The Lives of Others: Refugees, Crisis, and National Identity in Europe’s Borderlands

In today’s guest post, Danielle Smith, Interim Director of the Center for International Studies at Georgia Southern University writes about the recent history of Europe’s borderlands in the context of the on-going refugee crisis. Danielle’s research interests cover memory and identity constructions in transitional societies, especially focusing on Europe. 

Quickly skimming the international press coverage from a week ago yields headlines that flattered Angela Merkel and the German government for their openness and incredible dedication to taking humanitarian action in the face of a seemingly overwhelming number of asylum-seeking refugees entering Europe. The Economist went so far to praise Chancellor Merkel’s “brave, decisive, and right” leadership on the issue as a sea change from years of “cautiously incremental decision-making.” This global eagerness to praise the German government’s actions glossed over – as anyone who has followed the state’s relationship with its minority populations can predict – the internal derision and push-back from nativist and nationalist groups.

This time the rhetoric was ignited by the arrival of refugees in numbers larger than predicted, and served to magnify far-right, right, and even some centrist party fears about safety, security, and the fate of Germany as a nation. To these groups, Germany’s overwhelming burden stems from the inability and unwillingness of other European Union states to take on their fair share of refugees, as determined a quota recently set by the European Commission. Nationalist rhetoric contextualizes this crisis as further weakening Germany economically and culturally. On September 13, the German government announced its intention to reverse previous pledges and close its southern borders with Austria by 5pm, thus temporarily exiting the Schengen Area. These chaotic and vacillating decisions represent far larger than a single domestic or foreign policy action by the state of Germany. It does, rather, symbolize decades of unresolved issues related to the development of a supra-national European identity and the role of state and national borders that stubbornly remain in conflict with the idea of “Europe” as an identity space.

An important feature in the creation of identities and nations are borderlands, representing a set of boundaries where people attempt to define the beginning and ending of “otherness,” a task that can only be achieved in the idealistic self-delineating of national identities. On the contrary, borderlands are often classified as frontiers because they represent a co-mingling of identities along politically designated boundaries. These complicated situations suffer from a variety of conflicting responses related to the proper conceptualization for imagining these landscapes and dividing national groups, ranging from attempted cultural integration, to forced assimilation, to outbreaks of violent ethnic chauvinism. For the EU, the Schengen Agreement originated as a remedy for divisive centripetal forces which produce nationalist center-seeking and “othering” at defined borders.

In large geographic states, people have the ability to physically move away from borderlands to the center and escape the constant pressure of and disentangle themselves from the immediacy of these otherness questions. Pursuing nation-states counters the purpose and goals of developing a European Union of ever closely tied states. Fostering borderless mobility between states serves to confer the conception of a state to the larger territory of Europe, especially as comprised by those states that agree to and abide by the terms of Schengen. This is an important point as the classical definition of a state does include the presence of a permanent population. Borderless mobility, then, enables heterogeneity amongst nations formerly confined to specific spaces and eliminates inclusion/exclusion dynamics by erasing borders that foster such practices. Ideally, no European whose nationality originates within the Schengen Area can be an “other,” and these national identities become combined into the ideal of “European.”

The Schengen Agreement, in theory, acts as a form of immigration policy for those residents whose states already belong to the EU. Indeed, the promise of mobility is at once a cause for hope and incentive for states to complete the accession process, and a source of consternation as existing EU members debate concerns over the influx of new member-state citizens migrating to stronger, Western European economies. Schengen, then, only works when states and nations put their faith in the idea of Europe, and trust that the Schengen Area can define and protect the borderlands of this identity. Germany’s decision to reinstate border controls further tears open the European Union’s lack of firm, unanimous policies related to the movement of individuals to and within its territory, as well as furthering debates and attempts to understand how Europe is defined.

The EU’s timidity in asserting its identity borders, and continued fear of “otherness,” can most recently be witnessed through the enlargement rounds of 2004 and 2007. In each of these cases, temporary restrictions on free mobility and the right to work were lifted only incrementally, partially to control the rate of influx of migrant workers to current Western member-states, but also as a measure to ensure that each of these new member-states was capable of controlling their Eastern borders and protecting the limits and boundaries of Europe. Even now, Romania and Bulgaria still face these same restrictions and have been deemed ineligible to join the Schengen Area even though they are obligated to do so, and Croatia’s case also remains uncertain. It has requested the EU conduct a technical investigation regarding the state’s readiness to join the Schengen Area. With the current backlog and closed borders in Hungary, however, the most recent crowds of refugees are already circulating information about new routes through Croatia that would allow asylum seekers to enter the EU while bypassing Hungary.

So Schengen is not without its flaws, but it is one of the hallmarks of the European Union and the process of “leveling up” that in theory both widens and deepens EU integration. But the EU’s expansive physical/geographic territory and the economic/political authority of the Paris-Berlin axis dominates the imaginative definition of Europe as Western Europe. The European Union is still able to prey on the prevailing narrative of Eastern Europe as the Other, and Western Europe as the ideal that sets the standard former Communist, Eastern bloc, and Soviet states desire to achieve. These standards have not only been codified in the EU’s Copenhagen Criteria, but have been visible in primary migratory patterns for those individuals seeking a better life in Europe.

These standards and patterns created “others” on the continent, and given this consideration, the role of the Balkans is specifically intriguing to discussing migration patterns, free mobility, and the idea of “Europe” in the context of the current refugee crisis. Arguably, in few other places on the globe is there a location that presents the challenge of so many borderlands in such close geographic proximity. The recent past of the former Yugoslavia is illustrative of the violent ethnic chauvinist outcome of non-definitive cultural frontier spaces. The continued existence of a variety of contentious border areas affects the region culturally, socially, and economically. Balkan populations themselves are no strangers to participating in migration to Western Europe in search of jobs, education, and economic security. As the stream of refugees and asylum seekers grew, Germany took the lead in declaring Albania, Serbia, and Kosovo – currently the three largest sending states in the Balkans – as states of safe origination in order reduce migratory inflow and firmly delineate between refugees and economic migrants as a means for prioritizing the entrance and expending of state resources on those claiming a legal status.

To the receiving states of the EU such as Germany, this distinction became more pressing as the migrants and refugees began using the same paths for movement. Former primary migration paths heavily relied upon the coastal access of Italy and the Iberian Peninsula that channeled migrants and asylum seekers from Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa. The geographic shift in crises to the Middle East, however, also shifted migratory paths to allow refugees from Syria and Iraq access to the European continent through Turkey and the Balkan states. In this situation, the “other” of Europe matters more than ever as the Balkan states become the major path for refugees risking their lives to enter Europe. It is through this region that non-Europeans are entering the European continent and ultimately forging paths in the EU. As the EU works to protect its own borders, its leadership will find itself working more closely with and relying on Balkan state governments to monitor, patrol, and regulate the flow of people through their borders. But the otherness is still palpable. Hungary, an EU member, is busy erecting a border with Serbia, an EU candidate state; some may suggest in an effort to continue to prove it is no longer an “other” and that its entrance to the Schengen Area is not in vain. To prove that it is European.

Current responses to the crisis indicate that future common migration or refugee policies may continue to be driven by the consistent xenophobia and fear-mongering over the “other” that has plagued European politics. EU policies have never eliminated the borderlands concept, and often meet extreme resistance both from conservatives and Euroskeptics alike who believe in the full sovereignty of existing state boundaries. The movement of refugees to the EU shows no sign of abating, and provides EU leadership the ability to engage in “decisive and right” leadership to enact a common policy that benefits both Europeans and those who seek the ideals and standards of a life that provides security and stability.

A strong common policy – rather than a hastily generated quota system – will signal that the European Union respects the plurality of its constituency by ensuring the ability to pursue free mobility within its borders, and can further commit to defining the idea of Europe by removing from individual states the task of enacting inclusion and exclusion dynamics via individual immigration policies. This practice is still largely favored and pursued via the “Dublin Rules,” which further divide EU states and support the idea that individual state borders still matter. Under this system, member states where an entrant’s finger prints are stored or the asylum claim is lodged must adjudicate the status claim. This limits the number of claims that can be initiated by a single status-seeker, but it also relies on individual state immigration systems, and places a great burden on some states over others. As Hungary places a moratorium on pursuing asylum claims and Germany closes its Southern border, groups of refugee are left in limbo, with no access to any asylum procedure – a human rights disaster. More states are threatening to suspend their participation in Schengen over the refugee crisis, and these actions signify that EU states cannot trust the ability of their neighbors to protect each other’s borders or collectively trust the validity and strength of the European border. In the face of these issues, the EU should revisit the implementation of a common immigration policy, and create a space to explore the intent and purpose of free mobility in relation to the prospects for developing a cohesive European identity.

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3 thoughts on “The Lives of Others: Refugees, Crisis, and National Identity in Europe’s Borderlands

  1. Michael K. Bess

    Danielle, this is a really great post and I think it’s important given the dire situation refugees are facing on the margins in Europe. I read recently one analyst noting that it’s not so much that Europe is encountering a problem ignited by the people fleeing Syria, North Africa, and elsewhere, but that it’s the refugees who are encountering a crisis within the European Union itself over borders, authority, and political will. Merkel and Germany have done a lot, but do you think the EU will be able to overcome its own internal political gridlock to better address this humanitarian crisis on its borders?

  2. Pingback: “Refugees: The Lives of Others”, an exhibition – Traveling Light – Pictures of World War II Refugees from the Portuguese Archives

  3. Pingback: أزمة اللاجئين وصعود اليمين المتطرف في أوروبا . بقلم شريف نسيم قلتة بخيت - المركز الأوروبي لدراسات مكافحة الإرهاب والإستخبارات

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