September 1947 of an overcrowded train station by New Delhi (from an article by Dawn).

The “Mountabatten Plan” was submitted just five days before India and Pakistan were partitioned (14th and 15th August, respectively). Celebrations ensued, but so did mass migration. Over 15 million Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus essentially swapped countries, leading to over a million deaths in the violence that followed. Chaos reigned at train stations, looting and food shortages were commonplace. People apparently defended themselves from discriminate attacks with knives, guns, swords. Thousands sought shelter and refuge in sacred temples and tombs. Millions died because of this arbitrary, hastily drawn line in the earth. Millions died because of a border.

Borders, essentially, divide people.

Hundreds of years ago, physical features of the land would define a people, such as river or forest. But in more recent history, borders have been politically motivated rather than geographically defined. Or sometimes both. I remember being a young Canadian elementary student in Social Studies class and asking why the US-Canada border was straight on the left (west), but squiggly on the right (east). My teacher laughed and said the St. Lawrence River was the chosen boundary in the east, while the 49th latitude was the boundary in the west. The answer confused me, but then I was told that the US-Canada border is the longest undefended border in the world. “But we’ll be okay,” she reassured me. “Okay from what?” I remember thinking.

Borders “protect” people.

They keep foreigners out. They help us to define ourselves in relation to the “other” whatever we perceive it to be: barbarity, violence, backwardness, et cetera. By doing so, borders create a sense of homogeneity, safety and order for those inside, implying further that such civilised aspects of society only exist within that border. Borders thus legitimise our identities and strengthen our communities. Evidently, borders do accomplish a great deal.

Today’s borders allow free trade, the free movement of goods to be exchanged. This allows us to create links (sometimes exploitive) with our neighbours and is one of the best things to come out of colonisation and globalisation. And yet we do not afford that same freedom of movement to people, to labour.

As British journalist Giles Fraser says, “We are so hypocritical about our borders.” We will celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, but we will fortify Calais and the UK against the waves of eastern refugees and migrants. We will condemn Trump’s proposed wall with Mexico, but continue the oppressive system of First Nations reservations in Canada and the US. We shake our heads at the illegal detainment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but we will applaud the commendable efforts of Médecins Sans Frontières (or, Doctors without Borders).

Why such hypocrisy? 

Professor Jonothan Moses claims in International Migration: Globalization’s Last Frontier (2006), that “as distance in the world recedes with technological, social, demographic and political advances, the demand for international migration will surely grow.” The only way to solve our multiple global problems, he claims, is through free migration. It is the last frontier to be conquered by the global community. Naturally, this sounds both radical and implausible, but he assures us that eventually we would become more just and happier, as the world’s economic and political bounty would be better distributed.

A world without borders? Is that possible?  

Just imagine a world where you could visit or permanently move anywhere you wanted without restrictions. Tropical islands everywhere would become overwhelmed with the world’s richest retirement-aged elites. Many long-distance relationships could be solved. Families separated by war or migration could be reunited.  Unmarried women could backpack through Saudi Arabia! And, importantly, the global divide between the rich underpopulated North and the poor overpopulated South would rebalance. Eventually.

But a world without borders is difficult to comprehend.  So if a borderless, free-moving, global population is one radical extreme, then at the other end of the spectrum is a world with well-defined “nations”. We know this world, because we are living in it. A world with borders, barriers and walls, such as those that currently in Israel/Palestine, or those proposed by Trump with Mexico, or those proposed by Brexit with Europe. No more EU Schengen plans. No more visa-free travel. Everyone restricted to their little nation. Everyone defined by their borders.

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The closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics demonstrates just how much we are defined by our borders (Photo: Daily Mail).

But then, history. History tells us that borders aren’t necessarily the best invention since sliced bread. Borders cause war, then war happens, then borders are redrawn. Repeat. For example, one of the strongest underlying factors for the outbreak of the First World War was the fact that people were angry with their borders. And this anger took the form of nationalism. Pause here.

Nationalism (generally, a pride in one’s nation) is based upon a collective identity due to ethnic, religious, and/or political reasons. It’s a massive concept that historians debate endlessly (see Anthony Smith’s Theories of Nationalism (1971), Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (1983), anything by Eric J. Hobsbaum). Because borders keep foreigners out, legitimise citizens within, and nurture collective pride and identity, nationalism is tied inextricably to borders – real or imagined. Nationalism does not always need to exist in a community, but it does exist because that community is legitimised by, or rebelling against, its borders. Correct? Yes.

So, in the early 1900s, multiple ethnic communities in the Balkans were formulating new identities that wanted autonomy from the Austria-Hungarian state and old Emperor Franz Joseph in Vienna. Two previous localised Balkan wars had proved just how forceful these groups were becoming. But the conflict escalated into the First World War when a member of one Serbian nationalist group assassinated the nephew of the Emperor. Nationalism, aggravated by borders (that these groups felt limited by), was thus a major component of the ongoing tensions that sparked and accelerated that conflict.

After the First World War, borders were redrawn: Poland, Finland and the Baltics were born. Austria-Hungary was split into Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Alsace-Lorraine was returned to the French. German colonies were transferred to the victors. The League of Nations was created to hopefully broker ongoing peace and stability after an estimated 25 million deaths.

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The German delegates at the Treaty of Versailles: Professor Walther Schücking, Reichspostminister Johannes Giesberts, Justice Minister Otto Landsberg, Foreign Minister Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau, Prussian State President Robert Leinert, and financial advisor Carl Melchior. (Photo from Wikipedia).

For a time, it seemed to work. But the League of Nations faltered. Nationalism grew. This time Germany and Russia became massive forces that spurned many citizens to believe that their nations had not only the means but the right to reclaim lost territories and even conquer new ones. Hitler and Stalin’s fierce ambitions, and weak Allied leadership in the late 1930s heightened tensions and nurtured opportunity for conflict. The Second World War resulted in an estimated 50 to 80 million deaths.

The United Nations attempted to succeed where the League of Nations failed. European Integration became central to rebuilding a world after total devastation. A common market was created among its first four members and the free movement of goods became a cornerstone of collective European prosperity. Go, Europe!

Simultaneously, the Cold War constructed “the Iron Curtain” and, again, divided Europe and the world. The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 and symbolised the cold, hard barrier between western capitalism and eastern communism. The last remaining right-wing dictatorships in Portugal and Spain soon dissolved. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and East and West Germany were finally reunited. Borders that had previously been so indestructible for decades seem to crumble in a few short months.

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Over 138 people died trying to escape through the Wall, and an estimated 5,000 were successful. The first to escape was East German border guard, Corporal Conrad Schumann, in August 1961 (Photo from here)

By 1993, the Schengen Agreements allowed for movement of “four freedoms”: goods, services, money and people. Millions of young people were able to study in other EU countries and the Euro currency was adopted by most EU nations. Remarkably, the EU eased gracefully into a period of prosperity and harmony. Goals to tackle climate change and terrorism unified these once national enemies. Germany, despite his historic territorial ambitions, became the world leader in accepting refugees and migrants. The EU won the Noble Peace Prize in 2012.

But then, Brexit. And Trump’s Mexico wall. It seems that some western leaders believe tightening borders, not eradicating them, is the best response to global migration.

So what’s the solution?

Rethink the nature of “borders.” Although totally removing borders is radical and implausible in the near future, global migration will only increase. As migrants move between countries, they often transition through multiple societies, adopting new identities in each and thus complicating the simple labels of “origin” and “destination.” Global migration is not only increasing, but becoming vastly more complex.

History proves that borders do not keep foreigners “out” nor keep citizens “in”. And why should they? The global economy is based upon free trade, the free movement of goods, so why shouldn’t that be extended to people, to labour? Meanwhile, current gaps between the rich and poor, the north and south, the citizens and refugees, are eroding due to instantaneous communications, faster transportation, and global infrastructures and this exact type of trade. Sorry, world, but refugees and migrants won’t just “go away,” no matter how high you build those walls.

According to the International Organisation of Migration, “Migration is an integral part of global transformation and development processes rather than a problem to be solved.” If true, then how do we improve this?

Of course, the best remedies lay in helping those on the other side of the border. Provide immediate aid to victims of war, hunger and disease. Allow those fleeing persecution and war to cross borders, with or without passports or visas. Commit to large-scale, international resettlement projects across borders. Do not underfund long-term peace projects that tackle the root causes of war, hunger and disease. Persecute human traffickers heavily. Combat all forms of racism and xenophobia at home and abroad.

The Scottish Borders unknowingly provides us a great deal of information about how this could work on a global scale. Although fighting over human and material resources could continue for centuries, strict borders will eventually disappear. People will eventually live without violence. And while pride for one’s nation is still very strong in this part of the world, and tensions between Scotland and English still certainly exist, the Borders is a serene and renowned land with its numerous peel towers and fluffy sheep.

Who wouldn’t be proud of that?  

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