Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Double Book Review: Migrants and Refugees at UK Borders: Hostility and ‘Unmaking’ the Human and Everyday Border Struggles: Segregation and Solidarity in the UK and Calais


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Post by Victoria Taylor, Vicky is a DPhil Candidate at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford. Her research looks at the politics of border policing in and across the English Channel. Vicky is Associate Director of Events for Border Criminologies, and Director of Screen Share, an organisation which supports and advocates for the digital inclusion of refugees and people in the asylum system in the UK. Her twitter handle is @vemtaylor

Review of Migrants and Refugees at UK Borders: Hostility and ‘Unmaking’ the Human, by Yasmin Ibrahim (Routledge, 2022) and Everyday Border Struggles: Segregation and Solidarity in the UK and Calais, by Thom Tyerman (Routledge, 2022).

a book covera book coverMigrants and Refugees at UK Borders by Yasmin Ibrahim and Everyday Border Struggles by Thom Tyerman are two of the newest additions to scholarship on the politics of the Anglo-Franco border. As both books acknowledge, since the 1990s the northern coast of France has become a ‘bottle-neck’ at the edge of Schengen Europe where people gather and attempt to cross irregularly into the UK. While scholarship on this border has tended to focus on either French (for example, on the ‘Jungle’) or British (for example, on the hostile environment) bordering sites and actions, these two books theorise across the border in different ways, bringing the complex webs and shared logics of French and British bordering into view.

The first of these two books, Migrants and Refugees at UK Borders, examines this border through the frame of ‘hostility’. Used in official framings of both British and French irregular migration policies, Ibrahim understands hostility as a form of ‘affective imperialism’ involved in the ‘unmaking’ of humanity for the purpose of border control. Hostility, she suggests, is a tool through which bodies are ordered as part of ongoing racialised logics of coloniality into the categories of human, non-human, animal, and monster. ‘The border as the site of colonial biopower’, she writes, ‘traces a long historical trajectory of animality in the schematic imagination of the other’ (p. 49). In other words, she argues that the violence of border control depends on excluding people from conceptions of ‘the human’, with implications for the recognition of their human rights.

Ibrahim traces such racialised ‘affective imperialism’ and dehumanisation through different spaces, actors, and technologies of Anglo-Franco border control: from encampments in Calais (Chapter 3), to the English Channel (Chapter 4), and sites of immigration detention in the UK (Chapter 5). Chapter 6 considers migrant bodies as a domain of struggle, focusing on the barbed ware as a ‘biotechnology for wounding’. ‘Within the spatio-temporal logic of the camp’, she suggests, ‘the refugees fall back on the one resource left to them, their bodies’. The final two substantive chapters examine two specific groups of people on the move across this border respectively: children in Calais, and Vietnamese ‘box’ (as opposed to ‘boat’) people using containers or refrigerated lorries to cross the border.

The centralisation of race and postcolonial analysis across six different subjects does useful work in connecting spaces and tools of racial (b)ordering across France and the UK over time. I found Chapter 4 particularly interesting. As one of the first to write on boat crossings across the Channel, this chapter reflects on the politics of life and death in the Channel, detailing connections to longer imperial histories of Britain ‘ruling the waves’. Maritime control has long been central to British imperial imaginaries of expansion, and as a key tool of the emergence of racial capitalism. Mirroring De Leon’s analysis of the role of the Sonoran desert in the US-Mexico context, Ibrahim highlights how the English Channel itself is used as a strategic bordering tool, not only to deter, but also to naturalise deaths caused by the inaccessibility of safe routes. Ibrahim therefore argues that the management of crossings must be located in historic trajectories of maritime violence and the administration of populations in the Global South (p. 91).

I recommend Migrants and Refugees at UK Borders not only to those interested in Anglo-Franco border relations or British/European migration politics, but also to scholars addressing the lacuna in migration scholarship in relation to race and colonialism. However, reading this book alongside my own experiences researching along the British coast, I felt that this construction of non-homonisation perhaps misses the potential for, and enactment of, struggles and resistance beyond the corporeal, as well as the mundaneness and ambiguities inherent within much of the experience of border control. By theorising struggle only within the realm of ‘bare life’, we might risk overshadowing other ways in which people (on the move and otherwise) constantly seek to subvert governmental gazes, as well as the fractured and often contradictory ways in which border policing play out in practice. While not discounting its useful contributions, I suggest those studying this borderland should read this book alongside scholars who have written more extensively about migrant politics in this space (for example, the work of Maria Hagan and Travis van Isacker).

Thom Tyerman’s Everyday Border Struggles provides a clear example of such work. Like Ibrahim, Tyerman engages with this landscape as reflective of ongoing trajectories and logics of colonialism and racial capitalism. However, Tyerman takes as his central subject the ‘struggle in which everyday segregation is confronted by everyday solidarity’ (p. 8). It is in these everyday encounters, he argues, that the ‘fragility of state borders and the world order they maintain’ are demonstrated, as well as ‘how their power and legitimacy is constantly unsettled’ (p. 8).

Throughout the book, Tyerman builds a critique of biopolitical accounts of camps and borders on two fronts. Firstly, like Ibrahim, he argues that further attention to race is needed to fully account for the logics of border control. Building on Catherine Besteman’s concept of the ‘global apartheid’, Tyerman is focused on ‘the continuous everyday violence required to maintain global borders’ (p.8) as a system of racialised segregation, rather than outright exclusion.

However, secondly, unlike Ibrahim, Tyerman contends that even with a closer attention to race, biopolitical approaches cannot capture the realities of bordering on the scale of the everyday, in all its messiness. “The power and racialisation of everyday bordering”, he argues, “comes as much from the opaqueness of its operation in multiple settings by ordinary people as from the moment of sovereign decision” (p.79). It is here that the most significant differences between these two books are clear. In seemingly direct conversation with Ibrahim’s work, Tyerman draws on the work of Veronica Pin-Fat (2016: 59): ‘the problem isn’t that some people are regarded as human and some are not. The problem is that everyone is seen clearly but that some people matter so little that we can exclude them from our realm of justice’.

Taking this critique as a starting point, the book progresses an argument around ‘how borders are both created and contested in everyday life by ordinary people’, drawing on ethnographic research conducted between 2014-2015 on the northern French coast. The ‘everydayness’ he theorises is written into the text with narrative vignettes which persuasively connect broader theories of global (b)ordering with day-to-day life in Calais. Tyerman moves from a critique of ‘everyday border segregation’ in Calais, where certain lives are made unliveable (Chapter 3), to a critical assessment of humanitarian responses to such violence (Chapter 4). Just as he is critical of scholarship which discusses the non-hominisation of migrants, he argues that humanitarian approaches too fail to recognise people on the move as political actors beyond passive recipients of aid or, in other words, as ‘fully and equally human’ (p. 190).

One of the strengths of the book is in dealing with the question, not just of the shortfalls of humanitarian thinking, but of what next? Notably, Tyerman does not over romanticise the corrective of turning to migrant agency. Chapter 5 argues that neither Critical Citizenship Studies nor Autonomy of Migration literature adequately conceptualise migrant politics and subjectivity. Instead of seeking a universalising theory of resistance, Tyerman suggests that an ‘everyday reading’ should acknowledge ‘messiness, ambiguity, and ambivalence’ (p. 167), reminding us ‘that there is ordinarily more to what we do every day than the nation-state’ (p. 166). This book, therefore, views the ‘everyday’ not just as a scale of violence, but as a scale of ‘practical relations’.

In the final chapter, Tyerman turns this discussion inward to the personal question of doing solidarity work, and the ways in which cohabitation and other acts of community creation can imperfectly build relations of common ‘humanity’. This isn’t a romanticisation of activist work, but instead an honest examination of the role of privilege, emotion, and solidarity on the scale of the everyday. This book might therefore be of particular interest to activist/researchers interested in the how to of sharing ideas, spaces, and resources with those on the move, as well as to migrant solidarity groups more broadly.

Taken together, these books provide complementary and timely analyses of Anglo-Franco bordering. While they diverge significantly in their methodological approaches, they both ask pressing questions about the colonial continuities of British border control, as well as how we (as the public, but also as scholars) are implicated within its hostility. Both were published in the shadows, not only of Brexit, but also of recent legislation aimed at ‘cracking down’ on irregular entry across the English Channel (the Nationality and Borders Act 2022). As accompanying funding commitments signal intentions to increase securitisation and policing on the northern French coast, the critical analysis contained within both books may be of note not only to scholars working on this borderland, but also to others seeking to better understand the potential for alternative politics at the border.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

V. Taylor. (2023) Double Book Review: Migrants and Refugees at UK Borders: Hostility and ‘Unmaking’ the Human and Everyday Border Struggles: Segregation and Solidarity in the UK and Calais. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/04/double-book-review-migrants-and-refugees-uk-borders. Accessed on: 15/04/2024

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