Defying Borders: Migration in the age of security

Global politics both shape and are shaped by borders and the differences
between those who have access to crossing them, and those who do not.

Associate professor of sociology, University of Minnesota

Asad, a Somali merchant who runs a corner shop (spaza) in an informal settlement in South Africa, expresses the fear intrinsic in his search for a livelihood here, where the history of apartheid has produced a segregated and stratified society.

One of the main reasons why I want to migrate relates to security, to a place where I can wake up in peace. Even if I am not sleeping at the store, whenever the phone rings, you fear that someone will tell you that your brother was killed or your cousin or someone you know was killed. If you are at the store, you get scared at every crack or sound you hear because you are frightened and thinking, someone will break into the store right now. What can be worse than being afraid of every customer? Whenever someone enters your store, you are asking yourself, “Does he have a gun? Is he the one who will kill you?”

The risks and the audacity required for individuals like Asad to settle in a foreign place where the ethnic composition, language(s), religion, and culture are different from that of the home country is profound. The constant apprehension and insecurity detailed above, which commences from the moment of departure from their country of origin and may never dissipate, counters the portrayal of migrants as criminals wreaking havoc on ‘our security.’

In the United States, we recently heard similar comments from U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, who characterized migrants as rapists and criminals. However, in the U.S. and South Africa, one could argue that many migrants have more to fear from native-born citizens, border security, and law enforcement agencies in contexts where racial, religious, and xenophobic violence and exploitation persist.

Anti-migrant rhetoric is not exclusive to the United States, as it has also been increasing in western Europe, with stricter immigration policies resulting in what some are calling ‘Fortress Europe.’ But migrants and refugees continue to resist the fences erected by the wealthiest nations in the world in their desperate search for physical, economic, and emotional security. International Organization for Migration reported that in the first five months of 2015, 45,000 migrants were rescued in the Mediterranean Sea, traveling on rickety boats controlled by ruthless smugglers who charge thousands of dollars while subjecting them to inhumane treatment. This is the inevitable consequence of increasing restrictions to legal migration. In taking such risks, however, thousands of migrants never make it to the other side of the Sea (or the treacherous routes in the Americas, Middle East, and elsewhere), remaining faceless and nameless.

Migrants traveling from North Africa (Libya, mostly) are diverse but are dominated by those originating from the Horn of Africa (Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia), and war-torn Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Iraq. Citizens from these nations continue to confront tremendous physical, economic, and psychological stress as a result of protracted wars or repressive, corrupt, and brutal regimes. Thus, thousands of these migrants risk their lives for a chance to gain a foothold in the Western hemisphere, which is imagined to provide social, economic, and political rights.

Looking at the Global Mobility Index can help us better understand why these migrants are so desperate to accept the high risks that migration entails. Passports from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia have the fewest visa exemptions in the world. This is to say that citizens of these countries are least likely to be given a visa for travel and face the most obstacles to cross borders legally. It is no coincidence that these are three Muslim nations where the politics of the post-9/11 war on terror remain entrenched. Those privileged to live in the most prosperous regions of the world enjoy what the scholar Aihwa Ong has termed flexible citizenship. Those carrying Western passports who can afford to travel live in a borderless world, as their passports rarely require visas. The elite from non-Western nations also access this flexible citizenship through their wealth, where they garner Western citizenship through financial investment in exchange for legal residency papers and eventual citizenship. But for millions of would-be immigrants like Somalis, Iraqis, and Afghanis who lack the financial capital to purchase such flexible citizenship, borders remain concrete and forbidding.

Though migration can never be reduced to simple push-pull factors between origin and destination, it is important to underscore that migrants are agents whose decision-making processes are shaped by and also shape global politics. The expansion and contraction of borders intrinsic in globalization affects their lives. The decision to cross borders by any means necessary represents a response to these political and economic processes. Global processes also shape migrant identities, which can become assets or barriers depending on the policies and dominant patterns in the place of settlement.

The multifaceted experiences and lives of migrants defies their monolithic portrayal as faceless and nameless, yet posing an existential threat to wealthy nations. Fences, whether physical, religious, or racial, damage everyone—natives, migrants, and would-be migrants—and rarely succeed in their intention, though they make migrant lives very difficult.


Cawo Abdi is author of Elusive Jannah: The Somali Diaspora and a Borderless Muslim Identity. Abdi is associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and a research associate in sociology at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

“This is a powerful and beautiful ethnography of members of the Somali Diaspora dealing with the opportunities and disadvantages of life in three points of settlement. Cawo M. Abdi gets very close to the subjects and depicts their outlooks, strategies, and trials in a convincing and rich manner.”
— Steven J. Gold, Michigan State University

“Elusive Jannah provides a fascinating window into the identities, strategies, and struggles of Somalis in three very different national contexts. Based on ethnographic research in the United States, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates, this is an engaging, well-written, and welcome addition to the comparative study of international migration.
— Nancy Foner, coauthor of Strangers No More: Immigration and the Challenges of Integration in North America and Western Europe

Leave a Reply