Book Review: Border Nation
Border Nation is the first book from Leah Cowan, writer and former political editor at gal-dem, whose work covers race, gender, migration, state violence and their intersections. This short yet comprehensive read takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the UK’s migratory landscape, analysing the historical and contemporary features of Britain as a border nation, and the implications of this on politics, communities, migration, asylum seekers and big business.
The size of this book is almost deceptive, and readers may be surprised that a book this short can pack such a powerful punch. Cowan uses well-researched references, examples, case studies and statistics that demonstrate the violence and harm caused by Britain’s policies. For those whose passports are greeted with open borders and whose biggest frustration is completing a (mostly guaranteed) visa application, this book may be the first time in which the extent of Britain’s colonial past and current migration policy becomes clear.
Throughout its eight chapters, Border Nation covers Britain’s imperial past and the creation of global borders; explains the ways in which migrants are routinely ‘othered’ and racialised in order to divide the working class; debunks myths such as the ‘migrant resource drain’, and uncovers the role of the media in creating, reinforcing and dictating what borders should look like. Cowan’s detailing of the harsh and inhumane ways in which people are detained and deported makes for shocking and painful reading, even for those who are aware of Britain’s hostile immigration practices and the misery they inflict on countless lives.
By interviewing and telling the stories of people who have been detained, Cowan centres the human cost of violent borders. In setting out the processes, profits and behaviours of the security companies responsible for detainees (including paying detainees £1 an hour to cook and clean in the centres, driving costs down by offering limited healthcare provision to those incarcerated, and employing racist guards), Cowan lights a fire in the belly of the reader, if they can put themselves in the shoes of those victimised by Britain’s border policies.
The concept of borders is so ingrained in us that it can be hard to conceive of a world in which they do not exist. Even the most open-minded reader might have questions they would feel uncomfortable asking or debating, such as, ‘Is a world without borders a utopian ideal?’, or, ‘What about the strain on the NHS?’; ‘Where will everyone live?’. Luckily, Cowan gives considered answers to these questions and more in the final two chapters, ‘Borderlands of Resistance’ and ‘Living Beyond Borders’. These final chapters leave the reader with hope, reminding us that ‘the call for no borders is not an obscure political concept, but a call-to-action’, one that can be answered through solidarity and acts of resistance.
Reading this, I was reminded of the 2021 Glasgow protest, in which more than 200 protestors disrupted the detention of two Muslim men during the religious holiday, Eid-Al-Fitr. Whether or not the protesters were aware of it at the time, they acted as an example to us all of how resist and weaken the violent border policies so carefully explained in Border Nation.