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Acts of Violence on the Landscape: 
Harsha Walia and the Fight Against Border Imperialism

Grace Graham-Taylor

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Mass migration is one of the most prominent and polarising phenomena in 21st century politics – a fact brought into sharp relief by the European “migrant crisis” of 2015. During that year, 1.3 million people, mainly Syrians fleeing civil war, crossed the borders into Europe, sparking chaos across the continent. Stoked by press hysteria, which alternated between the maudlin and the demonising, the crisis divided many European states into bitterly opposed political camps. Old, long buried tensions and racisms erupted, and as European people argued, thousands of refugees sat wasting their youths and talents in overcrowded detention centres.


Others died in dangerous attempts to bypass border controls.

As ongoing wars and the climate crisis continue to cause displacement, those in Western countries must reckon with the meaning of such events. 

Harsha Walia’s Undoing Border Imperialism is part of a growing body of scholarship that attempts to do this, by interrogating the way that Western state-building is itself a cause of global displacement. Though written in 2013, her treatise is more prescient now than ever. Walia offers a radical framework for viewing mass migration that “reorientates the gaze squarely on the processes of displacement and migration within the global political economy of capitalism and colonialism”. By reframing migration in terms of Western state action, Walia crafts a forceful argument for the rights of undocumented migrants and refugees, as well as a path towards a decolonised future.

Walia’s foundational claim is that Western states are responsible much of the destabilisation that causes people to migrate. Through “settler colonialism and military occupations, as well as through the globalisation of capitalism by imposing financial agreements and exploiting human and natural resources”, Western states unsettle communities by making their homelands uninhabitable. At the same time, these states refuse to grant entry to incoming migrants, locking them into a position of indefinite instability. Undocumented migrants are exploited as a cheap source of disposable labour, whilst the harsh policing of state borders and the media coverage surrounding them leads to racist and Islamophobic attacks, such as that carried out by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway, 2011. 

Using this framework as a backdrop, Walia calls for an end to the detention and expulsion of migrants, as well as a fundamental shift in the way that Western states operate. She details her work within No One is Illegal, a network of activists that advocates, amongst other things, “full regularization, also known as legalisation or amnesty, for all undocumented, nonstatus, and temporary migrants”. By anchoring her beliefs in personal experience, Walia demonstrates the practicality of what she proposes, whilst also addressing the difficulties she has faced. Undoing Border Imperialism provides invaluable insights into grassroots campaigning, which will be useful across a broad range of social justice concerns. Walia’s commitment and tenacity, as well as the many victories she has won for migrant justice, will be an inspiration to any activist. 

One of Walia’s many strengths as a writer and organiser is her sensitivity to the nuances of oppression. She recognises that, in order to understand the systems we are embedded in, we must resist oversimplification. “Oppression is relational and contextual”, she writes, “we are all embedded in relations of domination and all wear privilege, albeit in different ways and to varying degrees.” Rather than perpetuating an ‘us vs. them’ narrative, in which oppressor and oppressed are clearly defined camps, Walia seeks to understand how and why systems of power affect groups differently. In an age where controversial events involving refugees are routinely sensationalised, this position is a necessary one. 

According to Walia, undoing border imperialism is part of the greater goal of decolonisation, a far-reaching project that will require a “fundamental reorientation of ourselves, our movements, and our communities”. To do this, Walia suggests that we look to the leadership of Indigenous communities, whose voices are placed front and centre throughout her work. Alongside radical structural changes, such as the dismantling of global capitalism, Walia emphasises the importance of learning to see one another as apart from the systems that bind us.  Drawing connections between the fight against geographical borders and the borders of gender and race, Walia contends that we must focus on the breakdown of all divisions that “foster competition and division among each other”. To move forward, she argues, we all must learn to walk the delicate path between a recognition of common humanity and an adherence to individual communities’ particular needs. 

This will require holding “…individual autonomy alongside mutual interdependence, vulnerability as part of resiliency, and specific experiences within a universal humanity.” This kind of complex thinking is hard to sustain, which may be why it’s so rarely seen in public discourse. But Walia’s work reminds us that it is inseparable from the fight against global injustice. 

Grace studies Philosophy and History at the University of Glasgow. She regularly reviews texts for Book Browse and writes for GUM magazine.

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