Reece Jones is an expert on international border security projects and a geographer at the University of Hawaii. His new book Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move draws on years of field research in border regions around the world. The Forum spoke to Jones, ahead of his In the Gutter event on October 15 at Arcana Books.
Why did you name the book Violent Borders?
I have been studying borders for fifteen years and during that time it became increasingly clear to me that the act of bordering itself was an act of violence. Borders not only do violence to the bodies of people on the move, as the over 40,000 deaths at borders in the past decade demonstrate, but there is also a structural violence that perpetuates inequality by restricting the movement of the poor and an environmental violence that damages ecosystems when border walls are built.
How has the infrastructural idea of “the wall” evolved over time?
It is funny that humans continue to turn to the ancient technology of the wall to solve our modern problems. However, there are some clear differences in the purposes of older walls, like the Great Wall of China or medieval city walls, and the border walls of today. The clearest difference is that in the past walls had a military purpose and were primarily meant to protect people and resources in the event of a raid or invasion.
Today walls are obsolete militarily as planes and missiles go over them and tanks can smash through them. Nevertheless there is a recent and rapid turn to walls. In 1989 there were only 15 border walls around the world, today there are 70. The difference is that these walls are meant to stop the movement of civilians, not raiders looking to pillage. Instead, the walls are meant to deter poor workers looking for better opportunities for themselves and their families.
In your New York Times Op-Ed you talked about how walls have become emblematic of a countries exclusionary policies rather than their ideals of freedom and democracy. Could you elaborate on that?
In countries across Europe and North America, an anti-migrant tide seems to be rising. This is evident in the support for Donald Trump even after his racist language about Mexicans being rapists and criminals and his suggestion to ban Muslim migrants. It is also clear in the Brexit vote and the success of anti-migrant political parties across Europe. Although not surprising, this is disheartening for me because I believe firmly that movement is a fundamental human right. Furthermore, the fear of migrants is not based on any evidence. In the US, studies show that migrants commit fewer crimes than citizens and are a net benefit to the economy. Despite the moral and economic case for allowing freer movement, many countries are building more walls and putting more restrictions on movement at borders.