Interrogating the ‘Crisis’ of Migration: A Review of Harsha Walia’s Border & Rule

Sohel Sarkar


The world is contending with a sudden shock: a brand new crisis. Or so we are told. On our social media timelines and television screens, we witness thousands of people desperately attempting to flee Afghanistan as the Taliban returns to power, capturing dozens of provincial capitals across the country, including the national capital of Kabul. Two decades of violent military occupation and the loss of countless lives later, the United States has high-tailed it out of Afghanistan. It has taken four U.S. presidents to admit that, as Biden put it, “It’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.” And so the U.S. has abandoned a war of its own making—its “good war”. Meanwhile, Afghanistan and its people are back where they were in 2001, only poorer, more ravaged, and in an unstable, chaotic political landscape.

The images of people thronging the country’s airports—some clinging to a U.S. Air Force plane as it taxis down the runway, then falling to their deaths—have been decades in the making. Those fleeing now will join millions of others who have left the country or were internally displaced over four decades of active conflict. Well before the world woke up to this ‘new crisis,’ asylum pleas from Afghans piled up, along with appeals to stop forced deportations. For the most part, these exhortations seem to be falling on deaf ears.

Having accepted fewer than 500 Afghan refugees since January this year, the U.S. has asked Albania, Kosovo, and North Macedonia—among the poorest countries in Europe—to act as transit countries for Afghans seeking entry visas. Each day, about 2,000 Afghans enter Turkey, a country tasked with preventing “irregular migrants” from reaching Greece as part of a multibillion-dollar 2016 deal with the European Union. Amid these machinations, there are the all-too-familiar anxieties emerging from Europe about a possible “Afghan refugee crisis” that will send “a massive new wave of migrants towards Europe” and “test Western democracy to destruction.” Six EU countries have warned against halting Afghan deportations, Greece has vowed that they will not relive the scenes of 2015, and Austria has increased its border guards by 40 percent. Belgium’s state secretary for asylum and migration, Sammy Mahdi, defended the warning thus: “That regions of a country are not safe does not mean that each national of that country automatically is entitled to protection.”

A ‘Crisis’ for Whom?

The urgency with which these countries have deflected the real dangers that the people of Afghanistan face in order to panic over a ‘refugee influx’ at their shores would have been baffling—except for the fact that we have watched this unfold many times before. In this script, migration is an exceptional moment of ‘crisis,’ Western states are its purported victims, and the historical and contemporary conditions that have enabled the emergence of the ‘crisis’ are conveniently forgotten.

It is this fictitious, ahistorical narrative that is subjected to intense scrutiny and trenchant critique in Harsha Walia’s latest book, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism. In it, Walia argues that migration is not a “new crisis.” What we see unraveling at the borders of nation-states is a consequence of empire, colonial conquest, slavery, racial capitalism, and global neoliberalism. She further contends that the real crisis is not migration, but rather the violent encounters that both displace and immobilize people. Calling to mind A. Sivanandan’s famous aphorism, “We are here because you were there,” the book offers a rigorous and exhaustive account of the mass movements, whether in the form of enslavement and indentureship or the free movement of settler-colonialists, that underwrite what we know today as the migration or refugee crisis. In a way, this book offers new conceptual underpinnings for Walia’s 2013 work, Undoing Border Imperialism. While the earlier book focuses on various modes of resisting the violence linked with borders, Border and Rule identifies and outlines the genealogies of this violence.

At its core, the book prompts us to interrogate the power relations that frame the mass movements of people looking for a better life, a less dangerous life, or even bare life solely through the rhetoric of crisis. This language demands that we consider “the idea of a ‘crisis’ for whom” and ask, “who is really at risk and who is really experiencing the process of a crisis,” writes migration studies scholar Polly Pallister-Wilkins. The Mediterranean migration crisis, Pallister-Wilkins notes, is presented as “a crisis for Europe […] the dominant actor who is in part structurally responsible for the situation in the first instance…” Border and Rule stems from this overarching inquiry of ‘a crisis for whom’ and broadens its scope to include the related idea of ‘a crisis of what.’

The book is guided by three key convictions. First, it asserts that migration itself is not the crisis, but rather “the outcome of the actual crises of capitalism, conquest, and climate change.” In doing so, Walia disrupts dominant explanations of the migration crisis and urges for a reframing of migrant rights as “decolonial reparations.” Second, it demands that borders be recognized as a tool of domination and an extension “of imperial state formation, hierarchical social ordering, labor control, and xenophobic nationalism.” The book dismantles the myth that the border crisis is a discrete event, highlighting its entanglements with past and ongoing forms of exploitation. Third, the book does not only critique violent and authoritarian border-enforcement practices and far-right mobilizations that demonize migrants, but also liberal responses that can only imagine migrant justice in terms of a shallow multiculturalism or charitable humanitarianism. Pointing to the ‘good immigrant vs. bad immigrant’ rhetoric espoused by the Obama administration, Angela Merkel’s ‘open-door policy’ in Germany, and the multiculturalism adopted as official policy by the Justin Trudeau government in Canada, Walia argues that these liberal paradigms uphold a supplicant-and-savior power relationship while ignoring the exploitative practices that produce this dynamic.

Though Border and Rule emerges in the North American context, it casts a much wider net, examining “seemingly disparate geographies with shared logics of border formation.” It traces the offshore detention practices perfected by White Australia to similar migration outsourcing adopted by Europe and the U.S., draws parallels between welfare nationalisms in the Nordic and Gulf countries, interrogates the drug wars that the U.S. and Philippines alike have orchestrated with the aim of persecuting poor and racialized communities, and links Saudi Arabia’s kafala system of recruiting migrant workers with Canada’s temporary migrant worker programs.

The book is an extension of Walia’s decades-long involvement in migration justice movements—she is the co-founder of No One Is Illegal, a grassroots organization based in Canada—and her own lived experience as an immigrant, with its attendant legal precarity. While much of migration justice activism is necessarily rooted in stories of individual struggle, Walia’s book takes a structural approach. “The story of migration and the ways in which mainstream migrant rights organizing has worked have been so focused on the story of humanizing people because there is such a deference to border regimes. People need to prove why they have the right to be here. […] But we’re also inundated in the individual stories at the expense of the structural,” she said in a recent interview, explaining her approach. Refusing the “anthropological consumption” that turns the issue of migration into “a politics of pity rather than justice,” Walia draws on existing research, media reportage, laws and policies, and accounts of resistance to challenge “the systems of power that create migrants yet criminalize migration.”

The introduction to the book outlines a series of interconnected and overlapping ways to think about borders and border controls. “Borders are not fixed or static lines,” Walia argues, “they are productive regimes concurrently generated by and producing social relations of dominance.” As the first half of the title suggests, the border functions as a mode of governance or “an ordering regime, both assembling and assembled through racial-capitalist accumulation and colonial relations,” she writes. Border killings—Walia rejects the passive framing of border deaths—are the outcome of deliberate policies that uphold this regime, first by criminalizing migrants, then by sanctioning “states’ rights to kill.”

If border policies compel the “illegals” and “undesirables” to stay out, they also work to temporarily and conditionally include some migrants so that their cheap labor can be exploited by racial capitalism, under a looming threat of deportation. This makes borders highly elastic, their violence extending both within and beyond the territorial limits of nation-states. Within these enclosures, border enforcement can take the form of racialized surveillance that drives undocumented people to “self-deport” or turns temporary migrant workers into pliant labor. Conversely, border controls can also be externalized by arm-twisting certain countries—usually former colonies—into accepting outsourced migration controls by introducing them as binding conditions in development, aid, and trade agreements.

Borders, Real and Metaphorical

These conceptualizations of the border underpin each of the four sections of the book. Walia begins with an examination of how and why borders are made, focusing on the history of military invasion, annexation, settler-colonialism, and anti-Black policies that produced the U.S.-Mexico border as an internal and external frontier and solidified the U.S. as a “white racial state”. Contemporary U.S. border policies do not simply invite parallels with patterns of Indigenous genocide, enslavement and policing of Blackness, anti-Black vagrancy laws, and the protection of white citizenship. They are structured through these same logics of racial capitalism, she explains. What the U.S. construes as a crisis at its borders is actually inextricable from the displacements caused by its own “dirty wars” (the Wars on Drugs, Crime, and Terror), military occupations, predatory trade practices, and border industrialization programs that are geared towards exports and use border residents as cheap labor. This is precisely why, Walia argues, immigration must be understood within these “globalized asymmetries of power,” rather than being relegated to “the realm of domestic policy.”

Walia draws on a case study of Bangladesh to further clarify how imperialist policies, such as structural adjustment programs and the development projects of Bretton Woods institutions, produce the conditions for migration while foreclosing its possibility. These programs, she points out, essentially function as “debt dictatorships”, imposing austerity and appropriating land for the creation of export processing zones, trapping poor countries in an escalating debt spiral, and destroying people’s livelihoods. Shattering the myth of ‘migrant invasions,’ Walia’s in-depth case studies repeatedly emphasize that the global migration crisis is actually “a dual crisis of displacement and immobility” produced by chronic precarity.

Border and Rule’s next two sections elaborate on the idea of borders as “an ordering regime” that produce migrant illegality—not only through overtly violent forms of exclusion like border walls and detention and deportation centers, but also in less visible ways. Walia uses Australia’s Pacific Solution and the border externalization policies of ‘Fortress Europe’ to demonstrate how border management practices travel beyond the territorial limits of states to “where the migrant is.” She explores how Australia instrumentalized its legacy of colonial relations with the sovereign island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea to institute an offshore detention system. That system has served as a blueprint for Europe to recruit Middle Eastern and African nations as its “new border security guards.” In these examples, Walia goes beyond exploring migration as a consequence of imperialism to underscore how imperial relations are also continually reproduced through outsourced regimes of detention and deportation, using aid and trade as bargaining chips.

In the third section, Walia turns her attention to processes of border internalization, focusing particularly on the insourcing of migrant labor, or what she describes as “state-sanctioned programs of indentured work.” Comparing the kafala system in Saudi Arabia with Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program (the first censured largely because of the cultural milieu in which it is located, the second hailed as the “Rolls Royce of migrant labor programs”), Walia reminds us that both are products of global capitalism, intended to create worker precarity and vulnerability and ensure continued exploitation. Her focus here is on how these practices turn the border into a race-making regime: differentiating between citizen and non-citizen workers, maintaining racial segregation of the workforce, and precluding worker solidarity.

It is not the machinations of capital alone that foreclose the possibility of solidarity among the international working class, Walia contends. The final section examines these divisions against the backdrop of a global resurgence of far-right nationalisms. The analysis comes full circle, as Walia not only calls attention to the linkages between anti-immigrant xenophobia and the interlocking ideologies of ethnonationalism, penal populism, welfare nationalism, and imperial gendered racism, but also examines how these racist nationalisms turn “already-subjugated citizens into stateless noncitizens in their own countries of birth.” For Walia, the forced statelessness endured by Bengali Muslims in India, the Rohingya in Myanmar, those of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic, and the Bidoon in the Arab Gulf Republic is the outcome of the same “state-defined racial citizenship” that is closely intertwined with the expulsion of migrants.

The Complicity of Liberal Welcome Culture

Perhaps the book’s most invaluable contribution is its incisive interrogation of liberal responses to the migration crisis and left-liberal complicity in the criminalization and exploitation of migrants. It is a point that Walia revisits throughout the book, tracing the continuities between Clinton and Obama-era border and immigration policies in the U.S. and Trump’s border wall and Muslim ban, Canada’s long history of colonial conquest and Indigenous genocide and its professed multiculturalism, and Germany’s “much-lauded Willkommenskultur (welcome culture)” and the blame it places on immigrants for resource drain, gendered violence, and the failure to integrate. Couched in the language of humanitarianism and multiculturalism, this seemingly progressive liberal welcome culture erases the complicity of Western nations “in creating displacement through colonial conquest, land theft, slavery, capitalist extraction, labor exploitation, and war profiteering,” Walia explains.

More crucially, she draws parallels between liberal and right-wing responses to migration, arguing that these are not “completely contrasting ideologies when it comes to antiracism.” Liberal “empathy-oriented projects of ‘migrants welcome’” and right-wing anti-immigrant xenophobia both construct “refugees as abject subjects and European whiteness as the arbiter of migration,” she writes. Similarly, far-right panics about immigrants stealing jobs and left-liberal rejoinders that migrants are “hard-working, tax-paying, contributors-not-criminals” both treat “immigrants as commodities to be traded in capitalist markets.”

 In Walia’s interpretation, Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, with its emphasis on “[f]elons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids,” is rooted in a ‘deserving good immigrant’ versus ‘deportable bad immigrant’ narrative that deems only certain lives worthy of inclusion in the U.S. Merkel’s 2015 open-door policy and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ‘Welcome to Canada’ tweets may look like improvements over immigration restrictions and deportations, but both responses end up further legitimizing the border and reinscribing the supplicant-savior dynamic. Canada’s professed multiculturalism denies its formation as a racial settler state and the long history of Black presence in the country—two realities that are also dismissed by far-right ideologies—while essentializing race and ethnicity.

That the well of humanitarian benevolence soon runs dry is painfully evident in the present context. Well before burgeoning anxieties over an “Afghan influx,” Germany’s open doors had slammed shut. It is among the six EU countries that have urged the EU to not stop deportations of Afghans whose asylum claims have been rejected, with Merkel proclaiming that Germany “cannot solve all of these problems by taking everyone in.” Immigration lawyers say Canada’s plans to resettle more than 20,000 vulnerable Afghans have been marred by lack of communication and logistical hurdles. It is the contingent nature of the liberal welcome culture that prompts Walia to call for a simultaneous rejection of “the political ideology of liberalism, the economic dogma of neoliberalism, and right-wing nationalism inflected by race, gender, and citizenship.”

No Borders, Not Open Borders

The present moment—where the response to people falling off a moving aircraft in an attempt to flee the country stops at ‘asylum only for the most vulnerable or the most deserving’—is a culmination of these ideologies. It is against this backdrop that Border and Rule advocates for a “leftist politics of no borders,” as opposed to a policy of opening up the borders. Extending Angela Davis and Gina Dent’s conceptualization of the prison as a border, Walia sees the border as a prison—an assertion that resonates with Ather Zia’s description of Indian-occupied Kashmir as “an everyday prison” for its people. In Walia’s no-borders politics, the “freedom to stay and the freedom to move” can only be found outside “capitalist economies, hierarchical orderings, and bordered sovereignties.” To that end, the book calls for a radical reimagination of the idea of nationhood and a transformation of “the underlying social, political, and economic conditions giving rise to what we know as ‘the migration crisis.’”

“[T]o wage resistance to displacement and mobility in all its forms […], abandon capitalism […], jettison regimes of private property, reject dispossessive forces of colonialism, forsake extractive labor markets, and abolish carceral regimes […], undo the apartheid racial-social organization subtending the criminalization of migration and upholding ethnonationalism as citizenship” is no doubt an expansive call. But embedded within this broad scope is an appeal to rethink future strategies of resistance. “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives,” wrote Black lesbian feminist poet and activist Audre Lorde. Walia, in this book, agitates for a migration justice struggle that moves beyond single-issue politics to build solidarity with and learn from Indigenous, Black abolitionist, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and climate justice struggles. And, with equal forcefulness, she envisions a movement strengthened by a historically situated analysis of the entangled histories that have led to present-day migrations.

Border and Rule is a compelling account of how we got here; it is also a window into where we might go. By shining a light on the resistance mounted at detention camps, on Indigenous lands, at migrant worker encampments, and by the very act of border-crossing, the book offers radical hope and clears  ground on which to build future solidarities. This is essential reading—not only for those directly engaged in migrant justice activism and other interconnected struggles, but also for anyone invested in a just and equitable future.



Sohel Sarkar is a freelance journalist, editor, and feminist researcher-writer. Her cultural critiques, reviews, and personal essays have appeared in Bitch Media, Whetstone Magazine, Himal Southasian, and Color Bloq, among others. Find her on Twitter @SohelS28.

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