Border Clash

Root Event

5. Werkleitz Biennale 2002 Zugewinngemeinschaft
Border Clash

Political slogans often develop strange careers in Almanya. While the odd metaphor “Fortress Europe” has long lost any remnants of a radical leftist connotation and has become a common migration politics term used even by conservative politicians, in a genealogical respect, the related slogan “open borders for all” ekes out a much less glamorous existence.

The demand for “open borders”, which until recently was even prominently included in the Greens’ party program, was gradually articulated as early as the mid-eighties under the slogan “For free flowing”. The outrage caused by the death of Cemal Altun in September 1983, triggered a wide debate. Cemal escaped through death by jumping out of the window of a German government building before the authorities – in the best spirit of anticommunist solidarity – could hand him back to the henchmen of the Turkish regime. It was surprising, though, that the demand for “open borders” voiced after this incident was not made from a viewpoint of emphatic “identification with the symptom of exclusion” i. e., the “subjective“ reproduction interests of the existence (or the sheer survival) of migrants. It was instead, based on the antiimperialistic or internationalistic based “objective” analysis of the exploitative relations between the metropolitan and the “Trikont” (Africa, Asia and Latin America).

This is not only to be understood as a provocation. In the debates on asylum rights and on the concept of the refugee as they occured in Germany in the 1990s, advocating for the “right of residency for all” and “open borders” was a radical counterpoint to the mainstream – the renationalization of discourses, also within the left – and to the restrictions on pan-European migration and border regimes. The privileges of the metropolises and their citizens vis-à-vis the “rest” – the people immigrating from there – were thus radically questioned. In this manner, a discussion about the current international structure and legitimization of exploitation could, at least to some extent, be initiated. It was not, however, able to suppress the silence in regard to one’s own racist involvement.

At the beginning of the 90s, the increase in racist assaults and the spread of a nationalistic mood in Germany gradually strengthened the anti-racist political scene, this simultaneously marked the birth of a defensive division of labor with all of its odd side effects, (e. g., making the identity-political disposition of the left taboo in Germany). With the de facto abolition of the asylum law in 1993, circumstances changed; the state was again able to gain complete power over the definition of who is or who is not considered a refugee. The end of the liberal effort to handle asylum rights also put an end to the pivotal importance it held for migration processes and migrants. The mobilization of the left, and the liberal public, was aimed at defending the right to seek asylum. In combination with the “open borders for all” goal, a fissure developed between the demand’s radicalism and the actual defensiveness of a politics that could not be sustained in everyday life. Therefore, the slogan “open borders” outlived the conditions against which it was aggressively directed. In its career as a normative yardstick for radical leftist political correctness, as a residue of an imaginary radical opposition, it from then on secured a relationship of immaculate exteriority to the powers it attempted to attack. Public campaigns demanding the “right of residency” were usually only effective in cases of extradition to particularly bad countries. Seen on a global level, migration was primarily understood as duress. Migrants were viewed as victims of globalization, and the neototalitarian sealing off of Europe’s borders – in combination with the “fortress metaphor” – was overemphasized.

Polysemy of the border regime

Borders cannot be understood as perforated walls surrounding territories of nation-states. Meanwhile, a lot has been said and written about the productivity and diverse functions of borders. Border regime does not merely designate the formal or informal mechanisms that countries develop to seal off their borders against migrants and refugees. A study of the German-Polish border conducted by the “Forschungsgesellschaft Flucht und Migration” in cooperation with the Polish Central Committee in Berlin, revealed how the border police and the criminal prosecution authorities have fallen back on the active help of the population living along the border during search operations. So-called citizen telephones and contact officials of the Federal Border Police Force, municipal round tables held by the border police and state police with local Chambers of Commerce, Municipal Public Affairs Offices and local Traffic Offices, and the integration of car rental firms and taxi drivers 1 are all now a fundamental part of operative border searches. “On the one hand, an increasing stigmatization of refugees as illegal and criminal can be observed, on the other, a growing union and esprit de corps among authorities and parts of the population.” 2

Borders thus organize a topography of polycentric degrees of intensity controlling dangerous places. The borders have been expanded by the so-called border zone, which is legally determined by a width of 30 kilometers. For refugees seeking to cross the border this implies that their rights are restricted or abolished within this zone, because here they hardly have a chance to apply for asylum and are in danger of being immediately extradited to the neighboring country. 3

The strategic combination of “legally empowering“ those living along the border, and the “deprivation of rights” of migrants leads to numerous racist attacks in these regions. The “climate of suspicion” prevelant in these areas is not due to crime factors, but simply because of suspected migration based on phenotypic criteria. All residents along the border can participate. The border is thus socially re-invented in everyday processes as in the Schengen outer border. In the eyes of these residents, refugees are transformed into illegal and criminal persons.

This is a phenomenon that could be observed in German cities especially after the attacks on September 11, 2001, in New York and Washington. The Sikh community in Frankfurt, for instance, had to struggle against the population’s increased willingness to denounce. In a district of Frankfurt, a “lead from the public” resulted in a helicopter chase after “men with turbans” and ended with the extradition of about 30 persons to India. In addition, the police attempted to exert extreme pressure on the Sikh community itself: it belongs to their religious statutes that people are offered food and shelter. Now an attempt is being made to force them to check the documents of visitors to their temples and, if necessary, hand persons without legal documents over to the police. The reach of the border regime is multiplied tenfold through the cooperation between employment offices and the border police during raids to “uncover illegal employment of foreigners”, e. g. on construction sites, and identity checks performed “independent of suspicion” in railroad stations and airports. A deterritorialization of borders in this sense can not only be discerned within the border zone’s expansion to 30 kilometers and along the railroad and highway networks, but borders traverse the national territory itself via the integration of the population and the presumptuousness towards communities, as is the case with the Sikh community in Frankfurt.

Interesting enough, though, a border is not a border. Borders neither have a consistent meaning nor do they address the same people. The examination of the Schengen outer border in the project mentioned above, revealed that on both sides different “border experiences” occur. In the Czech Republic and in Poland, there is no equivalent of this social development. Although in technical and legal terms a similar border regime was installed, the population acts differently. In interviews conducted along the Polish-German border, many emphasized the experiences they had with work and travel in the former GDR, in the old Federal Republic and in other countries. They say they know Europe and also belong to Europe. Transient refugees and people from the CIS who have small businesses along the Schengen border are not considered a threat.

The border is possibly much less significant for them, because their horizon of life and experience, and their opportunities on the labor market extend into the EU: “The message conveyed by these people is that borders can indeed be crossed even if it involves life-threatening risks.” 4

Autonomy of migration

That borders can be crossed, despite the repressive migration and border regime, is also the basis of Yann Moulier Boutang’s reflections. He calls this movement the autonomy of migration. In this case it means that immigration – historically seen – could not be directly influenced by government policies. The politics of sealing off and regulating, such as that of the German government for example, can thus be answered with an argument that is not purely defensive. In an interview from 1993, Yann Moulier Boutang pointed out that there is a “subjective factor,” which must be taken very seriously, influencing whether migrants leave or remain. This factor cannot be controlled by regulatory measures of the state: “That is apparently hard to understand, but important all the same; even if myriads of experts and officials and government and international facilities deal with emigration, they have no idea of this […] autonomy of the migration streams. Instead, they believe all interrelated factors and phenomena can be attributed to the economic policy and are thus only the objects of administrative regulation. Of course in this approach the objectivity of politics and especially economic politics is overestimated in a grotesque way. That emigration possesses its own dynamics is disregarded. Emigration can be counteracted with repressive means, the return of immigrants to their countries of origin can be “promoted”, but the flows cannot be opened and shut according to a program or at one’s discretion.” 5

Interpreted in this way, the law on immigration recently passed in Germany can be understood as an attempt to gain control over precisely this autonomy and canalize it. Peter Müller from the CDU at any rate states: “Despite restrictive regulations and controls, it has until now not been possible to decrease the unregulated, and for the most part, uncontrolled concurrence of the most varied groups of immigrants, not to mention including them in an overall immigration concept that meets the requirements, conforms to the labor market and is socially acceptable. The overall survey of immigration politics in Germany reveals an unsatisfactory disproportion of undesirable over desirable cases of immigration.” 6

Therefore, immigration law in a very specific way acknowledges the relative autonomy of migration, as can be discerned in the attempt to comprehensively control immigration. It seems as if the ideologues devising the extradition apparatus had meticulously listed all the points that migrants until now had utilized as loopholes expressing relative autonomy from state politics. The abolition of the status of toleration as stipulated in the immigration law entails the prohibition of 250,000 people, many of whom are not rejected asylum-seekers. The legalization regulations recommended by the Süssmuth commission, which would have applied to about 1.7 million migrants, have been done away with. 7

What Moulier Boutang called “hard to understand” is now being established for the first time as government fact and has been instrumentalized. In the attempt to legislatively control migration, government policy is entering uncertain territory: it intervenes in the unstable balance between equality and freedom within the national community, in the separation between people and nation. While in the German statute on immigration the barriers excluding people constituting the nation are upheld based on the imperative of integration, on a European level a tendency to dissociate citizenship from these traditional concepts can be seen. The project of European union, which actually resembles a type of inclusion, combines ways to counter uprisings on the edges of the migration regime, i. e., along the borders that now not only surround but, also traverse Europe – with the process of racist stratification in the interior. 8 To establish that the autonomy of migration and its history are inscribed in current policies also means that the struggles are “present” in there manifestations of defeat: in the laws concerning foreign nationals and citizenship, in immigration law, and also in the everyday resistance of migrants. New contradictions are foreseeable. Immigration that resists control will continue to take place. Therefore, the enforcement of laws on the relative autonomy of migration with the aim of increased control by the nation-state, as is now intended with the immigration law, is a political time-bomb. Immigration law ignores the immigration and crossing of borders, which take place only under criminal and illegal conditions, and which in the future, will constitute one of the most important ways to migrate to Germany or Europe.

The right of legalization

Here, the question of “open borders” is posed in a very concrete way. Grasping the different functions of borders, their permeability according to not only quantitative, but qualitative criteria, can alter perspectives by making the demand for “open borders” topical in an unsuspected manner by referring to a movement that is already effectively practicing the politics of “open borders”.

It is not appropriate to glorify this hierarchically-defined entry and it is not meant here. The desperate attempt of hundreds of refugees to enter Great Britain by foot, and who were forced to live in a desolate Red Cross camp comes to mind. They ran through French security officers and barriers to the Eurotunnel. The uprising ended with arrests and tear gas; railroad traffic had to be stopped for the night. It has been documented that every night dozens of refugees living in the trailers and tents of refugee camps risk the dangerous crossing, either by jumping onto trains or traversing the tunnel by foot. Most of them are caught, while others make it to the English side. For some, the trip ends in a tragedy. In June 2000, 58 Chinese refugees were found suffocated to death in the back of a truck on the English side of the Eurotunnel. In December, eight dead and five survivors were discovered in the back of a truck in a harbor in the south of Ireland.

The border establishes hierarchies where it allocates immigration paths which lead to destitution and the deprivation of rights. In face of these changes, the issue is therefore collective rights for immigrants. Collective rights can contribute to the multiplication of liberties for subjects whose collective resistance already undermines the systematic isolation caused by the overall struct- ure of exclusion. If in this context the emphasis is not so much on the restrictions of borders, but on the relative autonomy of migration, the prohibited migration paths and practices of residency can be understood as modalities of a practice of resistance. What is important here is to recognize existing and developmental contexts of solidarity that enable an existence as Sans Papiers in the first place. This means understanding the fact that migration is never the action of an isolated individual, but dependent on a social network to turn an individual endeavor into a successful project. 9 But not only that: These network structures help enhance the living conditions by securing better wage and labor conditions on the informal market, by locating apartments, etc. – at least for those who have access to these structures. So if the question is how such a relative autonomy of migration could be translated into a political agenda, the right of legalization of migrants living here without legal documents should be established, and a policy should be endorsed that demands political and social rights independent of citizenship. In principle, any person who is not a German citizen can lose his or her residency rights because of receiving social welfare or committing a crime – and thus become illegali.

The disposition of performance and productivity that assesses and exploits migrants based only on their work capacity, is presently influencing the debate on immigration and could undermine any policy endorsing immigration rights. A plausible campaign for immigration rights would offer an alternative to reducing anti-racist work to a question of racism, and also address housing conditions, the deficiencies in the educational system, exploitation, working conditions, gender relations, and might thus finally be in a position to question the way migrant groups are subjected to hierarchies by the laws concerning foreign citizens and the border regime. In short: a campaign that would correspond to the different ways migrants live, to their and our everyday lives, and forms of resistance.

Manuela Bojadžijev is member of Kanak Attak and works on anti racist resistance of migrants in Germany

Vassilis Tsianos is sociologist, he lives and works in Hamburg and is member of Kanak Attak


1 “In various regions, taxi drivers were prosecuted if they transported people locally who may have secretly crossed the boarder and did not report them via radio to the police. In the border town Zittau, more than a third of the taxi drivers were subject to penal proceedings.” Helmut Dietrich, “Grenzgänger. Am Ende der alten Welt”, in: Jungle World, 5½000.

2 Cf. Helmut Dietrich, “Das Phantom einer homogenen Gesellschaft in der ostdeutschen Grenzregion”, in: Mittelweg 26, 5/1998.

3 Cf. Helmut Dietrich, “Grenzgänger. Am Ende der alten Welt”, in: Jungle World, 5½000.

4 Ibid.

5 Cf. Yann Moulier Boutang, Interview, in: Materialien für einen neuen Antiimperialismus Nr. 5, Berlin/Göttingen 1993, p. 38

6 Peter Müller, “Von der Einwanderungskontrolle zum Zuwanderungsmanagement”, 7/½001

7 Cf.. Manuela Bojadzijev, Tobias Mulot, Vassilis Tsianos, “Legalisierung statt Integration. Anmerkungen zum Zuwanderungsgesetz”, in: 1999, 0½002.

8 Cf. Etienne Balibar, “Topographie der Grausamkeit. Staatsbürgerschaft und Menschenrechte im Zeitalter globaler Gewaltverhältnisse”, in: Subtropen, 12/2001.

9 Cf. Moulier Boutang, “Nicht länger Reservearmee”, in: Subtropen, 04/2002