Our understanding of borders is so personal and perhaps no definition is, as of yet, fully sustainable. This is because no definition accounts for the fact that borders define against otherness. When you think of your self or your identity, do you think of everything that you are not? A fire-fighter. A gymnast. Quiet. Mysterious.
There are certainly moments in our lives when what we are not comes into the foreground. Watching the Rio Olympics, last year I considered what it would take for me to complete a perfect backward roll into double somersault. A lot. Because I am not a gymnast. Indeed, I have never been a gymnast but I had also not, before this point, been defining myself by my lack of gymnastic ability. But it was not until I was watching a gymnast perform that I remembered, ‘Yes, indeed, I am not a gymnast’. This moment – where I realised my stark inflexibility and belligerent clumsiness were barriers of entry to the athletic glory that would otherwise be mine – I have found this moment useful to define borders.
A border serves to define what is and what is not. But we only become aware of the border when and if we’re in contact with it. You’re never so aware of a border as when you’re trying to cross it.
Borders are primordial. Rogationtide processions in the Middle Ages served to commit the boundaries of the town to communal memory. The parish community walked a route through their community defining the boundaries and significance of its landscape. The exclusion and exclusivity of the procession was significant process in the definition of the communal and individual identity of the community. Borders are social. They are a collective construction. They are part of a ritual of belonging and they define acceptance, conformity and the behaviours we adopt with others.
Borders are personal. You can spend your life feeling them a lot or not feeling them at all. A border is a boundary, the point at which you are or you are not. But it is not impermeable – at least it shouldn’t be. It is complicated by the realisation that where you place it is not where others place it: when your well-spoken English surprises people because you’re African. When your pay reflects your sex and not how well you do your job. When yours is amongst a list of travel-banned countries. When you are not welcome. However brief these encounters may be, they force you to re-negotiate your borders, which really means re-negotiating your sense of self.
The most formal borders we have are those that exist between countries and, contrary to contemporary understanding of the world as a global community, these borders are being more narrowly construed everyday. We celebrated the demolition of one wall to face the proposition of another just 30 years on. Leaving the EU has the consequence, whether intended or not, of shattering the sense of identity of many UK residents. And the uncertainty provoked by the Brexit decision remains. With the subsequent decision against the guarantee of the rights of current EU residents in the UK, a multitude has been put on the outside that has always been in.
EU nationals in the UK are already starting to contend with the highly inadequate UK systems like we haven’t before. At the end of last year, Dutch software engineer, Monique Hawkins, used the Guardian to voice her outrage when the UK home office asked her to begin to make arrangements to leave the country after she decided to apply for permanent residency and was rejected. She had resided in the UK for 24 years and is married to a British Citizen and has two British children, aged 15 and 17 and in the light of the Brexit vote she felt it prudent to secure her place in the UK. The deportation was unfounded and her experience ‘highlights the absurdity of the Home Office permanent residency process’ and other EU nationals have had similar experiences. The ‘bureaucratic wall’ Hawkins faced was no accident. The UK Border Agency is a system of obstacles that aim to strategically tire out the ‘unwanted’. The system is flawed and grossly impersonal to the point of inadequacy and it’s been a tool of selectivity and determent against non-EU immigrants for years.
Hawkins was unable to get adequate assistance or to successfully appeal the decision and was forced to solicit the help of an MP to intervene on her behalf. It evidences the unattainable resources one must have to have their case heard. For others facing this very system, the aid of an MP is unfortunately not an option. Not to mention the high fees involved in these applications. For many, for most in fact, one application is a considerable investment, making the process as restrictive as a 96-mile long wall. Borders are personal and actually not physical at all. You can carry them around with you and experience them everywhere, making them more a part of the self than we immediately recognise.