Border Nation. A Story of Migration

Cowan, Leah
London 2021: Pluto Press
160 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Miriam Pfordte, SFB 1199, Universität Leipzig

On the very first page of her recent publication, Leah Cowan writes: “Borders are indisputably sites of violence [.…] Borders segregate, categorise and dehumanise us. They are the product of long histories of injustice, which means that we – our, flesh, bones and the very breath which keeps us alive – can be crudely termed ‘illegal’ in the eyes of the law.” (p. 1) With these first words, Cowan shows that her book is not supposed to be one of the many sober and allegedly objective written works that want to contribute to the already wide and virulent areas dealt with in border studies or migration studies. Her book sets a clear political statement for the abolition of (state) borders and is based on the practical experiences of borders for migrants; persons of migrant descent; and people of colour, a group with which Cowan – whose family came with the Windrush generation to the UK – identifies herself.1 However, the stance of this book can be expected if the reader is familiar with the series Outspoken from Pluto Press, which commits itself to the publication of politically leftist books that deal with contemporary issues.

After a short introduction outlining the content of her book, Cowan starts with a look at Britain’s imperialism. But against the reader’s expectations, she does this without a historical excursion into Britain’s imperial past, as the title of the first chapter – “In the Shadow of the British Empire” – may indicate. Rather, she argues that colonialism is still part of the British and worldwide linguistic, economic, and political present. The second chapter starts with a statement asserting that migration is part of Britain’s history since antiquity, whereas anti-migration sentiments are a more modern phenomenon rooted in the fact that Britain has treated the inhabitants of the Commonwealth – and migrants in general – mainly as an economic factor, which has to be controlled and exploited. In the third chapter, Cowan first opposes the myth of meritocracy and capitalism – that is to say, that hard work equals economic and social wealth – because several social groups in Britain have better access to education, health care, and employment than others. Following this, she denounces the uncritical public for not dealing with the negative sides and consequences of the British Empire, which has contributed to a process of mystification of citizenship and borders that is seen as something human and natural.

The following chapter depicts how British (and international) media create racist perspectives and reproduce xenophobic images through biased coverage that dehumanizes people of colour, individualizes structural problems, and strengthens mental borders. The fifth chapter explains how the anti-migrant campaigns of Theresa May – for example, the Immigration Act, the tied visas 2, and the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act – harden existing societal borders by discriminating against migrants on the labour market and the housing market, as well as in their access to public services.

Following this, Cowan describes in chapter 6 how British detention centres exist outside the public eye due to their remoteness and a culture of silence surrounding them. This and the fact that detention is considered an administrative process that does not need a clear termination date negatively affect the mental health of the inhabitants of these facilities. In turn, chapter 7 deals with life in these detention centres (which are mainly run by private and profit-oriented companies) in more detail, depicting the financial exploitation of the inhabitants, the poor healthcare provision, and the inhuman living conditions. It closes with a description of the violence that happens during and through deportations. Chapter 8 shows methods of resistance against the violence caused by borders. It contains intersectional solidarity, virtual and physical protests against detention and deportation, and passive resistance of bystanders of deportation. The chapter also recognizes the impacts of imperialism and Eurocentrism and the attempts to rethink them.

Cowan concludes her book with a hopeful plea for a borderless world that considers the “border nations” of the present to be a man-made fiction of the future by answering eight critical questions she often encounters. This conclusion coincides with the quotes by Akwugo Emejulu, Francesca Sobande, and Bridget Anderson at the beginning of the introduction, which espouse a better, borderless world.

Cowan precedes every chapter with one to two quotes that unfortunately lack sources. This is especially a pity because the imprecise references – such as “elder from the Windrush generation, reflecting on life in 1950s Britain” (p. 21) – weaken the argumentative insightfulness of this otherwise very well-researched and substantiated book. It also misses the opportunity to bring the reader’s attention to the books and the contexts in which the quoted persons made their statements and therefore limits the ability to further investigate the topic.
But in general, one can still consider Cowan’s book as an invitation to further explore topics like border violence, migration, and (post-)colonialism. One can only write so much in 150 pages, but Cowan still manages to name important authors and research that deal with the topics on different occasions (Cf. p. 22). In doing so, most of her sources are accessible online. This aspect and that the subheadings of the chapters resemble the catchwords from articles, as well as the ubiquitous reference to contemporary political developments, leave the reader with the impression of reading a longer newspaper article, which fits Cowan’s background as an experienced journalist.

Many of Cowan’s sources are newspaper articles themselves; she refers to over 50 articles. Noteworthy in this context is that Cowan, who usually only quotes one website/newspaper once or twice, refers to The Guardian 24 times. This is, of course, nothing to be assessed negatively, but it locates the author – despite her identification with a marginalized group – in a privileged left, liberal and academic context, a factor that Cowan reflects on herself in her introduction (p. 10).

At some points, the vocabulary Cowan uses is harsh and polemic. For example, when she talks of Britain’s self-perception as a “small island” as a “distraction – a sly smile hiding rows of razor-sharp teeth, stained with the blood-soaked details of a murky history” (p. 11), she does not want to seem unpolitical or to pretend to be objective. Bluntly and unsparingly, she wants to depict how political borders harm people on an everyday basis. At the same time, she manages the balancing act of pointing out grievances without portraying the people negatively affected by the borders as mere victims. Rather, they appear as persons with agency that are capable of resisting their circumstances in many individual ways.

Overall, her work reminds the reader (especially the ones who are involved in academic research, as is the author of this review) that political events and decisions affect people on a very personal level, sometimes for generations, and that those manifold experiences have to be recognized to understand and improve social development and to write history. Cowan’s work – her rejection of borders and the spatial ordering (be it social, economic, cultural, or political) that comes with it – highlights the temporality of spatial formats (e.g. states or nations), even if they seem ever so persistent.

1 With the plea for a borderless world, she is not alone in 2021. For example, Volker Heins published his book Offene Grenzen: Eine notwendige Utopie [Open borders: A necessary utopia], which argues for the opening of state borders for the sake of a just world (Volker Heins, Offene Grenzen: Eine notwendige Utopie, Hamburg 2021).
2 Meaning domestic workers that came with their employees to the UK cannot change their workplace without losing their visa.

Editors Information
Published on
Temporal Classification
Regional Classification
Book Services
Contents and Reviews
Additional Informations
Language of publication
Language of review