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Humanitarian Borders: Unequal Mobility and Saving Lives by Polly Pallister-Wilkins presents a strident critique of humanitarianisms, liberal or otherwise, that are mobilised to ameliorate suffering and save lives at the fraying edges of the Global North. This is the transversal space where, to invoke Gloria Anzaldua (as Pallister-Wilkins does), “the Third World grates against the first and bleeds” (1987: 3). Pallister-Wilkins’ analysis could be focused anywhere or anytime along the racialised geopolitical borders that are intended to secure the Global North against its Others. However, she centres her analysis on the geographical epicentre of what has come to be called the ‘global migration crisis’, and the humanitarian response that has ensued. Lesvos, one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean Sea, came to be a key site where humanitarian violence has been waged against migrants by states, international organisations, NGOs and (certain) grassroots organisations and concerned individuals, in an attempt to bring control to the unruly migrations that have vexed Europe for much of the past two decades. In doing so, Pallister-Wilkins stretches the local as a site of analysis in time and space, demonstrating how historical and contemporary multi-scalar processes and relations have coalesced into a specific configuration of care and control directed towards precarious migrations at the terraqueous borders of Europe.
The arguments – that insidious forms of harm inhere within humanitarian attempts to sustain or save lives, that humanitarian intervention is implicated in the proliferation of violent borders and border violence, that humanitarian borderwork serves to (re)produce unequal and unjust mobility regimes that prevent the free and dignified movement of black and brown peoples the world over, and that other mobile worlds are possible – are both compelling and well-evidenced, conceptually and empirically.
This is why you should read it.
But I want to make a suggestion about how you might read Humanitarian Borders. I want to draw attention to a less obvious but extremely important aspect of the book that has not received attention in its critical reception. My goal here is to engage with Humanitarian Borders (centred as it is on the Euro-Mediterranean world) from the vantage point of the Land Down Under (yes, the song is stuck in my head too).
In what follows, I give some form to my own reading of Pallister-Wilkins’ book, situated as I am in the Australian context, a context shaped by the settler-colonial project of nation-state building, which relies on the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples and the waging of racialised border violence against unwanted ‘Others’. In this reading, I want to show how Humanitarian Borders helps us to close the geographical and conceptual distance between Mediterranean “deathscapes” (Albahari, 2021; Heller, 2021; Lo Presti, 2019), and my own land, girt by an increasingly violent sea, a world away.
I proffer that Pallister-Wilkins invites her readers to reflect on the limits of approaches to understanding the global politics of movement that remain epistemologically contained, bounded by state territorialities and synchronic temporalities, and tethered to a methodological nationalism (De Genova, 2013; Wimmer & Glick Schiller, 2002). As a corrective to these hegemonic tendencies, Humanitarian Borders allows us to see that the globe-spanning violent mobility systems (which give rise to both precarious life-seeking movements and the humanitarian attempts to contain them) are not generated at the borders of Europe(an nations) and then radiate outward through centrifugal force. Instead, we can observe that they are produced through global relations, whose historical constitution in imperialism, colonialism and the universalisation of the nation-state (and struggles against these hegemonic forces) ramifies into the present lives of the ‘life-seekers’ who arrive at the ‘humanitarian borders’ that are of central concern in Pallister-Wilkins’ critical project.
I want to suggest that this is, in an oblique sense, a book about Australia. However, it is neither about the demented political economy of the Australian border security project (see Morris, 2023), nor the cruel violence exacted upon migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the name of ‘national security’ (see Boochani, 2018) – though these are certainly resonant themes and important political touchpoints throughout the analysis. Nor do I read Humanitarian Borders as a book about Australia in a nationalist historiographical sense, as a comparative study of national bordering practices, or as a constructivist take on the diffusion of norms about borders, sovereignty, human rights, humanitarianism, and so on.
In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said (1994) proposed an interpretive stance based on what he called a ‘contrapuntal reading’. A contrapuntal reading, for Said (1994), signals, “a simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan history and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts” (quoted in Chowdhry, 2007: 104). Said suggests that “a contrapuntal reading must take account of both processes, that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded.” Such an approach can be extended beyond textual analysis per se; as Geeta Chowdhry (2007: 102) has argued, this interpretive approach can be applied fruitfully to the field of international relations, “by making visible the erasures and silences around concepts such as culture and identity, nation and memory, and intellectual responsibility, as well as highlighting the uncertainties and dispossessions that IR has rendered possible.”
While a contrapuntal reading of humanitarian borders is neither Pallister-Wilkins’ explicit goal nor central to her methodology, it is certainly possible to read Humanitarian Borders contrapuntally. Pallister-Wilkins consistently invokes (and evokes) Australia in her analysis of humanitarian borderwork on Lesvos, undertaken in the quotidian practices of border guards, government departments, intergovernmental agencies, community-based care-givers, and so on. She does so by situating these humanitarian responses to the ‘migration crisis’ against the rise of a global system of unequal mobilities, “as a project of modernity” (20) in which the (re)production of the Australian nation-state has played a substantive (if not always recognised) part. Throughout the book, Pallister-Wilkins references the ways that Australian political elites have stoked the coals and fanned the flames of anti-refugee sentiment in the post-9/11 period, from former Prime Minister John Howard’s mendacious handling of the MV Tampa crisis, through the bilateral support for various iterations of the Pacific Solution, to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s unwavering determination to ‘stop the boats’ as a way to ‘save lives’. These references should remind the reader that what happens in Australian border security discourse doesn’t stay in Australian border security discourse, and that attempts to exert the humanitarian care/control in the Mediterranean is tied to other theatres in contemporary “wars of mobility” (Papastergiadis, 2010). These ideas and attitudes travel, and travel productively. This is something to which current British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak can attest. Stop the boats, indeed.
It is in this sense that the Australian panic over unwanted migration and illegal border crossings casts a long shadow over the contemporary Mediterranean. In Australia and the Insular Imagination, Suvendrini Perera (2009: 2) understands “the geographical figure, ‘Australia’”, as, “the product of violent technologies of ordering and acts of emplacement.” Perera’s book, “reopens the question of Australia’s territorialization and emplacement not by examining its historical construction, but by considering its effects in the present” (ibid). By reading contrapuntally, we can approach Humanitarian Borders as a book that is, in part, about Australia’s resonances and influences in a wider global picture of xenophobic nationalisms and the segregation of mobility futures, which are (re)produced through humanitarianism(s) on a global scale and manifest in the hyper-localised setting of Lesvos. Australia – territorialised and formalised through violent expulsions of perceived outsiders and the violent displacements and emplacements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – has lasting impacts beyond its own ‘sovereign borders’.
Therefore, between the lines of Pallister-Wilkins’ careful genealogical analysis of the development of the institution of the humanitarian border, scrutiny of its deployment against people seeking protection from the million major and minor cataclysms currently befalling the Global South, and her careful study of the logics and practices that underpin the humanitarian violence that inheres in contemporary migration governance, we can glimpse a hauntological study of the shadow Australia casts on the mobile world. We can see this in the role that the notion of the ‘global colour line’ plays in Pallister-Wilkins’ analysis.
This idea was articulated by W.E.B. Dubois, and later analysed by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds (2008) as a transnational political project of inscribing racial hierarchies within imperial geographies on a global scale, which in turn enabled the expansion of European imperial geographies and the ordering of the (post)colonial world. Picking up this idea, Pallister-Wilkins observes that the global colour line sits at the heart of contemporary forms of unequal mobility and mobility injustice (Sheller, 2018). It is not just that Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds are writing about the global colour line from Australia. Their book highlights that Australia was a central node in:
the transnational circulation of emotions and ideas, people and publications, racial knowledge and technologies that animated white men’s countries and their strategies of exclusion, deportation and segregation, in particular, the deployment of those state-based instruments of surveillance, the census, the passport and the literacy test (Lake and Reynolds, 2008: 4).
Following Lake and Reynolds, Perera, and now Pallister-Wilkins, we can see that Australia as a political project depended, and continues to depend, upon policing the global colour line through mobility restrictions. Importantly, these efforts have influenced, and continue to influence, the ways that other states (and other actors) regulate movement. It was in pre-Federation Australia that the National Party in South Africa found inspiration for the legislative framework that underpinned the apartheid regime (Foley, 2022: 56-57). It was in The Pacific Solution, The Second Pacific Solution and, more recently, Operation Sovereign Borders that European states have found inspiration for the extra-territorial border protection and migration control policies being pursued today (Little & Vaughan-Williams, 2017). Today, we can readily observe the ‘diffusion’ of migration and maritime border protection policies from Australia to Europe, and the ways the projection of Australia’s “border continuum” into extra- and infra-territorial space and time (Suliman, 2023) is shaping the carceral regulation of international mobility in the “maritime geographies” of the Asia-Pacific (Dickson, 2021).
Indeed, the Australian state has set the ‘gold standard’ for migration deterrence. Alison Mountz (2020: 94) has remarked that, “Australia is a proven leader in offshore enforcement and detention on islands.” It has perfected what Behrooz Boochani (2018) has called the “Kyriarchal System” of the Manus Island prison, which “represents a series of intersecting and mutually reinforcing structures bent on domination, repression and submission; and is also driven by an insatiable desire to reproduce, reinforce and expand its unrelenting oppression” (Tofighian, 2020: 1142). There is a different admixture of care and control at play in the Australian approach to migration control than that described in Humanitarian Borders. Care is a scanty commodity in the offshore detention facilities and onshore ‘alternative places of detention’ that imprison the bodies, lives and futures of asylum seekers, who are deemed to be imperilled and in need of both salvation and punishment just because they had the temerity to arrive by boat on the shores of a nation that had excised itself from its own legal migration zone. Despite this, Australia’s migration control has become the envy of border security fetishists everywhere.
In his masterful work Mediterranean Crossings, Iain Chambers (2008) wrote that, “[t]he Mediterranean, both as a concept and a historical and cultural formation, is a “reality” that is imaginatively constructed: the political and poetical articulation of a shifting, desired object and a perpetually repressed realisation” (Chambers, 2008, Kindle loc. 132). The project of critically reframing the Mediterranean as a site of humanitarian violence should also include tracing the influences and inheritances of border violence and mobility injustice in other time-spaces. Chambers invites us to consider the ways in which we look at sites, spaces, and connections, noting that:
in the field of vision, many things are shown, but not everything is seen: the frame, the angle, language, aesthetical and ethical choice signal a duplicity in which representations are invariably shadowed and sustained by repression. To focus and foreground is simultaneously to blur and overlook (Chambers 2008 Kindle loc. 146).
Relaxing the eye, we can shift focus from the foreground of the humanitarian border theatre so astutely documented and analysed by Pallister-Wilkins, to glimpse the wider gamut of relations, influences and inheritances from elsewhere in the world that have made Mediterranean crossings such a deathly affair for all but a privileged few. These are all present in Humanitarian Borders; we just need to know where and how to look.
This subliminal infrastructure that binds Fortress Australia to Fortress Europe is not all that connects this place with that. Migration also binds the Mediterranean to Australia. Mediterranean émigrés played a decisive role in the mid-century second act of federated, independent Australia’s border security theatre. Migrants from Greece, Italy and Turkey wore the racialised anxieties of the ‘Australian’ people on their skin (Giannacopolous, 2023). The making of the extra-territorial Mediterranean in the diaspora simultaneously upheld and attenuated the rigid mobility control systems that sustained post-imperial racialised hegemonies in a postcolonial world. They did this by arriving and making place in the various urban islands of the Australian archipelago that were not planned with them in mind.
These transversal cuts through the state-centric world also point to other ways that Pallister-Wilkins’ book opens space for reimagining the relationship between the Mediterranean and the Antipodes. In the final chapter of Humanitarian Borders, Pallister-Wilkins turns her attention from Lesvos to the horizon, to ask what humanitarian futures might be possible if mobility were decolonised. Here, again, Australia looms between the lines. The settler-colonial project in Australia – as with colonial projects everywhere – depended upon the colonisation of mobility. For Indigenous Australians, mobile lifeworlds and cosmologies, lived through songlines and governed through a relational political order over tens of thousands of years (Brigg, Graham and Weber, 2022), were extirpated through the violent enclosure of landscape and displacement of Aboriginal peoples from Country. Through the colonisation of Australia, Aboriginal mobilities were recast as abnormal and anathema to civilisation and progress (Prout, 2009). Yet Aboriginal mobilities can also be understood, as Georgine Clarson (2019: 170) does in her analysis of the ABC TV program Black As, as a way of, “insisting on dwelling in the wider world and one particular place at the same time, refusing to be immobilized and insisting on Indigenous sovereignty and ways of being in the world.” In my own work with colleagues (Suliman et al., 2019), which is generously cited by Pallister-Wilkins, we show that by struggling for climate justice and climate action, Pacific peoples are also struggling for the decolonisation of mobility in a region wherein Indigenous mobilities were colonised (Banivanua Mar, 2016), but never fully extinguished or contained (Banivanua Mar, 2015). This is all to say that Aboriginal Australia and its Oceanian neighbours have millennia of expertise in both the theory and praxis of movement that can help to open new horizons of possibility for mobility justice at Europe’s Mediterranean borders. Humanitarian Borders invites – no, insists upon – such engagements.
Buy it. Borrow it. Steal it. No matter how you get your hands on it, just make sure you read Humanitarian Borders: Unequal Mobility and Saving Lives by Polly Pallister-Wilkins. As my Antipodean compatriots from a bygone era might say, this book is bonza.
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Samid Suliman is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science at Griffith University, Australia. His research focuses on mobilities, migration and security with a specialisation in the governance of ‘climate migration’ in Oceania, the visual politics of (in)secure migrations, and the security-aeromobility nexus.