The relationship between the borders of the modern nation-state and refugee and migrant communities is defined by contingency, power, and existential anxiety. The act of border crossing is what distinguishes a refugee or migrant from a citizen. These political categories are associated with different rights granted by the apparatus of the nation-state, ultimately resulting in an uneven distribution of power. Conceptually, the borders of the state cannot function without an outside presence (the Others), which is contrasted with the insiders (Us), who enjoy the privileges of belonging, mobility, and access to socio-political public space(s). This is what we can call the exclusionary/inclusionary performance of borders.
This performance goes beyond the traditional understanding of borders as geopolitical constructs, extending to all spaces and social and economic levels. Not even the crossing of a country’s borders suffices to make the Other one of Us. Outsiders remain such, as borders continue to regulate access to national resources, the safeguarding of rights, access to or exclusion from the job market, education and political representation, and even the rules governing their private relationships and interaction with the state’s insiders/citizens. All of this leaves outsiders in a precarious position, characterised by the anxiety of living on the margins, being dispensable, unwanted, never belonging, and lacking freedom of movement within and across the nation-state.
Migrants and refugees are political, social, and economic outsiders as they are consistently and systematically pushed to the margins and faced with the hostile and exclusionary performance of borders. Refugees and migrants do not have the right to vote in most of their ‘host’ countries and their access to political participation and parliamentary representation is restricted. In the UK, where I am a refugee, the No recourse to public funds (NRPF) policy forces asylum seekers and migrants into destitution and homelessness by excluding them from access to public benefits such as universal credit, housing and homelessness assistance, and child support. Not to mention, immigration detention systems across Europe put thousands of migrants and asylum seekers behind bars every year, separating them from their families and destroying their lives.
However, this exclusionary/inclusionary function of borders within the political, social, and economic also generates an antithetical process which I like to call existence through exclusion. This process is simultaneously produced by and deconstructive of the inherent performance of borders, as refugee and migrant communities engage with exclusion. The result of this engagement is the creation of counter-spaces, as Nancy Fraser describes them, where the excluded practise a form of socio-political agency that is solely motivated by a desire to exist in full – more accurately, to be at the centre of one’s existence and not on the peripheries of others’.
The concept of existence through exclusion invites us to re-frame our understanding of power and social justice when it comes to the relationship between migrants and refugees and the exclusionary/inclusionary performance of borders. Instead of perceiving those outsiders to be passive, anonymous, or excluded, we should examine their challenge of and engagement in their own exclusion. Although refugees and migrants are excluded by borders and their social, economic and political agency is banned from mainstream spaces and policies, they are heavily and actively present outside these borders. They operate on multiple levels by establishing their own space where they serve their own interests and needs.
We can identify this process of existence through exclusion and observe it in practice by looking at the current activism and agency of so many migrants and refugee groups in the UK. Refugee and migrant communities organise themselves in coalitions, unions, and grassroots organisations to campaign and mobilise for visibility, rights, and justice: Women for Refugee Women, Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group, Women Asylum Seekers Together, Migrants Organise, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants to mention a few.
Other support networks and community centres have been created by and for refugee and migrant communities to provide support and solidarity and offer different services to whoever needs them. Rethink Rebuild Society is one of such centres. It was established in 2013 in Manchester by the Syrian diaspora to support and advocate for the rights of particularly, but not exclusively, Syrian refugees and migrants in the UK. RRS’s role and impact are undeniable, uniting Syrian refugee communities, educating and advocating for their rights and political representation, holding festivals that celebrate Syrian arts and cultural heritage, campaigning for policy changes, and expanding freedoms for refugees across the UK. The centre also hosts workshops, lectures, exhibitions and concerts all by Syrian and non-Syrian refugees and migrants for the refugee community.
These migrant-led groups and organisations deconstruct the exclusionary/inclusionary performance of borders and power by existing and fighting, from their own excluded positions at the margin, while at the same time being fully invested in the politics of exclusion, their communities and their pursuit of social justice.
Existence through exclusion is a celebration of the agency and power of the excluded and a rejection of borders, the spaces they guard, and the division they create between insiders and outsiders; between Us and Them.
If you managed to get through the end of this piece, well done! As a thank you, do listen to M.I.A’s Borders and enjoy a song of solidarity and recognition from a fierce refugee artist to her fellow border-crossing sisters and brothers!
Shahd Mousalli is a UK-based decolonial and intersectional feminist activist and International Development practitioner focusing on human rights and peace-building in fragile and (post) conflict contexts. Her campaigning activity is informed by her own position as an asylum seeker experiencing at first hand the impact of racist and anti-migrant discourse and policies in Europe, and it is inspired by the power and authenticity of fellow migrants and refugee women and men fighting for social justice in and outside the UK. Shahd holds a Master’s degree in Gender and International Development from the University of Warwick, UK.