Here’s a thing: I’ve been writing about the crisis of borders for ten years.
What’s mad is that my first story on the topic, written after staying in an abandoned chemical factory in Calais, rings as true today as it did then: Do We Need Borders?
The question is, of course, rhetorical.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a nation state is: ‘An independent political state formed from a people who share a common national identity (historically, culturally, or ethnically).’
I’m sure you can already see the problems we might run into if, by any chance, those unlucky administrators happened to draw borders in inauspicious places (i.e. almost anywhere).
That 2014 story was written for an audience of your common-or-garden sceptics: the bulk of citizenry who, until now, have never questioned the very fact of our borders and who naturally assume, for amorphous reasons that they’ve never quite pinned down, that controls are necessary.
People like me, in other words.
It’s what I learned in Calais — talking to everyone, teaching some English, skipping fresh food out of supermarket bins, staying up all night on the rooftop watching for police raids — that shoved me into a new belief system, one that has no room for borders of any kind.
In all those ten years of listening, watching and writing, I’ve not come across a better argument to change people’s minds than the simple fact of being there.
William James, the founder of modern psychology, said that we become what we do. […] One trip to Calais, one cup of hot sugary tea with a Sudanese or Eritrean, is worth a full year of media stories, with their distortions, omissions, angles, exaggerations and outright lies.
If I can’t convince you to engage kinaesthetically, then the most disarming argument I’ve found, especially for all those sensible right-thinking folk, is the economic argument: free movement and open borders is ‘the efficient, egalitarian, libertarian, utilitarian way to double world GDP’.
These are not my words, but the general consensus of multiple economic studies conducted over the course of decades.
‘Impossible,’ all those sensible right-thinking folk say.
Not impossible, I say, only improbable. And everything, in this unlikely universe, is improbable so that’s not saying much.
Well, come on then, Mr 10 Years — what’s changed?
I was thinking about my long involvement with the free movement, er, movement because I’m currently reading Daniel Trilling’s excellent book Lights In The Distance: Exile And Refuge At The Borders Of Europe.
I met Daniel on my first 2014 trip to Calais, while he was researching this very book.
He wanted to visit the abandoned tioxide chemical factory where I was staying with half a dozen No Borders activists and several hundred other people, many from Sudan, but with representatives from all over — Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Albania, Vietnam.
We had a strict no journalists policy, but, for some reason, Daniel was allowed in — if only briefly. I dunno. Maybe because he seemed sound.
I still think he seems sound — and I agree with what he has to say about ‘change’:
Often, journalists like to think that what they’re doing is going to provoke a change. […] The myth we believe is that exposing something we consider unjust is enough to fix it. But it’s usually not. […]
Instead, if there’s anything useful in our work, it’s more like fitting the pieces of a shattered mirror back together […] As writers, we have the luxury of distance. We can step back from a situation, try to untangle the web of cause and effect that surrounds it, and retell it in a way that makes sense.
Not only that: I would add that we also introduce people to new ideas, voices and perspectives. It’s nowhere near as good as being there, but stories are a small beginning and that counts for something.
Oh, and plenty has changed in the past ten years.
Me, for starters.
Bikes x Borders
Since 2018, I’ve been part of Thighs of Steel, a community of cyclists who gather together every summer to ride an incredibly long way and raise funds for grassroots activist and migrant-led projects that either advocate for change or offer dignified ways for people on the move to elevate themselves.
As much as possible, these are sustainable projects that return a little power, independence and autonomy to people who have often been stripped of all three.
These are projects like Khora, a community kitchen and legal advice centre in Athens, Hakoura, a refugee-run eco-farm in Greece, the Bikes For Refugees cycle space in Scotland, and Calais Migrant Solidarity, the No Borders activist centre I first made contact with way back in 2014.
Since 2016, Thighs of Steel have cycled from the UK to Athens five times and raised over £650,000 in cash to help keep community spaces like these open to all.