In his memoirs, the Catalan novelist, playwright, poet, journalist and translator Josep Maria de Sagarra describes how easy it was to travel in Europe when he was a young man, before passports were gradually introduced during World War I and made obligatory in 1920 by the League of Nations. After that, borders were so bundled up in red tape that crossing them required lengthy visa applications, proof of your reason for travel and the address at which you intended to stay; and when you came back, you would more likely than not be asked why you had bothered to leave in the first place (as late as the 1980s, I was regularly taken aside by British customs officials – when trying to enter the country of my birth with a British passport – who wanted to know what I’d been up to in Barcelona).
Since the 1990s, the European Union made it easy as pie for people to travel between its member states. Borders were returned to their pre-1920 sponginess, as long as you had an EU passport or ID card.
On May 8 last, according to The Guardian, a woman with dual Italian and Brazilian nationality and her (Brazilian) husband were detained at Luton airport in the UK, handcuffed, marched through the vestibule, put in a van overnight, and then driven to a detention centre where they were held for seven days before being put forcibly on a flight back to Italy. The woman’s sister, who lives in Liverpool, was unable to contact her and was given no information as to her whereabouts. The detained woman herself couldn’t contact her either, because her mobile phone had been seized. She and her husband were also denied access to their regular medication (in his case, for high blood pressure).
Even worse, if anything, was what happened last month to a 20 year old Estonian travelling alone for the first time: she was accused of wanting to work as an au pair – apparently now a major crime in Brexit Britain – and held for 30 hours in Gatwick airport. She too, was refused access to her medication, despite suffering several panic attacks which induced vomiting. In their wisdom, the aptly named Border Force officers didn’t believe that she was in the UK to see family friends, so she was sent back without being able to see them. Meanwhile, in Ceuta – a previously Portuguese enclave on the North African coast which has been in Spanish hands since 1640 – some 8,000 Moroccan migrants either swam in or were let in through the fence by Moroccan border guards acting under orders from their government because Spain had allowed a leader of the Polisario Front – the independence movement of the Western Sahara, recognised by the UN as the legitimate representative of said desert’s inhabitants, the Sahrawi people – to be hospitalised in La Rioja after catching Covid. (Aside from Ceuta, Spain has five enclaves and tiny islands prised in the past from African hands, all of them soldiered up to the hilt). As it turned out, this anachronic nit-picking over the supposed threats to each country’s sovereignty didn’t reflect well on either of the parties. The 8,000 migrants clearly thought Morocco was a disorganised dump worth leaving for good and said as much to local media. As for Spain, it wasn’t just the sight of young Moroccan boys being whacked about as they were forcibly returned through the border fence that looked bad, but when the most humane image of the whole sorry affair went viral – showing a female Red Cross worker embracing a devastated Senegalese migrant – she became the butt of a torrent of online abuse, mostly from Vox voters (later counter-acted by messages of support, but only after the far-right had got in there first).
There are over a dozen recent and scientifically reliable books about the climate crisis – such as David Wallace-Wells’ ’The Uninhabitable Earth’ (2019) – which have made it crystal clear that immigration is going to increase over the coming decades to an extent never before seen on the planet. So good luck to the UK Border Force, and the borderline fanatics in the Spanish and Moroccan governments. And all those who share their quaint, early 20th century views on the inflexibility of borders (both for those foreigners who wish to cross them and those locals who believe it necessary to modify them). Like the dinosaurs, such nationalistically sclerotic administrations and their servants just cannot see what’s coming their way.