Borders and the Refugee Crisis

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Why study borders?

You have probably seen images in the news of barbed wire fences, groups of people scrambling to get out of boats and to the safety of the shore, people clinging to train cars. These images provide a glimpse into a complex and constantly changing landscape of human mobility across and between borders. Today, more people are on the move than ever before, and sociologists are striving to make sense of what shapes this movement and how it is changing the world.

Within the study of human mobility and migration, some sociologists have turned their attention to forced migration, also known as forced displacement. Displacement can be driven by war, hunger, climate change, by need and by people’s desire to secure a safe future. Nation-states and their borders are key topics for sociologists studying displacement today. Sociologists are interested in how borders shape displacement, how the meanings and functions of borders are changing in light of globalization, how borders are constructed by different types of states, and what actors are involved in these processes.

In the contemporary international system, political borders separate the territory of one nation-state from the territory of another. There are 194 nation-states in the world today, and there are more than 300 land borders between them, in addition to numerous sea boundaries. Borders allow states to define their “inside” and their “outside” and to maintain power over resources, people, and territory.

The purpose of this module is to introduce the topic of borders by examining the institutions and people that form and enforce borders on the one hand, and by analysing how borders shape aspects of our own lives on the other hand. We will pay special attention to the significance of borders in shaping the current refugee crisis and the lived experiences of asylum seekers and refugees.

This resource will help you to:
1. Take a look at how the borders of contemporary nation-states are constructed, both on a macro-scale and from a micro-level perspective;
2. Understand the roles of different agents involved in border enforcement and border-crossing;
3. Understand how borders shape the lived experiences of contemporary refugees.

First, the module will offer a macro-level look at borders as they delineate modern nation-states on the map, using concepts developed by social scientists like Doreen Massey, Anssi Paasi, David Newman, Manuel Castells. This will form the basis for Activity 1.

Second, we will look at borders from a micro-level perspective, examining them as particular places where people convene, interact, and move about. Here, we will use ideas brought forth by sociologists of human mobility like Mimi Sheller, John Urry, Tim Cresswell and by sociologists of migration like Stephen Castles. Activity 2 will help us to reflect on how border crossing is experienced by different individuals across the world.

Finally, we will examine the contemporary refugee crisis from the perspective of the sociology of displacement and border studies. Activity 3 will offer one possible explanation of how various factors combined to form the “perfect storm” of the refugee crisis. This activity will also prompt you to think critically about the roles of different agents at work at borders crossed by people fleeing from danger and seeking safety.

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