How fear infected the borders

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How fear infected the borders

Ruben Andersson writes about fear and borders.


Through history people have often treated migrants as a source of disease. Here they examine immigrant children as they arrive at Ellis Island, New York, 1911. Credit: Bettmann/Getty

It was in late 2015, before Trump started his presidential campaign of fear. I was visiting the border wall of Arizona. News of the terror attacks in Paris came in and people gave their opinions on the dangers of borders. During 2014, conservatives and security experts were on television and said ISIS and Ebola were coming across the US-Mexico border from migrants crossing the Rio Grande.

One Republican senator said, ‘If I were a terrorist from the Islamic State, I’d go and catch Ebola and cross the border and give it to as many people as possible.’

Earlier that summer, I visited the Italian island of Lampedusa. The authorities were trying to do everything to protect the border. African migrants were escaping from Libya and coastguards were taking them from the rescue ships. They examined the migrants for disease and drove them to a detention camp. As I stood at Lampedusa, the borders of Europe seemed there only to protect Europe from the dangers outside.

But the real disease is fear.

Fear and borders

Today the fear around borders is part of an imagined danger in the years after the Cold War. Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, globalization has not brought a world without borders but a globalized border business. Borders were once a protection against foreign military threats. Now they are there to keep out people and transnational dangers.

For years powerful states tried to stop the dangers of war, disease, and loss of homes in faraway crisis zones, such as Afghanistan or Libya or Central America. But with this there has been fear. Fear comes as distance grows between the ‘safe’ world inside the gates and the countries outside.

The extreme border barriers are quite new. But the fear of peoples and territories on the other side are not - for example, Trump’s ‘Mexican rapists’ and ‘countries full of crime’. Already in colonial times, people often treated black Africans as a source of disease. Inside Europe, antisemitic fears of disease helped to make the way for the Holocaust. In the early 20th century, health inspectors were terrified about southern Italians travelling on ships across the Atlantic to the United States ‘in the urine and faeces of the children and the vomit of almost everyone’. Some Italians stayed but they sent others back from Ellis Island, where doctors marked with chalk the migrants they thought had diseases or something wrong with them.

Fear knows no borders

Fear knows no borders. For example, in Calais in 2015, when UK news reported on a few hundred people trying to jump onto lorries. Popular newspapers wrote about a national ‘crisis’ and the foreign secretary talked about ‘millions’ of African migrants. In the Czech Republic there were almost no refugees but far-right bloggers wrote about the fear of big groups of Syrians and Africans bringing AIDS, lice, and fleas.

In Hungary, the government sent out ‘surveys’ to voters about the link between terrorism and migration. They closed rail stations because of the risk of disease from refugees sleeping there. In July 2015, prime minister Viktor Orbán asked ‘Will Europe continue to exist?’ as he made plans to build a border fence.

The numbers of migrants coming into the EU by land and sea grew to one million by the end of the year. But migration into Europe is really small when we think of the millions of refugees in poorer, non-Western states, or the millions of legal, non-EU immigrants into the EU.

The politics of fear

The terrible result of the War on Terror, the financial crisis, and years of border security is fear. It was no surprise in autumn 2019 when Turkey’s president, Recep Tayip Erdoğan, spoke to European leaders. He said that his country would ‘send 3.6 million refugees’ to their countries if they said his military going into northern Syria was an ‘invasion’. Like Libya’s Muammar Qadafi or Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou before him, he was using immigration fears.

In 2015, ISIS executed 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians along Libya’s shores. The video was possibly fake news but social media wrote about the murderers’ terrorist ideas across the world. ISIS cleverly used Europe’s fears of migration, war, and terrorism.

We need ideas different from the politics of fear. There is some hope: in Congress and in some European capitals people are saying the false border ‘emergencies’ on both sides of the Atlantic are only political. Some Southern states in Africa and Latin America are also criticising the need to make everything secure, for example, in the African Union’s plan for freer movement. But we still really need a big change in the way we think.

We need a different political story that looks at the deeper social and economic fears that see danger ‘out there’. We must not accept a map of the world divided in red zones and sharp borderlines. We need to promise to protect people, not borders.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)