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What would a world without borders look like?

Our man-made geographical boundaries are not as permanent as we imagine. James Crawford went on a voyage to trace the dividing lines along which humanity seeks to control the world

You will have seen the news. ‘Chaos’ at the ports of south-east England. Tailbacks running for miles through the Kent countryside from the new ‘hard border’ with the European Union – the cumulative impact of stamping passports to record that a political line is being crossed.

For refugees attempting to travel in the opposite direction, however, that same border has shifted entirely: outsourced to the African nation of Rwanda. The migrants whose boats wash up on the beaches of Dover have not, in official terms at least, crossed a border. Rather the plan is for them to be put on an aeroplane and sent to a border limbo over 4,000 miles to the south: asylum-seeking reduced to a global game of snakes and ladders. 

Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, has floated the possibility of another ‘hard border’ between Scotland and England in the event of a decision to leave the UK and rejoin the EU.

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In Ireland, the problem of the border seems intractable. Is it there, or isn’t it? Is it on land or is it in the Irish Sea? Just a few weeks ago Chris Southworth of the International Chamber of Commerce talked of easing the friction of trade across the Irish Border by making it entirely digital, thereby “creating the best border in the world”.

On July 20, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced an initiative to create a ‘contactless digital border’ at UK ports of entry, so that the UK border can become the “most effective in the world”. 

Elsewhere, as record numbers of migrants attempt to enter the US from Mexico, Elon Musk’s electric car company has struck a deal with the state of Nuevo León to create an exclusive border crossing. At a remote checkpoint north-west of Laredo in Texas, a dedicated lane marked with the sign ‘Tesla’ allows express passage from Mexico into the US for anyone connected to, or doing business with, the company.

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A few weeks earlier in the Spanish exclave of Melilla on the coast of Morocco – the only place on land where Europe and Africa meet – some 2,000 migrants tried to cross one of the most high-tech border fences in the world. Perhaps as many as 37 were killed in clashes with Moroccan and Spanish riot police. 

Hard borders, vanishing borders, invisible borders, digital borders, “the best borders in the world”. These stories of the lines we have created, which we have set across our planet, are constant and unavoidable. No surprise given that, today, there are more borders than ever before in human history. And, confronted by technology, globalisation, mass migration and climate change, they are being pushed to, and seemingly beyond, breaking point. 

I wanted to write The Edge of the Plain to try to understand how we got here. What were the origins of bordering? Where did borders begin, and how have they evolved to entirely divide the earth?

In the process I went travelling in search of borders old and new. In the Greek mountains I looked for ancient border markers and the mass grave of a border battlefield. In the twilight of a Scottish summer, I walked the abandoned outposts of the Roman Empire. Two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, I met an artist who has dedicated his life’s work to removing borders and reclaiming the language and landscape of his ancient culture. In the border-obsessed West Bank, I stayed in the hotel with “the worst view in the world”. High in the Ötztal Alps, I climbed into a world of vanishing border glaciers. 

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Along the way I spoke to people whose lives have been consumed by borders. An anthropologist who walks the migrant trails of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, archiving what people have left behind – what some call ‘migrant trash’, but what he calls ‘American immigration history in the making’. A Spanish photojournalist who travelled the borderline of Europe during the 2015 migrant crisis. A virologist working at the height of the pandemic to understand what was happening as the spike proteins of Covid-19 crossed the microscopic borderline of our cells. An agro-forester in Cameroon trying to grow a vast borderline of trees and crops in the desert-ifiying Sahel. 

The Edge Of The Plain: How Borders Make and Break Our World by James Crawford is out now (Canongate Books, £20)

In this book, I’m looking at the long history of bordering from its very beginnings to the present day to ask if borders are failing us. Do we need to rethink them? Are we stuck with them? And if we are, then what are the consequences for the future?

Borders – which are seen as so permanent and fixed, are nothing of the sort. They have always been agents of change and movement. And one thing I can say for sure: the borders of today will not be the borders of tomorrow. 

James Crawford is a writer and broadcaster 

You can buy The Edge of the Plain  from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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