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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

In today's world, borders guarantee neither safety nor security

What does a trade agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh tell us about modern life? Quite a lot, writes Shelina Janmohamed

A Rohingya refugee carries bamboo for making a temporary shelter at a camp in Bangladesh. Danish Siddiqui / Reuters
A Rohingya refugee carries bamboo for making a temporary shelter at a camp in Bangladesh. Danish Siddiqui / Reuters

It's been revealed that Bangladesh is forging a deal with Myanmar to purchase rice. Bangladesh is facing a huge shortage of its national staple food and has been seeking to secure imports from nearby countries before a nationwide shortage starts to create dangerous unrest. This is especially in consideration of elections that are due to take place next year and that the government is understandably keen to win. Nothing surprising in that.

Except this deal has been sealed against a backdrop of a genocide taking place in Myanmar and when the people being persecuted, raped and slaughtered are fleeing to Bangladesh, they are being turned back. Rice is welcome, but not people.

The border restricts human beings, but is invisible to business and money.

During the UK's Brexit campaign, the pro-leave party, Ukip, infamously launched a poster with a picture of Syrian refugees fleeing their war-torn homes. "Breaking point", it screamed at a terrified population, keen to secure an invisible border that exists on maps – albeit one that has only existed for a few decades. Oil, weapons and money can cross freely, but not people. It's the story of Brexit itself. We just don't want people. Britain is pulling up the hatches. No bridges, only borders.

Mr Trump mobilised his base by promising a wall. No more people, at least not those other kinds of people. If you’re flying into the United States and you’re the wrong kind of person, you’ll simply be banned at the border.

The border doesn’t care if you’ll lose your life, live in poverty or suffer brutal oppression. On the wrong side of the border? Sorry, we’ll take your products and wealth, but don’t cross the border.

The increasing symbolism of physical barricades come hand in hand with a world in which online connectivity is more fluid than ever. Here, there appear to be no borders. This is where financial capital, bitcoin, news and ideas face barely a flicker of restriction. Yet when it comes to people, we're not keen on people moving, especially not poor ones.

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Yet wealth today is impervious to these borders. The nation state is a comparatively novel idea when we consider it in the vast backdrop of human history. While papers for travel, safe conduct and introductions have been around for several hundred, if not 1,000 years, the passport as we know it today came into being in First World War era and was instigated in Europe. That's no surprise given that that is when so many of the nation states we know today started being sketched out and their limits enforced. Edges and limits were more fluid up until that point.

The nation state has brought a degree of security, the ability to institute rules, manage trade and even – dare I say it – peace. Or at least the semblance of it. The way borders were drawn has, itself, been hugely problematic. Just look at how many wars around the world are taking place along artificially drawn borders.

But it increasingly appears that borders themselves, and the idea of borders, are causing problems. Instead of offering security, belonging and a neutral line, we are entrenching borders and using them as a proxy for jingoism and hatred.

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To try and divide "us" and "them" is even more complex because nations are now typically more mixed and diverse and globalisation is more natural, especially for younger generations.

Borders and their physical manifestation are becoming the mascots of nationalists who insist on their entrenchment. They are being specifically used to create separation and division.

The idea of borders is, itself, about division, and is one that is being misused. Is there a way to reclaim the idea of borders as anything that can be good?

In 2016, Jean-Claude Juncker, EU commission president, showed solidarity with refugees by declaring that “borders are the worst invention ever made by politicians”. It reminds me of the quote: “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Borders may or may not be the worst invention, but we have them. The question is how do we make the best out of them so that people find safety and security through them.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World

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