Enquiring at the border

In the last year of my PhD, and after months of writing, I decided to update the title of my thesis. First named Local policies for the integration of new Jewish immigrants (Olim) in peripheral Israel, it became Governing or being governed? A scalar approach of the transformation of State power and authority through the case of immigration and integration policies of four frontier towns in Israel.

This was a source of debate with my supervisor, and later with the examiners that attended the defence. Why using the term “frontier”? One of the examiners even stated: “I would comment that the use of the term frontier towns is a bit pretentious and indeed the author mentions the alternating use of ‘small and mid- sized cities’ and ‘peripheries’”.

I argued that they are frontier towns, mainly because of: their geographical location, some kilometres away from the Israelo-Lebanese, Jordanian or Gazan borders, which exposes them to constant tensions; and the fact that they host a Sephardic population that forms a socio-cultural frontier, a “trapped community”, that is asked to dismiss its Arabness, without being really entitled to become part of the core.

The borders situated closeby to the towns I surveyed during my PhD are rather impermeable today. The “good fence” at the Israelo-Lebanese border is closed, and one can only see it from a nearby viewpoint in Metula. The one separating Gaza from Israel has one check-point. The one between Jordan and Israel is more permeable, but the mountain range and the Dead Sea create a physical separation.

When I started the MigRural project, I was looking forward to working at a different kind of border: the one between Northern Portugal and Spanish Galicia and Castilla y Leon. The stories told by Portuguese emigrants who went a salto to France in the 1960s, with the help of local smugglers, remind us of a time not so far away where there were borders between France, Spain and Portugal, But with the promulgation of article 44 of the new Portuguese constitution (1976), which garantees the right to emgirate, and with the EU accession in 1986, Portuguese can leave and enter freely (and would generally avoid walking through mountain paths in the north!).

This is therefore a poreous border. And moreover, a border that is recognised today as a place of trade, cultural exchanges, of multiple potentialities. Against the top-down discourses that situate Tras-os-Montes region as a territorio do interior (an inland territory), the bottom-up discourses are those of promotion of the border as a socio-cultural hub, in between Portugal and the rest of the EU, connected by an efficient highway. One can even jump on an express coach in the evening in Bragança, and end off the following morning in Paris.

Practices at the border evolves, and with them, the types of frontiers it creates. This is something that I would like to make more central. It is not pretentious to speak of frontier towns I believe. It brings forward a different angle for analysis.

Last 13 May, the kick-off meeting of the group Borders, affiliated with Réseau Migrations, took place in Paris. And this is exactly what we discussed. The following axis of discussion emerged:

  • A political economy of the borders, which takes into account the transformation and proliferation of borders in order to produce working bodies for global capitalism;
  • The set of practices and discourses which makes a border – with the case of the Lampedusa system as a contemporary exemple of a border which was “created” by media exposure, arrivals of governmental and NGO workers, journalists and researchers, political discourses, and infrastructures’ deployment;
  • And the socio-cultural frontiers which enable or prevent bodies to circulate, and participate in the recomposition of one’s identities

From here, the idea is to meet in the fall for a follow-up meeting, and keep discussing the way we operationalise this concept in our research.

The group debates in French for the moment, and if you are interested, feel free to join!

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