Everyday and everywhere bordering and precarity under COVID-19

The simultaneous proliferation and selective opening of both national and internal borders under COVID-19 has in some ways reconfigured hierarchies of precarity among non-citizens who are traditionally regarded as ‘other’ and ‘lesser than’ in nation states. However deeply-entrenched and increasingly carceral approaches to bordering in the UK and beyond, perpetuate conditions of precariousness for both non-citizens and citizens along class, gender and race.

The global spread of COVID-19 exposes the futility of international borders, arbitrariness of national migrant policies and sharp inequalities between those who can and cannot cross borders. In spite of historical evidence that borders do not deter migration, they continue to proliferate, creating new and reinforced forms of precarity for citizens and non-citizens alike. The social impacts of borders, rooted in (post)-coloniality and perpetuated under contemporary modes of global capitalism, have always been politically divisive. However, the context of pandemic has emphasised their role in creating and reinforcing multiple forms of precariousness.

National borders have not only failed to protect from infection the very populations they putatively ‘defend’, but also delayed coordinated crisis management across countries. Border logic  – and its premise of methodological nationalism –  is further undone through its selective implementation during the pandemic. Bordering does not stop at national checkpoints however. It goes beyond material walls and ports that demarcate fixed geopolitical points (Mezzadra and Neilson, 2013) and extends to governance practices of “everyday bordering” (Yuval-Davis et al., 2017).  Under lockdown, space within countries is further carved up in ways that affect life, labour, bodies and care.

Opening up our notions of bordering can shed light, not only on the pervasive ways in which they splinter populations into various categories of precarity;  but under pandemic, how uneven geographies of precarity continue through the governance of (im)mobility. This latest blog in a themed series on ‘precarity and pandemic’ offers a provocation to rethink what we mean by borders in relation to precarity and proposes the following – by no means comprehensive –  typology of (inter)national borders,  internal borders and intimate borders. The latter two constitute “everyday bordering”, and the unfolding impacts of lockdown policies. Indeed, “not all borders are the same for all people” (Bhattarcharya, 2018). The unequal impacts of bordering on precariousness among migrants of varying statuses, refugees and asylum-seekers (I refer to collectively as ‘non-citizens’) are well evidenced. Lockdown however exposes the relationality between precarities constructed directly through border regimes and those which emerge in intimate ‘everyday life’ in gendered, classed and racialised forms.

These border types are difficult to categorise neatly however. They overlap in ways that reconfigure and/or consolidate ‘hierarchies of precarity.’ In the UK, border laws are difficult to parse through and subject to constant change creating confusion. The targeting of ‘BAME’ groups perpetuated in UK immigration enforcement raids blurs the line between ‘migrant’ and citizen (Anderson, 2013).  Globally, responses to COVID-19 now prioritise the essential role of ‘non-citizens’ who traditionally fare among the worst in terms of precarity. The UK has seen a symbolic – but not yet material –  shift in status from proposed ‘low-skilled’ worker categories (represented by a high proportion of labour migrants) to ‘key worker’ status, epitomised in Boris Johnson’s public gratitude to two ‘migrant’ nurses for aiding his COVID-19 recovery.

Selective bordering and protection

Overall, the selective implementation of national borders in the UK has been out of sync with quarantine regulations.  Despite the anti-migrant rhetoric of Brexit and calls for COVID-19 containment through national border closures, the UK permitted entry for agricultural workers from Romania to enable a spatial fix of imported labour – a selective, often exploitative, approach also taken in Canada, the USA and across the EU. This not only undermines pandemic management in sending countries, but spreads the risk of contagion from returning migrants to regions with ageing populations. This ‘fix’ of exploiting cheap labour from Eastern Europe disregards localised risks, entrenching geographical hierarchies of precarity. Though elsewhere in the EU, selective bordering has enabled at least a temporary shuffling of precariousness. In Portugal, non-citizens awaiting official status were granted immediate residency – and therefore access to healthcare and welfare – in a bid to manage outcomes of the pandemic.

The combination of national bordering and lockdown can also lock into place precarious bodies such as ‘unskilled’ labourers in the migrant hubs of Singapore and the Gulf. Selective public health protections in Singapore  – initially lauded for efficient containment – were made visible in the plight of 20,000 labour migrants forced to quarantine in overcrowded and dirty dormitories. Such conditions flout WHO imperatives of strict hygiene and social distancing – in some ways paralleling those of UK detention centres. The pandemic has been used to justify border closures for refugees fleeing pre-existing conditions of crisis as with the Rohingya in Malaysia. In India, national borders closures were stalled yet city borders shut out rural migrants overnight, instantaneously removing livelihoods and welfare access, and exposing them to violence and wage denial. This selective and unequal approach to bordering directly structures how certain lives, as Butler (2013) puts it, “are counted as human, and others are not.”

Borders within borders

Everyday bordering” in the UK has diffused the role of policing borders from national checkpoints to actors in everyday life e.g. employers of migrant workers across all class backgrounds, landlords and university administrators. Impacts include the detention and deportation of those who only know the UK as home, immigration raids and racialised targeting, and surveillance and withholding of public services for those on student or work visas (representing different degrees of precariousness). Under pandemic, the logic of such internal bordering has also swiftly unravelled.  The UK’s ‘Hostile Environment Policy’ (HEP) – a system predicated on migrant surveillance, has been blamed by medics for deterring public health tracking measures such as contact tracing. Indeed, the fear of deportation has deterred non-citizens from seeking vital healthcare when afflicted by COVID-19, in some cases leading to death.  The “emptying out” of over 700 detainees – including asylum seekers – in response to fears of unmanageable viral infection has only led to further precaritisation. Many have been released without access to housing or resources and at least dozens have been deported, undermining mandates for ‘essential travel’. 

Domesticating borders

The new lexicon of ‘quarantine’, ‘isolation’ and ‘lockdown’ brings a domestic and intimate dimension to the relationship between borders and precarity. Cities evidently face high infection rates but even within urban spaces, uneven access to everyday infrastructures under pandemic – from waste collection to public space through to internet connection –  heighten precarities that play out in domestic life. The gendered and racialised implications of national/everyday borders intensify in household settings under lockdown. These implications have been highlighted in the upsurge of reported domestic violence, particularly among non-citizens with no recourse to public funds and for whom vital non-state services currently lack resources. Feminist calls to collapse binaries of ‘public life’ and the intimate domains of households and care advocate prioritising domestic violence to be considered as seriously as threats of global terrorism (Pain, 2014). The so-called ‘double pandemic’ of increased gender-based violence and COVID-19 indeed warrants a rethink of how lockdown enacts borders that penetrate gendered spaces of care and household. Isolation has further invisibilised non-citizens those under detention or engaged in (un)paid care.

The confluence of national, internal and intimate borders enables prevalence in everyday life, everywhere. Under pandemic we see these sometimes disrupt and reconfigure existing hierarchies of precarity but in many cases entrench them in increasingly complex ways.  The ongoing repercussions of public bordering ‘scandals’ in the UK; and now the early impacts of the pandemic, show how precariousness does not fall neatly between migrant (‘outsider’) versus citizens (‘insider’)  status. Borders are increasingly prevalent, fluid, invasive and intimate. Under COVID-19, the body itself may become a site of determining bordering policy. But as this blog series has shown, certain bodies have always been more predisposed to precaritisation.