Turning walls into bridges — the transformative power of ‘unruly’ migration

When we allow ourselves to consider struggles over the Mediterranean border as resistance, a clearer picture of border abolition emerges.
Protest against the Moria camp on Lesvos Island, Greece, 2017 (Maurice Stierl/Marily Stroux)

In 2015, when visiting a school occupied by refugee protestors in Berlin, activist and philosopher Angela Davis remarked: “The refugee movement is the movement of the 21st century.” In 2022, Davis returned to the city and spoke at a square that protestors had occupied a decade earlier. Standing before a jubilant crowd, Davis pointed back to the comment she had made seven years earlier, noting: “I was attempting to argue then, as I try to do today, that the refugee movement encapsulates our planet’s struggle for a better future.”

Davis’ remarks are and remain important. While certainly overstating the unified character of the refugee movement, she offered a provocation, inviting us to reflect on the political significance and transformative power of contemporary struggles over human movement. In public discourse, such significance and power are commonly downplayed or ignored, if not erased.

People on the move, for lack of a better term, are often considered victims of circumstance, who, abused and exploited, dwell in the margins of society. Portrayed as desperate and passive, their struggles to move — and often to stay — are rendered unpolitical. Such victimization is key in denuding them of political agency and meaning. As the political theorist Sandro Mezzadra once wrote: “The world of victims exists outside of politics.”

“At stake in every politics of border control is an attempt to control the borders of the political.” With this witty phrase, political theorists Angela Mitropoulos and Brett Neilson ask us to pay attention to the borders of the political and the ways in which political subjects are made and unmade. The placing of “migrantized” subjects outside the realm of the political is a bordering practice. The space of recognition seems occupied by other actors — political parties, unions, social movements.

To counteract that, Mitropoulos and Neilson propose to complicate common distinctions made between migrant movements and social movements. Instead of considering migrant movements simply “in a kinetic sense” — or as passages from one place to another — and instead of understanding social movements merely in a political and representational sense, they ask us to situate both somewhere in-between “’movement as politics’ and ‘movement as motion.’”

In the book I wrote a few years back on contemporary struggles around migration, I tried to do that. By placing the notions of “migration” and “resistance” in close proximity to one another, I was not meaning to suggest that all and any migratory acts should be considered acts of political resistance — that would be naïve and misguided. Rather, the intention was to open up a perspective, a way of seeing.

Drawing depicting a person hiding in a truck to cross the border, Patras, Greece, 2013 (Simon Krieger)

If we allowed ourselves to consider “unauthorized” forms of human movement as political — and even as some of the most important transformative practices of our time — what do we learn about the planetary regulation of human life and movement? What can we find out about forms of global injustice and the role of borders in maintaining and reinforcing these? What do we learn about political resistance itself?

As this all may sound a bit abstract, it could be helpful to look at a particular example: In the European context, the Mediterranean border has become one of the central spaces where struggles over unauthorized migration play out. For decades, the European Union and its member states have experimented with ways to militarize this border to prevent boat arrivals.

European politicians have justified deterrence measures not only by portraying people who seek to cross as all kinds of security threats, but also by considering them victims of unscrupulous smuggling gangs. In doing so, they have promoted the illusion that border “protection” could go hand-in-hand with the protection of people on the move – à la: “If you poor souls don’t move in the first place, and stay away from Europe, you don’t get exploited by smugglers and drown in the sea.”

Now, what happens if we push back against this dominant narrative and consider cross-Mediterranean movements in the register of political resistance?

Remains of the boat that capsized off the coast of Cutro, Italy, 2023 (Chiara Denaro)

For one, we see that people who board overcrowded boats are more than what Europe’s paternalistic stories turn them into. As political subjects, they engage in transgressive acts of escape that require courage, organization, knowledge, skill and solidarity among groups on the move. Through disobedient movements, they become harraga, an Arabic term describing those who “burn borders” and navigate themselves into European territory. As Amade M’charek writes:

“Harraga [is] an activity that burns state-rules: rules that stipulate that this border can only be crossed in this way and not in another; or that papers are only legal in this way and not in another. … what people engaged in harraga do is mess up boundaries.”

When we allow ourselves to consider struggles over the Mediterranean border in the register of resistance, we can also see how novel practices of solidarity have emerged. Needing to adapt to freedom of movement struggles in dangerous border zones, civil society and activist groups had to invent ways to become present in spaces often deemed not merely outside of sovereign space but even outside the realm of politics as such.

Actors like Alarm Phone (which assists people on boats in distress through an activist hotline), the civil fleet (which carries out rescue operations), or civil airplanes (which monitor the sea from above) have entered the contested space of the Mediterranean. The solidarities that have formed en route have proven important not merely for transgressive maritime movements but also for documenting horrendous forms of border violence that had previously gone unseen.

Over the past decade, the Mediterranean border has been opened up for interrogation through struggles over movement. We now have a much better understanding of the violent regulation of migration, and what Martina Tazzioli and Nicholas De Genova have called a “confinement continuum” that people on the move are confronted with: “being targeted, exploited, kidnapped, blackmailed, abused, raped, tortured and sometimes killed.”

Protest action in Idomeni, Greece, 2015 (L.M. for Moving Europe)

The harrowing border violence that has led to tens of thousands of deaths at sea is a response to disobedient movements. The Mediterranean has not only become a deathscape — due to the adverse biophysical forces at work there (the rough sea, the strong winds) — but a space of suffering due to transnational and transcontinental coalitions of border enforcers that “protect” borders, not people.

When we take a step back and consider Mediterranean migration as resistance, we can see even more. While we see how borders violently try to keep particularly racialized populations in particular places, we also get a sense of the transformative power of “unruly” migration. Over the past decade, and despite border militarization, more than 2.5 million people have subverted the Mediterranean obstacle. We can consider these transgressive movements as what I called them elsewhere: forms of “practical border abolitionism.”

People who have moved have claimed a presence in Europe, and this presence will not be eradicated. Nonetheless, in times when calls for border closure, the end to asylum, and mass deportations become increasingly mainstream — and go hand-in-hand with a normalization of violence targeting people on the move — there is a desperate need for broad coalitions of resistance. In order to collectively resist ethno-nationalist fantasies and the incredibly violent, racialized and divisive work that borders do all around our world, we need to breach the sovereign and national scripts that delimit who count as political subjects and who do not.

“Walls turned sideways are bridges,” Angela Davis once wrote. When we consider unauthorized migration in the register of resistance, we suddenly see the ones who keep turning walls into bridges: people on the move themselves.

This story was produced by Resistance Studies

Resistance Studies is a collaborative effort between academics and activists, or “professors of the street,” that promotes the analysis of and support for nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience around the world. This includes the Resistance Studies Initiative at UMass Amherst, scholars in the Resistance Studies Network and the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Journal of Resistance Studies. This initiative is managed and edited by Stellan Vinthagen, Craig Brown, Ben Case and Priyanka Borpujari.

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