Borders, Barbed Wires and Bureaucracy, by Christine Aglot

August 24, 2020

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The number of forcibly displaced people in the world has been growing as a result of difficult climatic conditions, environmental disasters or ongoing conflict. This flux of people on the move puts pressure on the host or transitory countries, as the “temporary” refugee camps created become increasingly permanent. Questions of immigration are significant in parties’ political agendas in Europe, North America and Australia, creating ideological divides among citizens and polarizing the debates. During our August 24 session, we discussed the racial aspect of contemporary border politics of the so-called “refugee crisis” and the refugee camps that have emerged.

Contemporary border politics are racist and firmly anchored within their colonial histories. During the colonial period, the imperial powers subjugated vast areas and entire peoples to their rule. The decolonization that followed resulted in the colonized areas being fragmented along lines drawn by the retreating colonial powers, irrespective of language, culture, religion, often creating or exacerbating conflicts across the borders. With decolonization, movements became restricted between the colonies and the colonizing state, a shift which served to exclude people of colour, as the colonized citizen became a migrant. It is interesting to note how people migrating from the Global South to the Global North are seen as “immigrants,” while migrating the other way are seen as “expats.”

In recent years, a form of neo-imperialism is emerging, as the progressive securitization of borders results in the externalization of border control. In 2016, the European Union signed an agreement with Turkey, in which all new irregular migrants arriving in the Greek islands would be returned to Turkey. The EU pledged a total of €6 billion to Turkey to “host” refugees, thus externalizing the “refugee crisis” to the periphery of Europe.1 Similarly, in 2016, the US allocated US$75 million for the institution responsible for Programa Frontera Sur, which aimed to securitize Mexico’s Southern border with Guatemala and Belize.2 In both cases, the layers of obstacles created crystallize the notion of “us” that are legitimate inhabitants of a country against “them” attempting to enter.

Moria and Calais: European Examples

When theorizing about the nature of camps, scholars often take the Agambian framework as a starting point, which frames them as spaces where human existence is stripped of political worth and reduced to “bare life.” Thom Davies and Arshad Isakjee urge scholars to frame their analysis of the refugee crisis within a post-colonial perspective.3

The Calais camp in France is an example of a post-colonial space that was allowed to exist by racist logic and politics. Indeed, the fifteen nationalities in the Calais Jungle were from countries formerly under European rule.4 On one side, by turning a blind eye, France had been actively excluding non-Europeans out of the system and keeping them in subhuman conditions. On the other side, the UK provided funding to secure the UK-France border and to assist the French police in security infrastructure and management, one of the reasons why Oli Mould sees Calais as a slum of London’s making.5 While being physically at the heart of Northern Europe, at the frontier between two former colonial powers, the Calais Jungle was actively politically excluded by both of them. That is until it was violently demolished by the French State in October 2016.

Similarly, the Moria refugee camp in Greece serves more to detain and exclude people attempting to reach Europe. Due to its proximity to the Turkish coast, the island of Lesvos on which the camp is located in a common transit point for asylum seekers. Moria was created as a “hotspot” and was initially portrayed as a means to facilitate the relocation of asylum seekers to other European countries. Still, in practice, it became more of a prison than a transit point.

People remain stranded in the camp, trapped both in a physical space and in squalid conditions, as the population far exceeded the housing and services available. Meanwhile, they are put on a bureaucratic hold while waiting for their asylum request to be processed.

These cases exemplify the displacement spaces created by the racist and xenophobic logic underpinning contemporary border control politics. The nation-state and borders that separate one another are taken-for-granted concepts rooted in a colonial past, which results in the criminalization of migration. Architects tend to want to find design solutions to problems, and a common misguided prompt in recent years has been “how to design the perfect refugee camp.” Framing the refugee camp as a problem to be solved by better design, rather than questioning the existence of refugee camps in the first place, is problematic. The question we should ask is instead: How can we shift towards politics of inclusion rather than exclusion, where refugee camps cease to become a “solution”? How can we reframe the concept of borders to decriminalize migration?


“Migrant Crisis: EU-Turkey Deal Comes into Effect.” BBC News, March 20, 2016.

Clare Ribando Seelke and Kristin Finlkea. “U.S.-Mexican Security Cooperation: The Mérida Initiative …” Federation of American Scientists. February 22, 2016.

Thom Davies and Arshad Isakjee. “Ruins of Empire: Refugees, Race and the Postcolonial Geographies of European Migrant Camps.” Geoforum 102 (June 1, 2019): 214–17.

Ibid, 215.

Oli Mould, “The Calais Jungle: A Slum of London’s Making.” City 21, no. 3–4 (July 4, 2017): 388–404.

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