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From Borderline to Borderland: The Changing European Border Regime

Marukus Euskirchen is a scholar, activist, writer, and online journalist in Berlin, for further information see: Henrik Lebuhn is a coeditor for the journal PROKLA and teaches urban studies at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). Gene Ray is a theorist and critic living in Berlin; he is the author of Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory (Palgrave, 2005).
This essay was presented by Henrik Lebuhn at the seminar “Cambio del Siglo” at Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM-X) in Mexico City, May 22–24, 2007. The authors wish to thank Sabine Nuss for contributing to the discussions that inform its main thesis.

All along the European border, the year 2006 set new records: Spanish authorities reported 6,000 refugees dead, drowned in the Atlantic Ocean while trying to reach the Canary Islands, off West Africa.1

Hundreds more suffocated in containers, trucks, and cargo boats in the ports of London, Dublin, and Rotterdam, or froze to death in Eastern Europe. Others, locked up in one of the innumerable internment camps spread all over the heart of Europe and North Africa, desperately decided to end their own lives.2 At the same time, Europe reported the lowest rate in years of refugees officially seeking asylum. This list obviously doesn’t point to a more peaceful world. What it indicates instead is that in Europe the criteria and procedures for securing legal refugee status have become so restrictive that most migrants no longer bother to apply for it. In 2006, Germany for example counted only 20,000 petitions for political asylum, the lowest number since 1977. If we include the member states of the European Union (EU), that number rises to 200,000.3 However, the real story of the border regime, and its constriction of the category for legal entrance and residence, is in the rising body count.

For many years, critics of the European border regime have been protesting the deadly effects of what is often called “Fortress Europe.” The term “fortress” and the images it conjures up are not inappropriate, if we think of Europe (and North America) in the global context. While free trade policies and neoliberal “structural adjustment” programs have wreaked havoc on the economies of almost every country in the Global South, and while new imperial wars have destabilized entire world regions, enormous power asymmetries enable Europe and North America to go on protecting themselves from the effects of their economic and foreign policies. High walls are being built around the wealthy cores of the Global North to keep out the millions of people who are forced to leave their home countries in order to survive.4

But is the fortress metaphor really adequate to describe the recent changes in European border and immigration policies? Are we really dealing here with impenetrable walls? What do we make of the fact that millions of people actually manage to cross the borders of the EU? Despite the security fences, motion detectors, camera surveillance, and drastically increased border patrols allegedly intended to exclude them, an estimated 5–6.5 million undocumented migrants currently live and work in Europe.5 Entire sectors of the European economy—such as agriculture, construction, the domestic service industry, and sex work—would likely collapse without access to cheap and unregulated migrant labor.

In this essay, we argue that the metaphor of Fortress Europe has a number of analytical weaknesses. Most importantly, it conceives of the border as a linear and territorial demarcation; that is, as a borderline between two or more political entities that may or may not be successfully enforced. While this may have been adequate to describe the border configuration of Europe up until the early 1990s (and especially the so-called iron curtain of the Cold War years), the European border regime recently has undergone dramatic transformations. New institutions, actors, rules, and techniques have emerged on this political field. As a result, the European Union has become a borderland. Europe also imposes its new immigration and border regime on other countries and regions on a global scale; therefore we can speak of a new “border imperialism.” If this is right, then we need to rethink our theoretical tools for analyzing borders and states. Based on how the new border regime is actually operating, we need to develop new concepts and categories to guide our field research and to draw conclusions about what these changes mean for political struggles “on the ground.”

European Borderland as Border Regime

The centerpiece of the new European border regime is the Schengen Agreement, first signed by Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands in 1985. This agreement allows for the elimination of systematic border patrols between participating countries. At the same time, it creates a common, external Schengen border by defining, implementing, monitoring, and enforcing benchmarks for border patrols, visa procedures, cross-border police cooperation, and information sharing among all signatory states.6

Today, the Schengen Agreement has been signed by thirty countries, including all the EU member-states and three non-EU states (Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland). In addition, the Schengen Agreement has become part of the so-called acquis communitaire, which means that future candidates for EU membership will have to meet the Schengen criteria and adopt European immigration, visa, and border policies. This is not necessarily in the interest of new member states. Turkey, for example, one of the “hot candidates” for future EU membership, has important cross-border relations with its eastern neighbors, including regional trade, tourism, and small-scale economic activity. However, before it can become a full member of the EU, Turkey will have to tighten its borders with Armenia, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and must allow EU-member states access to restricted information and border control operations.7

But the European standards for border enforcement are not only imposed on Schengen members and future EU candidates. By means of supranational European programs and bilateral agreements, EU-member states—notably Germany, Italy, and Spain—routinely “export” European border standards to states outside the EU. The standards are written into European financial, technical, and administrative aid, and are an explicit component of the law enforcement training and assistance EU states offer within “humanitarian” aid packages. A prime example is the European Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM). Begun in 2005, this program aims at enforcing the 1,222-kilometer border separating the two countries from the EU.

During its first six months, the European Commission allocated four million euros through the so-called Rapid Reaction Mechanism. The mission consisted of sixty-nine European experts and forty local staff members, all focused on “modernizing” local border controls. In the second phase, lasting eighteen months, another sixteen million euros were poured in. The European staff assigned to EUBAM now exceeds 100 experts “on site.”8 Needless to say, it is often the financial aspect that motivates countries like Ukraine and Moldova to give up sovereignty over their borders. Many other states on the European periphery are vulnerable to this kind of interstate bribery.

Exporting “modern” border standards means more than merely up-grading check points at international airports and seaports or reinforcing traditional patrols along territorial borders, however. These new policies define “border corridors” that encroach dozens of kilometers into national territory and are monitored by numerous state agencies. And as many incidents reported in recent years show, state authorities routinely exert pressure on local civil society actors to collaborate in controlling these corridors. In the mid-1990s, for example, taxi drivers in the former East Germany near the border with Poland were requested to ask suspicious looking passengers for their passports and visa documents.9 This kind of blurring of the separations between the civil sphere and that of state law enforcement is an important aspect of the new border regime.

However, the most interesting point—and the most radical change —is that the internal extension of the European border no longer has any limits. All intra-European flows of communication and all routes of regional infrastructure, such as train connections and train stations, major urban metro stations, overland bus stations, inter-state highways, and public city plazas, are now defined as strategic sites of transit and therefore subject to intensified border enforcement. All over Europe, when foreign-looking individuals hop on the local subway, take an overland train, or simply “hang out” in public, they increasingly are approached by regular police or special border forces and asked to produce identity papers. In order legally to absorb all these traditionally public spaces into the border regime, national laws had to be changed, and government institutions and law-enforcement agencies had to be reorganized.

In Germany, for example, the government agency responsible for border patrols and immigration check points used to be the Federal Border Guard (Bundesgrenzschutz). As the Schengen Agreement was successively signed by all of Germany’s neighboring states, this agency began to appear obsolete. By the mid-1990s, it was clear that the activity of the Federal Border Guard could be limited to patrolling Germany’s small number of international airports and seaports. Germany no longer had any borders with non-Schengen states in need of enforcement. But of course, coercive state apparatuses seldom undergo reduction, however rationally compelling that would be; instead, they get a new mission. As the legal area of operation for the Federal Border Guard largely disappeared through the redefinition of the old borders, the German government created new legal areas of operation by reclassifying train routes and train stations, inter-state highways, and big public city plazas as strategic transit areas—as de facto internal extensions of the border.10

Additionally, the Federal Border Guard has begun to cooperate with new partners, such as local police and private security contractors, and to support regular police units during special events such as political rallies and soccer games. It also hosts the GSG-9, an elite special-forces unit for so-called counter-terrorism, and is actively involved in German military deployments in foreign countries. The latter include both military operations and international missions for border enforcement and police training. Finally, the Federal Border Guard now collects and analyzes personal data from migrants and European citizens. Despite privacy concerns, personal information is increasingly accessible to government scrutiny as a result of cross-border data sharing and cooperation among European law enforcement agencies. The institutional—and in fact constitutional—“reform” of the Federal Border Guard culminated in July 2005, when the federal secretary of interior, Otto Schily, renamed it the Federal Police Force (Bundespolizei). Today, the Federal Police Force, easy to spot in their special uniforms and riot gear, counts 40,000 active members and is a very visible presence in everyday life all over Germany.

Besides such recent legal and structural reforms aimed at defining, policing, and enforcing the Schengen borders inside and outside the EU, the new European border regime encompasses two more crucial elements: the outsourcing of immigration politics to non-state actors and the active shaping of public discourse about immigration.11 Over the last ten years, growing numbers of transnational agencies, think tanks, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have entered the political arena of migration politics. Concerned with research and publications, providing political advice and expertise to governments and politicians, and carrying out specific tasks and operations, these organizations have become an integral part of European immigration and border politics.

One of the main actors in this arena is the International Organization for Migration (IOM).12 Founded in 1951, the IOM has undergone numerous institutional and political transformations. Today, it has 120 member states, 300 field locations, 5,400 employees, and a yearly budget of $733 million (in 2006). By its own account, the IOM is the “leading international organization for migration management.”13 Many governments entrust the IOM with the deportation of undocumented migrants (so-called voluntary returns) and with the management of internment camps in which thousands of refugees are compelled to live. Groups such as Amnesty International and the international No Border activist network have frequently criticized inhumane conditions in IOM-run camps and the IOM’s active role in deporting refugees. But as a transnational organization with no elected officials and thus effectively beyond any democratic control, the IOM is hard to target.14 Along with other agencies and NGOs, the IOM also plays an important role in shaping the public discourse on international migration in the periphery of the Global North. Especially in EU-border countries that are not yet Schengen members, such as Turkey and Ukraine, these non-state actors function as a kind of “discursive joint” that mediates between new governmental migration policies and public opinion. Operating there as the extra-territorial and civil “voice” of the EU, they define migration as a political problem requiring extensive regulation, including measures of restriction and exclusion.15

This brings us to the third element of the new European border regime: discourse politics. Politicians, governmental agencies, NGOs, and mainstream media frame current practices of exclusion with a discourse that shapes public opinion about immigration along two thematic lines. On the one hand, migrants are represented as a threat to social order, and immigration as a problem of social integration. Today in Europe, the dominant stereotype of the migrant is the Islamic alien, culturally unassimilated and hostile to democratic values. The newspapers are full of stories about “problem neighborhoods” —meaning those with high concentrations of non-EU citizens, such as the Neukölln district of Berlin. Impressionistic journalism, which fails to question the racist stereotypes it reproduces, has succeeded in constructing a European version of the U.S. urban ghetto—a parallel society that is crime ridden, abandoned by the state, and ruled alternately by youth gangs and superstitious tradition.16 The message is clear. Stop further immigration! Racist fear-mongering is reinforced by pseudo-scientific demographic scenarios, according to which the native population is decreasing (“German women are not as fertile as foreign women”), and will soon be numerically overwhelmed by “the others.”17

On the other hand, migrants—and especially women—are portrayed as victims: In this representation, their role as active protagonists who have made decisions about where they want to live is ignored or discounted. At the center of this image is the organized crime of human trafficking. Presumably, gangs and networks of criminals smuggle young women to Europe against their will, hold them hostage in brothels, and turn them into sex slaves. Again, the media are full of sensational stories that oversimplify and render one-dimensional complex patterns of movement and strategies for survival. The unsubtle message: we need stricter border controls, tighter visa policies, and more police raids. Meanwhile, individuals and groups that give support or practical assistance to undocumented migrants are tendentially criminalized. According to this discourse, immigration authorities and law enforcement are acting “humanely” on behalf of the migrant-as-victim. These two contrasting representations—migrants as, alternately, both threat and victim—both function to manage public opinion and maintain support for the new border regime.

Increasingly, then, the clear national borderline is both widened and extended back into national territory and projected out into the territory of foreign states. In effect, the old lines of national demarcation are being transformed into new and militarized border zones and spaces that overlay the social space of everyday life: Europe is becoming a borderland. This transformation is characterized by the re-categorization of spaces and territories, an expansion and diversification of the modes of border control and enforcement, and a public discourse shaped by distorting representations of migrants.18 But what is the result? Has it produced perfect closure and total control? Have the flows of migration been effectively blocked? Or does the new control regime itself function within a global and systemic regulation of migration flows?

The Political Economy of the European Borderland

The European border regime, as sophisticated as it may be, obviously does not lead to the complete exclusion of undocumented migrants from the EU. Currently, an estimated 5–6.5 million “illegalized”19 migrants live and work in Europe.20 Their exact number is unknown. In their everyday lives, they utilize diverse forms of counter-knowledge, social creativity, self-organization, and networks of mutual support. The images of the several hundred African refugees who, using improvised ladders and carpets thrown over barbed-wire, scaled the high security fences of the Spanish exclave Melilla in northern Morocco in October 2005, are enduring documents of one spectacular attempt to set foot in the EU.21 Fortunately, many other migrants are able to gain entry through less desperate measures. Many obtain temporary visas to study in a European university, visit friends or family, or work legally as au pairs or farmworkers. Once in Europe, many decide to overstay their visas. The personal needs and motives, the accidents of good and bad luck, the individual backgrounds and routes of entry are as varied as human beings from all over the world can be. There is no master-narrative of undocumented immigration, no story or trajectory that can be generalized into some invariable composite of migrant character or experience.

However, all undocumented migrants in Europe do have one thing in common. In order to survive, they depend on the informal or unregulated labor market. While European workers and unions struggle to defend the remnants of the dismantled Keynesian welfare state, many migrants have little hope of access to minimum wages and labor regulations. Entire sectors of the European economy rely on their easily exploitable labor-power. Depending on the regional labor markets—highly differentiated within the EU—illegalized migrants work as manual laborers on construction sites, pickers and processors in agriculture, domestic servants or janitors, sex workers, dish washers and prep-cooks in small restaurants, and street vendors. Employment is an inadequate concept for the work they do in these capacities; performed without any legally enforceable labor contract, this work involves an exceptional degree of exposure to precariousness and coercion.

Tobias Pieper points out that the European border regime is characterized by its ability to differentiate and regulate (1) highly qualified workers from the capitalist periphery who are actually recruited or invited to work in Europe; (2) low-skilled guest workers who legally come to Europe, mainly to Germany, on short-term visas to live and work under very restricted conditions; (3) an illegalized transnational labor force of workers who lack any formal rights or protections for the negotiation of their living and working conditions; and (4) economically superfluous refugees, who increasingly are denied any secure legal status in Europe.22

Of course, the current process of “precarization” of living and working conditions is not limited to illegalized migrants—even if it is clear that this group suffers the most from it. neoliberal policies have to be understood as an attack on the working class as a whole. Neoliberalism creates a “sliding scale” of precarization that affects all groups within the working class, but each to a different extent. In France, for example, this process of division and stratification has led to spectacular eruptions of public unrest. It would be a distortion to interpret the 2005 uprisings in the French suburbs as merely a series of race riots by Arab immigrants and undocumented migrants. While a background of racial injustice certainly played an important role there, these uprisings need to be seen in the larger context of neoliberal “structural adjustment” processes. In that context, they appear as a form of working-class protest against economic deprivation and deepening social inequalities.23

Indeed, even a cursory comparison of present working conditions to those of the recent past reveals how far neoliberal labor-market “reforms” have gone in undermining the position of the most vulnerable groups of the working class. In the 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s, millions of guest workers immigrated to Europe, mostly to fill places in industrial production. These workers were at the low end of the pay scale, but their living and working conditions were legal, regulated, and relatively secure. In contrast, the millions of illegalized migrants who today are indispensable to EU economies are forced into completely precarious conditions.24

With no formal permission to work, undocumented migrants are not protected by existing labor laws and regulations, and as a result must endure forms of exploitation that exceed by far what is assumed to be “normal” capitalist exploitation of the legal labor force.

Targeted by fierce border and immigration controls increasingly conducted within Europe, and not merely along its outer edges, undocumented migrants are forced into permanent hiding and thus prevented from organizing themselves into any kind of collective political defense.

Today, many migrants leave their economically and politically devastated home countries with hopes of finding a better life in Europe. What they discover instead is an environment that is legally and economically structured to exclude them from political participation and which frustrates all their attempts to stabilize their life-situations and plan for the future. Many migrants have had their lives reduced to extremes of existential insecurity, first in their country of origin and then again at their European destination. The result is a new form of precarious, transnational existence in a “third space,” a continuous movement between two hostile non-homes.

In his 2000 book Magical Urbanism, Mike Davis describes this predicament as it is lived by Mexican migrants in the United States. He writes of rural villages and ethnic communities whose members live their fractured everyday reality on both sides of the border. Often physically distant from their families and loved ones, they remain intensely connected through e-mail, telephone, Skype, and enormous flows of economic remittances (the “migra-dollars”): “The new logic of social reproduction under conditions of rapid and sometimes catastrophic global restructuring compels traditional communities strategically to balance assets and population between two different place-rooted existences.”25 Similar patterns of transnational networking and survival strategies can be observed in Europe, especially in the southeastern and peripheral areas of the EU.26

The new European migration regime, then, does not represent a complete closure and control of territorial borders. What is new about it is rather the way in which it produces a very flexible and highly disposable transnational labor force. The most vulnerable parts of this labor force are systematically deprived of rights, resources, and the means of secure social reproduction.

This is not the result of a mastermind, however. The new European border regime is shaped by numerous conflicting interests, principles, and “imaginaries,” mediated through various political representations and procedures. As there are close links between the rise of neoliberalism and the formation of the new immigration regime, any complete political analysis would also need to analyze these links. Generally, in Europe as elsewhere in the Global North, parliamentary governments have accepted the need to implement neoliberal policies, purportedly in order to increase the global competitiveness of national economies. If we consider immigration policy as one aspect of the larger field of neoliberal political action, then we can identify a number of competing actors:

  • politicians, security specialists, and think tanks on the political right, especially nationalists and “law-and-order” social conservatives, who seek closed borders and zero tolerance towards undocumented immigration;
  • social-democrats and liberals who accept the need for state action to stem the flows of immigration but who generally are shy of heavy-handed police raids and visibly repressive border operations;
  • corporations and small businesses that benefit directly from cheap migrant labor and therefore lobby politicians and bureaucrats to tolerate an undocumented and unregulated work force;
  • national trade unions whose members are ambivalent about immigration, sometimes supporting anti-immigration policies to “protect” domestic workers from downward pressures on wages, but (more rarely) sometimes mobilizing to defend migrant rights and to integrate illegalized workers into the regulated legal labor market; and
  • human rights NGOs, progressive churches, and grassroots activists, who tend to support illegalized migrants unconditionally, but are barely visible among the major political actors.


The European borderland produces a contemporary form of what Marx famously called the “industrial reserve army.” This must be grasped as the result of a globalized and conflictual process involving many actors and levels of operation. That said, the main profiteers of the current situation are easy enough to identify. Corporations and businesses that exploit cheap migrant labor, as well as firms that supply needed services—such as international banking, transportation, and telecommunications—to the immigrant community, make good money on the backs of this transnational labor force. Resistance is constituted only when migrants organize themselves politically and act in concert with local grassroots groups and trade unions for goals that include but are not limited to the legalization of status. Proposals that take into account and respond to the global inequalities and power asymmetries behind migration and illegality must be put on the agenda. And every successful campaign for an expansion of legal status should be seen as an opportunity for consolidating the base for continued grassroots struggle.

1.   Pro Asyl, Die höchste Todesrate an den Außengrenzen—kaum noch Asylgesuche 2006,, March 20, 2007.
2.   For more details on the 2006 death toll, see table and statistics in LeMonde Diplomatique, Atlas der Globalisierung (Berlin: taz, 2006), 60.
3.   See Pro Asyl.
4.   The origins of the term “Fortress Europe” lie in German fascism. Facing their defeat by the Red Army in 1942, Nazi propaganda called for the defense of “Fortress Europe” against the “Russian hoards from Asia.”
5.   Frank Düvell, “Die Globalisierung der Migrationskontrolle in Materialien,” Zur neuen Einwanderungspolitik in Europa (Berlin: Assoziation A, 2002), 166, 45–167.
6.   In 2005, the EU agency Frontex, based in Warsaw, was created as a specialized and independent body tasked to coordinate the operational cooperation between Schengen member states in the field of border security. See, September 19, 2007.
7.   One of the groups likely to suffer most from a European border between Turkey and its eastern neighbors is the Kurds, who traditionally live in this border region and have been targeted by brutal state repression for many years.
8.   See EUBAM, European Union Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine, Annual Report 2005/2006,, March 20, 2007.
9.   Forschungsstelle Flucht und Migration, Flüchtlingsfahndung an der ostdeutschen Grenze,, March 20, 2007.
10. Wolfgang Hecker, “Auf schleichenden Pfaden zur Bundespolizei,” Frankfurter Rundschau, April 7, 1998.
11. See Sabine Hess and T. Vassilis, “Europeanizing transnationalism! Konturen des ‘europäischen Grenzregimes,’” presented at Arbeitsmigration. Wanderar-beiterInnen auf dem Weltmarkt für Arbeitskraft (Trier: IRM, 2003).
12. See, March 20, 2007.
13. Quoted in Düvell Frank, “Im Fadenkreuz der Kritik. Die IOM—Organisatorin des globalen Menschenhandels,” ak-zeitung für linke debatte und praxis 473 (2003), 7, translation by H. L.
14. In fall 2003, activists rendered the IOM branch in Berlin visible by decorating it with 160 paint-balls; see, March 20, 2007; incl. photos.
15. Hess and Vassilis, “Europeanizing transnationalism!”
16. Henrik Lebuhn, “In the ghetto…,” Linkslog, 14.1. 2004,, March 20, 2007.
17. Prokla Editorial, “Politik mit der Demographie,” Prokla—Zeitschrift für kritische Sozialwissenschaft 146 (2007).
18. See also Markus Euskirchen et. al., Umkämpfte Räume (Berlin: Working Paper, 2003).
19. We use the term “illegalized” to underscore the fact that legality and illegality are not biological human attributes. Subjecting individuals to this juridical category and to the loss of rights and mobility that follow from it is always a political act.
20. Düvell (2002), 166.
21. The incident generated a broad discussion about European border policies concerning North African refugees. See
22. Tobias Pieper, “Das dezentrale Lagersystem für Flüchtlinge—Scharnier zwischen regulären und irregulären Arbeitsmarktsegmenten,” Prokla—Zeitschrift für kritische Sozialwissenschaft 136 (2004): 435–53.
23. See Loïc Wacquant, “The Return of the Repressed” in Urban Outcast (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007).
24. No misunderstandings here: The first and second generations of post-1945 guest workers in Europe faced formidable obstacles to integration in the form of discriminatory state policies and social xenophobia. However, the mechanisms of exclusion that rendered—and still render—these guest-worker generations socially and politically marginal are substantially different from those bearing on today’s illegalized migrants.
25. Mike Davis, Magical Urbanism (London, New York: Verso, 2000), 80.
26. Transit Migration Forschungsgruppe, eds., Turbulente Ränder (Bielefeld: transcript, 2007).