Europe’s Racial Borders

Nicholas De Genova     January 2018

Over the last two decades, human catastrophes at sea have indisputably transformed the maritime borders of Europe into a macabre deathscape. Untold tens of thousands of refugees, migrants, and their children have been consigned to horrific, unnatural, premature deaths by shipwreck and drowning, often following protracted ordeals of hunger, thirst, exposure, and abandonment on the high seas. The most comprehensive database documenting migrant and refugee deaths during attempts to traverse the maritime borders of Europe estimates the total number at more than 30,000 for the period since the year 2000.[1] Although such statistics are imperfect and the records surely involve a significant undercount, that is an average of 4-5 people who died every day during this period. With 4,329 migrant and refugee deaths recorded in the Mediterranean, 2016 became the deadliest year on record: on average, approximately 12 people died every day that year. Although 2017 saw a modest decline in the number of recorded deaths, this figure remained alarmingly high: on average, roughly 9 people died every day.[2] Thus, it is no exaggeration to declare that EU-ropean border enforcement policies and practices have actively converted the Mediterranean into a gruesome mass grave.

Rising numbers of border deaths in the Mediterranean Sea are no mere coincidence or accident of geography, but rather a systemic result of European immigration law-making, as well as a systemic feature of the routine functioning of the increasing physical fortification of the maritime border and the increasing militarization of border enforcement tactics and technologies. The EU-ropean legal frameworks governing travel visas, migration, and asylum, together with the externalization of border policing and transportation carrier sanctions, preclude literally the vast majority of humanity from “legitimate” access to the European Union. The vast majority of people from most of the world who might like to migrate to Europe for labor are ineligible for the sorts of work-related migration programs that actually exist. The vast majority who might like to visit Europe, or who wish to migrate or seek asylum, similarly are effectively ineligible for travel visas and are routinely rejected by consular officials who implement a systematic suspicion with regard to all prospective applicants. Even refugees have virtually no way to apply for asylum from abroad and are required to lodge their petitions on European territory, which requires them to first arrive “illegally” before they ever can be considered for asylum. In terms of their real effects and what they actually produce, this EU-ropean system for governing human mobility operates as a regime for the production of migrant “illegality.” Simply put, the mobility of the vast majority of humanity has been preemptively illegalized. Furthermore, the perfectly predictable lethal effects of border fortification against such “irregular” arrivals on EU territory consign migrants and refugees to disappearance and death by turning border crossing itself into a death-defying obstacle course. The systematicity of this (infra-)structural violence actively converts the sea into a geography that kills.[3] Inasmuch as the borders of Europe have also been effectively externalized across the entire expanse of the Sahara Desert, furthermore, the European border regime has created the conditions of possibility for an escalation in border zone deaths across a vast geography that precedes these perilous maritime journeys — deaths which will ordinarily never be recognized as the result of the European border regime, and which are unlikely to even be counted.

In this light, we are challenged to critically comprehend the increasingly militarized spectacle of border policing in relation to its brute material effects — above all, a ghastly accumulation of dead Black and Brown bodies. The brute racial fact of the increasingly deadly European border regime is seldom acknowledged, because recognizing that the targets of these diverse tactics of bordering are overwhelmingly Black and Brown people immediately confronts us with a cruel fact of (post)coloniality. Migration and refugee movements present Europe with the inevitable and ever-more bountiful harvest of empire, past and present. Like every aspect of European colonialism, that harvest is inevitably a racial one. The fervent fortification of the borders of Europe today should therefore be understood to be nothing less than yet another re-drawing of the global color line, and the postcolonial institutionalization of what Étienne Balibar has tellingly suggested may be “a European ‘apartheid’.”[4]

Europe’s deadly borders, therefore, must be understood as racial borders. The physical barricading and ever more lethal policing of Europe’s borders, likewise, signify an abundantly racialized affair. Rather than perceiving the brute racial (post)coloniality of Europe’s borders as a merely “exclusionary” matter, it is vital that we discern the ways that this profoundly racialized system of immigration and asylum operates in fact in a perfectly predictable way as a machine of inclusion — albeit a form of inclusion that is always one of racialized, postcolonial, illegalized labor subordination. In other words, while some are made to die, many more survive and eventually make their way to Europe, compelled to first endure the severities and outright cruelties of these often perilous border crossings as a protracted apprenticeship that prepares the majority of them for life as Europe’s rejected asylum-seekers and, very commonly, as “unauthorized” workers. Even in the exceptional instances of a large-scale admission of refugees, as transpired in 2015-16 in Germany, the cumulative effect of the immigration and asylum systems of Europe works to discipline and subordinate the refugee newcomers by sorting and ranking them into various hierarchies of deservingness and abjection. Moreover, this admission only came to pass as the effect of a governmental impasse instigated by the sheer volume and momentum of migrant and refugee mobilities that succeeded to circumvent or subvert the European border regime. It is a disgraceful postcolonial injustice that the re-bordering of Europe is so comprehensively targeted against the descendants of those who inhabited for centuries the former colonies of Europe, indeed those who always made up the great majority of Europe’s working class. What is a still more urgent concern is that this re-bordering now serves to re-import the labor of the formerly colonized world to supply an ever more important and constitutive source of labor-power to support Europe’s waning prosperity and prestige in the form of a racially subjugated migrant working class.


Nicholas De Genova is a scholar of migration, borders, citizenship, race and labour. Most recently, he held a permanent position at King’s College London. His last book, “The borders of ‘Europe’: Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering” was published by Duke University Press (2017).



[3] Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani, “Liquid Traces: Investigating the Deaths of Migrants at the EU’s Maritime Frontier.” Pp. 95–119 in Nicholas De Genova (ed.), The Borders of “Europe”: Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017.

[4]  Étienne Balibar, “Droit de Cité or Apartheid?” (1999).  Pp. 31-50 in Balibar (2004), We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Quoted phrase appears at pp.43-4).