Why are borders sometimes referred to as violent? Discuss the different forms of violence found at borders

When one mentions borders the first thing that comes to mind are the lines drawn on maps to designate the territory of sovereign nation states.

However, in this essay I will be using a wider definition of the term, encompassing the enclosure of space in such a way as to exclude others from using or benefiting from the resources within.

In addition, I will also be using the word ‘violence’ to include not only physical force, but also the economic, political and psychological exertion of power.

Therefore, with this in mind, I will attempt to answer the question – ‘why are borders sometimes referred to as ‘violent’ – supporting my argument with ethnographies conducted on the Mexican border with the US, the Indian city of Ahmedabad, and the United Kingdom.

The impact of borders

Reece Jones (2019 p.37) explains that ever since their inception, borders have always acted as a means of preserving the ‘privilege and opportunity for some by restricting access to resources and movement for others’ and to enforce the collection of taxes and payments by those who use these resources.

The concept can be applied both to the drawing of borders on a map and claiming sovereignty of the land on one side, and to the enclosure of fields and forests which had previously been common land used by peasants for foraging, hunting and pasture, but which were then enclosed by feudal lords all over Europe several centuries ago.

In such a situation the very act of building a wall or erecting a fence is an act of violence, claiming ownership over resources that had been traditionally shared and forcing people to conform to the new boundaries, in the process denying them the means of making a living (Reece Jones 2019).

Parcelling out territorial seas

Jones (2019) also compares the enclosure of common lands that happened in the aftermath of the end of feudalism to what happened in 1982 when the United Nations signed a new agreement reclassifying 44% of the oceans as territorial seas, thus excluding other countries from fishing or having any right to any other natural resources discovered therein.

One need only look at the heated arguments and legal action brought by France and the United Kingdom regarding fishing rights in the wake of Brexit to get an idea of how such territorial claims can lead to conflict and violence (BBC News, 2021).

Violent borders – Policing

It is not only the act of enclosure that can be violent, but also the way in which borders are policed and patrolled. This is because the use of force, or the threat of force, is often necessary to keep people from crossing a border. This can be seen in the weapons carried by border guards and the use of barbed wire and other physical barriers. It can also be seen in the way that people are often detained, or even killed, when they try to cross a border illegally.

The threat of expulsion or violence has another destructive consequence. To avoid border patrols or other means of enforcement, migrants have had to resort to much more dangerous crossings to enter another country. This has led to a rise in people smugglers who take advantage of these migrants, and to bandits, who prey on them when they are most vulnerable.

Ethnography: The United States Border

In an ethnography of South Americans attempting to enter the United States, De Leon (2012) tells us that in the mid-1990s the US militarised the US – Mexico border based on a policy known as ‘Prevention through Deterrence,’ using techniques similar to those deployed to counter insurgencies and domestic terrorism.

Violent borders make for dangerous crossings

The use of thousands of heavily armed border patrols, extensive fencing, and the use of advanced detection technologies such as motion sensors and drones, has forced would-be migrants to attempt the crossing through dangerous regions such as the Sonoran Desert, a journey which has claimed thousands of lives (Rubio-Goldsmith cited in De Leon 2012).

The ethnographer finds that migrants are very much aware of the violence and danger they will encounter along the way. As he travels on the bus with two men who are about to attempt to cross the desert for the umpteenth time, one of the two men tells him –

‘A lot of things are going through my head right now. I’m thinking about my family and I’m scared that I am going to die out there. Each time is different; you never know what is going to happen. … The bajadores [armed border bandits] should be out partying tonight because it’s Saturday. We should be able to avoid them. We have food and water and God willing we will get across.’

De Leon 2012 p. 478

Ethnography: The City of Admedabad

The ethnography above refers to people attempting to cross a border between countries, but as already explained there are several different types of violent borders.

I will now turn to the re-organisation of public spaces and the drawing of imaginary boundaries to oppress and exclude the ‘other,’ using the Indian city of Ahmedabad as a case study (Chatterjee, 2009).

Violent borders – mayhem and destruction

The city was the scene of violent riots in 2002 where Hindus killed thousands of Muslims over a span of two and a half months, with the tacit support of the police and state authorities.

Around 100,000 Muslims fled from their homes and had to abandon their businesses, which in many cases were looted and razed to the ground with bulldozers, with new structures run by Hindus erected seemingly overnight.

Thus, the Muslim community was forced out of the urban centre and towards the periphery of the city, where they were entrapped and segregated in an area with much lower economic and educational opportunities, while excluding them from the richer urban centre, that had now become the preserve of the Hindus (Bauder cited in Chatterjee 2009).

Zafarbhai, a Muslim who had been expelled by the violence from his home in Bapunagar, tells the ethnographer that –

‘They needed to burn our houses and shops to eliminate us completely. The rioters came in truckloads of thousands, intoxicated and brandishing hammers, knives, gas cylinders, chanting names of Hindu Gods.’

After the riots had subsided Zafarbhai and his family returned home, only to find that they ‘could not reclaim our property, Hindu neighbors have taken over, and so we moved to Siddiquabad, which houses the displaced Muslim population – it was set up by an Islamic relief trust. The problem is, in Siddiquabad, we just have a home, no school for the kids, no job, no business network. I am now unemployed for a year’ (Chatterjee 2009 p. 1007).

Violent borders – marginalisation

The physical violence and destruction suffered by this marginalised community in 2002 was clearly aggravated by the psychological violence of being pushed into an area which was relegated to second class by the local authorities.

Considerable investment was poured into beautifying and creating jobs in the areas that were now exclusively the domain of the Hindus, while nothing was done about the slums and substandard conditions in Muslim districts such as Siddiquabad in East Ahmenabad.

To add insult to injury, Muslims also suffered discrimination when it came to the distribution of public housing, with the researcher discovering that of the 4500 homes built by the state in West Ahmenabad to house the poor, not even one unit was assigned to a Muslim, which is particularly egregious when one considers the thousands of Muslim homes in in the area that had been destroyed or stolen during the riots (Chatterjee 2009).

An even more visible form of discrimination, and a clear indicator of the ‘imaginary’ and ‘invisible’ border, is the fact that Muslims are banned from purchasing property in certain areas of the city.

A rich Muslim businessman tells the ethnographer that –

‘West Ahmedabad is rich Ahmedabad, it is clean and green – skyscrapers and malls stand proudly … I can afford to live there, but no one will sell me land or an apartment there, because I am a Muslim. The builders have hung notices to keep the Muslim-buyers out.’

Chatterjee 2009 p. 1009

Ethnography: Psychological Violence in the UK

The damage wrought by psychological and economic violence can be extreme. This type of violence includes the precarity experienced by immigrants in countries where their status is constantly under review.

Hasselberg (2016) conducted ethnographic research amongst foreign nationals living in the United Kingdom who were found guilty of an offence that carried a minimum sentence of 12 months, which automatically triggers a deportation order and a ban on ever returning to the UK.

Violent borders – forced repatriations and splitting families

Such forced repatriations have far-reaching consequences, in some cases splitting families and in others sending second generation migrants to countries they have never lived in, and whose language and customs they are not familiar with.

Hamid, an African married to a British citizen, with whom he shares two stepchildren and a biological daughter, tells the ethnographer that –

“I can go to my country – is no problem. I can go. It’s not hell over there – it is a country. We have food. We have water. I done my job. No problem. But how come I go there, and my daughter here behind me? My wife behind me? … But what about our family? Our children? What gonna happen to them? … How about us? They’re splitting us; they wanna split. Why? So that’s why I’m upset. I’m very sad”

Hasselberg 2016 p. 19

As can be seen the psychological and economic violence of such forced deportations does not impact only the person who is made to leave the UK, but also the people who love them or depend on them economically.

In this case Hamid’s wife, his daughter and his two stepchildren are all suffering from the consequences of this imminent deportation and will continue to suffer after it actually happen (Hasselberg 2016). What is being portrayed as a punishment for the convicted offender, has clearly become a punishment for the entire family.

Final thoughts on violent borders

In conclusion, borders can be said to be violent because of the way they are drawn, the way they are enforced, and the psychological and economic effects they have on people.

This violence is often hidden, or denied, but it is no less real for that.


BBC News 2021, “Brexit: Why is there a row over fishing rights?”

Chatterjee, I. (2009) “Violent morphologies: Landscape, Border and Scale in Ahmedabad Conflict.” Geoforum, vol. 40, no. 6, pp. 1003-1013.

De Leon J. (2012) “‘Better to Be Hot than Caught’: Excavating the Conflicting Roles of Migrant Material Culture.” American anthropologist, vol. 114, no. 3, pp. 477-495.

Hasselberg, I. (2016) “Reshaping possible futures: Deportation, home and the United Kingdom.” Anthropology today; Anthropology Today, vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 1921.

Jones, R. (2019) “From Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move.” NACLA Report on the Americas, vol. 51, no. 1, pp. 36-40.

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