On the 23rd of October 2019, the bodies of 39 undocumented migrants from Vietnam were discovered in the back of a refrigerated lorry in Essex, south England. One young woman texted her parents from the lorry shortly before her death, saying that she loved them, her journey abroad had not succeeded, and she could not breathe. 

If these people had been allowed to simply get on a plane to the UK, they would still be alive. In the political and media response to the incident, this obvious fact was almost entirely ignored and a consensus quickly emerged that the problem was not too much border security, but not enough. Boris Johnson’s government vowed to “hunt down” the people smugglers involved and suggested that prison sentences for such crimes could be increased. The opposition Labour party is considered more pro-migration; in a BBC interview about the incident, shadow interior minister Diane Abbott argued that the UK’s public discourse is too anti-migrant and there should be more routes for safe and legal migration. However, her underlying assumptions were the same: she called for “thermal imaging, more border guards… [and] a lot more international cooperation,” attacking Johnson’s Brexit policy for depriving the UK of access to European immigration and security databases. She and Johnson disagree on the details of how many people Britain should allow to cross its borders, but not on the basic premise that it should have absolute control over them, deploying whatever high-tech, militarised security apparatus is necessary to achieve this.

This worldview is not uniquely British, but dominates modern politics worldwide. It is taken as axiomatic that states need to track and control all movement across their borders, and that deaths at borders should be blamed on whatever security failure allowed such people to be crossing in the first place. 

In this context, Reece Jones’ Violent Borders is an important and necessary contribution to public debate. In a short, accessibly written and clearly structured book, Jones makes a powerful case that our current system of highly securitised state borders and strict immigration regimes is not natural and inevitable, but historically contingent, surprisingly recent, and the cause of endless human misery. Johnson and Abbott’s fantasy that once we have closed every last gap in our border, no one will bother risking their life to cross it, is an impossibility: “the existence of the border itself produces the violence that surrounds it.”

Violent Borders is a particularly valuable addition to the literature on border studies because it remains concise but takes an impressively broad view. Jones effectively uses specific countries to illustrate global trends, and draws together very different aspects of the harm caused by borders into a coherent whole. He begins by discussing the “refugee crisis” and modern migration patterns in detail, and with obvious anger at Western countries’ lethal policies. Any readers tempted to see the EU as a lone defender of free movement are given a sharp reminder that “EU borders were not removed in the 1990s, but simply moved to different locations,” and that they continue to be enforced with brutality. Its external border is the most dangerous in the world, with half of global deaths at border crossings occurring there; one in four people attempting to reach Europe by boat dies in the attempt, and it is a politically acceptable point of view that they should be allowed to drown rather than rescued, so as not to encourage the others. Jones’ discussion of this and other case studies is informative and makes a convincing case for his central argument for open borders.

However, Violent Borders is not only about migration. In the second half of the book, after outlining the historical development of modern bordered states since the Peace of Westphalia, Jones turns to broader economic and environmental questions. He argues that borders create captive “pools” of low-wage, poorly regulated labour in developing countries: unable to cross borders in search of better opportunities and living conditions, people in the developing world are often easily exploited by international corporations. Since the global economy allows free movement of capital but not of labour, corporations can always circumvent economic regulations by seeking a more convenient regulatory regime elsewhere (and states are incentivised to compete to accommodate them), but the people they employ do not have the same option of mobility. Borders are also environmentally destructive. As physical infrastructure, they disrupt ecosystems; in a broader sense, by maintaining each state’s complete freedom of action within its own territory, they prevent any meaningful collective action on climate change. 

The scope of the book is ambitious. In his introduction, Jones lists five forms of structural violence borders inflict: overt violence used to control crossings; infrastructure that forces people into dangerous situations (e.g. taking more dangerous migration routes because safe ones have been closed); legal coercion used to limit access to land and resources; structural economic harm that “deprives the poor of access to wealth and opportunities”; and direct and indirect harm to the environment. This is clearly intended to be a comprehensive account of the harm caused by modern border regimes.

Yet his account is still incomplete in crucial respects. Except in his discussion of regulatory differences between countries towards the end of the book, Jones focuses almost exclusively on borders as physical locations and structures (he is a geographer). This obscures fundamental features of how they work, and some of the most significant and pervasive harms they cause.

Above all else, borders are political institutions, of which physical border infrastructure is only one aspect. In The Politics of Borders, Matthew Longo describes them as “thick”: they extend far inside the country, into the everyday lives of both migrants and native-born inhabitants, who are all subject to increasing surveillance and identity checks whether they are crossing borders or not. They also extend outwards into other countries, since modern border security relies heavily on cooperation between states, and Western countries commonly outsource some of the most brutal aspects of their border enforcement policies to transit countries. Thus, the violence done by borders begins before people get anywhere near the line on the map, and continues long after they have crossed it.

This is not just a theoretical issue: the “thick” aspects of borders are central to the structural violence they inflict. In Libya’s detention centres, thousands of migrants endure violence and abuse committed on behalf of the EU without ever getting near its physical borders. Meanwhile, many undocumented migrants reach the host country in a perfectly “safe and legal” way (e.g. with tourist or student visas), and experience the violence done by the border only once they are living there. In Germany, not only doctors but also any NGOs receiving public funding are required to report undocumented migrants to immigration authorities, making it impossible for them to access even minimal medical treatment. The UK’s “hostile environment” policy requires documents proving residency status not only to seek medical care, but also to conduct private transactions such as renting a flat or opening a bank account, in the hope that being made destitute and homeless might persuade people to leave the country.

Border policies also do not exclusively affect migrants: they enable new forms of identification and surveillance of everyone moving within and between borders. Immigration provides an excuse, and borders a convenient location, for states to collect highly valuable personal data. In a recent example, the US has just introduced compulsory DNA testing for families entering from Mexico, to check whether they are biologically related; privacy advocates have pointed out that the same testing format is used as for criminal DNA databases, meaning the information could be retained and reused by law enforcement in the future. Meanwhile, American airports are starting to use facial recognition to speed up boarding. The supreme importance attached to border security means people become used to expecting a lower standard of privacy than usual in such settings; once normalised here, surveillance tactics can be rolled out across society.

Violent Borders would have benefited from more attention to the lived experiences of migrants and how they are affected by border policies not only at the point of crossing, but throughout their lives in their home and host countries. In his five forms of structural violence, Jones clearly tries to take the broadest view possible, including the material suffering borders create by trapping people in poverty, and the environmental damage they both directly cause and facilitate. But he overlooks the violence done to the cancer patients refused medical treatment because they don’t have the right passport, to the people imprisoned in detention centres and manhandled onto deportation flights, and to the modern slavery victims who cannot seek help from the authorities because they live under the threat of deportation. 

Other elements also feel underexplained. The chapter on global economic injustice raises some relevant points about how free movement of capital without free movement of labour inevitably leads to exploitation and undermines national economic regulations. However, there is no detailed analysis of how this system arose and operates, or of any possible alternatives. Jones also starts to overstate what is otherwise a convincing argument. He ignores the many other factors which lead to poverty and exploitation – conflict, oppressive political regimes, and the capture of political power by the wealthy, to name just a few – and suggests that simply allowing free movement of labour would solve everything. Since the majority of people do not choose to move countries even where free movement is available (for example, within the EU) and those who do are often among the most exploited people in their host societies, this is not at all convincing. 

More importantly, although he provides a historical outline of how the modern state-border paradigm developed, there is no real discussion of the ultimate motivations and structural factors behind it. The chapter on economic exploitation suggests one way it benefits powerful interests, but this hint is not made explicit or expanded upon. Jones evidently sees border controls as an expression of the power of the nation state, but does not seem to be very interested in the question of why states consider controlling their borders to be so important. As is clear from his discussion of the free immigration from Europe to America in the 19th century and the general absence until quite recently of hard borders between states not at war with one another, this was not always the case.

One answer to this question is that borders are a key aspect of the institutionalisation of national identity. As John Torpey argues, the relationship between the state and its subjects is partly constituted by the border, which functions as a political institution constructed to include some in the national community and exclude others. Borders – in both the narrow physical sense and the “thicker” sense – allow states to restrict who is and is not entitled to the valuable public services they provide, and to demonstrate ostentatiously that they are protecting their citizens from threatening outsiders. In light of this, the obsession of right-wing populists with border security is not surprising, and it provides a partial explanation for the increase in border securitisation since the 1990s.

Wendy Brown expands on this point in her book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, arguing that border walls and the surrounding security discourse are actually a response to the weakening of nation states in a globalised world: they are theatrical props used to create the illusion of power, control and stability. Jones briefly refers to Brown early in Violent Borders, but dismisses her argument on the grounds that “the hardening of borders represents a rearticulation and expansion, not a retreat, of state power.” This is surprising, since elsewhere in his book he argues that borders cannot completely prevent undocumented migration, and that globalisation prevents states from effectively regulating their own economies. He also does not consider the possibility that states could be expanding their power in the area of border control as a response to losing it in others. 

Ultimately, however, Violent Borders fails to engage with the important question of what is driving the hardening of borders: it gives us the how, but not the why. It also overlooks much of the political and institutional apparatus that enforces them, focusing too narrowly on borders as physical objects and ignoring their reality as sprawling, pervasive political institutions. At only 180 pages, it would certainly have been worth giving some additional space to these topics. Jones still provides a powerful, informative and valuable account of the violence of hard borders – but given these substantial omissions, his brief suggestions at the end of the book for how we could begin to open them up again are somewhat hollow.

Rachel Griffin is a first-year master’s student in public policy. Originally from the UK, she has a bachelor’s degree in law from the University of Oxford and worked in tech startups in Berlin for two years before starting her Master’s at Sciences Po.