Christian’s mobile phone vibrates as he settles into his seat for the flight to Montenegro. Two weeks ago the UK Border Agency (UKBA) informed him that he no longer had the right to remain in Britain and asked him to provide flight details of when he planned to leave the country. On Facebook Christian informed his friends in Montenegro that he was coming home. Before turning his phone off for the flight, Christian looks down and checks his new text message. To his surprise it is from UKBA. The text reads “Have a pleasant journey”.
The politeness of the British Immigration Officials that have questioned and scrutinized Christian is somehow the hardest thing to take. In a hyperconnected world, border control and regulation is taking more complex and technologically sophisticated forms. Christian’s story is emblematic of how the new realities and technologies of border control are as mobile as the people who get on and off jet planes.
In 2010, it was estimated that there were 214 million international migrants in the world, representing an increase of almost 40 million in the first decade of the 21st century. One in three of these migrants are young adults. The regulation of youth migration is producing new hierarchies of belonging that order and rank the life chances of a globally mobile generation.
This year the controversy about the Home Office ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’ van campaign raised public concern about the damage this does in Britain’s cosmopolitan cities. Home Office posters invited overstayers to text ‘Home on 7870.” The mechanisms of border control are increasingly using digital media and mobile technology; the link is illustrated by the Home Office’s use of Twitter to offer a running commentary on the van campaign.
Anti- immigrant racism and xenophobia is given an official public license as a result in both off line and on-line worlds.
It is not just that young migrants face institutionalised forms of marginalisation – without leave to remain they cannot work or have recourse to public funds - and also have to live with a sense of insecurity enhanced by the mobile phone in the palm of their hand.
The technologies of the digital age are changing the experience of living across national borders. In John Berger’s extraordinary study of migration, A Seventh Man, the migrant’s sense of missing home is described as the “double pain of absence”. Berger explains “He misses everything he feels to be absent. At the same time, that which is absent, continues without him” (Berger and Mohr 1975: 178). This study was conducted in the 1970s. The migrant experience of this kind of absence today has been radically transformed.
Through the mobile phone and virtual social networking migrants can be technologically connected to the life ‘back home’ that is unfolding without them. They sit in a cafe in London and keep track of the lives of loved ones left behind and even participate remotely through text messaging and email. Charlynne told me recently that she speak to her relatives in Dominica all the time. “I can talk to my nephews for 45 minutes on Skype but I can’t put my arm around them” she says.
Technological connection does not lessen the pain of absence, quite the contrary, it can exacerbate it. This was demonstrated by the case of a young asylum seeker called Clifford who participated in a study of young adult migrants with my colleague Shamser Sinha. Clifford’s life was effectively on hold while his immigration case was being processed - he could not work legally or plan for his future. Every day he kept up with his friends in Ghana who were working, falling in and out of love and building a life.
The fact that through his iPhone Clifford was in contact with the unfolding lives of friends and loved ones – in real time - exacerbated his own sense of being trapped in the present. His immigration status meant he was unable to move forward or back. Clifford’s experience shows how the digitisation of social life has transformed the relationship between here and there without lessening the insecurities of being caught between.
Les Back is a professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles. His last book was The Art of Listening. Les' digital musings on university life can be found at Academic Diary .