At a time when borders seem a key salient feature of our time, but perhaps that is what they have always been, two timely special issues came out recently in the exciting open access online borderlands journal, based on a conference entitled Technologies of Bordering: creating, contesting and resisting borders convened by my colleague Uma Kothari and Elise Klein, then of the University of Melbourne, in Melbourne last July. The conference explored how borders are pervasive spatial, political and social features in contemporary society, but also throughout history. At the same time, borders have frequently been actively contested and re-negotiated. Different forms of bordering technologies have promoted and prompted various strategies of evasion, resistance and solidarity, from the forging of documents and the transgressing of borders, to the rejection of borders through acts of political refusal and sovereignty. Importantly, borders have also been used and incorporated into people’s lives and livelihoods, providing opportunities, progressive spaces and new ways of being, often based on hybrid identities that transcend (national) borders of any kind.
The conference itself now seems like out of a different world, as such international gatherings that thrive on direct communication and conviviality, on in-depth personal discussions but also on shared lunches and dinners, seem as remote as the moon landing at the moment. Australia, were the conference took place, is practically closed to visitors beyond its borders (whatever the reason for their visit may be), and may eventually join a bubble with New Zealand as an (almost) Corona-free zone were people can travel – shutting out the rest of the world. How viable or even sensible such a strategy, based on unreal phantasies of control, is going to be, readers may decide for themselves – it perhaps depends on which side of this new travel-restriction border one is on how one may judge the proposal.
This brings me to the heart not only of the conference theme, but of issues around borders in general: They tend to have these dual functions, of providing something deemed positive, like a (hoped for) virus-free environment; security; protection from negative outside forces and the like, while at the same time often being coercive, brutal, violent and in contravention of basic human rights and dignity, when for example refugees and migrants are left in perpetual limbo outside or between borders.
In my contribution to the conference that just also came out as an article in the second special issue of borderlands, I take up this theme of how borders as a force for good, an aspirational drive, then often turn oppressive and destructive, not out of necessity, but by political actions. I do so in taking a novel look at the borders that were created by colonialism, with a concrete focus on Italian colonialism in the Horn of Africa – but similar dynamics can be observed in other settings were colonial borders acted as a means to demand liberation and emancipation at different periods in time.
Usually, colonial borders have predominately been discussed as artificial, dividing communities, people or ethnicities that otherwise would belong together (on whatever grounds). But such an interpretation of colonial borders, I argue in my contribution, overlooks another important aspect of colonial boundaries: their role in creating nations as ‘imagined communities’ who in making reference to such borders can lay claim to a distinct national identity. While such an identity can be exclusionary and trigger conflict, it can also have a much more positive and ultimately hybrid function. In analysing the borders Italian colonialism created in the Horn of Africa, with particular reference to Eritrea, I demonstrate these multiple roles colonial boundaries can occupy. I eventually come to the conclusion that the acceptance of borders as markers of identity can be a prerequisite for finding innovative ways to overcome state-to-state conflicts, but also exclusions in the everyday lives of borderland groups or people with hybrid identities. In that sense, the example of Eritrea could hold wider lessons for addressing postcolonial disputes and exclusion around borders and boundaries, all the more so if institutional arrangements are put in place that allow fluidity in everyday encounters.
To occupy oneself with colonial borders might seem a remote subject in the times of the Corona-pandemic, in particular for those whose lives run up against borders that are suddenly impossible to cross, often for reason that have little to do with medical advise or even common sense, but with a politics of exclusion and nativity. A pertinent example here is the UK, where the newly to be introduced quarantine rules seem geared more a move to shore up the ideological agenda of anti-immigration and a hard Brexit. But what the case of Eritrea, not only in relation to its borderland communities but large sections of the population demonstrates, is how hybrid many identities in reality are, which makes bordering technologies a threat to everyday life, not only in far away places but more and more for large parts of the global population, in the Global North and the Global South. In the times of Corona, such technologies have already led to sometimes humorous, more often serious consequences for peoples’ personal relationships and work arrangements, like couples reduced to meet alongside border-fences for weeks, or even key staff unable to get to their workplaces on the other side of a border.
Perhaps the deepest legacy of the border regimes that start to emerge in the wake of Corona is the destruction of hybrid identities, not as an emotional state or an imagined form of belonging, but as a form of everyday life.
My article: Colonial borders and hybrid identities: Lessons from the case of Eritrea is freely available here.