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(en) A brief history of the noborder network

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Tue, 3 Dec 2002 14:41:21 -0500 (EST)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

> Hagen Kopp/Florian Schneider
It wasn't exactly the right place nor really the right time to launch a
political campaign which publicly called for a series of offences against
the law, yet when the call "No one is illegal" went out exactly five years
ago at documentaX, the usual reservations counted little. In the Orangerie
which had been temporarily arranged as a media laboratory, at the end of the
visitors' course of the wellknown Kassler art exhibition, a dozen political
and media activists from all Germany's bigger cities met up at the end of
June 1997 in order to publish an appeal.

The expressed aim was to publicly call for the accommodation of illegal
migrants and help with their entry into the country and their onward
journeys, to call for work procurement and the organization of health care
or facilitation for the school attendance of their children.

Much more than provocation, it was about the propagation, preparation and
realization of practical and political support for people without regular
papers as it had in fact already existed, but mostly secretly, for years.
Public opinion in Germany seemed almost to forbid speaking of refugees and
migrants in a terms other than swindlers, cut-rate workers or criminals.
Thus in the 90s in Germany, hardly 6 months went by without serious
restrictions in the laws: employment and occupational bans, reduction in
maintenance costs, procedural and constitutional changes, not to mention the
insidious rearmament of the East German border in the battle against illegal
immigration and the so-called gangs of people smugglers. "No one is illegal"
chose a fundamentally different perspective: the discussion was not of
illegal immigrants and their supposed motivation, but of people who were
systematically denied civil rights and above all the right to have rights at
all. Numbers and statistics weren't ranted about, instead what was called
for was what is normally a matter of course, but has meanwhile been declared
a criminal offence: aiding and abetting illegal entry and residence.

The offence of not possessing regular documents does not turn the migrants
into compliant creatures, unable to protest against the rapidly expanded
apparatus of state repression and late capitalist relations of exploitation,
so that in the end all they would have left would be begging for mercy. From
the unspectacular attempts of selforganisation in the communities and
lodgings, through the everyday resistance at the workplace or in deportation
detention, up to spontaneous protest actions, there were no lack of concrete
approaches. However no political framework of reference existed either nor
were there efficient structures in place that could actually question the
political asylum discourse of clemency rights.

In Paris a few months previously, hundreds of undocumented immigrants - the
so-called sans papiers - had occupied two churches, one shortly after the
other, and thereby initiated one of the most important movements of the
closing 20th century. Led by charismatic speakers the sans papiers dared to
step out of the shadows: out of insecure disenfranchised work conditions as
well as out of the dubious protection of the village structures in the
foyers, into the light of a public that in the middle of the summer holiday
season evidently had no other discussion topic.

The sans papiers movement ignited like a straw fire and the experiences from
the battles in France quickly spread all over Europe. The strength and the
astonishing self-confidence of the sans papiers expressed itself in their
insistence on strict autonomy: those who didn't even exist in the eyes of
the state, who weren't represented by any party or association, and who
could not claim any common identity for themselves took fate into their own
hands and decided themselves what further steps were to be taken. The
exploding self-confidence of the sans papiers was coupled with a massive
preparedness to discuss problems and an enormous willingness to co-operate
with other social movements: the trade unions fortified after the December
strikes of 95, the emerging movement of the unemployed, intellectuals and a
radicalising young support scene were alternately reliable partners in the
multi-layered discussions.

At the time a reasonable assessment of the situation and ones own strength
seemed to disallow even the dream of similar developments in Germany. Like
in the USA, in Germany there were relatively well developed support
structures for illegal refugees (inspired by the striking crisis of the
freedom struggles in the third world and the onset of the migration movement
towards the north), and these structures continued to exist drawing on the
tradition and remnant motivation of the militant movements of the 80's.
Since the middle of the 80s, starting with the asylum seekers' campaign of
the revolutionary cells, the theoretical and practical implication of a new
solidarity movement had already been thought out in many fragments, and
tried to be forestalled forcibly. Many of the young autonomous leftists,
experiencing and watching this wave of racist attacks that was staged in the
wake of German reunification, considered for themselves options of political
resistance and the postulates of antiracist and anti- fascist
counterculture. And yet, at the latest from the middle of the 90's, these
battle fronts threatened to be buried under biographical fragments, growing
specialisation, clandestine isolated work and political lethargy. The
decimated energies had exhausted themselves in a fatal fixation on the state
apparatus and its procedural methods.

In this situation "No one is illegal" made the suggestion of a "legalisation
from below" which was decisively influenced by the events in Paris. The idea
was to take the strategies and tactics from the struggles of the sans
papiers and to transpose them more or less intact into the local context in
this country and to generate from the particularities of the German
situation as many new approaches for action as possible. The concept, at
first hesitantly articulated, worked surprisingly well: often with not much
more than a common slogan the most different of approaches associated with
one another without entering into the otherwise usual competition. The
actions spanned from individual struggles for residence rights to
supra-regional anti-deportation campaigns; from supporting the political
self-organisation of refugees to the practical criticism of the border

Even though most of the forms of action rarely left the framework of the
familiar ones, at least for a brief time the tremendous potential of a
movement seemed to shine through in which different starting points,
different approaches and contrasting positions were no longer its
shortcoming, but rather the basis of a new form of political organisation.
Although actions like the "migrating- church asylum" from Cologne, where up
to 600 illegal migrants fought for over a year for papers, were by no means
as spectacular as the occupation of the churches in Paris, they achieved
considerable partial success which in the meantime has led to the
legalisation of almost all of the participant refugees and, with all the
difficulties, prove that standing up for ones rights is more beneficial than
sitting still.

Without the usage of new media and network technologies, a campaign like "No
one is illegal" could not have been realized. Immediately after its adoption
the call had been disseminated by websites and mailing-lists in a dimension
and at a speed which would have otherwise only been possible with an immense
organizational apparatus. The Internet not only promised new and efficient
publication strategies, but also opened a realm of communication which
revealed immense possibilities for a decentralized campaign without material
resources or its own apparatus of organisation. Shortly before the
commercial boom in the Net, for the first time and on many different levels,
the opportunity arose for a common everyday practice that went beyond the
mostly very narrowly defined limits of the local actions: Internet
facilitated all at once an exchange of experience as uncomplicated as it was
discrete; numerous forms of direct and indirect collaboration in projects
which were no longer spatially or temporally limited, as well as continual,
self-defined communication without the need for one always having to be in
the same place at the same time.

Soon it was no longer questionable that with the Internet experience a
European-wide communication network could be founded on a broad ground. Up
until then, it had only been possible to maintain international contacts
through great personal willingness and effort, extensive travel and letter
correspondence; or alternatively the contact just happened through pure
coincidence. Systematic networking was seen as a privilege mostly of
non-governmental organisations, which were as well equipped as much as they
lacked ambition and for whom it was principally a question of the
legitimation and perpetuation of their own hierarchies.

It all began with a meeting in Amsterdam, at the margins of a big
demonstration against the EU summit in 1997 to which just about forty
activists from anti-racist groups, some immigrant self-organisations and
refugee support initiatives from middle and northern Europe gathered. The
priorities and objectives of the political work in each country were gravely
different, but what the groups had in common was the demand for practical,
political intervention at the base i.e. grassroots politics. The new network
with the title "admission free" was, as they stated, not concerned to adopt
a common political program or even to represent a movement, but to
systematically create the preconditions for a Europe-wide collaboration,
whose purpose was in the first place to enrich the every-day activities in
each and every country.

Yet, although a regular exchange of information was arranged amongst the
participants of the first network-meeting, the initial zest soon died away.
The practical intentions were too abstract, the criteria for the admission
of new groups into the network and mailing lists were too rigorous and the
communication amongst the participant groups, who had already known each
other for years through successful cross-border co-operation outside the
Net, was too hermetic. The actual potential of the alliance at first
remained hidden behind a formalism, which in spite of growing confidence,
still revealed little understanding of the necessities and possibilities of
Europeanwide co-operation. Opportunities such as the journey of the 'Tute
bianche' to Valona passed by without a European dimension of resistance
leaving the realm of pure rhetoric and without gaining any practicality.
However, this was about to change: in 1999 the network was renamed
"Noborder" and relaunched with the Europeanwide protest action to mark the
occasion of the EU's special summit "justice and the interior" in Tampere.
This latter being expressly dedicated to the aim of standardizing the asylum
and migration politics in the European context. In the preparation some
Noborder groups had managed to connect with promising contacts in France
and, above all, in Italy. On this basis a common European day-of-action was
arranged, which took the occasion of the EU- migration summit in the Finnish
Tampere to protest decentrally, but co-ordinated, against a new chapter in
the politics of separation: "the gradual establishment of an area of
freedom, security and of justice"; was the bloomy formulation of the
Amsterdam treaty, that has been effective since 1st May 1999. In reality
this meant: more exclusion, more control, more deportation.

On the 15 and 16 October in France, Belgium, Italy, Denmark, the
Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland, Germany and of course Finland, numerous
actions, small and large, spontaneous and spectacular were initiated. The
direct exchange of information and the co-ordination of the actions in the
days of the EU summit was the task of a temporary media laboratory in
Kiasma, Helsinki's museum for contemporary art. Similar to the beginnings of
"No one is illegal" at documentaX, the terrain of contemporary art seemed to
be a suitable operation basis for an internationally constituted team of
media activists. Through the medium of mailing lists and websites they tried
to document, network and enhance the different actions in front of the
conference centre in Tampere and everywhere in Europe. What today strikes
one as being a matter of course, was in its own time still a small
sensation: the successful co-ordination and synchronisation of the reports
and materials from the various countries laid the ground for a new start of
the Noborder network, which from here on aimed to put much more emphasis on
actions that referred to one another on the European level.

Already one year earlier, shortly after the death of the asylum seeker
Semira Adamou in Belgium, protest actions had arisen in many countries which
had become known beyond the respective national borders. When in the
following months in Austria, Switzerland and Germany so-called "deportees"
also met violent deaths in the course of their deportation, the Noborder
activists initiated joint European-wide actions: "Deportation-alliance" was
the provocative title of a campaign that targeted the airlines who offered
their services as willing henchmen to the European deportation machinery.
The campaign concentrated on the calculated pollution of the airline's image
with few, but well considered, virtual attacks. Airlines whose prestige was
inseparable from the myth of global mobility and therefore created images of
figures such as the borderless roaming businessman-nomad were systematically
confronted by the activists with the shocking reality of violent

The cynical practices of a deportation business which literally goes on over
dead bodies were exposed with communication guerrilla methods and activism
in the Net. Fake brochures in the usual trade jargon publicizing
preferential treatment in a special deportation-class, hidden theatre and
performances, endless deceptively authentic- looking advertising material,
interventions at shareholders' meetings and press-conferences on company
performance and a large scale online-demonstrations in which over ten
thousand Net activists paralysed the online flight-reservation server for
almost two hours had duly been putting pressure on the German Lufthansa Plc
since Spring 1999. But other airlines were also being punished: from
"Brutish airways" to KLM, from "Siberia" to the Rumanian TAROM, who threw in
the towel after the first protest action and cancelled their business with
the deportation charters.

With the deportation-alliance campaign, it became possible not only to
cleverly avoid direct unpromising confrontation with the national
governments and to prevent sudden deportations not only on an individual
level and literally in the last moment, but in fact to considerably impede
deportation proceedings on a large scale. In a refreshing manner it also
became clear how experiences and successful methods could be transferred to
different countries and contexts. Networking took place on a new level:
actions and activities were developed, planned, and executed across national
borders. Encouraged by the great resonance the campaign met with, success
was achieved more and more often in sharing the most different of
experiences, contacts, knowledge, resources and creative abilities, in order
to struggle from a position which at first sight doesn't seem to stand a
chance in the battle against the overpowering concerns and above all in
order to cope with the consequent pressure.

The collaboration on the second project on which the Noborder network set to
work was similarly promising. When in July 1998 a few hundred activists put
up their tents for a ten day stay only a few metres away from the border
river the Nei?e, the example came to set a precedent and in the following
years the Summer camps along the outer borders of the European union had
multiplied. But it wasn't about campfire romanticism and instead of a 'back
to nature' theme the motto was: "Hacking the borderline!" Characteristic of
the border camps was a multiple strategy consisting of the exchange of
experience and political debate, classical political education in remote
areas and direct actions with the aim of disrupting the smooth running of
the border regime.

Following the first two camps on the German-Polish border, offshoots sprung
up along the Polish- Ukrainian, Polish-Byelo Russian and Slovenian- Croatian
borders, which quickly led to an independent network of Noborder activists
in Eastern Europe. The primary discussion theme here was the consequences of
borders being advanced in the course of the European Union's expansion into
the East and particular attention was thereby focused on the role of the
International Organisation of Migration (IOM) which contrary to the
humanitarian aims of the UNHCR had crystallised into a transnational agency
for the worldwide expansion of repressive migration management.

But soon too there were Noborder camps on the straits of Gibraltar, the
beach of Tijuana on the US-Mexican border, and in Woomera in the middle of
the Australian desert. Although the situations were totally different, each
setting up different priorities, all the actions placed themselves in the
loose context of the Noborder camps which were visibly expanding. A
provisional climax was reached in Summer 2001 around the G-8- summit in
Geneva when five camps took place on the European borders, not only
networked with Live- Streams in the Internet, but also with a largescale
media project, which later acquired particular fame: the folks' theatre
caravan was the attempt to get border camps and the so-called
anti-globalisation movement to relate more closely to one another and in
doing so not to trust so much in ideological preferences but more in
practical exchange and contemporary means of medial communication.

The manifold experiences of summer 2001 peaked for the Noborder activists in
the fourth German border camp, which was organised only one week after the
protests surrounding the G-8 meeting in Geneva in the shadow of the
international Rhein-Main-airport at Frankfurt. By merely announcing
forthcoming protest actions, the activists managed to lead the police to
cordon off the airport with several task-force squadrons for almost a whole
week. This blockade which led at times to chaotic conditions in the middle
of the holiday season, not only had metaphorical meaning; in the end with
the role-exchange the supposed guardians of the law were landed with an
enormous problem of co-ordination which left them with no alternative but to
demonise the activists, going so far as to call them rioters. But instead of
a black bloc, that is justifying the police blockade by wanting to smash the
whole airport, the noborder camp was triumphing with a classical concert,
pink-silver cheerleading and excellent negotiating skills. On this basis
many different forms of actions could result in a productive togetherness
that didn't even have to be planned and discussed in detail in the first
place, as long as the common intention existed to extend the scope for
action instead of narrowing it.

"Borders are there to be crossed". The first sentence from the call to the
German border camp 1999 probably clarified best what the actions in
no-man's-land at the other end of the nation state were all about: the
demand for unrestricted freedom of movement as a basic right for all the
people of this world, the mobilisation of all possible available forms of
resistance against the degrading, inhuman border regime, the development of
a global communication, marked by the free and lively exchange of ideas,
experiences and abilities in their respective uniqueness. This demand and
the resulting debates are no abstract text-component in a world-alienated
ivory tower, but are lived day to day in an impressive manner, when people
for whatever reasons, traverse the borders that an arbitrary imperial
command forbids them to cross.

Neither false labelling, where in the context of the ruling world order a so
called "Globalisation" is proclaimed, nor sentimental nostalgia over the
disappearance of the national welfare state, will even approach the current
political challenges. On the contrary, by sticking to trusted
interpretational patterns and traditional recipes, which in some of the
globalisation criticism after Seattle was predominant, one will inevitably
fail systematically to recognize the actual potential of both the new
migration movements as well as transnational networking. Reduced to purely
humanitarian aspects or senselessly short-circuited with the long obsolete
idea of national independence, the migration question barely survives but in
the impoverished form of a sub- or sideline contradiction, as a lower
ranking after-effect of the excesses of world-wide capitalism. It's not a
coincidence that this ignorance often goes hand in hand with the
Biedermeier-like attitude to new communication technologies, which in
misjudging their potential sees them at best as a necessary evil. It is thus
no wonder that instead of delivering a matrix for a globalisation from below
which is more than just a rhetorical form, the agendas of the numerous
congresses, counterconferences and counter-demonstrations of the
anti-globalisation movement include explicitly neither migration nor new
media. The big Thursday demonstration in Geneva made clear that tackling
globalisation could not happen without the express acknowledgement of the
world-wide migration movement. How can this, however, become more than a
symbolic gesture?

A large part of the group of the Noborder-network used the media festival
"Make world" in Munich in 2001 in order to debate about the current
situation of international networking. Only a few weeks after the events in
Geneva and a few days after the attacks on 11th September, artists,
trade-unionists, media and political activists from all over Europe and many
parts of the world met up. Basically it was about bringing together the
different experiences from two key themes of the nineties: on the one hand;
digital media, new networking technology and the resulting labour crisis and
on the other hand the issue of freedom of movement, the current struggle of
an international and multi-ethnically constituted working class and the
insidious paradigm change in the ruling migration policy. The results of the
conference were as varied as the composition of the participants: from the
Munich Volksbad declaration to the first public presentation of the plans
for a common European- wide Noborder-camp in Strasbourg, from the
presentation of the database project "Everyone is an expert" up to a
spontaneously arranged tour of speeches held by two organisers from the US-
american Trade Union and migrant workers movement, visiting several German

These latter two approaches also set the basis for the attempt to basically
redefine the previous politics of refugee support: more than ever it was
necessary to stop seeing migrants as victims and simple objects of state
repression or political functionalism; objects of charity acts or
demographic statistics - but rather as political subjects with a variety of
motivations, experiences and abilities, attributes which are generally
demolished at the moment the border is crossed in order to create the
preconditions for exploitation in an informal working market.

Within this background, reports from the current struggles of the garment
workers in the sweatshops of downtown Los Angeles as well as the janitors
from the "justice for janitors" campaign seem to have a played a similar key
role as the sans papiers did in Paris five years ago. Once again the
challenge was to translate the practical experience of multi-ethnic
organisation at the workplace to the conditions in this country. In June
2002 the temporary network "everyone is an expert", that was founded by some
activists from the border camps and "No one is illegal", started the next
attempt to gauge the potential for concrete co-operation with trade
unionists and the initiators of a new legalisation campaign based around the
project "Kanak attack". But in spite of the promising contact and exciting
new insights made - for example during the construction workers strike in
early summer this year in which many, especially illegal workers
participated - it remains to be seen how serious the intentions are within
the German trade union apparatus to truly represent the interests of
undocumented workers and those employed under precarious conditions.

In any case, the database project "expertbase. net" that was publicized in a
first test version at the make-world-conference is a provocative attempt to
counteract the realities of an unofficial working market through a virtual
jobmediating machine, one that doesn't ask for papers and where everyone
interested can present themselves anonymously with their abilities and
skills as they define them. But there is more: over and above the actual
employment mediation, the forum offers an excellent possibility to determine
the new composition of the migrant working class, above all in the lower
wage levels of the new 'affective labour'. As a virtual, militant
investigation certain information could be acquired according to various
focal points on the subjectivity of the hired house keepers, nurses,
janitors and programmers who are currently hired on a large scale and come
primarily from Eastern Europe.

The prevailing migration discourse has long since shifted from the
whole-sale hermetic isolation of the national labour market to an as
efficient as possible filtering out of the exact and only temporarily needed
work force. This paradigm change fundamentally changes the special role and
function of the borders: as in many other areas, networking technologies are
replacing the previously common, truly banal methods of visa endorsement and
face checks. Borders are no longer material lines of fortification clearly
identifiable by barbed wire or highly developed surveillance instruments.
The border regime, often still played down with the well meant metaphor "
Fortress Europe", is becoming omnipresent. Under the pressure of increasing
mobility and in view of the autonomy of massive immigration, the drawing up
of borders is becoming virtual and its repressive character is hardly
generalisable any more: it could happen here as well as there, for this
reason or another, and with a series of different consequences. Borders fold
and shift inwards or outwards, they are advanced into safe third states and
expanded into the hinterland. Controls have long since stopped being limited
to nation states but cover the inner cities' traffic junctions and
supra-regional traffic routes to thesame extent as they do half or
non-public spheres - the most prominent of these being the workplace.

The postmodern control society, in which the most internalised border is
becomes a reality, tends to individualise power and to anchor itself in the
process of subjectivation instead of the previous methods that involved
getting rid of less pleasant subjects by means of inclusion and exclusion.
'Border' today is everywhere where people who out of need or desire spend an
uncertain time in another country are turned into illegal immigrants; where
people who do not have the privilege of a regular wage are not ashamed and
are therefore criminalized; where neighbours are turned into informers in
the voluntary service of the border patrol; when to stand by others and
grant support is no longer the most normal thing in the world, but has been
turned into a serious crime.

The new borders are virtual not only because at practically any time one
lives with the anticipation of an inspection, but because the physical realm
is short-circuited with databases and datacurrents from which the
corresponding access rights are drawn. In almost all areas of digitalised
life information is checked, which in real time is degenerated and
regenerated into innumerable data. It's a question of indicators for habits,
preferences, and convictions which are as easily evaluated as arbitrarily
interpreted. User profiles give information about one thing above all: who
or what is useful right now and who or what isn't.

It has long since been essentially about much more than a bare proof of
identity. Borders are inverted and privatised, not only because it is less
and less the state, but more enterprises and private persons who monitor
personnel, passengers, couples and passers-by. What once was a purely
private matter is now exposed to the merciless eye of a general public and
what was previously publicly accessible is suddenly restrictive without any
further ado. The creeping inversion of public and private spheres, territory
and hyperspace has progressed to the extent to which communication, instead
of private property, has become the determining production factor and people
no longer own anything but their information value. Traditional basic rights
such as freedom of movement are becoming more and more linked with the
question of informational self-determination.

The Noborder camp in Strasbourg in July 2002 was not only the attempt to
criticize the border and migration regimes of the countries part of the
Schengen convention with a common Europeanwide action, but also with the
political focus on the Schengen information system (SIS) to thematise the
restriction on freedom of movement and information. Personal Information of
undocumented migrants has been collected for years in huge data banks in
order to bring the very people who are robbed of all possible rights under
the seriously expanded jurisdiction of state control. Despite of or perhaps
because of the numerous visitors, the Noborder-camps may be managed in a
very rudimentary fashion to communicate this new dimension of migration
control at a European level and to try to turn it into actions. During the
ten days in Strasbourg the two to three thousand participants from over
twenty countries in Europe were predominantly concerned with themselves and
their own differences without managing from the start to shift the focus;
i.e. to abandon the levelling out of these differences and to use them
rather as a starting point for a new political capacity to act which goes
beyond borders and innumerable differences, or on the contrary even thrives
on these.

The experiences from Strasbourg were at first sight for many quite shocking:
a striking inability to communicate, inwardly or outwardly as well as an
incapacity to make democratically legitimate decisions. These abilities are
all the more necessary in such situations where communication is taking
place in different languages, thought in countless contexts and acted with
in the most different of backgrounds. However the Noborder camp could
quickly prove itself as an extraordinary case which only too clearly
illustrates how a political and practical fixation on the apparatus of state
repression can only mislead. And how overdue a movement of movements is
which consists of more than the sum of individual gestures. A modern concept
of militancy must above all be creative and produce new forms of resistance
that proceed from the flexibilisation and deregulation of the conditions of
the production of subjectivity and that operate by experimenting and
intervening at just this level. In the end nothing and no one can tell what
people might make of themselves if one would only let them.

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