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Standing still to move on: Scenes of waiting at the border

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Newly arrived immigrants waiting to go through immigration controls in Ellis Island in 1911. Source: Library of Congress.

‘And now my advice to you,’ [the policeman] added, ‘is to go into your room, stay calm, and wait and see what decisions are taken in your case. We advise you not to waste your energy on pointless thoughts but to compose yourself, great demands are going to be made on you. You have not treated us as our obliging attitude deserved, you have forgotten that we, whatever we may be, are at least free men and you are not, and that is no small advantage.’

Franz Kafka, The Trial

Every morning before dawn, thousands of women queue at the border between the province of Nador, Morocco, and the Spanish enclave of Melilla. Many of them are porteadoras; they make a living out of carrying bundled goods from the port of low-tax Melilla for resale in Morocco. The bundles on their backs, which can weigh up to 90 kg, pass as ‘hand luggage’, allowing them to avoid customs. Hours later, the queues reappear on the other side, as the porteadoras try to leave the enclave before the border closes trapping them and depriving them of the day’s earnings. The queue is bustling, impatience grows as time goes by, and the harsh treatment the women receive from the Moroccan gendarmerie and the Spanish riot police does not always prevent accidents and deadly stampedes.


Although often overlooked, waiting seems to be an inherent part of the process of crossing a border. The border – between Spain and Morocco, between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, or more recently between Ethiopia and Eritrea – can be a very dynamic place, full of noises and contrasts, with people and goods moving to and fro; but at a closer look, the picture freezes. At the heart of the bustle lies immobility: one person waiting after another, standing still so that they can move on. In queues, crowds become countable, manageable, ‘orderly’ as the Global Compact for Migration would put it. Stopping and reorganising human movement at the moment of crossing a border can serve a practical purpose – how else can you accommodate a hundred people inside a plane? However, forcing immobility on those on the move is also a mechanism of control and the product of certain power dynamics.


In Madrid, another queue raised the alarms of human rights advocates last autumn. Hundreds of asylum seekers, including children and sick people, had to camp for the night outside the only centre in the region where they can start their application. After cutting budgets and centralising application services at the police headquarters in the Aluche neighbourhood, and with the arrival of asylum seekers multiplied fourfold in the past two years with the Venezuelan crisis, officials could not manage the new workload. Bearing the consequences fell upon those waiting outside the office overnight, who had to register their application within one month of arrival regardless of the circumstances; holding their place in the queue could make the difference between eventually getting protection or risking irregularity. Not unlike the porteadoras, they had their time taken away from their control, but still they had to run faster than the administration clocks. The queues result from an alleged malfunction of the system, and with them a parallel system emerges with the tacit acceptance of the state. In Melilla, specific border crossing points have been enabled for what is technically (albeit not legally) smuggling goods under inhumane working conditions; in Madrid, the tickets distributed by officials as a temporary means of avoiding the queues quickly became valued items on the black market.


Behind the queue of people waiting for state action, there was the Aluche immigrant detention centre (CIE by its Spanish acronym), where others were waiting for the state to expel them from its custody (or finally let them go). Detained immigrants are held for up to two months, in conditions that are more precarious than in prisons. The CIE uproots them from their daily lives, from their loved ones, and even from their names, now replaced by a number for administrative purposes. The group waiting outside gave up the autonomy over their bodies and their time to the administration, left at the mercy of the cold streets for the night; the group confined inside  was deprived of it and left at the mercy, this time, of the administration. The lights of the CIE loomed over the asylum seekers as a sinister reminder of how the story might end. There is not always hope in waiting.


In the last months, the Mediterranean has also become a vast waiting room. Since Italy and Malta first closed their ports to the Aquarius, a search-and-rescue ship carrying over 600 immigrants on board, in June 2018, many others have seen themselves stuck at sea. The story is always similar: after an NGO boat or European merchant vessel rescues immigrants from a shipwreck situation, port authorities from the closest European country deny them permission to approach land. Passengers and crew have to wait in the open sea for days, often pushing their resources to the limit, until some country grants them access, not without domestic controversy nor complex negotiations between EU member states on the number of migrants that each will reluctantly take in. Even military and coastguard vessels may be banned from disembarking passengers once they dock at a port. This is the best-case scenario, since more and more often the rescuing ship simply never comes; and if migrants are ‘rescued’ by a Libyan coastguard or merchant vessel – or even an Italian one –, they will be returned to Libya instead, where they will be subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, ill-treatment, unlawful killings, sexual exploitation, or other human rights abuses, according to the UN.


The long days of waiting in the Mediterranean limbo, suspended at sea between the promised land and the Libyan gates of hell, send a clear political message to those on board. The states that deny a safe haven are not just using their sovereign power to decide on how and when noncitizens are allowed in or cast out; they also have their lives in their hands. Migrants rescued at sea await a decision that puts both their chance to keep moving and their right to stay alive out of their control. By having their very existence put on hold at what could be the last stage of their journey, migrants are told their lives are disposable for those in power.

Poet Yousif Qasmiyeh wrote ‘On the threshold, they slaughtered us and time’ (‘If this is my face, be it’, published in Modern Poetry in Translation, 2016). Borders and other restrictions to free movement impose a strange paradox on those travelling – particularly non-white, non-Western, underprivileged travellers –, who see their movement in space coupled with a suspension of their time. In order to make migration ‘orderly’, states resort to temporarily paralysing migrants’ bodies for the promise of a decision that may allow them to resume their lives and their journeys. In the meantime, at the standstill, there is only the wait.

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Magda Rodríguez Dehli

Magda was born and raised in Spain and obtained a B.A. in International Relations from the Complutense University of Madrid, studying abroad at UCLA and at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Lyon, and an MSc in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford. She interned at the Spanish Foreign Ministry and at the European Commission and she is currently preparing the admission exams for the Spanish foreign service. Her two passions are singing in the shower and keeping a close eye on all things political.

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