Leah Cowan’s case for border abolition
In her new book Border Nation, the author reminds us of our humanity, putting forward radical ideas for a kinder future no longer underpinned by inequality.
If the concept of abolishing borders seems like an overwhelming one to wrap your head around, that’s probably because it’s so abstract – and because in the UK, years of relentless Tory rule have made sure the country’s borders are as hard and prohibiting for migrants as possible.
In 2012, Theresa May’s egregious Hostile Environment policy was enacted, helping lay the groundwork for a political and national mood that ultimately led to the UK’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union. A year later, the Windrush Scandal become public. The aftershock of the appalling cases of deportation are still being felt today, which did nothing to stop Home Secretary Priti Patel from fulfilling her promise to “take back control” of our borders by introducing a ruthless, points-based immigration system last year.
The anti-migrant rhetoric peddled by the press over the years hasn’t helped either. Last summer, ITV correspondent Jonathan Swain was criticised by viewers for standing by idly as an overly packed migrant boat made its way across the English Channel, reducing the struggle of real human beings to light, daytime entertainment.
All of which begs the question: what actually makes a person more deserving of being here than another? It’s a subject that Leah Cowan grapples with in Border Nation. The 31-year-old’s book is a compelling and digestible resource which lays out the oppressive nature of Britain’s borders and their history – and the tangible possibilities of resistance to them.
“Immigration, detention, deportation, right-to-rent checks or racist media reporting are all part of the border regime,” she explains over the phone. “I was struggling to find information that considered how these different pieces fit together, their foundations, and how these underpin the border regime as a whole.”
Cowan is well versed in migrant stories. Over the last decade she has sought to better understand the experiences of migrant women of colour, working with SOAS detainee support and Imkaan, a Black feminist organisation dedicated to addressing gender-based violence. Her ultimate goal with her book is to “set the scene for people to start asking their own questions about the status quo, and to unpick the complexities of a border system that is propped up by inequality”.
We catch up with Cowan about Britain’s colonial history, the power of resistance and the possibilities of a future without borders.
What’s the best way to make the case for abolishing borders?
I think it’s really helpful for us to think about the fact that the border regime is very unequal, largely as a result of British colonial history. The seeds were sown a long time ago. The very closed border system we have now is very much tied to those centuries of inequality. In terms of thinking about the case for border abolition, similarly to prison abolition, it probably wouldn’t look like just opening the doors and saying: “Come on in!” [It’s] the same way that prison abolition isn’t about opening the doors and being like: “Stroll on out!”
How can we start to chip away at the harms of the border regime? We’ve been living in a time of hostile environment since 2012, and since then lots of everyday borders have been put in place. That might include checks in healthcare settings, or if you’re trying to rent a house or open a bank account or go to university. There are lots of stages at which everyday people working in public services have become de facto border guards. If we can start to dismantle those everyday barriers that have been built, that would be a really positive step towards the broader goal of border abolition.
It’s a radical argument to put forward. Can you realistically imagine a future world without borders?
Very much so. It’s really hard – as with something like climate change – to communicate to people something that’s quite abstract. If you’re not somebody that feels the daily impact of borders, if you’re a middle class white British citizen whose only interaction with borders is like, “Oh my God, I love going to the airport and getting a Pret sandwich on the way to my yoga retreat”, then it might be an incredibly foreign concept to you.
In writing the book, particularly in the last chapter which talks a lot about resistance and abolition, I realised that so much work is already being done – even if it’s going to be a long road. We’re on it, and we have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. That’s very heartening.
What’s the main thing you’ve taken away from working on this project?
This isn’t in the book, but one thing I’d like to do is put a queer lens on the border system. This is not a new idea – feminist and queer theorists have been talking about it for a long time, and [about] the idea that it upholds a certain type of family unit, a certain way of structuring society.
There’s a book called Deporting Black Britons by Luke De Noronha which came out last year, and it portrays four young Black British men who were deported to Jamaica. He touches on the idea that because these men had “unconventional” family settings or had multiple partners, this was weaponised against them. When they tried to make a case to remain in the UK on the basis of family life, then the government deemed that the type of family they had wasn’t something that fit into the rules of British life. I’d love to think and learn more about how borders uphold heteronormative ideas of how society should look.
What do you hope readers take away from Border Nation?
The beating heart of the book is that borders are a fiction. They’re an idea that was created in the minds of powerful white men to protect their own interests. I hope I’ve managed to illustrate that the policing of everyday borders in the UK is harmful to our friends, our families, our neighbours, to the people we see on our government mandated walks everyday. We should resist them, and we can. There are ways that we can chip away at elements of the hostile environment. I hope it leaves people with a sense that a different world is possible and within our grasp – even if the journey to get there is a long one.
Border Nation is available to purchase here.