The Security Paradox of Open Borders: Control and Surveillance of Migrants


December 18 to 20

Chiang Rai, Thailand

The workshop Security Paradox of Open Borders: Control and Surveillance of Migrants was held in Chiang Rai, Thailand from December 18 to 20, 2003. The workshop was jointly organised by Dr Prem Kumar Rajaram and Dr Carl Grundy-Warr at the National University of Singapore, by Professor Didier Bigo of the Institute for Political Science (Sciences-Po), Paris, by Professor Elspeth Guild of the Law Faculty at the University of Nijmegen and by Dr Charit Thingsabadh from the Centre for European Studies, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.
The central theme of the workshop was the control and surveillance of migrants. This was approached through investigations of legal and political methods of control, such as detention, along with anthropological studies of migrant communities. The workshop sought to study the relation between globalisation and migration control on a variety of levels and through a number disciplinary prisms.

Context and Research Question
The impetus for the conference was a concern about a certain paradox of contemporary global politics. Global politics is marked by two seemingly contradictory and opposite forces. Alongside globalising forces that link a variety of economic, political and cultural networks and flows across political borders there are cloistering and restrictive forces and policies which seek to limit different aspects of globalisation. While the tendency is to read these forces as opposing each other, the paradox of open borders is that the two arguably run alongside each other and are inseparable. Processes of ‘globalisation’ and ‘open borders’ generally posit an excluded community (or less specifically an excluded economic or political stance) with the consequence that a Manichean logic of inside/outside operates to create a ruse or impression that global political and economic convergence is the norm while simultaneously denigrating or downplaying evidence of exclusion.

The ruse of open borders conceals the political, cultural and economic inequalities upon which it rests. In speaking specifically and centrally of a paradox of open borders, the workshop centres the state. Or rather, the workshop focuses on the question of the state, the state as a question, in contemporary geopolitics. To what extent is the logic, and the epistemology and ontology on which it rests, of the sovereign state still operative in geopolitics and international relations? In speaking of the paradox of open borders, the workshop tangentially hoists the state to a central role (its right to which has been questioned by contemporary scholars of globalisation and global politics) for the border is the central defining and demarcating element that distinguishes states. The focus is not solely on the concrete aspect of the state. The focus is not only, that is, on the offices or agents of the state, but also on the logics of differentiation and exclusion that underlie and vindicate the sovereign state. Perhaps paramount in these are policies and practices that create an image or ruse of the border as a clear and linear divide, distinguishing and separating different and sovereign communities. One of the intentions of this workshop was to interrogate this notion of the border as a moment of separation. In criticising the logics of exclusion that vindicate the border as moment of separation, the workshop shed light on the complicated contortions and diffusions of the border, pointing to the border as an area of interaction and negotiation that blur inside/outside distinctions.

Techniques of exclusion and dissimulation central to the logic of sovereignty target the unauthorised or irregular migrant, emphasising her otherness and the limits of the dominant political and ethical structures. The migrant thus serves on the one hand to reinforce particular norms of politics and ethics. The identity of the migrant is instrumentalised: becoming a component of ongoing processes of state constitution. The unauthorised migrant is also the subject of discourses about threats to global security and a prosperous economic globalisation. Studying the exclusion of the unauthorised migrant reveals the persistence of the suffocating sovereign logics of exclusion and inclusion that arguably continue to permeate global politics despite protestations of the erosion of the importance of the state as actor in international relations.

Open borders pose a threat to the security of the state. The logics of exclusion are premised on a politics of security where the goal is the preservation of the way of life guaranteed by the state.

The workshop brought together leading and promising younger scholars from Europe and Asia to discuss and investigate the relation between borders and the control and surveillance of migrants. Two broad foci were evident in the workshop. There were studies of attempts to control globalisation through stemming unwanted flows of certain people while simultaneously encouraging other ‘wanted’ flows. Sovereign logics of exclusion and inclusion were identified and studied in different European and Asian contexts. A second focus of the workshop were specific country-centred studies on how specific forms and policies of differentiation and exclusion of specific migrants constitute practices of nation-building.

Broadly speaking, scholars from Europe focused on the first theme while Asian scholars focused on the second. This perhaps reflects political and sociological realities in these different regions. The particular nature of European citizenship and cosmopolitanism and the idea of ‘Europe’ juxtaposed against an incoherent otherness (often given flesh in the figure of the ‘illegal immigrant’) reflects the concerns of a regional community. In Asia perhaps the state is less concrete, effective control over state borders remains an issue. Thus specific and contextualized studies of different forms of nation-building that create and utilise a particular sense of the irregular migrant sheds light on the differentiated and differentiating operation of sovereignty across time and space.
It was anticipated that the workshop would shed light on different ‘border practices’ and how different forms of control over the migrant reflect different political and sociological realities in Asia and Europe. This has been achieved, a broader understanding of issues of sovereignty, security, the border and the migrant and of differing priorities and foci in Asia and Europe has resulted from the workshop. Moreover, the workshop has provided the basis for further collaboration and interaction between leading scholars from Asia and Europe on issues of migration and security (see follow up plans below).

A manuscript of papers from the workshop (entitled Borderscapes: Rethinking the Politics of Migration and Belonging) is currently with a leading American university press.

Follow up plans
There are two principle follow up plans. The first is to organise a network of scholars from Europe and Asia who are involved in border studies and migration. This network would serve as a basis for research collaboration and for research funding in the organisation of future conferences and workshops. The second is to organise a follow up workshop in Europe in 2005 where a number of the themes and questions that have emerged in this first workshop will be further scrutinised.

Prem Kumar Rajaram
Department of Geography
National Univesity of Singapore
Kent Ridge Crescent