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The State at the Border

Two further mechanisms are important in this disciplinary effort to deter movement. The first is bordering: the state projecting and manifesting itself at its confines, solidifying or closing its frontiers, and cooperating with neighbouring states in order to have their joint borders better governed. This will of course be no surprise for anyone familiar with anti-trafficking literature. Standard publications are full of complaints about ‘porous borders,’ ‘illicit flows’ and the fact that traffickers disregard the state’s sovereignty. It is taken as read in this space that good governance = solid border control and thus that good anti-trafficking means getting a grip over who comes in and out, when, how and according to which rules.8

The means for strengthening the state’s borders (or rather, its ability to border and to prevent those that it does not want to move from moving) show remarkable consistency across different contexts, almost as if the ‘playbook’ that anti-traffickers draw on is in common and has been shared far and wide. These means include expanding border forces, projecting those forces over ever-longer stretches of the border, training border police to recognise signs of trafficking, establishing protocols for easy repatriation between neighbouring states, criminalising border transgressions and sensitising border populations on the need to observe—and respect—said borders.

This work absorbed a great deal of anti-trafficking energy throughout the 2000s, not least in West Africa, where respect for borders is often (in) famously optional. Phil was the Country Representative for his UN agency in Benin at that time, and he explained that ensuring better border governance had been absolutely central to his work. ‘Nigeria was the big issue for us,’ he said, ‘because we realised that Nigeria was the major destination for Beninese kids. We therefore needed to establish a partnership with the Nigerians in order to strengthen the border.’ The resulting Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) established a comprehensive programme of multi-level cooperation, bringing together police forces, border officials, national anti-trafficking agencies and civil society. Its outcomes included a formal collaboration between the two national anti-trafficking agencies for streamlining repatriation procedures; a high-level political agreement over a mechanism to ‘monitor and if necessary shut the borders;’ and a bi-national working group touring the length of the countries’ shared border in order to tell villagers not to cross willy-nilly or to face arrest if they failed to comply.

Part of the purpose of all this was of course to reconfigure the Beninese state along ‘Ideal State’ good governance lines. Part too was intended to ensure that only ‘legitimate’ movement was allowed. But part of it sought, like the earlier anti-trafficking law, to deter movement more generally and to do so in the joint belief that child labour mobility is negative and that trafficking can efficiently be prevented simply by deterring that mobility. Here again Phil proves an illustrative interlocutor. When I asked him whether such border discipline was really a positive step, given that it had led to the arrest of people who were simply migrating with family members and unaware of the new legislation, he replied somewhat callously: ‘You need to break a few eggs when you want to make an omelette.’ The ethnocentric view that he and his colleagues shared (including some elite Beninese) was that wanton mobility needed to stop, and so a few border arrests were a small price to pay.

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