How fear infected the border

Ruben Andersson traces the roots of a Freudian fixation.

Throughout history migrants have often been treated as a source of disease and ‘contagion’. Immigrant children are examined on arrival at Ellis Island, New York, 1911. Credit: Bettmann/Getty
Throughout history migrants have often been treated as a source of disease and ‘contagion’.
Immigrant children are examined on arrival at Ellis Island, New York, 1911.
Credit: Bettmann/Getty

In late 2015, well before Trump launched his fear-driven presidential campaign, I was visiting the border wall of Arizona. News of the terror attacks in Paris had just broken, adding to a crescendo of punditry on the dangers besetting borders. Over the previous year, conservatives and homeland security experts had been lining up on television to suggest that not just ISIS but also the Ebola virus was coming across the US-Mexico divide, carried by migrants crossing the Rio Grande.

One Republican senator suggested: ‘If I were a terrorist from the Islamic State I’d go and expose myself to Ebola and come across the border and infect as many people as I could.’ Fears of contagion were stalking the rust-brown border fence in an early omen for Trump’s Beautiful Wall.

Earlier that summer, I visited the Italian island of Lampedusa, where the authorities were seeking to ‘protect the border’ at any cost. In port, African migrants escaping Libya’s horrors were escorted off rescue ships by coastguards in full biohazard suits before being checked for scabies and driven off to a faraway detention camp. As I stood on Lampedusa’s quay, the borders of Europe appeared to me less like a fortress wall and more like a fluttering cordon sanitaire, hastily drawn to separate the safety of Europe from the dangers outside.

Yet the real disease is fear itself. It has infected migration politics on both sides of the Atlantic since long before the age of Trump, spreading at viral speed, to the detriment of those desperate or daring enough to cross the global divides. And the border, held up as a bulwark against external threats, is paradoxically a prime catalyst for this fear – generating large rewards for many vested interests.

Containment and contagion

Today’s ‘border-security complex’ – to give the dismal business a suitable Freudian slant – is part of a wider reimagining of strategic and domestic danger in the post-Cold War years. Thirty years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall, globalization has not brought a borderless world but rather a globalized border business. While fortified borders might once have served as protection against foreign military threats, they now serve as the final rampart in a wider struggle to keep transnational, ‘population-centric’ dangers at a distance.

Powerful states have for years sought to contain risks of instability and insurgency, disease and displacement – much of it caused by their own action and inaction – in remote crisis zones, such as Afghanistan or Libya or Central America. Yet this containment has been accompanied by a fear of contagion: fear proliferates as distance grows between the ‘safe’ world inside the gates and the territories outside it.

If the extreme border barriers are comparatively new, the fear-inducing tropes attached to peoples and territories on the other side – Trump’s ‘Mexican rapists’ and ‘crime-infested’ or ‘shithole’ countries – are not. Already in colonial times, black Africans were often treated as a source of disease and contagion in the reports of early explorers, missionaries and officials of Empire. Inside Europe, antisemitic tropes of disease helped pave the way for the Holocaust. In the early 20th century, horrified health inspectors remarked on how southern Italians travelled on board the trans-Atlantic ‘kennel’ to the United States ‘amidst the urine and faeces of the children and the vomit of practically everyone’.

Border security works much like what Freud would call projection, the process by which repressed feelings are expelled from the self and located in another person or thing

The filth on board – a by-product of being treated as ‘human tonnage’ by profitable shipping corporations – was seen as the passengers’ own fault; it stuck to them like a racial stigma once in the United States. These were the lucky ones: others were sent back after sifting on Ellis Island, where physicians marked with chalk those prospective migrants suspected of disease or ‘defect’.

This race and class-based politics of affliction echoes into the present, from the scabies checks of Lampedusa to the disease rhetoric of far-right parties and even the scrawled numbers on recently rescued people’s arms in Italian ports. However, the politics of fear is today finding an even friendlier environment. Yesteryear’s trans-Atlantic travellers moved in a world without passports, making movement comparatively more orderly and legal; while today’s ‘human tonnage’ sustains a multibillion-dollar industry of smuggling that has grown in direct response to the cutting of legal pathways and the expansion of the border-security complex. But just as important is the viral environment in which the politics of fear now incubates and propagates.

A fertile breeding ground

Fear is epidemiological: it knows no borders. Take Calais in 2015, when UK news channels featured rolling coverage of a few hundred people trying to jump onto lorries. Tabloids drummed up a national ‘crisis’ and the foreign secretary warned of millions of ‘marauding’ African migrants. As crisis talk spread across Europe that year, imaginary afflictions and infections added to the moral panic. In the Czech Republic, which received practically no refugees, far-right bloggers whipped up fear of militant Syrian hordes and Africans bringing AIDS, lice and fleas.

In Hungary, the government sent out ‘surveys’ to voters about the link between terrorism and migration, while closing rail stations because of the ‘infection risk’ presented by refugees sleeping there overnight. In July 2015, prime minister Viktor Orbán asked ‘whether what we call Europe today will continue to exist’ as he fast-forwarded plans to build a border fence in response to the migrants and refugees arriving through the Balkans.

Even as numbers of ‘irregular’ entrants into the EU by land and sea grew into a record one million by year’s end, the longer trend of migration into Europe along these pathways – counted in the hundreds of thousands per year – remains small in the broader scheme, whether in relation to the much larger refugee influxes into poorer, non-Western states, or compared to overall legal, non-EU immigration into the Union, counted in the millions every year.

Social scientists like to invoke such numbers to disprove the doomsday visions. Indeed, the evidence – from statistics on migrant arrivals and global refugee reception to data on terrorist attacks and vectors of diseases such as Ebola – points away from the rich world’s land and sea borders as the site of the ‘problem’. But this fails to dent the border-security complex, which rather feeds on the fears that spread via ever-wider channels of transmission.

Politicians building walls act like that suburban Humvee driver who assumes the threat is ‘out there’, not realizing they themselves may be the most dangerous thing on the road

Again, this is not altogether new. Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays knew that ‘fear sells’ when he laid the groundwork for modern advertising in the early 20th century. After 9/11, the advertising guru Clotaire Rapaille updated this insight with a little aphorism: ‘The reptilian always wins.’ Rapaille’s eureka moment had come as he watched a news report of booming Humvee sales in the US. Asking himself what Freud would have made of it all, he concluded that sales of the ridiculously oversized and accident-prone Humvees were exploding ‘because the unconscious part of the American consumer’s brain was responding to the primal fear of another terrorist attack’.

Like Rapaille’s Humvee, border security promises protection and power over an insecure world – or, more specifically, over a world whose insecurity is actively being stoked by those providing that very ‘protection’. In that sense, it works much like what Freud would call projection, or the process by which repressed feelings are expelled from the self and located in another person or thing. Politicians building walls act somewhat like that suburban Humvee driver who assumes the threat is ‘out there’, beyond the massive bumpers, not realizing they themselves may be the most dangerous thing on the road.

Marketplace of fear

The disastrous fallout from the War on Terror, the financial crisis and years of chaos-inducing border security has proved to be the perfect host environment for Rapaille’s reptilian. In the marketplace of fear, media outlets, unscrupulous politicians, defence contractors and border agencies now all have a stake in permanent ‘crisis’. It came as no surprise last autumn when Turkey’s president, Recep Tayip Erdoğan, warned European leaders that his country would ‘send 3.6 million refugees’ their way if they labelled his military incursion into northern Syria an ‘invasion’. He, like Libya’s Muammar Qadafi or Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou before him, was using immigration fears as leverage.

These supposed ‘partners in the fight against migration’ aren’t the only ones who cash in on such fears. In 2015, ISIS acolytes staged a gruesome execution of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians along Libya’s shores, their blood leeching into the Mediterranean waters. The video may have been full of fakery but news broadcasts and social media readily spread the murderers’ propaganda across the world. Through these nightmarish images, ISIS cunningly played to Europe’s bundled fears of mass migration, conflict and terrorism, sullying the Mediterranean Sea with the encroaching red of danger.

We urgently need alternatives to the infectious politics of fear. There are some hopeful signs: the phoney border ‘emergencies’ on both sides of the Atlantic are, at least intermittently, being called out as political spectacle in Congress and in some European capitals. Some Southern states in Africa and Latin America are also pushing back against the pathology of securitizing everything, as seen in the African Union push for freer movement.

But we still need a paradigm shift. We should start with a ‘clinical’ approach to isolating and treating the pathology. Policymakers must calculate the real costs, and historical failure, of spurious ‘security’ operations – from border-walling to the War on Terror – and ensure that those who pollute the public sphere, and devalue human life, pay for it. They must also take steps towards ‘quarantining’ fear by building a more positive relationship with ‘partner’ countries and by attending to the channels through which it spreads, online and off.

But we desperately need an alternative political story, too, that addresses the deeper social and economic insecurities that fuel the projection of danger ‘out there’ in the first place. Instead of accepting the divided world map of red zones and sharp borderlines, those who wish to tell this political story need a hopeful roadmap toward genuine social and human protection, which starts with a simple move – by promising to protect people, not borders.