Strict borders are a deadly fiction

If the government wanted to break the people smugglers’ ‘business model’, then they would open up the borders


This post was inspired by this post by Fatima Measham, who asked ‘are we at an event horizon on asylum’?

A lot of the argument used to promote Labour’s shift to the right on asylum seekers and border control has been based on deterrence and breaking the ‘business model’ of the people smugglers.

As any student of criminology can tell you, deterrence through punishment is a very harsh measure upon certain individuals in an attempt to modify the future behaviour of a much more general section of society, and is difficult to prove that it has much effect on people engaging in certain behaviours. Just as harsh sentences for certain crimes does not deter people from committing similar crimes in the future, harsh measures for those who seek asylum in Australia will not deter people from seeking asylum in the future. Especially not if the conditions in their home country (or the countries they visit between there and Australia) are deemed worse than anything that the Australian border control system can produce. As Sharon Pickering from the Border Observatory Project at Monash University has argued:

The risk calculations undertaken by irregular migrants are simply not the same as those designing and implementing policy. The hazardous environments have remained uncooperative: they claim lives and they fail to deliver deterrence outcomes. The calculations don’t add up.

The business model of the people smugglers will not be broken up by strict border control either. In the circumstances of refugees, people smugglers exist to transport people from one place to another and helping these people elude border control mechanisms until they reach a point in their journey where they can safely and/or legally claim asylum. As long as there are borders that need to be traversed and the options of regular migration remain limited to those seeking asylum, people smugglers will have a market to sell their service too. Probably the most effective, but politically controversial, way to combat people smugglers would be open up the borders and remove the risk of trying to navigate strict border control systems, either in Australia, the United Kingdom, continental Europe or the United States.

As the number of people trying to seek asylum in Australia has escalated with each harsh new measure, it is evident that strict border control systems do not prevent people from trying to enter the country, but makes it more dangerous and/or harmful to those who do try. As I have argued before, strict border control is a fiction, aimed at showing how ‘tough’ a government can be to its domestic audience. This can be seen with the Australian government’s advertisements on TV and in newspapers about the PNG ‘solution’, or the UK Home Office’s ‘Go Home’ vans in London.

One of the continuous features of border control in the Western world since the 1970s is a series of ever tightening restrictions placed upon migration from the developing world to the developed word. But with each restriction, the fact is that the flow of people has not stopped and despite controls being ever tighter, people still find a way into the desired destination country. Liza Schuster wrote in 2003:

controlled borders, let alone closed borders, are a fiction, and that the European and other governments which attempt to enforce these are involved in a symbolic battle at best.

But within this symbolic battle, Schuster reminds us, there are ‘very real serious costs and consequences’ in the enforcement of strict borders. As well as the massive financial cost in maintaining border control, hundreds (possibly even thousands) die or are injured in gaining entry to the destination country and there is an ‘increase in racial prejudice and racial violence each time migration become the focus of political attention’. This is what Leanne Weber called the ‘structural violence’ of border controls.

It might not be ‘practical’ to argue for open borders, but it is just as unrealistic to think that ‘undesirable’ migration will stop with ever increasing border controls.


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