Priti Patel’s new policy is extreme, but Britain’s borders were designed to protect the spoils of empire. The whole system needs to be challenged
In the year I was born, 1981, the British Nationality Act marked the culmination of a series of immigration reforms that defined British identity as a national identity – rather than an imperial one. Former subjects of empire increasingly found themselves denied British citizenship, along with the access granted by citizenship to the spoils of that empire. Only those born in Britain or with a parent born in Britain had the right to enter or stay in the country. Ignoring the 90% of the world it had invaded, ‘Britain’ came to be understood as the small island whose population was 98% white.
Britain was built on colonialism. Following independence struggles across Asia and Africa, Britain’s redrawing of its borders was part of the process of decolonisation. But it was simultaneously a grand neo-colonial gesture. As legal scholar Nadine El-Enany argues, Britain’s borders serve to deny Britain’s colonial debt and cut off its creditors from their rightful share of the national loot.
Borders, however, don’t stay put. They can reach outwards across the globe, in the way that Britain’s deal with Rwanda moves part of its border 4,000 miles south-east. And they can also reach inwards, as with the hostile environment strategy, which has turned landlords, teachers and doctors into border police. If you seem like you might be ‘irregular’ (e.g. if you have a ‘funny tinge’), borders have a way of following you around.
Britain isn’t the only one playing musical borders. Near where I live, in the village of Millingen am Rhein, a lonely cow nibbles a blade of grass in the spring breeze. Its front legs stand in Germany, its hind legs in the Netherlands. There’s no border guard. No fence. No barbed wire. No guns. A few hundred miles to the south, the EU has spent billions of euros building walls and turning the Mediterranean Sea into a watery mass grave.
As Harsha Walia documents in her book ‘Border and Rule’, between 2000 and 2017, 33,761 people died or went missing trying to cross the Mediterranean. In 2018 and 2019, it was 4,184 – six every day. Of these, 90% were from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and The Gambia. All former European colonies. For every person who dies in the Mediterranean, another two die in the Sahara desert trying to reach it.
That’s just the start. The European Commission now insists that most development, trade and aid agreements with Middle Eastern and African countries include provisions to outsource migration controls. Commentators have noted that Rwanda stands accused – by the British government itself – of carrying out extrajudicial killings, disappearances and torture. But in 2016, the EU signed a border deal with Turkey to limit the movement of Syrians. The deal handed €6bn to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose government has committed war crimes against Kurds in Syria and arrested 160,000 dissidents who face waterboarding and electroshock.
The EU has also made deals with Libya, where more than half a million migrants and refugees face overcrowding, starvation, electrocution, torture, rape, forced labour and executions; and with Sudan’s former dictator Omar al-Bashir. Border externalisation – the farming out of border control to other countries – has become a prime geopolitical bargaining chip.
Be the swarm
The tale that Europhiles like to tell about the EU is one of peace and cosmopolitanism. After the Second World War, the story goes, the European powers wanted to make sure that such violence would never happen again, so they joined together in an economic and political union. But like Britain, the EU was a colonial project.
Borders are the crux of an economic system that is imperialist by nature and broken beyond repair,
The European Economic Community, the EU’s forerunner, was founded in March 1957, the same month Ghana declared its independence. Aware they were losing power on the world stage, European states contrived to keep control of the African continent through what was known as the Eurafrica project. The chairman of the Council of Europe’s economic committee proclaimed in 1952: “We must also, if free Europe is to be made viable, jointly exploit the riches of the African continent, and try to find there those raw materials which we are getting from the dollar area, and for which we are unable to pay.” As French historian Yves Montarsolo put it, “each time a new ‘European’ institution saw the day, Africa was always at the heart of all concerns.”
Sociologist Gurminder Bhambra argues Europe was never a collection of nation-states. It was a group of imperial states, just like Britain was an imperial state. Following the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, European states saw only each other as sovereign, not other lands and peoples. In the face of decolonisation, Western Europe’s former imperial powers decided to rebrand themselves as nation-states. That way, they got to conveniently forget about those other lands and peoples while still planning to exploit their resources. As with Britain, the borders erected by the new European project were actually acts of re-colonisation, blocking those who built Europe from accessing its wealth.
Chilling as it is, I was wrong to object to British citizenship not being guaranteed by birth. What I should have been objecting to were borders. Borders are the crux of an economic system that is imperialist by nature. Broken beyond repair, that system is now as desperate as Boris Johnson’s government, and its borders have gone berserk.
Why should I be more entitled to Britain’s wealth than anyone born outside its borders? Africans and Asians built Europe, and still do. Britain’s tentacles extend across the globe. Britain is not a small island, it is everywhere. We are all British. Let’s take what’s ours.
The original source of this article is Open Democracy