Radboud Universiteit
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'We talk about walls and fences but the hardest border is made of paper’

Datum bericht: 8 december 2022

Henk van Houtum is a Professor of Political Geography and Geopolitics as well as a cofounder and coordinator of the Nijmegen Centre for Border Research (NCBR) at Radboud University. This week he is our #Scientist of the Week.

What scientific themes are you most involved in?

Both my research and my lectures focus on borders and migration. I’m interested in what happens at borders and the story that we tell ourselves about this, the framing of national identity, border policy and migrants. It is striking that the increased violence and human rights violations in border policy are accompanied by an increasingly harder and more phobic language (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14650045.2020.1728743).
We use the language of war, such as ‘invasion’, and the language of water, such as ‘stream of refugees’. This is also reflected in the visual story, cartography, a subject in our programme that I coordinate. Maps aren’t neutral representations of the world, but to a greater or lesser extent they are also political expressions that help to form our world view. On maps showing migration, refugees who migrate to the EU are often indicated by thick red arrows that threaten a baby-blue Europe as they advance on all sides.  (see https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17450101.2019.1676031). So, in visual language the standard migration maps resemble war maps used to depict a hostile military invasion even though the migration maps are about people who are actually fleeing war zones.

How else could cartography be designed?

In our research we show that each map contains numerous choices and thus always tells a certain story, but that there are all sorts of other options, for example a map drawn from the perspective of migrants or one that uses details to zoom in on the routes that refugees have to take. In a standard atlas, the differences between countries are emphasised. Each country is given a different colour and has a line drawn around it. The standard of using the perspective of nation states to represent the world is called methodological nationalism. Although the nation state is certainly not a nonsensical perspective, it's also not the only perspective to depict geopolitical power, relationships and phenomena in the world nor is it always the most important. What receives much less attention is the world of connections that transcend borders. We are globally connected with one another via communication, trade, tourism, migration, etc. Together with designers, I’m collecting and making alternative maps that emphasise those movements and connections that transcend borders. With a wink to the god Atlas, I call this map collection a Hermes, after the Greek grandson of Atlas, the god of trade and travellers (https://geografie.nl/artikel/van-atlas-naar-hermes-pleidooi-voor-een-bevrijding-van-de-cartografie).

We read on your profile page that, in addition to borders, migration, cartography and geopolitics, you’re also involved in football. What’s the relation between football and the rest of your research?

Football is a good lens to view social and political developments. There are many important geographical and geopolitical elements in football. Terms like an ‘away’ match or a ‘home’ match or ‘our boys’ are very revealing about how football clubs can symbolise a city or a country. And if there’s a European Cup or, like now, a World Cup in Qatar, there are discussions and sentiments in which numerous political-geographical elements play an important role, such as modern slavery, money laundering, and nationalism. And football has truly become a global sport. Many foreign football players play in clubs, and in the national teams, for example the Dutch team, there are many players who have migration backgrounds. See here: the world of connection and movement. But also one with numerous interesting and sometimes painful national sentiments. For instance, we recently analysed the integration of immigrants into football (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17430437.2020.1865314). What you see is that, as long as things are going well, people with a migration background are considered one of ‘us’, but if a team does poorly, certain immigrants come under discussion. As the German football player Mesut Özil said: “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose”.

Are there subject that you would like to study more in depth in the years ahead?

I’m very interested in the EU’s visa policy (see https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/tesg.12473). Where borders are concerned, we usually talk about walls and fences, but the hardest border is made of paper: the visa. Since 2001 the EU has differentiated between visa-mandatory countries and visa-free countries (including Ukraine). In particular, Muslim countries and less affluent countries fall into the mandatory visa category. This has led to what is referred to as a ‘global mobility divide’. It means that people have to request a visa, which they often don’t get, because of the regimes in the country where they live, even if – however paradoxical – they’re trying to flee that regime or a war in that country. We ourselves fly to innumerable distant destinations, we search for the cheapest flights and we complain if there are flight delays at Schiphol, whereas the other way around, it is nearly impossible for almost 2/3 of the world to fly to the EU or to reach the EU by other regular means because of the visa policy. And that has enormous constitutional and humanitarian consequences. Ukrainians can travel without a visa, but Syrians or Afghanis, for example, who can only travel with a human trafficker, are forced back and die at the EU’s external borders. We need to talk with one another much more about that fundament under the EU’s border policy, the visa, that is based on a double standard, a moral apartheid (see https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1068/d1909).

Because with this visa policy we are judging people on the basis of their country of birth: nativism. Discrimination based on origin is prohibited in most national constitutions and the EU’s constitution, and goes against universal human rights, but is the normal practice in our border policy. The fundament of the border policy is thus morally and constitutionally unsound and unsustainable. Because it leads you to globally declare a large part of the world to be undesired, inferior people on the basis of their origins. It is this discrimination, this paper border that for more than twenty years has been feeding the downwards spiral of increasingly more human rights violations and violence, including an increasingly dehumanising framing in language and imagery.

Photo above article: Kyle Glenn via Unsplash