Suez, Lampedusa, Djibouti City: Border Zones of Globalisation

Written by: Valeska Huber


‘Signal’ by John Stanmeyer, World Press Photo of the Year winner

Connecting in the Global World

Examining the winner of 2014's World Press Photo of the Year award, Valeska Huber, author of Channelling Mobilities, explores global mobility and border crossing in the modern world.


The winning world press photo of 2014, ‘Signal’ by John Stanmeyer, depicts African migrants on the Red Sea shore of Djibouti City desperate to receive mobile phone signals from neighbouring Somalia for an exchange with friends and families before their departure for Europe or other destinations. The situation of these migrants illustrates the multiple meanings of connection and disconnection in an age of globalisation. Their attempts to get access to unstable mobile network coverage points to the complicated entanglements between different media and means of transportation including the mobile phones and the derelict barges on which they will attempt the perilous passages across the Red Sea or the Mediterranean.

The image also points to the fate of thousands of other migrants in transit, particularly in the Mediterranean. Since January 2014 Italian patrols of the ‘Mare Nostrum Operation’ and other sea patrols have rescued about 22,000 migrants between the African and the European shores of the Mediterranean. Locations such as the island of Lampedusa and its detention centres or the Spanish enclave of Melilla, where around 500 migrants managed to climb over the border fence in March 2014, show that in a globalised world marked by the acceleration and increase of mobilities of various kinds, the Mediterranean becomes forcefully accentuated as a border zone between Europe and Africa. While free movement has been an important objective of European integration since the 1950s, this also led to new calls upon policing the Schengen area’s outer borders, followed by the creation of various control regimes. 2004 saw the establishment of Frontex, the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union. In 2013, under the pressure of the mounting numbers of deaths in the Mediterranean – the Guardian for example referred to almost 20.000 deaths in the past two decades – Frontex was complemented by the EUROSUR plan of the European Border Surveillance System and reinforced by national schemes such as the Italian ‘Mare Nostrum’.

These schemes attempt to operate with several methods, which aim at the classification of different forms of mobility – those passing freely and rapidly and those tightly controlled or threatened with forced deportation. One is the identification of different routes of entry that need to be secured, with strategic locations including straights (such as Gibraltar) and islands (such as Lampedusa) playing a particularly important role. Furthermore the rapid transmission of information and the statistical encapsulation of border crossers is essential, as Frontex assembles yearly statistics on ‘illegal border crossings’ peaking on the Central Mediterranean route at 64.300 for 2013 and pointing out the limits of the very controls that it stands for. Finally the use of technology to distinguish between different forms of mobility plays a central role, in the current case planes, drones, radar and high-resolution cameras.

The tension between free movement and tightly controlled mobilities and the experimentation with different tools and technologies to create or maintain such distinctions resonates with Mediterranean mobilities around 1900. The sheer amount of refugees is of course very specific to the current situation and connected to crises such as the Syrian war and to global economic inequalities. However, in order to understand globalisation in a broader historical perspective, it is worthwhile to look at another border zone between Europe, Asia and Africa, governed by various sets of rules connected to international agreements and the interests of the French, British and Ottoman Empires overlapped: the Suez Canal in Egypt, connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

In the last part of the nineteenth century and in connection with faster global mobility by steamship and railway, the Suez Canal became a symbolic space embodying the promises of acceleration and interconnection but also the perceived dangers that came with it. Quickly known as the Highway of Empire, it not only turned into a point of personal transition where colonial travellers and troops entered Asia and its colonial possessions and performed specific rites of passage such as the changing of uniform and dress. It was also a location where apparently suspicious travellers for instance related to the transmission of epidemics were to be identified and isolated. Specific groups such as Mecca pilgrims became targets connected with contagion as well as the transmission of anti-imperial ideas. There was an economic side to these questions of mobility control too: Empires were worried about pilgrims and other travellers who ended up in the Suez Canal region without funds and had to be maintained and repatriated on the cost of the consulates. The question of who had to pay for repatriations of stowaways or destitute travellers, who wanted to reach Asia, Australia or the US in search for better opportunities, resonates with the current-day concerns described above. The control of fugitive criminals, the (apparent or real) trade in prostitutes between Europe and Asia or slaves between the African and Asian shores of the Red Sea equally formed issues, which crystallised the unease connected with certain forms of mobility. Empires and international bodies thus responded by introducing discriminatory checks or by experimenting with new forms of information politics connected with up-to-date technologies such as telegraph and telephone.

Such attempts to distinguish between different border crossers show that globalisation around 1900 has to be understood as a process of acceleration and deceleration marked by a complex social topography of mobility and ambivalent processes of control. As the statistics of ‘illegal migrants’ in 2013 or numbers of ‘illegal Mecca pilgrims’ in the early 1900s exemplify, these control mechanisms were not always successful and often highly problematic to say the least. Yet these stories of free and forced mobilities and the political processes of steering flows have to form an essential part in our narratives of globalisation. Studying the different forms of mobility converging at a place such as the Suez Canal enables us to tell richer social histories of globalisation encompassing not only the perspective of control agents, be they national, imperial or international, but also of the migrants themselves.

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About the Author: Valeska Huber

Valeska Huber is the author of Channelling Mobilities....

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