Ilker Ataç, Stefanie Kron, Lisa Riedner, Helge Schwiertz

The Covid 19 pandemic has, in different ways, exposed the failure and racism of the migration and asylum policies of the EU-European and nation-states. A grievous symbol of the intensified segregation of refugees is the hotspot Camp Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos, which has repeatedly been the focus of international media and political attention in recent years. As early as March 2020, the Network for Critical Migration and Border Regime Research (kritnet), together with other initiatives, reacted to this situation with the call »Aufnehmen statt Sterben lassen!« (Refugees Welcome! Don’t Shoot!).1 In September 2020, a fire broke out in the camp, where, instead of the intended 2,800 people, around 20,000 refugees lived, mostly under inhumane conditions and without access to a fair asylum procedure. Not even the necessary medical care and hygienic minimum standards could be guaranteed by those responsible. The subsequent hastily constructed new camp on the former military site of Kara Tepe has further worsened the situation of refugees living in the camp (cf. Neumann 2020).

For other migrating and fleeing people, the pandemic-related travel restrictions and border closures have thwarted transnational life plans—for example, family reunions have been suspended, and untold numbers of people have been and continue to be stuck on migration routes, unable to get anywhere. Governments repeatedly closed intra-European borders in whole or in part. By doing so, they further restricted freedom of movement.

Often, when the Covid-19 pandemic broke within refugee camps and initial reception centers in Germany and other countries, the sole measures taken by the authorities was sealing them off and surrounding some of them with security forces. Other than that, the governments largely left the residents to their fate (see Burschel 2020).

Similar scenes also played out in apartment blocks in Göttingen and in Berlin’s Neukölln district, which were »identified as ‘infected’« (Bäckermann/Birke 2021), as well as in shelters of people working in agriculture and the meat industry. Police-guarded fences enforced spatial and social segregation. The public political and media discourses blamed the outbreaks on the residents—often marked as migrants—and thus staged them as a threat to the white-German and middle-class population. North Rhine-Westphalian Prime Minister and German chancellor candidate Armin Laschet used a similar narrative when he said on ZDF, on June 17, 2020, that workers arriving from Romania and Bulgaria were responsible for the Covid-19 outbreaks in the meat industry (cf. Bulgarisches Frauen*kollektiv FemBunt 2020).

At the same time, a continuity of anti-migrant approaches is emerging at the programmatic level with the EU’s »New Migration and Asylum Package« of September 2020. In the midst of the pandemic, European countries continued deportations to countries marked by armed conflicts, such as Afghanistan. For undocumented migrants and those with precarious residency statuses living in the EU, the pandemic and its management is often life-threatening, aggravating of their situation, and void of protection and rights. Undocumented people living in Berlin alone are estimated between 60,000 and 100,000. They mostly work in poorly paid jobs without job protection or social security. Many of them lost their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic, and some lost their homes at the same time. For fear of deportation, they often avoid going to the doctors when they are ill (see Volknant 2020). In October 2020, more than 50 Berlin organizations joined the campaign »Legalisation Now«,2 which demands that undocumented persons are legalized and guaranteed access to the health care system. Additionally, several hundred German municipalities called for more autonomy in migration and asylum policy issues, including the possibilities for municipal reception of refugees from Greece, for example.

Neither of the two calls was heard during the pandemic. At the end of last year, the Berlin Senate decided to take legal action against Horst Seehofer after the federal Interior Minister refusal to approve Berlin’s state program for taking in refugees (see Dernbach 2020). In recent months, the federal states of Bremen and Thuringia, as well as more than 200 other German cities and municipalities, publicly declared their willingness to implement municipal and state reception programs to evacuate at least 5,000 of the tens of thousands of refugees housed on the Greek islands and receive them in Germany. That is a lot more people than the roughly 1,500 people in particular need of protection whom the German government had promised to receive in 2020 (see Kron 2021; Seebrücke 2020; Westdeutsche Zeitung 2020; German Bundestag 2020).

However, the number of cities and municipalities in Europe that declare themselves Safe Havens, Cities of Refuge, Cities of Welcome, or Cities of Solidarity, including the 200 German municipalities, is continuously growing. Mayors, municipal administrations and/or civil society movements and organizations such as Seebrücke in Germany, are advocating for more inclusive and humane migration and asylum policies at the municipal level. And in many European countries, when it comes to immigration and asylum, there is a ever-growing political dissent between progressive urban spaces and defensive nation-states (Schwiertz/Steinhilper 2021). Journalist Christian Jakob believes that solidarity city movements can offer a way out of the crisis of the European asylum system since the nation-state’s route to accepting refugees is largely blocked within EU member states (Jakob 2020). Are solidarity cities and urban citizenship promising models that instead of framing flight and migration as a danger and a problem, find it an opportunity for the society of the many?

The contributions assembled in this issue of movements were written under the conditions of the Corona pandemic. They paint a complex picture of current developments in migration policy—in the context of the pandemic and beyond; for example, they analyze the reorganization of the European border regime and the discursive shifts since the »long summer of migration« of 2015 (Kasparek/Speer 2015). Furthermore, they address conjunctures of racism and antiracist struggles in the wake of the racist murders in Hanau in February 2020, as well as recent migration policy developments in the context of the pandemic. The authors shed light on places like Palermo, Moria, and Brussels, on Germany and Turkey, and on transnational spaces in the EU. In their empirical depth, the contributions to this issue exemplify the diversity in methods and approaches to critical migration and border regime research; alongside established narrative-biographical and historical-materialist approaches, we also find Esin Göksoy’s and Helena Grebner’s »auto-ethnography of affects,« in which they rework the multiple crises of 2020, as well as Stefanie Maffeis’ reconstruction of the transnational circulation of knowledge around the Palermo Charter (Orlando 2015).

Stefania Maffeis’ contribution discusses the Palermo Charter process from a philosophical and political theoretical perspective. Starting from Hanna Arendt’s definition of human rights as the »right to have rights,« the author investigates the different situational meanings of the human right to migration and global freedom of movement, as well as the concrete effects of the Charter on EU-European migration policies and social movements. Maffeis reconstructs, in the framework of transnational circulation of knowledge, how and why the Charter of Palermo (Orlando 2015, published during the 2015 »Summer of Migration« by Palermo’s mayor Leoluca Orlando) could become, not only a political point of contention, but also a positive point of reference for welcome initiatives, movements for solidarity cities, institutional networks and parliamentary debates across Europe.

Gonca Şahin’s thorough study, titled »Home, Asylum and Identity Among Queer Refugees in Turkey,« focuses on a country beyond the EU’s external borders, one that received billions of euros from the EU since 2016 for the so-called containment of the approximately three million refugees living in Turkey as part of the so-called EU-Turkey deal. Containment refers to the attempt to prevent fleeing people from continuing their journey to the EU. Drawing on feminist and queer perspectives on »home (making)« and using ethnographic and narrative-biographical methods, Şahin explores the question of whether and how queer refugees from countries such as North Africa and Iran succeed—even if precariously—in creating places in Istanbul that they call home, and how that can offer a creative shelter for their queer communities.

Using different methods and content focuses, two contributions in this issue reconstruct the discursive shifts from the almost euphoric pro-migrant »summer of welcome culture« in 2015 to the anti-migrant and racist resentments that later dominated political and media debates in Germany, especially since New Year’s Eve 2015/2016 in Cologne (cf. Dinkelaker et al. 2021).

This is the focus of the essay »Von Bedrohungsszenarien und Grenzregimen. Die Verschränkung von Flucht- und Terrordiskursen« (About Threat Scenarios and Border Regimes. The Entanglement of Refugee and Terror Discourses) by Felicitas Qualmann, Enis Bicer, Lina Brink and Alejandra Nieves Camacho. The authors explain the shift to the right of the entire public discourse in 2015/2016 by elaborating on the ways migration discourses are linked to terror discourses. Applying methods from discourse analysis and sociology of knowledge to an extensive material base, Qualmann et al. explore how German daily newspapers more or less directly linked migration to terrorism, predominantly characterizing flight-migration as a threat. Furthermore, the authors discuss how the 2015/2016 discourses they examine can be traced to current debates on the border regime.

The research report »Nach dem Sommer. Migrationspolitische Kämpfe und Kräfteverhältnisse in Deutschland seit März 2016« (After the Summer. Struggles over Migration Policy and Power Relations in Germany since March 2016) by Marie Hoffmann uses hegemony theory-informed »historical materialist political analysis« (Staatsprojekt Europa 2014) to examine how the balance of power in relation to migration policies in Germany shifted between 2015 and 2020. On the empirical basis of a qualitative media analysis, the author identifies four hegemonic projects (neoliberal, conservative, social, and left/liberal) and analyzes the strategies of the respective actors in the struggle for hegemony in the field of migration policy. The analysis shows that right-wing conservative forces and their anti-migrant discourses gained strength since 2016, while left-wing actors were particularly successful in mobilizing during the emerging welcome culture in 2015. Neoliberal forces, on the other hand, held on to their project of ‘migration management’ until March 2020. This is when Turkey briefly ‘opened’ its borders, deported refugees partly outright towards Greece. By doing so, the Turkish government broke the EU-Turkey deal, but with growing concessions to, and attempts to compromise with, conservative and right-wing forces.

The issue offers four academic-political contributions to current debates and discourses in the field of migration. In their text »After Humanitarian Reason? Formations of Violence, Modes of Rule and Cosmopolitical Struggles at the European Margins,« Jens Adam and Valeria Hänsel analyze, in the form of a dialogue, the developments in the now burned down Camp Moria on Lesbos. Moria and ‘hotspots’ on other Aegean islands were initially established as registration centers, but were later turned into open-air prisons. Adam and Hänsel show how living conditions in these politically-produced exceptional zones continued to deteriorate during the Covid-19 pandemic. The authors discuss how the specific situation in Moria can be accounted for and contextualized in the broader developments and theoretical debates on borders, violence, and a politics of letting die. Against Eurocentric concepts and methodologies, they develop an analytical perspective for the understanding of Europe as a decentralized fragmented space. Thus, Adam and Hänsel observe that the »hotspots« are not simply places that exist at the EU’s geographic external borders; rather, they have been politically pushed into European margins and marginalized as such. UN organizations, aid agencies, and NGOs are also involved in this process. The authors therefore conclude by discussing the question of whether humanitarianism, through this instrumentalization of humanitarian organizations, eliminates itself or perpetually legitimizes the marginalization and exclusion of groups of people.

In their contribution, titled »Der Europäische Pakt gegen Migration« (The European Pact against Migration) Charles Heller and Bernd Kasparek analyze the anti-migrant policy approach of the EU’s ‘New Migration and Asylum Package,’ which offers a new mechanism of flexible ‘burden sharing’ between EU member states, but maintains the priority of keeping out most migrants from the Global South at all costs. It offers no prospect for ending the ongoing mobility conflict that has emerged between migration movements and the EU’s restrictive migration policies. Heller and Kasparek therefore argue that a different pact is needed: a pact with migrants that starts from the reality of migrant movements and offers them a framework in which they can flourish, while responding to the systemic conditions that cause people to flee as well as the root causes of European racism.

Polina Manolova and Philipp Lottholz analyze, in their contribution »Security Above the Law? Germany’s Pandemic Borders and Intra-European Free Mobility,« the border controls introduced by the German government in the spring of 2020 as a measure against the spread of Covid-19. The measure is seen as a »spectacle of security« that serves the showcasing of the sovereignty of the nation-state more than fighting the pandemic. The authors describe exemplary border situations at the Frankfurt Airport, in which transnational migrants from Bulgaria were denied entry or allowed to enter with proof of registration or employment, which are not available for all. In this way, border situations become tangible as places of confrontation that thwart transnational life plans, but also places in which networks of solidarity and struggles for rights can emerge.

The text »Betroffenheit als emotionaler Resonanzraum. Chronologie eines assoziativ-dialogischen Reflexionsprozesses« (Affectedness as a Space of Emotional Resonance. A Chronology of an Associative-Dialogical Process of Reflection) by Esin Göksoy and Helena Grebner is not only a contribution to current debates, but also an innovative methodological intervention. The article can be described as an auto-ethnography of affects as it argues for an emotional approach in the social sciences and an associative-dialogical and collaborative perspective on knowledge production in times of crises. In the form of dialogues, self-reflections, and self-observations, the authors write a chronology of their emotions, thoughts, and conversations critical of the racism that connects the failure of the EU-Turkey deal, the ‘opening’ of the Turkish border, and the shooting of refugees in early 2020 to the racist murders in Hanau in February 2020 and the first lockdown in the spring of 2020, all the while placing the events in a transnational context.

The interview »Without Community, There Is No Liberation – Ein Filmgespräch zu Herausforderungen community-übergreifender Organisierung angesichts fortwährender rassistischer Gewalt und Krisen« (A film discussion on the challenges of cross-community organizing in the face of ongoing racist violence and crises), conducted one month after the racist killings in Hanau, addresses racist conjunctures and anti-racist strategies. Jessica Korp, Nadiye Ünsal, and Tijana Vukmirović discuss their experiences with self-organized and especially cross-community movements of migrants. The article is based on the author’s joint work on a documentary film with Jasmin Eding and Sanchita Basu, who have been leading anti-racist struggles since the 1980s.

Finally, Leonie Keskinkılıç reviews a monograph by Helge Schwiertz, in which he develops a concept of »democracy as practice« that is based on the study of political self-organizations of migrant youth in Germany and the U.S. The book links debates on radical democracy and migration and border regimes.

In her three drawings, Petja Dimitrova investigates and connects current socio-political discourses, social struggles, emancipatory practices and utopian models of life. She employs the medium as an artistic, activist, and community-based working practice. At the intersection of political articulation and self-expression, she links critical social discourses with solidarity-based aesthetic practice. In the three motifs, she marks different forms of mobilization, forces and movements against forms of racist violence. Her drawings are collages of images/events known by the media, reconstructed through a critical reappraisal to show the social ambivalence of the respective emancipatory movements as well as their contradictions.

In the first drawing, through the depiction of the fire in Moria, she conveys the controversial political and social positionings around the right to protection, to life, as well as to health care for people fleeing at the borders of Europe. The second drawing is about the visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement as a global anti-racist movement that is linked to local struggles over memorial and commemorative politics in public space. The third drawing focuses on the movement for education and memorial politics around the racist NSU murders.


Buckel, Sonja / Graf, Laura / Kopp, Judith / Löw, Neva / Pichl, Maximilian (Eds.) (2021): Kämpfe um Migrationspolitik seit 2015. Zur Transformation des europäischen Migrationsregimes. Bielefeld.

Bulgarisches Frauen*kollektiv FemBunt (2020): Offener Brief an Armin Laschet. URL: fembunt.org [18.08.2021].

Burschel, Friedrich (2020): Asyl als Falle. Staatlicher Rassismus im Umgang mit Geflüchteten in der Corona-Krise. In: Webdossier Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. URL: rosalux.de [18.08.2021].

Orlando, Leoluca (2015): Charta von Palermo 2015. Internationale Freizügigkeit von Menschen. URL: comune.palermo.it [18.08.2021].

Dernbach, Andrea (2020): Berliner Senat klagt jetzt gegen Seehofer. Der Tagesspiegel of 18.11.2020. URL: tagesspiegel.de [18.08.2021].

Deutscher Bundestag Drucksache 19/24205 (2020). URL dip21.bundestag.de [18.08.2021].

Dinkelaker, Samia / Huke, Nikolai / Tietje, Olaf (Eds.) (2021): Nach der »Willkommenskultur«. Geflüchtete zwischen umkämpfter Teilhabe und zivilgesellschaftlicher Solidarität. Bielefeld.

Jakob, Christian (2020): Besser weiter machen. Jungle World of 22.10.2020. URL: jungle.world [18.08.2021].

Kron, Stefanie (2021): Solidarische Städte, eine Alternative zur gescheiterten EU-Asylpolitik? In: Hänsel, Valeria et al. (Eds.): Von Moria bis Hanau. Brutalisierung und Widerstand. Grenzregime IV. Berlin (im Erscheinen).

Neumann, Mario (2020): Keine griechische Tragödie. medico international, 09.09.2020. URL: medico.de [18.08.2021].

Schwiertz, Helge / Steinhilper, Elias (2021): Countering the Asylum Paradox Through Strategic Humanitarianism: Evidence from Safe Passage Activism in Germany. In: Critical Sociology 47(2).

Seebrücke (2020): seebruecke.org [18.08.2021].

Volknant, Patrick (2020): » Ich bete jeden Tag, dass es mich nicht erwischt«. Was die Pandemie für undokumentierte Migranten bedeutet. Der Tagesspiegel of 13.12.2020. URL: tagesspiegel.de [18.08.2021].

Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung – WAZ (2020): Flüchtlinge. Regierung will Kinder und Jugendliche aufnehmen. WAZ of 09.03.2020. URL: waz.de [18.08.2021].

  1. kritnet.org↩︎

  2. legalisierungjetzt.net↩︎

  • Volume: 6
  • Issue: 1
  • Year: 2021

Ilker Ataç ist Professor am FB Sozialwesen der Hochschule Fulda. Schwerpunkte in Forschung sind Migrationspolitik und lokale Politik, soziale Bewegungen und Zivilgesellschaft, und undokumentierte Migration. Er ist Mitherausgeber der Zeitschrift Movements.

Stefanie Kron, PhD in Sociology (Freie Universität Berlin), is a Professor for Social Work at the Evangelische Hochschule Berlin. She specializes in international migration movements & migration politics, sanctuary & solidarity cities, transnational labor struggles & ethnographic research methods. Recent publications: With Henrik Lebuhn (2020): Building Solidarity Cities. From Protest to Policy, in: Feyzi Baban & Kim Rygiel (Eds.): Fosterin Cultural Pluralism through Solidarity Activism in Europe. Everyday Encounters with Newcomers. Cham (Switzerland): Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 81–105. With Stefania Maffeis (2021): Die Stadt als Sicherer Hafen: Kosmopolitismus und gelebte Solidarität, in: Susemichl, Lea /Jens Petz Kastner (Hg.): Unbedingte Solidarität. Münster: Unrast. S. 159-172. Moving cities Map (city profiles Barcelona & Zaragoza): moving-cities.eu.

Lisa Riedner is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for European Ethnology and Cultural Analysis at the University of Munich (LMU). Her research interests lie in ethnography and regimes of intra-EU migration, labour and social reproduction with specific focus on urban spaces and racism. Her publications include the monograph “Arbeit! Wohnen! Urbane Auseinandersetzungen um EU-Migration” (2018, edition assemblage, open access). She is a co-editor of movements.

Helge Schwiertz is a postdoctoral research associate at the Chair of Sociology and Social Theory at Universität Hamburg and corresponding member of the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies (IMIS) at Osnabrück University. His key research areas are social and political theory, theories of radical democracy, citizenship, and solidarity, social movements and urban protests, racism and migration. He leads the international research project Enacting Citizenship and Solidarity in Europe »From Below«: Local Initiatives, Intersectional Strategies, and Transnational Networks [ECSEuro] and is a co-editor of movements.