Here’s a tortoise I found crossing the Albanian border. It should be that easy for all of us | Lea Ypi

Meandering across an artificial line that divides humanity, the tortoise had a lot to teach my children – and me

This undocumented tortoise was spotted crossing the land border between Albania and Greece one early morning in August, shortly after we had emerged from a long queue to have our passports stamped.

“Here,” I had been telling my children, “where you see the red flag with the eagle, is Albania. And over there,” I added, pointing at the other flag, blue with white stripes, a few hundred metres in the distance, “is Greece.”

“But where are we now?”, the six-year-old asked. The tortoise was slowly trailing behind us, through what is sometimes referred to as terra nullius, a portion of territory that does not belong to any state and that usually demarcates two bordering jurisdictions.

During Albania’s 45 years of communist rule, any citizen caught imitating the actions of this tortoise would have been shot. The stretch of dividing land was guarded by soldiers on both sides, while vehicles crossing the border were few and far between. Now, the landscape offers a strange mix of wildlife and civilisation, a synthesis of nature and artifice. The chirping sound of crickets is interrupted by cars braking suddenly at the respective checkpoints. Outside the marked paths, the land is barren and the vegetation unattended. We were surrounded by mountains, the same ones having different names on the different sides of the border.

In modern political thought, the concept of terra nullius, ie a piece of land that does not have a legal owner, was crucial to the defence of colonialism. Territorial sovereignty was justified by invoking the need for the efficient use of land to which it was presumed that nobody had previously laid a claim. “If within a territory of a people there is any deserted or unproductive soil,” Hugo Grotius, the 17th-century Dutch founding father of international law, wrote, “it is a right of foreigners to take possession of such land.” Reflecting on the origins of private property, the Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that the first person who enclosed a plot of land and said “this is mine” – and found people “simple” enough to believe this account – was the true founder of civil society. Something similar could be said for state territory.

“But where is the tortoise from?,” my six-year-old asked. “Where is she going? Is she Greek or Albanian?”

“Tortoises don’t have countries,” I replied. “They live in the state of nature.”

The justification for political authority, including the right of states to police their borders, lies in its presumed superiority over the animal kingdom. In the state of nature, Thomas Hobbes explained, competition for scarce resources, and the war of all against all, makes even the strongest fear for their life. The state, and only the state, is capable of guaranteeing true rights-based freedom, as opposed to the anarchy of nature.

I used to find this argument plausible but have become increasingly sceptical of it. A few weeks after this photo was taken, 92 migrants were rescued on the northern border between Greece and Turkey. They were all naked and many bore bodily injuries. It is not clear how they lost their clothes, but Greece blamed the Turkish authorities. The UN called for a “full investigation” and decried “such cruel and degrading treatment”. Suddenly, the rules made up by states seemed even crueller than the so-called laws of nature.

Around the same time, undocumented Albanians travelling to Britain were the subject of a vicious verbal attack by the home secretary, Suella Braverman. They were labelled as invaders, even though what they had done was ultimately no different from the tortoise: crossing a border. But we have been taught to consider the mere act of movement over an artificial boundary some kind of crime because we have accepted as natural deeply unnatural political conventions.

And so I have kept returning to this photo, of a tortoise who seemed so at home in a world without passports.

  • Lea Ypi is a professor in political theory at the London School of Economics, and the author of Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, published by Allen Lane

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.


Lea Ypi

The GuardianTramp

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