Border Nation: A Story of Migration - Book Review

The media and politicians continue to weaponise immigration, so frequently painting it in an exclusively negative light. Reducing a migrant or asylum seeker's lived-experience to a scare-mongering headline is dehumanising. Border Nation: The Story of Migration investigates this further, exposing the truth behind our violent border nation and gives a narrative back to those whose voices are continually marginalised.

We are told, even in the ninth richest country of the world…state-prescribed selfishness encourages us to fold in on ourselves… This obligatory individualism is the bedrock of an unequal society encouraged to be fearful of others, and to clutch our possessions close, as if they alone can save us.

This book is a deeply important and provocative book. The idea of a nation's border being violent, as if something as innocuous as a coastline or a bridge could be interpreted as a threat to people's lives, is something that I guess I hadn't considered before, probably because I'm British. It seems ludicrous to me now though. The lottery of where you are born deeply affects your life chances and yet we go about our daily business ignoring the phenomenal, monumental, worldwide existence of poverty, war, inadequate health care, crime and oppression outside of our borders. As Conway says:

…people who are born and raised in Britain - and especially if they are white and wealthy - somehow deserve the spoils of the Empire: high quality education, a largely free health service and access to jobs, while 'others' do not. Part of the problem here is how far the foundational myth of meritocracy is deeply embedded into the British psyche….amplified by voices across the political spectrum.

This book makes the compelling case for scrapping borders. And although I remain cynical that this could happen, everyone should read this book. At least in recognising why borders are violent and unjust, we expand our understanding of how we could be part of the solution. Interestingly, I found this fascinating map, which shows when the world's borders have been drawn up (methodology explained here). It turns out over 50% of the world's borders have been drawn up since 1900. Borders are a relatively recent phenomenon. Brexit, Trump, and the rise of nationalism have certainly not helped progress in that regard but surely it's not dismissing entirely, given how recent border nations actually are.

Conway starts her book exploring the British perspective and challenges a lot of the British views about empire that are sadly entrenched in our society. It is this selective amnesia, that Sathnam Sanghera talks a lot about in his book EmpireLand) that makes it so difficult to have an honest, constructive discussion about the impact our borders have on others and why it matters. As she explains:

Despite the inherent violence it entails, imperialism and colonialism are often conceptualised and repackaged using much softer terminology, such as exploration and discovery. In part this is due to the fields of history, economics, sociology and more more being largely dominated by the perspectives and writings of the colonisers themselves, and white men in general.

As an example of this white, euro-centric view, "In the top (UK) best-selling history titles in 2015, only four were written by women, all of whom were white. The impact of this is that the way we understand historical events and their legacies are, for the most part, framed around narrow perspectives which are imbued with privilege and wealth."

The truth is that colonialism still exists, and there are great examples in the book of Unilever and Monsanto taking control of African food production, which in turn builds up British wealth and reinforces its power and influence. Consumed by Aja Barber provides lots of other similar examples of neo-colonialism in the fashion industry. The following quote neatly summarises how we exploit labour from the Global South whilst hoarding resources for ourselves.

More broadly, the process of colonialism boosted economic growth in the Global North, and in many cases depressed wealth in the Global South. This has created a scenario where the very communities who have experienced oppression as Britain shores up wealth through the pillaging of their labour and resources, are asked to prove, again, their worth and to 'contribute' when they arrive on Britain's shores. (pp.20)

In Chapter 2, The Myth of the Outsider, there are plenty of examples of how we have recently expected migrants to behave in a certain way, including the Windrush Generation, the imposition of British curricula on India and other colonies, and the acclimatisation of white Eastern Europeans. "These examples show how, in fact, Britain owes so much to so many communities and countries, who have, largely through force and coercion, expended labour, spilt blood, and lost lives in Britain pursuit of wealth and power". The exploration into the British psyche is a necessary one because it goes some way to explain why we think the way we do about migration and the control of migration. Perhaps by understanding its origins and contradictions better, we become better at unravelling it and thinking about it anew. In summary though,

The common experience of migrant communities throughout history and today, evidenced here, is that Britain systematically invites and exploits migrant labour, while at the same time making life untenable for anyone seeking (or struggling) to build a life here.

Chapter 3 explores how migrants are a drain on British society (or not). "Considering that economic forecasters calculated that people who came to the UK in 2016, for example, will make a net lifetime contribution of £29.6bn to Britain's public finances. In practice, it is Britain that has historically done most of the 'draining' of resources from other countries." This backs up a report I read produced by the London School of Economics. It reads that: "Our findings show that immigrants to the UK who arrived since 2000, and for whom we observe their entire migration history, have made consistently positive fiscal contributions regardless of their area of origin." I love to bring that quote out to anyone who claims that migrants take, take, take. Statistics can be really helpful way of challenging bigots, hence why I dedicate a section of my website to them.

Chapter 4 explores how the media are responsible for disseminating such narratives. On the 'unbearable whiteness of the media', Cowan writes, 'In the UK, the media industry is 94 per cent white and incredibly monocultural; for example, less than 0.5 per cent of journalists in the UK are Muslim' (another statistic). This creates a situation where the narratives around 'Britishness' and who can belong are set up by people who have likely never experienced the violence of borders.

Conway also recognises that isn't just how migrants are portrayed that produce problems but how they are pitted against other working class communities. This divide and rule tactic has been seen many times over the course of British history:

"By separating working class and migrant communities into the 'deserving' and 'undeserving', citizens and non-citizens, the fraudulent and the honest, a giant gulf emerges."

The media's lies really do have an impact: "Research by Hope not Hate revealed that a third of British people actually believe (erroneously) that there are areas of the UK governed by sharia law." On top of this is the well-publicised statements about rising hate crime. It's all-too-evident that challenging this narrative is urgent.

Have you ever noticed how white men who commit mass-murder are rarely dubbed as terrorists? Or how they are handled differently by police. There is much to say on that, for another time, but Conway exposes some poignant examples of this later on the book. Delving into what the British media constitute as terrorism and what is mass-murder, "It seems that whenever men of colour and migrant men are violent, their violence is attributed to an inherent difference and non-Britishness; to their blackness, or their Muslim-ness. However, when white men are violent, media outlets are quick to perform the most elaborate mental acrobatics to create three-dimensional narratives for their actions." Examples include Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011, described in The Telegraph headline as a 'quiet and modest man'.

"In the present day, the concerted dehumanisation of people who cross borders, by politicians competing to swing further to the right, dovetails with global attacks on working-class solidarity... Britain's most consistent export is its own inflated sense of its own greatness, and yet outrage is meted out on anyone who wishes to cross its borders and venture in."

The splitting up of working-class voters, is expanded upon further in the next chapter. "Knowing that migrant communities are spearheading campaigns to improve all conditions for all working-class people, attempts to separate out migrant communities from other workers are thinly veiled racist strategies which prevent bosses being held accountable for dodgy practices. In his 2012 speech, Labour leader Ed Miliband said that the party had become 'too disconnected from the concerns of working people'. Underpinning Miliband's claim was a call to recognise the 'costs' of immigration - a narrative which both Labour and Conservatives would continue to run with, despite the widely acknowledged fact that migrant communities make a larger net contribution (of £2.3k) to the British economy than the British citizens do." Original source here: How much do eu migrant workers contribute to the UK.


I probably learned most from the later chapters. Late on, there is a significant expose in the detention facilities or IRCs (there are seven across the country); hidden-away facilities that lock up people with the threat of deportation. Treated worse than prisoners, vulnerable to psychological, sexual and physical abuse, so secretive they often dodge fair representation and so unsuccessful that only 37 per cent are actually deported. "Their actual purpose and function is to merely give the impression of heightened border controls, at the expense of thousands of people who are incarcerated every year." They can be detained for many years for not having the correct paperwork. One Libyan who was interviewed was detained despite their being no working airports in his home country and a civil war. "In fact, one of the most common experiences of people held in detention centres is that they are asylum seekers fleeing violence, conflict and persecution: in 2018, 51 per cent (12,637) of people held in detention centres had sought asylum.

Just as an aside, although we're talking about thousand of asylum seekers, these numbers are puny in comparison to other, more generous countries. In the Ukrainian crisis, Poland have accepted over 2.3 million Ukrainians. In contrast, As of 29 March, 22,800 Ukraine family visas had been issued, against 31,200 applications received.

"Common perceptions that the US criminal justice system is notoriously unequal and racist (which it is) often overlook the fact that UK actually imprisons more black people, proportionate to its population, that the US does. Black people make up only 3 per cent of the general population in England and Wales, but 12 per cent of the UK's prison population. (US: 13 vs 35). In an other illustration, "Over a quarter of adults and half of young people in prison in the UK are people of colour, despite the fact that this demographic only makes up 13 per cent of people in Britain".

There are some commonly asked questions at the end. On the topic of the economy, Leah Cowan, writes "Workers being able to move back and forth between countries or regions means that they are able to easier maintain connections to loved ones and support networks, creating happier, healthier, better resourced and more stable communities in both the departing and receiving country." Also, migrant workers and migrant-led trade unions are actually at the forefront of the fight for better working conditions - for everyone.

As Conway ends her book,

By thinking beyond the fabricated limits of the racist state, we can build up from the soil. This involves constructing radically loving ways of living with each other and the earth. Together, we can break down borders.

Leah Conway's book is, quite simply, brilliant. It is thought-provoking without being too argumentative, and rigorous without being overwhelming. Indeed it is quite a concise and digestible book. Given that we have recently left the EU, any chance of open borders is minute but the mentality isn't. With books like this, we all change how think, and begin to begin to challenge the status quo a bit more.


I read this book a couple of months ago but have only just got round to writing up my favourite quotes and digesting it all. In that time I also read Rutger Bregman's Utopia for Realists. I'll include a couple of quotes here from that because that also talks about open borders and backs it up with science and economics. A powerful book that I would whole-heartedly recommend:

Imagine there was a single measure that could wipe out all poverty everywhere, raising everybody in Africa above our Western poverty line, and in the process, put a few extra month’s salaries in our pockets too. Just imagine. Would we take that measure? No, of course not. After all this measure’s been around for years. It’s the best plan that never happened. I’m talking about open borders. Not just for bananas, derivatives, and i-phones, but for one-and-all. For knowledge workers, for refugees, and for ordinary people in search of greener pastures.

And if economical prosperity floats your boat more than human empathy and compassion, then I'll leave you with this:

"Four different studies have shown that, depending on the level of movement in the labour market, the estimated growth in gross worldwide product would be in the range of 67% to 147%. Effectively, open borders would make the whole world twice as rich."

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