August 12, 2020

Borders & Migration

Human Mobility as Anti-Capitalist Resistance

By Anna Tybinko

As we enter the second decade of this new millennium, the voices assuring us that “the twenty-first century will be the century of the migrant” have reached a veritable crescendo (Nail 1). Indeed, with each passing year, more people are displaced both internally—within their country of origin— and internationally than ever before in recorded history (UNCHR). Both forms of displacement bring up an interrelated issue: the proliferation of bordering project, that has come to define this era of late-capitalist globalization. It should come as no surprise that the past five years alone have seen numerous “migrant crises” across the world (We could look specifically at the 2015 migrant crisis in the Mediterranean and the more recent family separations on the U.S.-Mexico border, just to name a few). After all, “The emerging world order, like capital itself, functions through crisis and even feeds on it” (Hardt and Negri 67). Exactly for that reason, we should look beyond these single, vertiginous moments when attempting to understand the significance of today’s migratory trends. During its three-year tenure, the Social Movements Lab has dialogued with scholar/activists who underscore the autonomy of migration—thereby foregrounding the subjectivity of migrant mobilities and movement itself as a means of resistance.

It is hard to miss the eerie echoes of W.E.B. DuBois’s famous proclamation that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line” (DuBois 54), in Thomas Nail’s statement as quoted above. DuBois was primarily speaking of the historically embedded significance of race in the U.S. context. However, his vision extended well beyond the United States. Drawing on DuBois and other great thinkers of the Black radical tradition, my research centers on Spain as a case study for how the recent erection of exterior border walls around national territories often results in a similarly bordered reality in their interior. By this, I am referring both to the visible partitioning of space and unprecedented social boundaries being drawn- many of them racially driven. Spain is fascinating in this respect because of its rapid transformation from a long-standing country of émigrés into a cosmopolitan destination for workers the world-over in only a few decades. After nearly forty years of isolation under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, Spain was finally admitted to the European Economic Community (a precursor to the European Union) in 1986. Meaning that the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla (in what would be Morocco) became Europe’s only land border with Africa practically overnight. Thus, it is widely recognized that the promulgation of the first immigration law, th Ley Orgánica 7/1985, de 1 de julio, sobre derechos y libertades de los extranjero en España (known as the foreigner’s law, or LOE for short),  in 1985 was designed as a pre-emptive measure, primarily motivated by fears that Spain would become a “gateway” between the two continents. With the formation of the Schengen Area in 1995, the intense securitization of the aforementioned frontier zone—a process sociologists have dubbed “re-fronterización” (Suárez Navaz)—rendered Spain the veritable face of “Fortress Europe.”

This, and other efforts to shore up the EU’s “area of Freedom, Security and Justice” (Laitinen 127), had the adverse effect of spurring on undocumented migration. As scholars have shown, the once porous frontier zone—not to mention the mere 14 kilometers of the Mediterranean Sea that separate Spain from Morocco at the Strait of Gibraltar—became part of a militarized, commercialized industry aimed at the transport of “clandestine migrants” (Andersson, Soto Bermant). These unprecedented levels of enforcement, combined with the intensive media coverage, have turned migrant illegality into a veritable spectacle and reify notions of what constitutes a border in the first place (De Genova, Andersson). In other words, a focus on the plight of those ensnared in barbed wire or left adrift at sea meant detracts attention from how perilous life can be once in Spain—and Europe more largely. 

This is where my work intervenes in current debates. Drawing on one-on-one interviews and textual analysis, I create a conversation among a group of African-born authors who direct their work toward a Spanish audience (often writing from Spain as their locus of enunciation). I thus underscore the power of literature to combat powerful political fictions about migration to Spain. Above all, I find that their depictions of the migratory process emphasize the perils found once firmly on European soil rather than the drama and danger of the journey. Through their collective storytelling effort, I reframe the concept of bordering—not just as geographical lines or physical boundaries—but as practices of racialization and gender discrimination that undergird labor market segmentation, thereby exerting serious controls over the day-to-day of migrant life in a new host country. This is not to lessen or belittle the anguish of border crossings in today’s militarized atmosphere. It is merely a means of foregrounding the multiple modalities of migrancy and its centrality in resisting the aforementioned “emerging world order.”

The discussions that arose in the Social Movements Lab during its 2017-2020 tenure were vital for thinking about how questions of race, space, and place shape Euro-African border struggles. The past few years have been fraught with dramatic policy changes regarding the movement of people between the U.S. and Mexico. Often, it was this domestic counterpart to Mediterranean migrations that offered important theoretical tools for later mapping and dialogue sessions on other topics. For example, an early conversation with three activists/aid workers from the Arizona-based collective, No More Deaths, Sophie Smith, China Mendel, and Scott Warren brought up dilemmas—and potential—of humanitarian aid in the borderlands (wherever they may be). The conversation highlighted how crisis has become a structural feature of U.S. Border Control over the past 20 years; a means of governing this region that in many ways invisibilizes human suffering. In response, direct aid—the efforts of rural residents and volunteers to provide food, water, and medical care to the migrants stranded in the Southwestern desert (Smith 852)—is a tenuous yet effective means of restoring individual agency. These tactics have become especially important with the increasing weaponization of the natural landscape.

In response to a similar “politics of non-assistance” in the EU’s maritime frontier (Heller and Pezzani), Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani co-founded Forensic Oceanography, a collaborative project aimed at documenting the conditions that lead to migrants’ deaths at sea. They also launched the WatchTheMed Platform to allow for collective (counter) surveillance of the Mediterranean on the part of non-governmental actors (2012), and later initiated the WatchTheMed Alarmphone project, a 24/7 emergency line supporting migrants crossing the sea. This is perhaps another instance of a new wave of humanitarianism; one that is wary of a savior complex and instead seeks to provide basic support to migrants in their fight against state-sanctioned violence.

Amarela Varela Huerta defines escape itself as a form of resistance. Looking at the forced Mexican, Central American, and Mesoamerican women, she argues that fleeing from the different forms of violence that make remaining in their place of origin impossible is a radical means of survival as much as it is a strategy of disobedience against the global imposition of borders (Mezzadra, Varela Huerta, “Forced Migration from Mesoamerica”). To signal just how high the stakes of this struggle are, Varela Huerta uses the language of a “vertical border country” to describe the threats represented by Mexico’s internal legal frameworks for migration—caused in part by the externalization of the US border regime and its securitization but also “by the reordering of land management pacts between cartels and government officials” (Varela Huerta, “Migrant Trapped at the Vertical Border” 3). This notion of verticalization could easily be applied in reverse to countries like Libya and Morocco as Italy and Spain (respectively) attempt to “outsource” the control of the Mediterranean imposed on them as coastal states by their EU neighbors to the north (Heller and Pezzani, “Ebbing and Flowing” 6). But we can also apply the concept of a vertical border to understand how this attempt to externalize border controls affects spatial dynamics even within EU territory.

The activists behind Casa Invisible, located in Málaga, Spain, explained how what started as an occupied building in 2007 quickly became a new form of socio-cultural institution (Raunig). By reclaiming an area that had become veritably inhospitable due to tourism and gentrification, la Invisible mobilizes the local to confront these global, transnational forces. In the case of Spain, we could also look further: at collectives like TopManta or the Sindicato de Manteros y Lateros of the Asociación Sin Papeles de Madrid (ASPM) to identify how migrant struggles interact with anti-capitalism more largely. These two examples are limited in that they refer specifically to undocumented street vendors in Spain whose name derive from selling their wares on a blanket (or manta) so that they can quickly pick up and run from police raids (redadas). The overwhelming majority of these vendors are from Senegal originally, however they have refused Spanish government attempts to negotiate through the Senegalese embassy and other “diplomatic” channels. Organizing instead around their labor (a right technically denied to them by the LOE)—and more recently, by engaging in humanitarianism themselves—these groups of undocumented migrant workers in Spain’s two largest city centers (Barcelona and Madrid) make claims for belonging that extend beyond national identity.