Border Control and the Limits of the Sovereign State

DOI10.1177/0964663908089611
Published date01 June 2008
Date01 June 2008
AuthorMary Bosworth
Subject MatterArticles
BORDER CONTROL AND THE
LIMITS OF THE SOVEREIGN
STATE
MARY BOSWORTH
University of Oxford, UK
ABSTRACT
As has been widely recognized and commented upon, border controls across Europe
and America have been strenuously tightened since September 11th. In fact, of course,
the movement of certain non-citizens in and around most western, industrialized
countries had been restricted for some time predating the advent of the ‘war on
terror’. In this article I will explore the particular use being made in Britain of criminal
justice rhetoric and policy as a means of securing the border and the implications of
this reliance on criminal justice discourses in the development of immigration and
asylum policies. Building on work by David Garland (1996) and Jonathan Simon
(2007), I suggest not only that the increased concern over border control reflects a
decline in the power of the state in the face of globalization, but also that the adoption
of harsh rhetoric about foreigners risks undermining the agency and democratic
freedoms long held dear by British citizens.
KEY WORDS
asylum; borders; detention; governing through crime; immigration
INTRODUCTION
‘There is a sort of “elective affinity” between immigrants (that human waste of
distant parts of the globe unloaded into “our own backyard”) and the least
bearable of our own home-grown fears . .. Immigrants, and particularly the
fresh arrivals among them, exude the faint odour of the waste disposal tip which
in its many disguises haunts the nights of the prospective casualties of rising
vulnerability. For their detractors and haters, immigrants embody – visibly,
tangibly, in the flesh – the inarticulate yet hurtful and painful presentiment of
their own disposal. One is tempted to say that were there no immigrants
knocking at the doors, they would have to be invented’. (Bauman, 2004: 56)
SOCIAL &LEGAL STUDIES Copyright © 2008 SAGE Publications
Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore, www.sagepublications.com
0964 6639, Vol. 17(2), 199–215
DOI: 10.1177/0964663908089611
INAHOUSE of Commons debate over the UK Borders Bill that occurred on
5 February 2007, the Shadow Minister for Immigration, the Rt. Hon. Damien
Green, scornfully declared in his assessment of the state of British border
control, ‘We don’t have a barrier. We have a sieve’ (HC Deb 5 February 2007
c608). The occasion for his statement – the second reading of the Bill – was
marked by an energetic, yet, strikingly uniform discussion. Member after
member, from both major parties, asserted that the UK borders were weak,
permeable and needed to be secured.
Such concern about borders as well as an accompanying belief that it is
possible to control them through legislation and enforcement seems to char-
acterize contemporary discourse and policy across a range of countries.
Whereas during the Cold War, for example, the former Eastern bloc countries
sought to restrict their citizens’ abilities to cross their nation’s borders, these
days most states are more concerned with regulating who wants to enter. This
desire to reduce, monitor and police who comes into the country, though
underpinned in large part by economic factors, is increasingly being presented
as a matter of ‘security’; from concrete walls and barbed wire fences to so
called ‘e-borders’, countries seek to close off entry points.
At the same time, however, forces of globalization insist on free trade that
both requires and engenders large-scale flows of population. Such movement
may be forced or voluntary. It is also regional as well as international. Britain
is, thus, a destination for citizens within the broader European Economic
Area (EEA)1as well from further afield. There is plenty of internal movement
within the country too, as large urban areas like London and its environs
attract individuals from all over the country looking for employment. Finally,
Britain is also a country of emigration, as its inhabitants look for new oppor-
tunities themselves primarily within Europe, the USA, Australia and Canada.
The response to these contradictory and complex forces in Britain has been
two-fold: over the past ten years the British Labour Party has, with some
fanfare, tightened up the asylum process and restricted most unskilled immi-
gration. At the same time, however, it has also enabled certain skilled migrants
greater access to work and citizenship. In the process, the government has
set up a sharp distinction between deserving and undeserving foreigners that
has blurred the boundaries between so-called ‘economic’ migrants, terrorists,
and those searching for asylum. This strategy has, in turn, been underpinned
by a raft of practices and ideologies drawn from the criminal justice system.
Such reliance on and promotion of punitive rhetoric about the dangers
inherent in foreigners bear many similarities to what David Garland (1996,
2001) famously labelled the ‘crime complex’ of modern societies, as well as
the strategy that Jonathan Simon (2001) has called ‘governing through crime’.
Foreigners, like criminals, have become a target of state intervention, seem-
ingly at the very moment that most governments have lost much of their
capacity to secure their borders. Forces of globalization, which neo-liberal
regimes like New Labour have championed, not only require freely available
skilled labour but also unskilled workers too. Critics of unfettered global
capital would add that it lies behind much forced migration and asylum
200 SOCIAL & LEGAL STUDIES 17(2)

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