Stephen Smith at podium smiling, Charlie Piot seated, smilingwith reporting by Jasmine Clairsaint

Migrants are facing increasingly difficult challenges such as being publicly beaten, accused of being criminals, or forced to pay unreasonable amounts of money for visas, trying to find a better life, according to panelists at Monday’s Challenging Borders conference.

Achille Mbembe, a philosopher, political theorist and public intellectual, delivered a keynote address, “Bodies as Borders.”

“To be alive or to remain alive, or to survive is increasingly tantamount to being able to move and to move speedily,” Mbembe said. “If you do not move, you are likely to lose your life.”

Charlie Piot at a podium

The conference on migration and borders, held Monday, November 18, at the Ahmadieh Family Lecture Hall, was sponsored by the Africa Initiative, the Franklin Humanities Initiative and the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke.

Charles Piot, co-director of the Africa Initiative and professor of cultural anthropology and African & African American Studies, provided opening remarks and co-moderated the conference with Stephen Smith, associate chair of the Department of African & African American Studies.

Mbembe encouraged the audience to “think about a bigger thing that is going on,” in regards to migration.

“Our earth is being partitioned again,” he said citing technological, biological – and ecological reasons for a new global redistribution of the population. “The earth is burning. The ground on which we stand is burning, the air we breathe is burning, the oceans are burning.”

Mbembe suggested getting rid of one’s body as the first step towards a radical freedom.

Piot described his experience and research regarding consular processing through embassies in the U.S. and foreign countries. There are only 50,000 diversity visas given away in the U.S. annually, while there are more than 20 million applicants, he said.

Piot, author of, The Fixer: Visa Lottery Chronicles, said the cost prevents many people from applying for visas, because even if families are accepted, they are required to pay “over $800 per person just for an embassy interview,” which becomes wasted money for these families if they do not end up receiving the visa. Piot stressed that there is a problem with embassy interviews where consulates are subjective in deciding who qualifies.

“The conversation between console and visa applicant in discourse, in words between the two of them, are often a short encounter… In that encounter the border is constructed in a very contingent way. The criteria is always changing. It is an unstable border,” Piot said.

Other panelists for the day-long conference included Catherine Besteman, an anthropologist from Colby College; Hans Lucht, a senior researcher on global transformations at the Danish Institute for International Studies; Aïssatou Mbodj, a researcher at the National Center on Scientific Research/Institute of the African Worlds; Amade M’charek, an anthropology professor at the University of Amsterdam; Miriam Ticktin, associate chair of anthropology at The New School for Social Research; and Henrik Vigh, a political anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen.

view of panel from rear of room