Alongside the imperial interventions of the global War on Terror, a new form of intervention is taking shape in the militarized borders, interdictions at sea, detention centers, holding facilities and the criminalization of mobility around the world. The Global North—the United States, Canada, the European Union (EU), Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, the Gulf states and East Asia—is massively investing in militarized border regimes that reach far beyond particular territorial borders to manage the movement of people from the Global South.[1]

This globalizing border regime now extends deeply into many places from which people are attempting to leave and pushes them back; it tracks them to interrupt their mobility; stops them at certain borders for detention and deportation; pushes them into the most dangerous traveling routes; and creates new forms of criminality. It depends on an immense investment of capital and feeds a massive new global security-industrial complex. The most visible impact of this new form of intervention includes drownings in the ocean, deaths in the desert, detention centers, refugee camps and holding facilities. Meanwhile, the Global North invests in ever more militarized forms of engagement and control, redirects vast resources to fortify its borders and divests from most forms of engagement with the Global South other than exploitation and policing.

The new militarized regime of border and mobility control taking shape across the Global North mimics South Africa’s system of racial apartheid that formally ended in 1994. Like that regime, the tools of the new global racialized containment policy aim to create an exploitable labor force and enclose those considered undesirable or expendable in territories, detention centers or refugee camps far from the borders of the Global North. Militarized global apartheid is emerging as a global norm. It is structured and implemented through a loosely integrated effort by countries in the Global North to protect themselves against the increasing mobility of people from the Global South.

Also mirroring South Africa, it is the very policies of these countries that contribute to insecurity and violence in the Global South—the Caribbean and Latin America, Africa, much of the Middle East and Central, Southwest and Southeast Asia—against whose people the Global North is emplacing barriers. Along with imperialist interventions, the expansion of systems of resource extraction and appropriation into the Global South renders its localities unsustainable or unpromising for ordinary life. These conditions force people to confront the apparently contradictory demand for their labor and the militarized borders of the Global North in their search for security, employment and a sustainable life. Because the new apartheid relies on and nurtures xenophobic and nativist ideologies, it also requires the few who benefit to collectively demonize and ostracize the many who are harmed.

This emergent form of global intervention that increasingly marginalizes and excludes the majority of the global population in favor of the wealthy few in the Global North is a product of neoliberal globalization, combined with resurgent racialized nationalisms. Like apartheid in South Africa, it is unsustainable over the long term and incredibly destructive in the short term. Analyzing its features allows the identification of its control points, and thus clarifies where to target initiatives of resistance and confrontation.


The Contours of Global Apartheid

The Global North’s increasingly militarized borders and regimes of mobility control are the latest iteration of a hierarchical and racialized world order. But it is one in which the enforcement of a hierarchical labor market depends upon differential access to mobility on the basis of origin and race, which closely replicates the structures and institutions of apartheid-era South Africa on a global scale.

Apartheid is a legal edifice that constructs and enforces the supremacy of one racial group over another. The term was used by South Africa’s National Party after its political victory in 1948 to describe the systematic assertion of white supremacy through policies and laws designed to manage the supposed threat posed by Black people by incarcerating them in special areas where they were obligated to live, while enabling their controlled and policed exploitation as workers, upon whose labor South Africa was dependent.

As it unfolded in South Africa, apartheid contained five key elements. First, it relied on an essentialized cultural logic that tied people to place through racial and nativist ideologies. Black people were removed from white space, denied citizenship in South Africa and sent to live in designated areas set aside for only Black people, which were called independent homelands and where they were told they “naturally” belonged. Second, racial groups and the homelands for Black people were made unequal because the homelands were impoverished by design. Third, the apartheid state created a bureaucratic system of identity documentation and mobility controls called pass laws that governed how Black people were allowed to cross borders and enter space designated for white citizens. Fourth, apartheid was also about the control and exploitation of Black labor. The pass laws let Black people into white space only for the purpose of working—they lacked political rights in white space. Fifth, because apartheid was exploitive and unjust, its maintenance required a massive and expensive militarized security apparatus to maintain its racial separations.

South Africa began dismantling its apartheid regime almost three decades ago, but the Global North is hastening its appropriation of apartheid’s key features. From the thickening of borders to their militarization; from imperialist interventions that destabilize territories to the refugee camps that contain the displaced; from the ongoing criminalization of the mobile and those who assist them to the explosive growth of detention centers and deportations the Global North is replicating on a grand scale the fundamental components of a hierarchical social order based on regulating the lives and mobilities of people from the Global South. Through new forms of militarized border regimes and regulated labor cycles, the five elements that make up the South African apartheid system are taking shape systemically on a global scale.


Exclusionary Citizenship

One of the key drivers of this new regulatory regime, mirroring apartheid South Africa, has been rising nationalist efforts to tie people to place, thus enabling an illusion that cultural identity roots people in particular geographical places where they are imagined naturally to belong (Mexico is for Mexicans, Germany is for Germans, and so forth). Tying people to place through linking cultural identity and nation-state membership (or citizenship) is the basis for the idea of immigration control. It makes mobility seem threatening to the consolidation of a nationalist identity.

Nationalism is not natural, in part because mobility has been ubiquitous throughout human history. It has to be created. Over the past century states in the Global North have been crafting nationalist identities for citizens while building mechanisms to police cross-border movements of non-citizens. Elites often promote particular ideologies and cultural understandings about who belongs by virtue of descent and birth, and governments have created passports to clearly brand those who belong. In the white settler colonial states of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, in the colonizing states of Europe, and in the new nation of Israel, the process of consolidating a nationalist identity connected to citizenship has historically been a lethally racialized project.

In the United States, for example, the very first legislation to define the qualifications for citizenship (the Naturalization Act of 1790) restricted citizenship only to free whites, whose mobility remained unfettered, a law that remained on the books until 1952. The importance of whiteness as central to citizenship has taken many forms over the years, including anti-Black racial segregation laws, influx control policies that prioritized certain immigrants and barred others and laws that barred Asians from citizenship until the middle of the twentieth century.

Canada, Australia, European countries, Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE—enacted similar racial logics of exclusionary citizenship. In the cases of Canada and Australia this exclusion was accomplished through genocide and removals of indigenous colonized peoples and through ideologies of racial superiority. In Europe it was done through laws that racially restricted citizenship after the end of colonialism and in Israel and the GCC countries through restrictive heritage-based requirements for citizenship.

The end of European colonial rule led to the emergence of a global regime of mandatory citizenship: European states that had offered a limited extension of citizenship to some of the colonized began curtailing that policy, constructing instead a new regime of mobility controls. Thus, at the very moment that former colonies were transitioning to independence and gaining political freedom, former colonizers were working to ensure the hegemony of an international structure to control population movement, enforce the national conferral of citizenship as the only form of internationally recognized political belonging and make certain that they could retain whiteness as a key factor in determining who would be allowed to cross their borders.[2]

What is new today is the extensive militarization and global extension of this regime fueled by increasingly narrow notions of national and racial identity. Today, policing cross-border mobility has become a primary pre-occupation of governments in the Global North. It is not by chance that the EU visa system defines as “negative” countries—those countries whose citizens require visas to enter the EU—all the countries in Africa, most of those in the Caribbean, all the poorer Latin American and Asian countries, and most of the Muslim-majority countries. Similarly, the US visa waiver program applies only to European countries as well as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Brunei and Chile. The racialized hierarchies encouraged and maintained by these visa regimes are obvious.


Producing Impoverishment and Disenfranchisement

Another element of the apartheid structure is the ongoing intervention by the state into areas designated for the racialized underclass in ways that render ordinary life unsustainable. In South Africa, the homelands created for Black people were kept poor and relatively powerless, although the South African government retained the ability to intervene economically and militarily at will. The new globalized regime of border and mobility control is also characterized by ongoing interventions and invasive policies that deeply impact the social conditions and lives of those being excluded by restrictive policies such as:

  • Military interventions by the Global North into countries in the Global South.
  • Austerity regimes imposed by multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank on countries across the Global South over the issue of debt.
  • Corporate capitalist plunder of the Global South by economic and financial entities based in the Global North.
  • Trade agreements that benefit the Global North and disadvantage the Global South.
  • Large-scale land acquisition in the Global South by entities in the Global North for the production of biofuels, timber and food crops.[3]

The aggressive penetration of neoliberal capitalism in the Global South has created “excess populations” that are either captured for the market as cheap producers, exploitable workers or temporary guest workers, or made expendable through forced removals and displacements, incarceration into refugee camps or are allowed to sicken and die. The patterning of this transformation is driven by a racist logic of securitization that defines bodies in the Global South as either security threats to, or exploitable labor for, the Global North.


Criminalizing Immigration

In response to heightened mobility and immigration panics, the Global North has consolidated what some have referred to as a “fortress” operation through expanding deportations and tightening the requirements for allowing entry that reflect a clear geographic and racial bias. People in the Global North who lack appropriate entry documents face a context that some analysts call “crimmigration”: immigration panics that conflate undocumented status with criminality or terrorism, drawing out racialized fears of immigrants and producing a surge of new laws, policing and surveillance to identify, incarcerate and remove the undocumented. The racial logics motivating and guiding these practices mirror the management of pass law violations in apartheid South Africa that filled jails with Black people. In the Global North of today, states have embarked on programs of mass refusal and mass incarceration to discipline, punish and remove from society undocumented racialized foreigners.

One node in this system is the international refugee regime. Gaining official refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is made contingent upon a strict reading of political persecution that gives people the right to cross an international border to make a claim of persecution but then strips them of all meaningful political and civil rights in countries where they do not “belong” while their claims are reviewed by authorities. The formal process of refugee identity documentation and management relies on refugee camps as holding facilities to restrict refugee mobility. The refugee camp system is designed to protect state sovereignty, and specifically the sovereignty of wealthier countries in the Global North, from the movement of people in the Global South, where the majority of refugees originate and the majority of refugee camps are located. The international management of refugees thus enacts a fundamental inequality that grants power to the Global North over people in the Global South. Meanwhile, people who carry passports from the Global North can usually go wherever they want.

Furthermore, countries in the Global North are eager to keep refugees far away from their borders because persecuted people who make it across the border of the United States or the EU have a legal right to apply for asylum. A primary goal of Frontex, the EU agency responsible for border control, is to ensure that potential asylum seekers fail to reach EU borders because of the legal obligation to consider the asylum applications of those who do manage to cross. EU countries are funding Libya, Niger, Turkey, Morocco, Senegal, Sudan and the Ukraine to catch and hold migrants trying to make their way to Europe and to accept those deported at the border.

The same desire governs asylum policy in the United States and in Australia. The United States funds Mexico to try to stop Central Americans before they reach its border, and Australia deflects migrants to offshore islands in other countries. GCC countries and East Asian countries accept extremely few asylum seekers, and Israel, after building a wall at its border with Egypt in 2012, began a campaign of mass deportation of asylum seekers who arrived prior to its construction. Off-shoring borders and third country deportations generally operate outside of American, Canadian, European, Australian or Israeli regulatory control, are subject to little oversight or transparency and offer countries on whose behalf migrants are detained and deported deniability about human rights abuses that may be taking place.

In addition to blocking entry through interrupting people’s mobility and placing them in camps, countries in the Global North are also making vast use of detention centers and holding facilities within their borders. Israel has the largest detention center in the world—the Saharonim Prison in the Negev desert—with a capacity of 8,000 inmates. Russia recently announced a plan to expand the number of detention centers from 88 to 104. In the United States, the number of detainees has ballooned to over 400,000 per year since 2012, held across a shadowy and secretive network of public and private facilities, with a detention budget in the billions. Over 30,000 immigrants, the vast majority from Mexico and Central America, are imprisoned in detention centers in the United States on any given day, a quota set by Congress and fulfilled by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Consequently, the business of detention has become hugely profitable, with the two major private contractors in the United States posting profits of hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

The disregard for human life, dignity and basic rights evinced by refugee camps, detention centers, off-shore holding facilities and deportation is made even more brutally clear with the murderous effects of border management regimes. Mediterranean maritime patrols for Frontex push migrants into more dangerous sea routes, while the Prevention Through Deterrence strategy along the US-Mexican border funnels migrants into ever more hostile desert environments, and Australia’s maritime patrols push boats overloaded with migrants back out to sea. Because of these strategies, about 13,000 people died between 2014 and mid-2018 trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe. Thousands have died in the Sonoran Desert, most disappeared by the desert’s desiccating power before their remains can be discovered. An estimated 2,000 people have died, most by drowning, at the Australian frontier during 2000-2016.

The now-normalized practices of abandoning people in refugee camps, incarcerating people in secretive detention centers and interrupting migrant routes in order to push people into life threatening environments show the centrality of racism for creating categories of the disposable and even killable. These practices illustrate the lengths to which countries in the Global North will go to restrict the entry of Black and brown people from the Global South because they lack entry documents.[4]


Labor Exploitation

Despite engineering highly elaborate border controls, the Global North still remains dependent on the labor of border crossers. Because the demand for cheap labor confronts the fortress mentality, many countries have created complex guest worker programs through policies that allow the entry of temporary migrants to perform certain jobs while denying them basic rights of self-determination and democratic participation. In fact, guest worker programs in the Global North are modeled on South Africa’s pass system that regulated Black labor for the benefit of white employers.

Temporary migrants are allowed to cross borders into countries in the Global North through a dizzying array of work visas that apply to different sectors of the economy and carry different rights and protections. Nevertheless, work visas, which are intended to ensure control over imported workers, share a set of similar characteristics across the Global North: Most are temporary, forbid migrant workers from bringing their families, prohibit union organizing or collective bargaining, exempt migrant workers from labor protections available to citizens, are controlled by employers and not workers and are often managed by labor brokers who charge high fees to prospective workers, making them deeply indebted. They are designed to create a flexible, replaceable, disempowered and disposable work force that cannot make demands on the host country and will not challenge the cultural integrity of the host culture.

In many countries in the Global North, the contained and controlled workforce of authorized guest workers is augmented by a much larger workforce of undocumented people who endure exploitation, racism, insecurity and the persistent threat of deportation in order to perform jobs that citizens refuse to do. Those in the Global North who hold guest worker and undocumented status confront the racialized hierarchies of belonging, rights and human value within a system of labor control that depends on importing people from regions that have been made unsustainable and criminalizes those who lack documents or by making their employment dependent upon their employer, who holds their labor contract. The labor structure simultaneously ensures that they submit to racialized hierarchies that put them on the bottom and denies them rights and recognition as members of the national body.[5]


A Militarized Global Apartheid Apparatus

The final element of the emerging global border and mobility regime that resembles South African apartheid is the militarized security apparatus that maintains its exclusivist and hierarchical structure. In the past two decades, the EU and the United States, as well as Israel, have transformed border security into a spectacular militarized operation that absorbs ever-growing resources.[6]

The US border, most especially with Mexico, has become a militarized zone through the transfer of military technology and strategies, and the creation of the Constitution Free Zone that stretches inland 100 miles from the border, where civil rights can be suspended in the interests of security and immigration enforcement. The number of people employed to carry out this work is staggering. The US Customs and Border Protection Division is the single largest federal law enforcement agency in the United States with 60,000 employees and a 2017 budget of $13.9 billion. ICE employs another 20,000 with a 2017 budget of $3.2 billion.

Despite the militarization of the US border, a majority of immigrants who attempt to cross without documents are successful, leading some to suggest that the militarized performance of border security is intended to appease white racism and discipline brown migrants, while also ensuring a steady supply of exploitable labor. Perhaps the militarized border is like a spectacularly costly form of hazing that stops some and kills others while forcing those who successfully get across to endure painful, humiliating journeys that demonstrate with utter clarity that the Global North sees them as replaceable, exploitable and forgettable.


Contradictions of Global Apartheid

The security apparatus of global apartheid dehumanizes racialized others through blocking their routes of mobility, channeling them into the most dangerous regions of the sea and the desert, incarcerating them in refugee camps in remote and inhospitable regions for indeterminate periods and subjecting them to removals from white space over and over again. The United States, the EU, Australia, Israel and other countries in the Global North are claiming to maximize their own self-protection through gating, policing, removing and drowning people. Such practices are state-sanctioned investments in forms of structural violence that cause people to die.

Border controls, deportations and deaths in the desert and at sea reveal state sovereignty at its points of enactment and clarify how the state uses law, territorial boundaries and militarized security structures to promote and ensure a particular hegemonic racial identity. States shape populations by policing who gains entry and by removing the undesirables. Removals are acts of racism—they are racist projects of cultural consolidation, and they are often hidden within self-serving discourses of security.

Apartheid in South Africa collapsed because of its unsustainable internal contradictions, the debilitating financial cost of its security apparatus and its inherent evil. Maintaining a global apartheid structure will be vastly more costly, evil and ultimately impossible. Fighting the rise of racist nationalisms, the criminalization of mobility, hierarchical labor systems that give citizens more rights and protections than migrant workers, the use of incarceration as a tool of deterrence and punishment and the transformation of national borders into war zones must be a top priority for those who seek a more peaceful, just and equitable world.  ■



[1] This article is a summary of Catherine Besteman, “Militarized Global Apartheid,” Current Anthropology, 60/19 (2019).

[2] See Rita Chin, The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe: A History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017) and Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[3] See James Ferguson, Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006); Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York: Henry Holt, 2006); David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); and Saskia Sassan, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Cambridge, MA:  The Belknap Press, 2014).

[4] See Maurizio Albahari, Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migrations at the World’s Deadliest Border (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) and Jason De Léon, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2015).

[5] See Nicole Constable, Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Filipina Workers (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997); Gregory Feldman, The Migration Apparatus: Security, Labor, and Policy-Making in the European Union (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012); and Pardis Mahdavi, Crossing the Gulf: Love and Family in Migrant Lives (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016).

[6] See Ruben Andersson, Illegality, Inc.: Clandestine Migration and the Business of Bordering Europe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).

How to cite this article:

Catherine Besteman "Border Regimes and the New Global Apartheid," Middle East Report 290 (Spring 2019).

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