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Changes in Border Concept and Practices

This article was written by Luciano d’Andrea, Senior researcher, Conoscenza e Innovazione (K&I).

In the last decades, the concept of borders has changed quite rapidly and silently. This shift in perception of what a border is has been strongly impacting the task of border management – both on the governmental and the European Union levels.

Understanding these changes and their implications is critical in finding viable solutions and management systems that meet the requirements and challenges of the modern international mobility in a new and more effective way. One of such challenges is managing migration and the complex reality behind it.

No Longer Simple Lines on the Map

The common view we have of borders is still that of a line across territories, dividing individual states from each other. This is a line that, of course, is not physical, but that has been made visible over the centuries through a growing set of institutional entities (embassies, consulates, border guards, etc.) and practices (visas, passports, border controls on people and goods, etc.). Borders were conceived as barriers that defined the spatial limits of states’ sovereignty, but also as symbolic limits that emphasized the economic, linguistic, business, and cultural differences that states themselves embodied. For each state, a different colour, to better exalt the differences between them: this is the effect that borders produced on the map.

The emergence of globalization has rendered this vision of “borders that separate” obsolete and, to a large extent, impractical. The increasing free circulation of ideas, lifestyles, values, fashions, art products, people, and behavioural patterns as well as the increasingly strong integration and mutual dependence between national economies and policies have gradually led to modifying the very idea of borders.

For many, borders remain “sacred”, of course. In practice, however, borders are no longer separating lines. Rather, they are “spaces” (political, institutional, social, organisational) that perform a complex function of filtering.  They are asked to effectively facilitate certain types of flows (e.g., goods, capital, tourists), restrict others (e.g., by imposing taxes on specific goods or visas on people from certain countries), and block others still (e.g., weapons, human trafficking, terrorists, dangerous goods).

Researchers speak of “spaces” as border management is less and less occurring at border checkpoints. Filtering requires the ability to anticipate different types of flows to reduce the time it takes for allowed flows of goods and people to transit and to prevent unwanted flows from approaching borders as early as possible. This entails a wide and differentiated set of procedures before and after any transit involving many entities, both private and public, inside and outside the individual states. These “borderspaces” are thus animated and supported by multiple networks of information exchanges, decisions, and coordinated actions, at different levels and with different timeframes.  

These transformations are producing at least two consequences.

Border Control as a Political Function

The first consequence is that border control started playing a high-level political function. Rather than performing a prevalent role of barrier and protection, border control increasingly looks like a traffic light, as efficient as possible, that regulates the incoming flows of goods and people. However, the filtering process is a political function, i.e., it reflects political decisions taken by national governments about what or who is allowed to cross borders, based on a public debate that ultimately comes to attaching specific social meanings to the different kinds of flows.

The clearest example of such a dynamic is migration.

Over the past two decades, migration – which was previously approached mainly as an economic affair – has increasingly been treated as a security issue, that is, as a risk, not only to state security but also to the identity and cultural integrity of the nation. This process of “securitization” of migration has been fostered by several factors (fear of Islamist terrorism, the economic insecurity of Europeans, the rise of populism, the 2015 so-called “migration crisis”, etc.).

However, as is often the case, this process also created a feedback loop so that the securitization of migration is now further reinforced by the increasing militarization of border control that this same securitization process had produced. Militarisation is made into a manifest, for example, in the blurring boundaries between the police and the border control authorities or between border control and the military, the similarities between prisons and detention centres, or the use of military language associated with border control.

How the filtering process works also emerges by looking at the categories we use. Allowed inflows (for tourism, business, scientific cooperation, etc.) usually fall into the “mobility” category, while disallowed inflows fall into the “migration” category. Today no one feels threatened by international mobility (indeed, many hope it will grow indefinitely), while the very word “migration” evokes negative feelings or recalls dangerous situations in many.

The political nature of the process of filtering goods and people at borders was manifested even more in the case of Ukrainian refugees. In all, between February and early March 2022, more than five million people from Ukraine crossed European borders, without this producing, in itself, social alarm. On the contrary, their entry was supported politically and facilitated in every way by many national authorities. In comparison, consider that the so-called migration crisis of 2015 had affected less than 2 million migrants.

Complexity and Technology

The second consequence of border transformations is the increasing complexity of border management.

Allowed and disallowed flows are not visibly different. This is especially truer for migration. It is increasingly difficult to distinguish between “forced migrations” (protected by international law) and “voluntary migrations”.  Migrations are now “mixed”, not only because forced migrants (refugees and asylum-seekers) share the same routes and travel conditions as voluntary migrants, but mainly because motivations, expectations, and migratory projects are increasingly similar and, at the same time, equally diversified.

This is due primarily to the high level of variability and individualisation of late modern society, which is inevitably affecting migration too. The reasons why people migrate are multiple and changing, ranging from exposure to immediate risks (as in the case of serious political or economic crises) to the search for a particular way of living that allows them to pursue their identity-making project or to enjoy personal freedom. Migratory projects diversify too: to permanently settle in the host country, to come back home after a while with money to invest in their homeland, or to alternate periods in the host country and periods in the country of origin (the so-called “circular migration”).

In such a framework, the filtering process, to be effective, must be granular and anticipatory in nature and requires, not only a high level of coordination among the many actors involved and high investments in personnel and resources but more and more powerful and advanced technologies supporting border authorities to rapidly conduct their work.

So far, technologies have been used at the borders for land and maritime control (e.g., drones), at the checkpoints (e.g., surveillance technologies like facial recognition or body scanning), and in the administrative work related to borders (e.g., the electronic systems adopted by many states to authorise the travel).

The use of these technologies raises quite a few problems. Of course, an issue is how they are used. To take a typical example, the same technologies can be used to facilitate push-backs or rescue migrants at risk. Their use also poses numerous ethical issues (for example, relating to privacy, data security, or respect for personal dignity) and reinforces the tendency to consider border control as merely a security affair since, for better or worse, they increasingly tend to overlap with those used in the military.

The Cognitive and Emotional Dimension of Migration

However, the crucial aspect is that the use of these technologies helps little in understanding the characters and evolution of contemporary migration. Anchored as they are to the sole function of control, they lead to viewing migrants as mere dots on a map, ignoring or underestimating the intricate relationships that link them together, their motivations and expectations, their migratory projects, as well as the many aspects that differentiate them. Effective migration management, on the contrary, requires considering migrants as primary actors in migration.

This is the reason why the EU-funded CRiTERIA project, as other projects and initiatives are doing, is trying to promote the use of automated cross-media analysis technologies aimed at gathering data and information (images, texts, narratives, stories) from traditional and social media The effort is to enrich existing approaches to the analysis of migration-related risks and threats but above all to better understand the cognitive and emotional dimension of migration – strangely still neglected – that is increasingly playing a key role in migration dynamics.  

Cross-media technologies can certainly be useful in anticipating migration movements, protecting borders more effectively, and better combating human trafficking and other forms of crime related to migration movements. At the same time, they can give valuable information to protect migrants themselves from the many risks and abuses they face, contrast racism and xenophobia, and identify and remove situations and practices systematically generating a violation of the migrants’ human rights. Above all, they can provide analysts, researchers, civil society organisations, and policymakers with a huge empirical basis to develop a more accurate and less simplistic vision of human mobility.

Like any other, automated cross-media analysis technologies too can be used to pursue unethical goals and can generate new risks. For these reasons, they must be handled carefully, transparently and responsibly, under human supervision that ensures that data and information are verified, contextualized and interpreted correctly. Nonetheless, they potentially offer a foothold for moving beyond a view of migration as merely a security issue and for shaping multidimensional European policies that are more attuned to the complexity of contemporary international migration.

Luciano d’Andrea

Luciano d’Andrea

Luciano d’Andrea has been engaged for over forty years in the domain of sociological research. Such activities were initially concentrated on issues related to development processes. At a later time, they enlarged their scope up to cover a wide array of phenomena – such as international migration, poverty and social exclusion, urbanization or gender inequality – that are connected with each other for their strong societal relevance and their link with globalization dynamics. Luciano d’Andrea has carried out research projects, consulting activities, training programmes and project evaluation exercises on behalf of many renowned NGOs and international organizations in the fields of sustainable development, humanitarian aid, human rights, and action to alleviate poverty. Over the last decade, his research interests have mainly focused on science-society relationships, understood as a privileged observation field to analyze the pervasive and profound transformation processes affecting contemporary societies as a whole, especially in projects funded by the European Commission Directorate General for Research and Innovation

Luciano is part of Conoscenza e Innovazione, Knowledge & Innovation, one of the consortium partners in the CRiTERIA project.