In AD 82, when general Gnaeus Julius Agricola invaded Caledonia, the Roman army met fierce resistance from the local leader, Calgacus. Tacitus reports (or more likely imagines) his words, as blazing now as ever: “Robbery, butchery, rapine, these the liars call empire. They create desolation and call it peace” (solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant). In AD 122 the Romans dug Hadrian’s Wall to consolidate their power and defend Britannia from any further hostile incursions; though none took place, twenty years later and a hundred miles to the north, they dug another formidable earthwork of rampart and berm and ditch. This new border—the Antonine Wall, so called after the emperor Antoninus Pius—took three Roman legions twelve years to make and was manned for only eight before the Romans withdrew.
James Crawford grew up near these ancient bulwarks and as a boy went exploring them on his bicycle. In The Edge of the Plain: How Borders Make and Break Our World, he asks, “Why had an empire as mighty as Rome built an endpoint at all?… When is a wall not a wall?” and he answers, “When it is a sign of a profound, existential crisis.”
Borders give signs of profound existential crisis for many very different reasons—war and climate change above all—which Crawford examines in his searching, generous, and stirringly written study. Each chapter begins with a location under severe pressure: the Arctic Circle, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Mexico and Texas, the Sahel. Crawford then reimagines those places, inscribing a palimpsest of associations across time with his impressive command of different disciplines (history, geology, cybernetics, ecology, biology), moving skillfully from surveying the scene of a border to the meanings it holds for those on either side of it.
Crawford belongs with other storyteller-explorers—strolling player-writers like Iain Sinclair, Rebecca Solnit, and Robert Macfarlane—who are stretching naturalist observation into incisive cultural inquiry. He is no flaneur or psychogeographer, however, but a historian with a particular sensitivity to time’s signature in rocks and stones, rifts and folds of the land. As the ten riveting case histories unfold, the geographer yields to the political critic. His book describes an arc of dispiriting ethical entropy, from the border as a structural principle of civilization to the border as an instrument of the carceral state, of exclusion, and, often, of horrifying violations of human rights.
“Today, there are more borders in the world than ever before in human history,” he states. Crawford is the descendant on one side of Scottish farming folk who immigrated to the US in 1908 but returned to Scotland a couple of years later, and on the other of a Detroit car worker and his wife, both of whom were born in Scotland and who, in 1934, faced with the Depression, tossed a coin and decided to return. Eleven years old in 1989, Crawford caught the jubilant mood when the Berlin Wall came down; then, as he was growing up, the Schengen Agreement began doing away with border checks within much of the European Union and thereby buoyed the ideal of freedom of movement. He is keenly aware that his family has enjoyed mobility and choice and opportunity at a level now inaccessible to most.
It was at first strange and startling, in Europe after Schengen, to pass through national frontiers unopposed. Here and there, you can still spot the old guardrooms and border posts on the side of the road, unmanned and derelict. But the outer borders were always closed (Fortress Europe), and Brexit has now severed England, Wales, and Scotland (though not Northern Ireland entirely) from the continent. Militarized frontiers divide countries to the east and south, erected to keep out refugees from the wars and civil strife and climate catastrophes that have destabilized so many societies farther east, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Myanmar, Bangladesh…. In Palermo, Sicily, in the fall of 2019, I met with a number of young Bangladeshi asylum seekers who, when I asked why they had left their country to come to another so very far away, replied, “Ah well, you see, hundreds of Rohingyas have arrived. They need many things and already we have nothing.”
The earliest historical example of a border marker in The Edge of the Plain gives Crawford his title: a Sumerian stone cylinder that the ruler of a city called Lagash set up four and a half thousand years ago by the side of a canal in what is now southeastern Iraq. It is one of several such pillars that marked the boundary of a tract of land claimed and fought over by gods and kings. Writing was invented chiefly to record property transactions—heads of cattle, flocks of sheep, land deeds; unlike hymns to the gods or love charms, which could be retained by heart and recited and passed down orally, business affairs needed permanent inscription.
It is still sobering to learn that this border canal was dug to prevent incursions, burning, and looting—to protect one side from the other and in doing so institute a permanent standoff. Even more disquietingly, while deciphering the text the scholar Irving Finkel realized that the original scribe had imitated an antique script “to manufacture proof,” Crawford writes, “that Lagash’s right to the Edge of the Plain went back to the very beginning of language, even to the very beginning of the world.”
A border, writes Crawford,
is never simply a line, a marker, a wall, an edge. First, it is an idea. An idea that is then presented as a reality. It doesn’t just exist in the world. It can only ever be made. It can only ever be told.
There can be civil uses of a border: between a public park and the street, or around a hospital bed, or in a museum where the artworks must not be touched, or in a burial ground out of respect for the dead. From classical antiquity until the Reformation, fugitives could claim sanctuary in a specific place, often a shrine, that was respected by general consensus without need of a border force. (Thomas à Becket’s death in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 was especially shocking not simply because it was murder, but because it was sacrilege—the murderers had breached sanctuary.) Sanctuary movements have sprung back to life at times of crisis—during the Vietnam War, for example, and now: recently in the UK several Cities and Universities of Sanctuary have been declared, dedicated to welcoming and protecting refugees.
The frontier between Italy and Austria, which Crawford calls “the melting border,” was drawn up according to the watershed: when the snowmelt on either side of the highest, razor-sharp ridges of the Alps falls north, that is Austrian territory; when it flows south and east into the Adriatic, it is Italian. Now, with climate change, the line keeps “shifting.” Crawford climbs the Grafferner Glacier with the Milan-based architect Marco Ferrari to trace the changing ecosystem and measure how far the border has moved and how long it will be before the glacier is gone and tons and tons of water have poured down onto the inhabited plains below. In 2016 the estimate was ten or twenty years left.
“Think of the Grafferner as a kind of natural doomsday clock,” warns Crawford. Water—floods and droughts alike—causes lethal struggles over resources and then, in the current cycle of world dislocations, drives the flight of refugees.
Crawford’s Alpine reconnaissance brings out his flair for exciting and expert reportage, as an observer of phenomena quite beyond the reach of most people’s experience. So does his trip to the Arctic Circle, where he strikes out to explore Sápmi, the vast home territory of the Sámi people, which was carved up piecemeal over the course of the nineteenth century when the new national borders of Finland, Norway, and Sweden were defined, cutting across the ranges of the reindeer herds on which the Sámi depend. Like many of the new nature writers, Crawford has a taste for adventure (there is a Boy’s Own quality to the genre). His witnesses aren’t the usual taxi driver or hotel staff on whom the jobbing foreign reporter passing through so often relies, but scrupulously researched informants, cartographers, artists, photographers, and journalists, who often have also become activists working for change.
Sequestered at home in the Scottish Highlands during lockdown, Crawford talks extensively online with the artists Marcos Ramírez and David Taylor, who are revisiting the US–Mexico border that stood from 1821 to 1848, planting obelisks along a shadow line that runs hundreds of miles north of the present boundary, from Oregon to Louisiana:
All of what is now Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California—along with half of Colorado and small portions of Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming—was Mexico.
“I felt nostalgia,” Ramírez tells Crawford. “The nostalgia of the past—that is my past but is not my personal past. The past of my nation.” Their act of cultural retrieval puts the present border in perspective, and expresses their resistance to a form of “memoricide,” the term coined by the political scientist Ilan Pappé to describe the erasure of Palestinian history in the landscape.
Borders can install a new reality, as they make the past disappear. They have frequently been drawn arbitrarily, brokered between new or newish external powers: the Sykes–Picot line of 1916 notoriously apportioned large parts of the vanished Ottoman Empire between the French and the British, including the various borders demarcating Palestine at different dates; new nations were ruled into the map of the whole African continent. Imperial mapping also controls naming, canceling in the process many local associations and historical memories, as Brian Friel so presciently dramatized in Translations (1980), his play about the Ordnance Survey maps of Ireland drawn up by the British army in the l830s.
The Jamaican-born poet and novelist Kei Miller has also reflected on how colonial mapping wipes local memories and languages from the record. In a burning elegy-cum-essay, “Sometimes I consider the names of places” (2019), he laments the term “the West Indies” and the muted indigenous lexicon of the Caribbean archipelago:
Maybe this is what place is—a distorted way of seeing, an insufficient imagining.
Cristobal, como se dice “Taino” en espanol? Indio
Cristobal, como se dice “Carib” en espanol? Indio
Cristobal, como se dice “Guanahatabey” en espanol? Indio
What did it matter, our own names?
We are insufficiently imagined people from an insufficiently imagined place.
Miller’s “we” can be understood to include all those who suffer the constraints of the map and its borders. Borders are proliferating across the globe: walls, frontiers, fortified turnstiles, ditches, trenches, barbed wire and razor wire fences, patrolled by coast guard vessels, police launches, drones, radar, helicopters, often clearing broad tracts of ground on either side of them (Tacitus’s solitudinem).
In the Sahara, fresh measures of border control prevent the free circulation of the nomadic Tuareg people and their herds. Huge gleaming coils of new barbed wire have been rolled out for miles along Hungary’s frontier with Croatia and Serbia. In the West Bank tall ramparts of cast concrete slabs continue to be erected, with the ultimate aim of encircling whole villages; as I write, Gaza is under siege, its residents unable to leave what many consider an open-air prison. In the UK, barges, reminiscent of the prison hulks that Dickens denounced in Great Expectations, have been procured by the government to hold refugees (the most recent plan was foiled when a boat, the Bibby Stockholm, was discovered to be contaminated with Legionella bacteria, though it took four days to evacuate the detainees). It is a dark sign of the times when border enforcement becomes a growing career opportunity.
“Barbed wire was an invention of the frontier,” writes Crawford, “first used in America at the end of the nineteenth century as a means of containing cattle. Now,” he goes on, reflecting on the trenches of World War I, “it was strung out, maybe a million miles or more, throughout the desolation of no man’s land. It was the perfect, mass-produced, modern-industrial symbol of division.” When I was child, the 1930s song “Don’t Fence Me In” seemed an innocent and joyous hymn to roaming free “in the wide-open country that I love.” Now it rings with a claim to mastery, a First World privilege that excludes others and denies them the human right to movement.
Borders are often revenants of colonial ambition, and like many ghosts, capricious and malignant. The enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta on the Maghrebian coast are the only politically European territories in Africa (the former taken by Spain in 1497, the latter ceded by Portugal to Spain in 1688); they are surrounded by high fences sometimes three deep, bristling with spikes to repel all comers. Crawford traveled there and describes the camps of hopeful border crossers waiting to attempt an escape by climbing the razor wire, duct tape around their hands and feet to give them some protection. They call themselves harragas, meaning “those who burn,” because by burning all their documents “they have made themselves stateless,” Crawford writes, “on the altar of hope.” I remember the horror I felt when Jeremy Harding described how the sanctuary-seekers he met showed him the scars on their palms from their failed attempts to scale the cruel barriers; he describes this in The Uninvited: Refugees at the Rich Man’s Gate (2000), his revelatory and searing reportage on the human cost of African migration over two decades ago.
Researching the current US–Mexico border, Crawford interviews Jason De León, an anthropologist at UCLA who gleans the migrant trails: water bottles, food cartons, backpacks, clothing, photographs, and other personal belongings and mementos of those who trek across the desert to head into the US—and often fail, dying of exposure. Crawford gives the toll as more than seven thousand over the past twenty years, but it is likely to be much higher, since millions have made the attempt to cross, only to be flung up against yet more barriers and their violent sentinels.
The horrors are gruesome: he reports that when a member of a border-crossing group died, they would be given burial, but stones laid over a shallow grave would heat up in the sun and “partially ‘cook’ the body, making it almost instantly attractive to scavengers.” De León, the author of The Land of Open Graves (2015), founded the Undocumented Migration Project and its collective, transnational mapping archive, Hostile Terrain 94 (named after the Border Patrol National Plan of “prevention through deterrence,” established in 1994 during the Clinton presidency). He takes a long view of his endeavors: it is “American immigration history in the making.”
The closing chapter of The Edge of the Plain follows the fortunes of a project begun nearly a century ago by Edward Stebbing, a forester and conservationist who anticipated the current crises of desertification and ecosystem collapse. Having seen the felling of forests in India, he set out to map “the disappearance of the savannah” in West Africa—the line where woodland and scrub, sparsely scattered with vegetation but nevertheless green, give way to desert. “The encroachment by the sand,” he wrote, was “stealthy and almost invisible and unperceivable.”
Stebbing’s epic survey led him to chart conditions in many of the countries where resources, above all water, are shrinking, and from which the inhabitants have been and are leaving in the thousands—the nations of the Sahel, that broad belt that runs across the continent. The word “Sahel” comes from the Arabic sahil, Crawford tells us, meaning “coast” or “shore,” echoing the familiar metaphors of the desert as a land ocean, a mighty sea, and the moving dunes as waves. In his report, which was published in 1935, Stebbing called for the planting of a “forest belt,” seven miles wide and a thousand miles long, to hold back the advancing sand.
This vision still holds, but with a major difference: where Stebbing envisaged a grand imperial enterprise, it is now local communities that are leading the building of a “Great Green Wall.” Tabi Joda, an agroforestry ecologist from Cameroon, is coordinating the making of a “‘borderless’ mosaic” of smallholdings, not a billion-dollar project directed from on high. Joda has created a mobile phone network to pass on advice; by deploying the same information technology that spurs migration, he aims to help his fellow Sahelians stay. As he says to Crawford,
You can tell people, look, you can actually take care of your child. He or she can remain in this community and become part of the wealth of this community without going to Europe.
This remarkable man stands as a cautious prophet of a possibility that the continent could become, in Joda’s words, “connected by the culture of development—not by the culture of political and administrative limitations and barriers.” Joda continues: “I think the entire world needs to redefine what we call borders. The whole world should see itself as an entire ecosystem.” His work lights a flicker of hope at the conclusion of this thoughtful book.
In August 2018 the Irish journalist Sally Hayden, then in London, received a Facebook message begging for her help. She followed up and found that she “had stumbled, inadvertently, on a human rights disaster of epic proportions,” involving men, women, and children who had fled from different parts of Africa, as well as the Middle East and Asia, only to find themselves imprisoned in Libya in conditions of extreme brutality. Cascades of more Facebook and WhatsApp messages followed as she became the point of contact for asylum seekers who had found her on the Internet and were appealing to her to write about their cases, to make representations to the authorities about their circumstances and prevent them from being altogether forgotten and disappearing.
Hayden accepted the mission in the spirit of her profession, not of NGO work or activism. The enormity of what she encountered inspired My Fourth Time, We Drowned, her first book and a magnificent, engagé investigative report on Libya and on the thousands of Africans who are making the harsh journey across the Sahara and then attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Italy, Malta, or Spain. Her title quotes a text message from one of the many who were trying, again and again, to make the crossing, only to get caught by Libyan coast guard officers paid by the EU and returned to the dangers of a detention center.
For most of the period the book covers, 2018–2020, Libya was in the grip of civil war, as General Khalifa Haftar, based in Tobruk, led a rebellion against the UN-recognized government in Tripoli. Neither side of that conflict stands much scrutiny, but Hayden keeps to the issue of the detainees. In the course of her research, she talked with Libyans, Eritreans, Moroccans, Egyptians, and others from Sierra Leone and Niger. As the civil war rages, their cases are not heard; they are imprisoned, starved, deprived of water, air, exercise, medicine. TB breaks out in one center; in another, Tajoura, around six hundred inmates remain penned in as bombs are dropped all around them—at least fifty-three died and many more were wounded (even at this comparatively smaller scale, the figures are approximate).
The book is a difficult read. The brutality of the guards, the routine beatings, rapes, forced labor, conscription, enslavement, and sheer negligence, all intertwined with the plots and betrayals of vicious gang leaders who are growing fat on the smuggling trade, fill one with despair. But Hayden places this hell on earth in a far broader picture. Her reportage indicts the two gigantic institutions that have overall authority over the fate of displaced people: the EU for outsourcing its control of immigration to countries like Libya and Turkey, paying their governments millions of euros to police Europe’s borders, and UNHCR for failing the refugees whom it is mandated to protect. The smugglers who run the sea crossings are often working both sides, luring refugees with promises of safe crossings, conscripting them into militias, enslaving them in hard labor, tipping off the pirates who steal their outboard motors, and informing the coast guards so that the trafficker can extort more payments. When no ransom is forthcoming or is slow to arrive from beleaguered families back home, the refugees face further abuse. It is a shameless new form of the slave trade, and Western policies are not merely complicit in it, but catalysts.
My Fourth Time, We Drowned lets us hear the voices of the detainees as they testify to their experiences. These terrible stories seem the only way to grasp what happens behind the grim statistics. Such eyewitness reports in our time, like the Kurdish poet Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains (2018)—his lacerating account of being held by the Australian authorities for six years on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, originally composed as WhatsApp messages—are books of the digital age.1 They embody the sharp contradictions of a global world, which is borderless where communications are concerned, where money and goods may travel immense distances (strawberries in winter flown to Europe from Egypt), yet is closed to millions of human beings.
Many, many have drowned in “the liquid cemetery” of the Mediterranean. The current official register puts the number at around 28,192 in the past nine years—but these are the known deaths. There are many more missing whose bodies were not found. The natural barrier of the mare nostrum (our sea) is fierce, often whipped up by violent storms and extremely dangerous for the overloaded gommoni or rubber dinghies in which migrants try to cross. In Sicily in 2007, the artist Isaac Julien filmed splintered and rotting piles of the blue wooden fishing boats for his prophetic, poetic installation Western Union: Small Boats. These traditional and more seaworthy craft were in use before being impounded and destroyed by order of the border keepers.
Over Christmas four years ago, Hayden joined (as a journalist observer) a rescue ship, the Alan Kurdi, named after the drowned child who was photographed washed up on the beach at Bodrum, Turkey, in 2015. She describes how after the crew had made contact with one boatload of refugees and brought them on board, they were legally obliged to destroy their dinghy so it could not be reused. Such humanitarian operations are now even more severely curtailed by EU law, though it is the long-honored law of the sea to come to the help of shipwreck victims or anyone in difficulty. Libyan coast guards are now tasked with “interceptions” and are on record brutalizing and even pushing refugees back into the sea.
The 2018 film Mare Clausum: The Sea Watch vs Libyan Coast Guard Case was made from official documentation by the London-based research agency Forensic Architecture; the footage of men thrashing about desperately in the water before going under, while the guards manhandle those who have managed to climb aboard, is devastating. It can’t but strike shameful echoes with the notorious episode of the Zong—the 1781 massacre involving a British ship that J.M.W. Turner depicted in his l840 painting Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)—which crystallized public outrage against slavery during the abolition movement. One can only hope that acts of witness today such as Crawford’s and Hayden’s will have a similar effect.
In 2019 two lawyers based in Paris—Omer Shatz and Juan Branco—filed an official complaint to the International Criminal Court in The Hague asking for the whole EU to be charged with crimes against humanity for what its policies and financial support have wrought in the Mediterranean and in Libya. Legally, such charges cannot be brought against a whole institution but must name individuals responsible. Nevertheless, the lawyers tell Hayden, theirs is a preliminary, necessary alarum to wake up officials to the possibility that they may be held personally accountable and therefore, perhaps, to forestall worse failures in their stewardship of human rights.
Hearing of the surprise capture of Kidane Habtemariam, one of the most notorious and brutal smuggler gang leaders operating in Libya, Hayden travels to Addis Ababa in October 2020 in order to attend his trial. She finds no other Western reporter there. The indifference shocks her. News reports of deaths at sea or small boats landing on the south coast of the UK deliver quick and easy visceral feelings, rushes of sympathy or anger that the public relishes, but the laborious procedures of justice in a faraway African nation can be shrugged off.
Habtemariam’s terrifying sidekick, Tewelde Goitom, nicknamed Welid, whose corruption and thuggery she has noted before, would be found guilty and sentenced to eighteen years in prison. But Habtemariam, who carried out so many of the brutalities Hayden has recounted, asks to go to the toilet, walks out of the compound, and vanishes. He was eventually found guilty in absentia, and sentenced to life without parole; in January of this year, after a money-laundering inquiry in the UAE, he was traced to Sudan and arrested.
The smugglers thrive in the current legal landscape—in fact it could not be more propitious for them. Closing down legal avenues to movement drives the displaced into illegal routes, and makes them vulnerable to trafficking and forced labor—often militia in the case of the young men and prostitution in the case of the young women (but in both situations not exclusively men or women). To my mind, Prohibition presents a historical analogy, for the widespread criminalizing effects it had on the public, the police, and civil society. The EU’s attempts to control the exodus by proxy only strengthen the common interest of the enforcers and the criminals.
It is clear from both Crawford’s and Hayden’s books that the current politics of immigration have turned and twisted human nature against itself and our own kind and are fostering unimaginable maltreatment of those who wish only to survive and live a better life. As Warsan Shire, whose family left Somalia and then managed to relocate to Britain, writes in one of her most unforgettable poems, “no one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark.” War, famine, religious and ethnic strife, and natural catastrophes will continue to drive thousands to leave, despite the extreme danger.
Forthright as they are, neither book addresses the question, “What would happen if the borders were opened?” But both strongly convey the urgency of fundamentally rethinking immigration policy, especially in the context of accelerating global warming. What if, instead of transferring millions of dollars and euros to unstable countries and dictatorships to keep out border crossers and sanctuary seekers, these vast resources were used to set up legal avenues for migrants, welcome centers, education and training, and to rethink the restrictions on their rights (to work, to move on, to marry)? Before World War II, from 1922 to 1938, there were Nansen passports for undocumented refugees (not entirely satisfactory, as Hannah Arendt reported, but far better than current attitudes to statelessness).
The apparatus of enforcement crushes its targets; even when asylum seekers finally succeed (and many thousands do because they have legal grounds for their claim), they have been damaged physically by the horrors of their treatment, and exhausted psychologically. It is also worth considering the damage to the enforcers, not because I want to defend them but because state support for their actions does harm to the entire social body. Frantz Fanon, when working as a psychiatric doctor in Algeria, found himself treating the survivors of torture and their torturers; both were haunted, hobbled, incapacitated by what they had been through, what they had done.
It is already late to act, but that is a poor reason for inaction. Many fine minds are exploring the possibilities of changing direction: Lyndsey Stonebridge in Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees (2018), Mary Jacobus in On Belonging and Not Belonging (2022), David Herd in Writing Against Expulsion in the Post-War World: Making Space for the Human (2023), John Washington in his new book, The Case for Open Borders.2 “As we deny, cast out, and crack down, we have turned our thresholds into barricades,” Washington writes. “We lose our own home by denying it to others.”
Are open borders so unthinkable? When German chancellor Angela Merkel accepted a million Syrians in 2015–2016, and more recently when even the United Kingdom established a sponsorship scheme for Ukrainian refugees, as had happened for Jews fleeing the Nazi regime before and during World War II, they demonstrated that a different course can be adopted. The prime minister and members of recent and current Conservative governments of the UK are the children of immigrants, not all of whom were wealthy or particularly educated (and therefore would not qualify for admission to the country today). It is one of the bitterest ironies of the present political uses of xenophobia in Britain that children of Black and brown immigrants, whose right to enter inspired generations like mine to march in protest against exclusionary government policies, are now eagerly consolidating “the hostile environment,” blocking legal routes of immigration, and stoking the frenzy against “small boats.”