A brief history of the noborder network

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

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 regimes.

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 deportation.

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 Neiße, 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

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 cities.

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

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. -- need help? check: http://lola.jff.de/~paul