Christian’s mobile phone vibrates as he settles into his seat for the flight to Montenegro. Two weeks ago, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) informed him that he no longer had leave to remain in the Britain, and asked him to provide flight details of when he planned to leave the country. On Facebook he informed his friends in Montenegro that he was coming home. Before turning his phone off for the flight, Christian looks down and checks his new text message. To his surprise it is from UKBA, and reads: ‘have a pleasant journey’.
The politeness of the British immigration officials that have questioned and scrutinized him is somehow the hardest thing to take. In a hyperconnected world, border control and regulation is taking more complex and technologically sophisticated forms. Christian’s story is emblematic of the new reality that technologies of border control are as mobile as the people get on and off of airplanes.
In 2010, it was estimated that there were 214 million international migrants in the world, representing an increase of almost 40 million in the first decade of the 21st century. One in three of these migrants are young adults. The regulation of youth migration is producing new hierarchies of belonging that order and rank the life chances of a globally mobile generation.
It is not only that young people are moving, but that the border is moving also, because while it exists at the extremity of the EU and UK, internal immigration controls now proliferate everywhere – from the lecture theatre, to the workplace, to the crèche – filtering by immigration status who can move through what spaces. The border itself is being multiplied (Mezzadra and Nielson, 2008), and the practices required to police it are being moved into communities and neighbourhoods.
This year, the controversy about the Home Office ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’ van campaign raised public concern about the damage done to Britain’s cosmopolitan cities. The campaign invited overstayers to text ‘Home’ on 7870, and the Home Office used Twitter to offer a running commentary on the van campaign. Anti- immigrant racism and xenophobia is given official public license in both off line and on-line worlds. It is not just that young migrants face institutionalised forms of marginalisation – without leave to remain they cannot work or have recourse to public funds – they also have to live with a sense of insecurity enhanced by the mobile phone in the palm of their hand.
What is also interesting is that while the mobile phone is now an instrument of border control it is also a connecting device. Salle, as a child in Tirana, Albania, was obsessed with telephones. He took old telephones out of the rubbish bins and took them to pieces only to re-assemble them again like little mutant telecommunications Frankensteins. His obsession with phones was in part due to the fact that the telephone was his link to his elder brother, who would phone home every month or so with news of his life in London. Today, he is still obsessed with phones, but now with mobile ones.
In 1999, as a result of the Serbian persecutions, 7,500 Kosovans fled into Albania, and guns were circulating in Tirana. Salle’s parents were relatively well off by Albanian standards – his mother was a nurse and his father worked as a forest ranger. A kidnap economy developed where relatively well off children were held to ransom. Salle was afraid, and his brother paid £4,000 to a pair of smugglers – a man and couple posing as a family – to secure Salle’s passage to London. His passage through Europe is a remarkable story: he eventually sneaked himself into the back of a truck full of beer and was picked up by the Kent police. He was 12 years old.
He lived with his brother in Barking and ended up in a school in Dagenham in Greater London. It was only when Salle met Harbahajan, a builder and a non-religious Sikh with Marxist leanings, that he found his footing. As he put it, “All the people in the building trade hate the Eastern Europeans but I love ‘em.” His building firm is made up of Rastafarian painters and decorators, Polish labourers and Albanian plumbers. Salle’s fortunes changed when he connected with Harbhajan’s business which itself was built on a kind of multicultural labour market in a sector of the economy that is fraught with racism and resentment.
Salle’s immigration status now is stable and, unlike many, he can move freely around the world and return to London without fear of being held or deported. He works mainly repairing and restoring the properties of London’s super rich and middle class. His mobile phone is his way to stay connected with his family in Tirana, his multi-ethnic networks in London, and the young Albanians who arrange to meet via text message every Friday night at a pub in east London.
The technologies of the digital age are changing the experience of living across national borders. In John Berger’s extraordinary study of migration, A Seventh Man, the immigrant’s sense of missing home is described as the ‘double pain of absence’. Writing in the 1970s, Berger explains: ‘He misses everything he feels to be absent. At the same time, that which is absent, continues without him’ (Berger and Mohr, 1975). The migrant experience of this kind of absence today has been transformed.
Through the mobile phone and virtual social networking, migrants can be technologically connected to the life ‘back home’ that is unfolding without them. They sit in a cafe in London and keep track of the lives of loved ones left behind, and even participate remotely through text messaging and email. Charlynne told me recently that she speaks to her relatives in Dominica all the time. “I can talk to my nephews for 45 minutes on Skype but I can’t put my arm around them,” she says.
Technological connection does not lessen the pain of absence: quite the contrary, it can exacerbate it. This was demonstrated by the case of a young asylum seeker called Clifford, who participated in a study of young adult migrants with my colleague Shamser Sinha. Clifford’s life was effectively on hold while his immigration case was being processed – he could not work legally or plan for his future. Every day, he kept up with his friends in Ghana who were working, falling in and out of love, and building their lives. The fact that through his iPhone he was in contact with the unfolding lives of friends and loved ones – in real time – exacerbated his own sense of being trapped in the present. His immigration status meant he was unable to move forward or back. Clifford’s experience shows how the digitisation of social life has transformed the relationship between here and there, without lessening the insecurities of being caught in-between.
It has been well established that the relationship between time and space is radically transformed through technologies like airplanes, smart phones and the internet. The hyper-connected nature of our world goes hand in hand with the proliferations of bordering practices. These no longer only happen at Heathow or Calais when we fumble for the passport in our bag. Rather, border control is being ‘in-sourced’. Doctors, health visitors, teachers, and university lecturers are all being asked to pass on information about migrants, through monitoring their student attendance or documenting visits to their homes. Willingly or not, they are enlisted as affiliates of immigration control.
Successive British governments have claimed that the UK points-based immigration system arbitrates on the basis of what young people can do rather than who are they are. This is little more than an ideological gloss concealing the thick lines being drawn within a generation of globally mobile young people. Here, the terms of inclusion are set by where you are from, how much money is in your bank account, and whether or not you will be granted leave to remain as a result. The border itself moves, nets, captures and expels unwanted or unneeded people. This becomes visible chillingly when Christian receives a text message from UKBA: ‘have a pleasant journey’.
Berger, J. and Mohr, J. (1975) A Seventh Man, London: Penguin Books
Mezzadra, S. and Neilson, B. (2008) ‘Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor’, Transversal – EIPCP multilingual webjournal, March http://eipcp.net/transversal/0608/mezzadraneilson/en.
This article is an excerpt from a book with Shamser Sinha entitled Migrant City to be published by Routledge in 2015.