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Good Borders Make Good Neighbors

What are the social impacts as European political borders are being redefined? Using a variety of case studies, editors William Kavanagh and Jutta Lauth Bacas seek to answer that question in Border Encounters: Asymmetry and Proximity at Europe’s Frontiersto be published this month. The editors and contributors examine the implications as borders are strengthened in some parts of the continent, and weakened in others. Below, Kavanagh and Lauth Bacas share their thoughts on the volume.

 

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Berghahn Books: What drew you to the study of political and social borders? Why is this study important?

 

Jutta Lauth Bacas: The core experience which triggered my interest in border studies and in the topic of irregular crossing at a maritime border was my encounter with destroyed inflatable dinghies having been used by refugees to enter a Greek border island clandestinely.

Further anthropological fieldwork allowed a better understanding of the process of irregular border crossing and the reception of undocumented migrants and refugees in Greece, at the southeastern frontier of Europe. Border crossing is always one aspect of transnational migration, and the way migrants are received tells a lot about the society (or societies) they actually enter and try to integrate. From their outsiders’ view we get a clearer picture of how our own society works in interacting with the ‘Other’, who has crossed ‘our’ borders or whom we encounter at ‘our’ borders.

 

A woman (her back to the camera) from the Galician village on a visit to her Portuguese husband’s family at their village across the border. Photo by William Kavanagh.

A woman (her back to the camera) from the Galician village on a visit to her Portuguese husband’s family at their village across the border. Photo by William Kavanagh.

William Kavanagh: My interest in borders began with my first fieldwork experience, where I examined the economy and lives of a community of transhumant cattle-raisers in the mountains of central Spain on a border between two autonomous regions and where the political border was relatively unimportant and the ecological border very important. This got me thinking that it might be interesting to look at communities separated by an international border, but with identical physical conditions, in order to understand the impact of the nation-state on the lives of the borderlanders, their sense of identity and their relations with their ‘foreign’ neighbours. My continuing research on the Portuguese-Spanish border began in 1990 and I have been able to see the transformation of the border and of the lives of those who live on it both before and after the coming into force of the Schengen Agreement and the ‘disappearance’ of the oldest (since the origin of Portugal in the thirteenth century) of Europe’s borders. This book is important since it is a collection of essays based on the recent research of eleven anthropologists who look at the ‘face-to-face’ relations of asymmetry and proximity of those living on some of Europe’s changing frontiers.

 

BB: Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research/compiled the contributions to the time you completed the volume?

 

JLB: In the beginning of my research experience, I stressed the singularity of my case and the observations I made (in my case the arrival of numbers of wet, frozen and hungry irregular migrants at remote beaches of an European border island). Since the editing of the volume took more time than initially expected, I realized that I am not analyzing a single case, but an ongoing process with constant changes in numbers of people arriving (and the ways they are received in the local context). As a

result of this experience, I think of social life at European borders as constantly changing, where social interactions and social realities are redefined, reshaped, and rearranged in the ongoing process of Europeanization and enlargement of the European Union.

 

WK: Yes, I would echo Jutta’s remark that the most important result was to think of the continuing evolution of European borders, either as ‘opening’ (as was my fieldwork experience) or as ‘closing’ (as was her fieldwork experience). As editors we have tried to reflect in our choice of essays for Border Encounters this ongoing process.

Pagani holding centre with irregular migrants being held in large compounds. Photo by Jutta Lauth Bacas.

Pagani holding centre with irregular migrants being held in large compounds. Photo by Jutta Lauth Bacas.

 

BB: To what extent do you think the book will contribute to debates among current and future academics within the field?

 

JLB & WK: As said earlier, we have to understand borders not as something stable and given, but as contested social fields, especially in the process of EU-enlargement and the ongoing redefinition of international agreements, for example the Schengen Treaty. This volume investigates how social actors experience these changes at European borders: our authors investigate face-to-face interactions and social relations of compliance and confrontation, where people are bargaining, exchanging goods and information, and also manoeuvring beyond state boundaries. The value of our volume lies in the richness of its ethnographic contributions which provide a better understanding of the complexity of the processes linked to border crossings and border encounters.

 

BB: Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?

 

JLB & WK: As editors, we see asymmetry in border encounters clearly as the main theme running through all contributions of our collection. We chose to investigate the interrelation between proximity and asymmetry in various European settings, since there is no other volume in the field (so far) which focuses on these aspects in a specific geopolitical region. Other scholars in the field might be interested in other theoretical aspects of border studies or add further empirical data by providing new case studies in different regions.

 

BB: What is one particular area of interest or question, that hasn’t necessarily been the focus of much attention, which you feel is especially pertinent to your field today and in the future?

Romanian traders from Timişoara carrying bags of merchandise at Pančevo railway station, Serbia (2005). Photo by Cosmin Radu.

Romanian traders from Timişoara carrying bags of merchandise at Pančevo railway station, Serbia (2005). Photo by Cosmin Radu.

 

JLB: Earlier investigations of changes at European borders have focused on main trends, for example on the ‘opening’ of borders or the ‘closing’ and strengthening of borders. The authors of our volume take a close look at what is really going on in specific border settings and they stress, that these main trends are often accompanied by more differentiated and complex counter processes. I would like to support this argument on the complexity of border crossings and border encounters with two examples: In the case studied by William Kavanagh, he observes the opening of the barriers on the Portuguese-Spanish border. But although border crossings and social contacts across the border are politically eased, people in fact have weakened their social interactions and contacts with their neighbours across the border. In the case of maritime border crossing, which I study at the Greek-Turkish border, border controls and monitoring have been enormously strengthened with national and European efforts. But clandestine border crossing of the maritime strait with small wooden boats and inflatable dinghies did not stop at all. In fact, comparing last year (2012) with the present situation in 2013, irregular arrivals of undocumented boat migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos nearly doubled (with people fleeing the war in Syria). A close look at what is actually happening on the local level allows the critical evaluation of more general theorizing on social changes in border regions, since the local, ground-up perspective reveals new and fascinating data which have been overlooked or not recognized so far.

 

WK: Ditto to Jutta’s last remark.

 

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Jutta Lauth Bacas holds a doctorate in Social Anthropology from the University of Zurich with a special focus on migration studies. She has held teaching positions at universities in both Switzerland and Germany and also worked as a researcher at the Academy of Athens, Greece. Co-founder of the Mediterraneanist Network of EASA, she is a member of the Advisory Board of InASEA and co-editor of issues of Ethnologia Balkanica and the Journal of Mediterranean Studies.

 

William Kavanagh holds a doctorate in Social Anthropology from the University of Oxford and is Lecturer in Anthropology and Sociology at CEU San Pablo University and the Madrid campuses of New York University and Suffolk University. Co-founder of the Mediterraneanist Network of EASA, he is on the executive committees of two Spanish anthropological associations and is a delegate on the World Council of Anthropological Associations.