Checking privilege at the border

Published May 27, 2016

Flying back from a conference, I stand at the desk of an airport terminal’s gate, preparing to board, ticket in hand, passport at the ready. Like the security checkpoint prior to the gate, the boarding agent barely glances at my documentation before scanning my ticket and allowing me to board the flight for home.

I’ve participated in the rituals of border crossing so many times that they now seem both easy and natural. In truth, they are neither, but the degree to which they seem so says a great deal about my own privilege and the function that borders serve in the life of our nation-states.

As a white, blue-eyed, blonde-haired male who holds a Canadian passport, I can pass through most borders like a warm knife through butter. Not being stopped or scrutinized at borders, I am not often forced to think about them and that is how white privilege works-it gives you the luxury of thoughtlessness.

The reality is that my experience of borders is not the experience of the majority of the world’s population. About a hundred people will perish in the Sonoran desert this year, and hundreds, if not thousands more, will drown this summer in the Aegean Sea in an attempt to cross borders. They make these perilous attempts, for they know that their lack of proper documentation, their country of origin, their race or their religion will make them objects of scrutiny at the border; that rather than welcoming them as refugees, the border will harden into razor wire and walls, prisons yards and camps.

While countries that have signed the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees are required by international law to hear the asylum claim of any foreign national within their borders, this convention does not apply to those who are outside their borders. Respecting the letter of the law, Canada, like most northern nation-states, practises “interdiction,” a fancy term that means if a nation-state can stop refugees before they cross the border, they have no obligation to listen to their claims. We are happy to take the 25,000 Syrian refugees we select and deem worthy of crossing our borders, but we attempt to intercept, redirect and stop those who might try to make that crossing on their own.

This is one of the reasons that airlines check your tickets as you board the plane. Governments slap carriers with significant fines for allowing persons on board with faulty documentation. Since corporations are not subject to the Refugee Convention, they can refuse passengers even if they are forced migrants seeking asylum. Nation-states, thus, use these fines to encourage airlines to stop potential refugee claimants before they arrive.

These kinds of restrictions are why many suffering, forced migrants will make the perilous journey over deserts and seas this summer to find a place where their claims of asylum will not be subject to our border regimes’ discrimination. In the words of anthropologist Shahram Khosravi, “Sacrifice is a primary act of worship. Sacrificing border transgressors is part of the worship of the nation-state and acknowledgement of its sovereignty.”

Yet, as followers of Jesus, we worship a God who has formed us into a people whose sovereignty is constituted and regulated, not by borders, but through our participation in the story of God reconciling to God’s self all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of Christ’s cross. (See Col. 1:20). In the light of Jesus’ sacrifice, every life sacrificed on the altar of borders to maintain the sovereignty of the nation-state is an act of idolatry and an abomination to God.

Sponsoring refugees is a critically important part of pushing back against the principalities and powers of our world that deny people a place to call home, but we cannot stop there. As followers of Jesus, we must also begin to ask ourselves how our own borders, political structures and cultures of privilege might also be denying people a place to call home.

As I sit on the plane waiting for takeoff, I randomly opened my passport and began to read it. To my utter amazement, I realize that the name in my passport is misspelled and does not match my tickets-maybe it never has. I’ve been crossing borders with faulty documentation for years, and nobody noticed. It isn’t luck that no one thought to check.


  • Jeffrey Metcalfe

    Jeffrey Metcalfe is the diocese of Quebec's canon theologian.

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