Borders and the Refugee Crisis


You have probably seen images in the news of barbed wire fences, groups of people scrambling to get out of boats and to the safety of the shore, people clinging to train cars. These images provide a glimpse into a complex and constantly changing landscape of human mobility across and between borders. Today, more people are on the move than ever before, and sociologists are striving to make sense of what shapes this movement and how it is changing the world.

Why study borders?

Within the study of human mobility and migration, some sociologists have turned their attention to forced migration, also known as forced displacement. Displacement can be driven by war, hunger, climate change, by need and by people’s desire to secure a safe future. Nation-states and their borders are key topics for sociologists studying displacement today. Sociologists are interested in how borders shape displacement, how the meanings and functions of borders are changing in light of globalization, how borders are constructed by different types of states, and what actors are involved in these processes.

In the contemporary international system, political borders separate the territory of one nation-state from the territory of another. There are 194 nation-states in the world today, and there are more than 300 land borders between them, in addition to numerous sea boundaries. Borders allow states to define their “inside” and their “outside” and to maintain power over resources, people, and territory.

The purpose of this module is to introduce the topic of borders by examining the institutions and people that form and enforce borders on the one hand, and by analysing how borders shape aspects of our own lives on the other hand. We will pay special attention to the significance of borders in shaping the current refugee crisis and the lived experiences of asylum seekers and refugees.

Overview: how will we study borders?

This resource will help you to:

1. Take a look at how the borders of contemporary nation-states are constructed, both on a macro-scale and from a micro-level perspective;

2. Understand the roles of different agents involved in border enforcement and border-crossing;

3. Understand how borders shape the lived experiences of contemporary refugees.

First, the module will offer a macro-level look at borders as they delineate modern nation-states on the map, using concepts developed by social scientists like Doreen Massey, Anssi Paasi, David Newman, Manuel Castells. This will form the basis for Activity 1.

Second, we will look at borders from a micro-level perspective, examining them as particular places where people convene, interact, and move about. Here, we will use ideas brought forth by sociologists of human mobility like Mimi Sheller, John Urry, Tim Cresswell and by sociologists of migration like Stephen Castles. Activity 2 will help us to reflect on how border crossing is experienced by different individuals across the world.

Finally, we will examine the contemporary refugee crisis from the perspective of the sociology of displacement and border studies. Activity 3 will offer one possible explanation of how various factors combined to form the “perfect storm” of the refugee crisis. This activity will also prompt you to think critically about the roles of different agents at work at borders crossed by people fleeing from danger and seeking safety.

Resource activities

Zooming Out

Political borders separate the territory of one state from the territory of another. There are 194 nation-states in the world today, and there are more than 300 land borders between them, in addition to numerous sea boundaries. Borders are one way in which a government can control access to particular geographical areas and to maintain power over them, to define “the inside” and “the outside” of the nation-state, and to control flows of goods and people.

What can sociologists tell us about how borders work today? 


Zooming In

This activity invites you to critically reflect on the varied experiences of border crossing encountered by people around the world today. The activity also stimulates reflection about the social relations involved in crossing the border, as various people come into contact with one another as they make their way from one state to another.


Understanding the refugee crisis

In each of the 5 parts of this activity, you will get acquainted with different people involved in the border crossing of asylum seekers. This will get you thinking about the social construction of borders and the institutions that dictate how various people act at the border.


Activity questions

  • Are all borders the same? If not, which borders matter more and when?
  • What do the rise of private borders suggest for public (nation-state) borders?
  • What does the rise of the internet mean for borders?

Reflective questions

To answer and record these questions you will need to have an account and be logged in.

Task 1

What are the key arguments, concepts, points contained within it?

Task 2

What are you struggling to understand?

What could you do to improve your understanding of these concepts/terminology etc.?

Task 3

What further questions has this resource raised for you?

What else are you keen to discover about this topic and how could you go about learning more?

Can you make any links between this topic and your prior knowledge or school studies?

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Further reading

  • Brief Introduction to Illicit Globalization

    Far from just zooming out and zooming in, one might think critically about how borders have hardened and softened for different kinds of border traffic, and thus the relationship between the legal recognition of traffic and how hard a border is. Peter Andreas’ work studies this in more detail, and he gives an initial introduction here.

  • Europe’s Plan to End Its Migrant Crisis Is Failing

    The New Yorker are an excellent source of journalistic integrity (as well as great writing!). Their recent work on the refugee crisis is proof that Europe still haven’t solved the problems before them, but have rather exacerbated them.

  • Transnational private regulation

    How else might borders exist? Are there such things as private borders? The OECD produced a case study on this exact topic.