Stamps in a Canadian Passport
Migration & borders, Harney Program, Munk School

The shifting border: a Q&A with Ayelet Shachar

Ayelet Shachar (FRSC) is the R.F. Harney Professor and director of the Harney Program in Ethnic, Immigration, and Pluralism Studies at the Munk School. She is also a professor of Law, Political Science, and Global Affairs. 

Her book, The Shifting Border: Legal cartographies of migration and mobility - Ayelet Shachar in dialogue (Manchester University Press, 2020) is a conversation between experts from various fields about one of the most important issues of our time: the movement of people, and how states are changing how - and where - they control their borders. Below, Shachar shares insights from her book.Ayelet Schachar posing with her book, The shifting border: Legal cartographies of migration and mobility, Ayelet Shachar in dialogue

The Shifting Border has a unique structure: it begins with a lead essay written by you, which is followed with thematic responses by six fellow academics and finally by your reply to these responses. Why did you decide to organize it this way, and what was the process of identifying the fields of study of the respondents, and the respondents themselves? 

The book has a unique origin story. I moved to Germany in 2015 – the “summer of migration”, when Europe thought itself to be in a refugee crisis and Germany took the unprecedented step of opening its borders. Early on, there was a real sense of optimism. People were very generous – they came to train stations, they brought blankets and clothing.

I was the Director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Identity, and six months later I gave a keynote in Berlin, in which I tried to put the immediate realities in a broader context. There was still optimism, but the tide was beginning to shift. There is a persistent line of research that shows that people support immigration as long as there is a sense of order – that governments have a plan, and the plan is being followed. My sense was that the optimism was starting to fade, because there was no end point.

I presented what turned out to be an early version of the lead essay. I argued that the conceptualization of the border has to be rethought in a much more sophisticated, complicated, nuanced way. Because typically, in the back of everyone's mind, we have a static border – but I argued that that territorial border, the traditional border, had become the last border, rather than the first. How had states done this, I asked? Where is this regulated? This argument in this moment in Germany got a lot of attention. I was approached by a publisher, but I said "I’d have to really work on this. This is an ongoing narrative." They agreed, and they suggested the structure of a conversation: a lead essay by me, followed by leading people in their field writing from different perspectives and really engaging with my work. They asked me to list the different disciplines which might be relevant, and we went really broad. We have international lawyers, immigration scholars, political scientists, sociologists, geographers. The publisher identified and liaised with the respondents. They were very committed and involved.

The result is that you get this multiplicity of voices within one narrative, and it permits the conversation to continue. The book seems to have genuinely struck a nerve. I think it's partly because the issues are so current and important and difficult, and they are captured and debated in one place. You get one perspective, you're persuaded, then it turns in another direction. Professor Robyn Harper from York College reviewed the book for Choice Magazine, and described it as “like getting the dream dinner invitation to hear cutting-edge thought on borders” – I hope that is true for all readers.  

The title Shifting Borders refers to the growing reality that the receiving states that migrants hope to reach move their borders in administrative ways that allow them to reject or even ignore asylum claims, and/or approve applications from ‘desirable’ migrants. How do Western states shift their borders to lessen their migration responsibilities and implement their migration priorities? 

It’s a real puzzle, because mobility has become the expected norm when it comes to the movements of goods, ideas, services, and capital. But the mobility of human beings still remains tightly regulated – indeed, states grow ever more selective. The same country may open and close its borders simultaneously to different migrant groups. This breaches our idea of equality, all the more so because the most legally protected categories – asylum seekers, refugees, family reunification – are the ones who most feel the brunt of the shifting border.

In 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall led many to predict that barbed wires and closed gates would become relics of a bygone era. Today, we face a different reality. More than seventy new border fences have been completed around the world, but there has also been a surge of shifting borders – the topic of my book. These invisible borders rely on sophisticated legal techniques to detach migration control functions from a fixed territorial location. Border activities are no longer collinear with the lines on the map or the frontiers of a nation, but instead take place thousands of kilometers away at preclearance centers, in transit countries, or through remote biometric surveillance of our bodies and movements. This is part of a strategy that strives, as official government policy documents explain, to “push the border out” as far away from the territorial border as possible. This concept, enthusiastically embraced by governments worldwide, involves screening people at the origin of their journey – not the destination – and then again at every possible checkpoint along the way. The traditional static border is thus reimagined as the last point of encounter, not the first.

I give a lot of examples in the book. The EU border now basically starts in Africa, because the control of mobility is pushed to the country of origin. Canada relies heavily on the technique of interdiction abroad: while a final admission decision occurs once you land in Canada, your documents are reviewed long before you reach the territory, because Canada has relocated much of its immigration regulation activities to overseas gateways, located primarily in Europe and Asia, where migration integrity officers or liaison officers (as they are known) now conduct border control activities as a matter of course, and also delegate this work to third party private actors, such as airline personnel. Australia, which on many fronts has a generous asylum-seeking and refugee protection regime, has constructed what is called excision policy – which basically means that, although a claimant’s physical body is on Australian land, legally they have never arrived. There are some parts of Australia where you reach Australia but you've never reached Australia! These examples are important because they set precedent. The U.K. parliament has gone as far as to formally debate an excision policy, and proponents argue “well, Australia did it. You can't say this is a country that doesn't follow the rule of law, democracy, rights protections. Why can't we do it?”

In the book, I also talk about family reunification – a legal category which, at least formally, states are obliged to respect. But when the EU directive for family reunification was introduced, some member states insisted on also introducing the notion of cultural integration – so family members seeking to arrive in certain European countries under family reunification have to ‘prove’ cultural integration… before they even arrive! This is another example of a border shifting. We’re seeing the process move back in time and in space – it happens before anyone crosses a static border or joins the country.



At the same time, this notion of territory and where migration happens – which is so important for one category – disappears for another. The super-rich can migrate without cultural or linguistic requirements, and with no family members they seek to join. They just have to invest a very hefty sum, and that becomes their entry ticket. For instance, the price tag for access to European citizenship ranges between €1 to €2 million. The U.K.’s “golden visa” program, which grants residency rights in exchange for an investment of at least £2 million, has long been subject to critique. The U.K. government has just announced that it will scrap the program as part of the sanctions against Russia and the crackdown on illicit funds (more than 2,500 Russian millionaires have benefited from this fast track).

So, we have a real moving target, where migration policy can operate as a barrier or as an accelerator. It is crucial that we decipher it. With the removal of explicit racial and national origin barriers to admission, which only occurred in the 1960s in Canada, Australia and the United States, the migration policies of the second half of the 20th century were formally committed to non-discrimination, equality and fairness. But now, in the early 21st century, while they operate under the veneer of equality they are often, in effect, replicating or creating very sophisticated inequalities.

Your work has focused on international law, political science and global affairs – how do your various academic lenses apply to and inform your work on global migration policy? 

Yeah. I can’t even see the problems without these different lenses on – they’re just baked into the way I think. Frankly, I don't think we can tackle any serious problem of the modern era without interdisciplinary lenses.

Migration and citizenship are very technically complicated – that’s where I put on my lawyer’s hat. But I believe that you get lost if you only look at the trees. I always look at the whole forest, and for that, I need global affairs, and political science, and my training in political philosophy, which allows me to ask the big questions. I move between these dimensions – from very concrete to extremely abstract. My work is always about the most vulnerable, so I feel a strong urge to keep asking questions and looking for creative answers. You need the technical expertise to propose something creative, but you also need a societal context and a global perspective. This is what I love about the Munk School, by the way – the fact that it's deeply interdisciplinary.

You suggest that international law and migration policy could embrace the concept of shifting borders, by making it possible for potential migrants to trigger a claim far from the geographical area of the state they hope to reach. Why do you think we should find ways to work within the parameters of the shifting border strategy?  

I believe we have to work with the shifting borders because they’re already here. That's how I end the lead essay: I say, in summary, "The train has left the station; the genie is out of the bottle.” Technology is fully operational now – once you have the possibility for digital surveillance, biometric borders, e-borders, it's hard to see a future where states would return to only regulating their static borders.

If we care about human rights globally, we need much more creativity in how individuals can file their claims. We can do everything virtually now. Why can't a person apply outside of the country and get protection? Canada did this during the Syrian refugee crisis. With the Welcome Refugee initiative, Canada airlifted and resettled over 25,000 refugees (the numbers eventually reached close to 50,000). Syrians couldn’t walk or take a boat to reach the Canadian territorial border so, instead, the border moved to them, and it was actually very effective. Canadian immigration officials were dispatched to refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon where they conducted pre-screening interviews and identity checks. Within a matter of weeks – light speed for such processes which can take years – reviews were completed and refugees arrived safely in Canada.  

Today’s border control techniques do not contain any inherent limitations on becoming more protective and rights-enhancing. That's partly why I'm advocating to work within them. It’s not that we don't have the ideas – we just need to switch them around, and almost have the shifting border operate against itself: to become more expansive, rather than holding people at bay. I don't want to resign or give up hope. I’m an optimistic person – but also, as a legal advocate and a public thinker, I believe it is my obligation to offer the sharpest analysis. It is imperative to develop a vision for a better future, otherwise change will never occur. I would never settle for a position of defeat.

You state in your reply essay that “the border… has become one of the most salient issues of our time” and that the growing practice of shifting borders “calls attention to the global stratification of mobility.” What do border policies tell us about shifting global priorities? 

Border policies tell us a lot about global inequalities, stratification, the unfair allocation of citizenship and protection. But the investigation of mobility also tells us a tremendous amount about those who never move – those who think to do so would offer them greater opportunities, or who move internally in search of greater safety or opportunity. When you look domestically but through the lenses of migration, you learn a lot about populism and nationalism, criticisms of the elites, corruption. If our guiding principle is enhancing equality, then the links are there.

We need a much broader rethink and to ask, ‘what does equality mean in the context of membership?’ I want to think about the global, but not lose the local. At the Munk School, I co-lead a focus area with Diana Fu on the changing world order – we think about global geopolitics. Another of the Munk School’s focus areas looks at democratic societies and questions of inequality within a given political community. Thinking about these challenges comparatively and on multiple scales is an ambitious project, and I think migration is built right into it.

In 2009 you published the highly successful book The Birthright Lottery. In this you argued that birthright citizenship should be viewed as a form of property inheritance, and advocated for nations to expand their concepts of what constitutes membership. How has your thinking evolved since its publication, and how are any changes reflected in the arguments of The Shifting Borders

Earlier in my career, I researched women’s rights in the context of religious communities. As part of this, I looked into how one becomes a member of a religious community – it is either through birth or conversion. So, when I wrote The Birthright Lottery, membership was a puzzle that preoccupied me. But as I started digging into citizenship I learned that ‘conversion’ in this context – i.e. gaining citizenship through an application process and government approval through naturalization – is very rare: 97% of the global population acquires citizenship only by birth. This captured my attention. We know that the world we reside in is one of deep inequalities. Although we have significant and serious issues of inequality in Canada, a child born here can expect certain basic protections and a certain level of access to healthcare, education, opportunities. It's a tremendous gift that you gain by being born into a well-off society. And so, the reverse is also true, and many more children are born into a society which is very poor, or deeply unstable, or has deep divisions. And so life chances are dramatically different. I wanted to put the discussion about access to membership in the context of how distanced it is from governments, and how entrenched it is in global inequalities.

After I published The Birthright Lottery, a colleague said, “It’s brilliant. Congratulations. But couldn’t people just move?” It was such a wishful suggestion. The data show that there is a persistent global mobility divide: citizens of the global north enjoy significant freedom of movement, whereas those residing in the global south, especially those hailing from poorer and less stable countries, face significant barriers to mobility. The reason I wrote The Shifting Border was partly to suggest a set of correctives to this. We will need greater mobility in any future design of the world. We are now witnessing a massive human-made displacement of population due to the war in Ukraine. Thus far, the EU and its member states – the neighbouring countries in this conflict – have opened their gates widely. In the future, climate-induced disasters may force people to flee, possibly without a home country to return to, and we will need new answers, new tools, new international conventions that are not yet written. Although states claim to have lost control, I actually see them exerting tremendous control. We desperately need fresh thinking about sovereignty, territoriality, and shared responsibility in order to address these pressing issues. This is what I am trying to think through now – not from the perspective of those who are born into membership, but from those who might wish to acquire it. Where and how do the territorial, cultural and economic dimensions intersect? I don’t think that the picture I paint is the most sanguine one – it’s more diagnostic. Next, I am exploring where we start, or how we start again, and asking what can be done.

Aha – so, is this what is next for you? What are you working on now?

Yes, I’m interested in what I see as this trilogy: territory; culture; economics – how they restrict mobility, and the fight against them. I am interested in the possibility of enhancing equality while keeping membership meaningful. How do we work with that idea locally, regionally, globally? These are major 21st-century challenges, and that’s what I’m working on now. I have a nice lineup of articles that are looking at various angles, but I definitely need a major research leave to turn them into the next book! 

The Shifting Border: Legal cartographies of migration and mobility - Ayelet Shachar in dialogue is available at local bookstores as well as from Indigo and Amazon. You can find more information and purchase links at Manchester University Press.