The government of human mobility might well be the most important problem to confront the world during the first half of the 21st century.
Worldwide, the combination of fast capitalism and the saturation of the everyday by digital and computational technologies have led to the acceleration of speed and the intensification of connections. Ours is, in this regard, an era of planetary entanglement. Yet, wherever we look, the drive is decisively towards enclosure.
If this trend persists, tomorrow’s world will increasingly be a gated world, with myriad enclaves, culs-de-sac and shifting, mobile and diffuse borders.
The capacity to decide who can move and who can settle, where and under what conditions, will be at the core of the political struggles over sovereignty.
The right of non-citizens to cross national borders and enter a host country may not have been formally abolished yet. But, as shown by countless ongoing incidents, it is becoming increasingly procedural and can be suspended or revoked at any time and under any pretext.
That things are fast reaching this point is because a new global security regime is in the making.
It is characterised by the externalisation, militarisation and miniaturisation of borders, an endless segmentation and contraction of rights and an extension of tracking and surveillance as the privileged mode of mitigating risks. Its key function is to enhance mobility for some while impeding it or denying it to others.
It is paving the way for unprecedented forms of racial violence, most of which target minorities, the disenfranchised and already vulnerable people. This violence is abetted by new logics of containment and incarceration, expulsion and deportation.
Furthermore, mobility is increasingly defined in geopolitical, military and security terms. In theory, those who present the lowest risk profile can move. In practice, the calculation of risk mostly serves to justify unequal and discriminatory treatment along the colour line.
As the trend in favor of balkanisation and enclosure intensifies, the unequal redistribution of the capacities to negotiate borders on a global scale becomes a key feature of our times. Indeed, in the North, anti-immigrant racism is on the rise. Those deemed “non-European” or “non-white” are subjected to overt and not-so-overt forms of violence and discrimination. Racism itself has been discursively retooled. Difference and foreignness are now overtly construed either as cultural or as religious.
Globally, the trend is to withdraw the right to move from as many people as possible, or to subject such a right to draconian conditions which, objectively, make mobility impossible.
In instances where the right to move has been granted, similar efforts are deployed in order to make as uncertain and precarious as possible the right to stay. In this apartheid-like regime of global movement, Africa is doubly penalised, from the outside and from the inside.
Today, there is hardly any country in the world that does not consider migrants from Africa undesirable.
At the same time, saddled with hundreds of internal borders that make the costs of mobility highly prohibitive, Africa is trapped in the slow lane and increasingly resembles a massive open air prison.
In its attempt to contain the migratory flows from sub-Saharan Africa, Europe for instance is funding countries of origin and transit so that people seeking to move either do not leave in the first place, or are in no position to ever cross the Mediterranean. In this regard, the ultimate goal of the recently established EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa is to cut off any credible legal route for African migrations to Europe.
In exchange for money, brutal and corrupt African regimes are entrusted with the task of locking up potential African migrants and warehousing asylum seekers. Many have been drafted as key cogs in the system of deportation and forced returns that has become a hallmark of European anti-African migration policy.
As a matter of fact, no travelling person with an African passport — or person of African descent — is today free from unreasonable search and seizure. Very few are immune to time-consuming and invasive identity verifications at airports, on trains and highways or at roadblocks. Very few enjoy the right to a hearing prior to confinement at the site of inspection or prior to deportation.
At borders and other checkpoints, they are almost automatically among those subjected to scrutiny or closely and thoroughly inspected. Permanently under the gaze of racial profiling, they are almost always among those who bear a prohibited or penalised status.
Within the continent itself, postcolonial African states have failed to articulate a common legislative framework and policy initiatives in relation to border management, the upgrading of civil registries, visa liberalisation, or the treatment of third-country nationals residing legally in member states.
The end of colonial rule has not ushered a new era characterised by the extension of the right to freedom of movement to all. Instead, colonial boundaries have been made intangible and no decisive push towards regional integration has been recorded. With the exception of the Economic Community of West Africa, the right to mobility within and across national and regional boundaries is still a dream.
In this high-speed age, slow mobility consistently corresponds to skin colour and the continent is paradoxically trapped in a slow-track movement.
This was not always the case.
In our attempt to craft an Africa-centered migration policy, categories and concepts borrowed from the Western lexicon such as “national interest” , “risks”, “threats” or “national security” might not be helpful.
They refer to a philosophy of movement and a philosophy of space entirely predicated on the existence of an enemy in a world of hostility. This is the reason why today, deeply ingrained traditions of Western anti-humanism have found their most manifest expression in current anti-immigration policies. The latter are used as means to wage a social war on a global scale.
Precolonial Africa might not have been a borderless world. But where they existed, borders were always porous and permeable.
As evidenced by traditions of long-distance trade, circulation was fundamental in the production of cultural, political, economic and social forms. The most important vehicle for transformation and change, mobility was the driving principle behind the delimitation and organisation of space and territories.
Networks, flows and crossroads were more important than borders. What mattered the most was the extent to which flows intersected with other flows.
In this regime of flexible and yet generalised intersection, a high degree of mobility across all strata of society was also a means of coping with vulnerability and uncertainty.
To be sure, political boundaries defined some as members, or first-comers, and others as strangers or late-comers. But wealth in people always trumped wealth in things and multiple forms of membership were always available. Building alliances through trade, marriage or religion and incorporating newcomers, refugees and asylum seekers into existing polities was the norm.
State-form was but one of the myriad forms the government of people took. Peoplehood included not only the living, but also the dead and the unborn, humans and non-humans.
Hospitality could be extended to every person, enemies included. When they arrived in the land of another and so long as they were peaceful, strangers were not treated as enemies. Outsiders had ample possibilities to become fellow inhabitants and the right of temporary sojourn was quasi-universal.
Partitioning territories using political boundaries is a colonial invention. By instituting a hostile relation between the circulation of people and the political organisation of space, colonial rule inaugurated a new phase in the history of mobility in the continent.
By subscribing to the statecentric model of territorially delimited nations with closed and well-guarded borders, postcolonial African states disavowed long traditions of circulation that had always been the dynamic motor of change in the continent. In so doing, they embraced the anti-humanist drive inherent in Western philosophies of movement and of space and turned it against their own people.
Since then, the fetishisation of the nation-state has done untold damage to Africa’s destiny in the world. The human, economic, cultural and intellectual cost of the existing border regime in the continent has been colossal. It is time to bring it to closure.
To become a vast area of freedom of movement is arguably the biggest challenge Africa faces in the 21st century.The future of Africa does not depend on restrictive immigration policies and the militarisation of borders.
The continent must open itself to itself. It must be turned into a vast space of circulation. This is the only way for it to become its own center in a multipolar world.
For mobility to become the cornerstone of a new pan-African agenda, we need to leave behind migratory models based on anti-humanist concepts such as “national interest” and embrace our own long held traditions of flexible, networked sovereignty and collective security.
In a continent where, as a result of colonial engineering, the boundaries of the nation-state are fractured, and yet national states have a limited capacity to inspect, record and track people, the moment has come for African states to develop a genuine common mobility policy, with legally binding instruments.
To achieve the goal of a borderless continent, biometric identification and interlinked databases might be unavoidable. We should use identification procedures and security technologies to generate greater mobility on the continent rather than to consolidate the regime of double confinement to which Africa has been reduced.
We are reaching a point when, because of the geopolitics of our times, external powers might be in a position to dictate to each of our fragile national states the terms and conditions under which our own people can move, including within Africa itself.
The next phase of Africa’s decolonisation is about granting mobility to all her people and reshaping the terms of membership in a political and cultural ensemble that is not confined to the nation-state. There is no country better placed to take the lead on this question than South Africa.
If this is not done, we will simply reinforce the racial classifications already at work in the global imaginary, and in the name of which we are constantly humiliated and stripped of dignity at almost every single border-crossing site in the contemporary world.
Achille Mbembe is a research professor in history and politics at the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research (Wiser). This article is written in the context of ongoing debates about the green paper on international migration.