European Union, Long reads

Citizens beyond borders

Three experts on the topic – Nishat Awan, Engin Isin and Niccolò Milanese – are speaking about people exercising political agency beyond the nation-state and what it might mean to be a citizen beyond borders today.

In the contemporary moment, “Europe might appear like a continent pulling itself apart”, write Niccolò Milanese and Lorenzo Marsili in their recent book Citizens of Nowhere. Indeed, after years of ongoing ecological, humanitarian and economic crises, the demand to “take back control” of the decisions that affect their everyday lives seems to resonate not only with many people in the UK but across and beyond the European continent as well. In this context, European democracies are increasingly challenged by nationalistic, xenophobic and far-right sentiment, and what is left in the dark all too often is exactly who is taking control of what. Nevertheless, besides these gloomy developments, what goes unnoticed too often is that a number of forces from civil society and social movements are already connecting the dots between issues that are global in scale yet very locally felt, by coming together to act with others across national borders. Turning our attention to these more hopeful developments instead, three experts on the topic – Nishat Awan (NA), Engin Isin (EI), and Niccolò Milanese (NM) – are speaking about people exercising political agency beyond the nation-state and what it might mean to be a citizen beyond borders today.

Let us begin with how the figure of the citizen beyond borders has featured in each of your work, starting with the lived experience of borders. Nishat, your recent project Migrant Narratives of Citizenship traced the edges of Europe along the Black Sea from Istanbul to Odessa. Working with an artist and a filmmaker and using different visual practices from map drawing, to video and photography, you spoke to a number of people you met on the way about their ideas of citizenship. Why is it useful to consider Europe from its edges and what can we learn about the idea of citizenship beyond borders from there?

NA: The project started with a deceptively simple series of questions: Where are the edges of Europe, how are they defined and who can be included within them? We were thinking the edges both geographically and historically. Geographically, in that we followed the Western edge of the Black Sea and the Eastern edge of Europe. Historically, because when you follow that route you go through Romania and Bulgaria, the latest countries to join the EU. So there are important historical differences to be found here, for instance between the EU and Europe, between Turkey as a Muslim country and its relationship with EU membership, and then in Odessa between Russia and Europe. But besides these geopolitical ideas of Europe, we were also thinking about what these differences might mean, if anything, for people trying to get into Europe, people without papers, undocumented migrants, and how they conceptualised Europe and their own relationship to this entity.

One activist we spoke to from Syria, refused to call himself a refugee. Thinking about himself more through his political activism, he called himself an exile.

We met people on the move but we also met a lot of NGOs, community groups, activists, who were helping people along the way, for instance by helping people claim asylum, but also with more everyday things like food and shelter. One of the things that came out quite strongly with many of the migrants we spoke to was that Europe, for them, was not a static entity. Its borders morphed and changed with time and circumstance. Another thing we realised when speaking with those who don’t have papers, a passport or an ID card, was that the notion of citizenship becomes really difficult and not always that useful. In such instances, we very quickly started talking about things like belonging and forms of non-belonging, so how people were enacting something that could be called citizenship, even if that was not a word we used. Such accounts challenge prevalent conceptions of Europe and citizenship and demonstrate how difficult it is to enact some kind of citizenship across borders especially when there is conflict involved. For instance, one activist we spoke to from Syria, refused to call himself a refugee. Thinking about himself more through his political activism, he called himself an exile.

Transeuropa Festival 2017, photo by: Elisa Sanchez Fernandez

Engin, a lot of your work, including, for instance, your book Citizens Without Frontiers deals with the concept of international citizenship. How have you come to understand such citizens without frontiers in your work, and what is the role of the nation-state in this context?

Because even simple categories such as refugees and migrants are much more complex than what they appear to be through their movement.

EI: Nishat’s example of the person who did not identify with a particular category, points exactly to the core of my interest: how do people take up the problematic of categories that they inherit for various reasons? Many of these categories emerge in state discourse. The migrant, for instance, is a category of state discourse. The same goes for refugee and citizen – it is state-related discourses that create these categories. My question is how do we take up positions vis-à-vis these categories: how do we inhabit them, how do we live them, how do we perform them? These questions are much more complex than how they appear on paper. You have laws that define who refugees are, and you have people who refuse to be identified as such, although legally they might be described in this way. So this intersectionality of ways of inhabiting the world in multiple categories and yet at the same time capturing something of the cross-border activism is what I’ve come to think about through the concept of frontiers and citizenship. How do you think about this not only in terms of people who move? Because even simple categories such as refugees and migrants are much more complex than what they appear to be through their movement. It is this intersectionality of ways of inhabiting the world in multiple categories that interests me. I wanted to move away from the status of the migrant and think not necessarily about changing statuses, but what people do and how they actually act across borders. Because when we look at the trajectories of people who are moving around, they are also acting across borders at the same time. It’s not – unlike in the classical legal thinking about migrants – that for someone who leaves an origin and arrives at a destination, the origin disappears and the destination becomes the sole habitat of that person. This does not really resonate with the actual politics of people’s experiences. So I was not necessarily interested in theoretical purity – developing a concept and then look at its instances empirically – but rather learning from the languages of people who inhabit these complex spaces and think about what we might learn from the ways in which they reflect on these complex experiences. People often use the term acting, even in various different languages. They express themselves as inhabiting a space of doing. How people actually negotiate that complexity, the borders drawn on them and the language to express that, is what I wanted to learn from.

This idea of what it means to inhabit a space of doing is exactly what we want to explore later on by looking at some practical examples of how this might work. But before we talk about that, let us complicate the picture we started to sketch out a bit more and consider perhaps the role of the nation-state more closely. Niccolò, one of the arguments in your book Citizens of Nowhere is that we live in a moment of great global transformation, where not only diasporic subjects, but everyone is becoming a citizen of nowhere. What do you mean with this term exactly and what are some of the aspects that characterise this contemporary global transformation?

EA Campus 2018, photo by: Emiliano Morbioli

NM: The provocation of the book was to take one of the categories that was recently given to many of us by the UK’s Prime Minister when she said that people who think that they are citizens of the world are in fact citizens of nowhere, and to see what we could do with that. One of the things that we could do with it is to mishear exactly what Theresa May said. If we slightly mishear it, we might find that there may be some truth and a secret energy in the idea that people who believe they are citizens of the world are in fact citizens of nowhere, if we start from the hypothesis that we have all become citizens of the world because of globalisation. And so we could say that we are indeed citizens of nowhere in the sense that we lack a kind of political agency to act as citizens in this new context. Of course, this is an exaggeration, but I think there’s something real there and useful because we attempt to go beyond the binary of migrant and non-migrant, indigene and person that is moving, and argue that there is something that characterises our general condition of worldliness and our position in it in political terms having become more complicated.

At the moment, very few of us are at the position of really being able to go beyond or change those borders, and certainly very few of us have the power to really influence the way those borders are set up.

To come to the other part of your question, I think that one of the important things in thinking that through is to note that the kind of borders that we might want to be talking about seem to be somehow multiplying. That there was perhaps in the 90s or earlier in some people’s minds the idea that globalisation or neoliberalism, or any of those big terms, might signify the emergence of a borderless world. I think if we look around ourselves we’d see that that’s not what’s happening. There are some elements of borderlessness, for instance you can travel anywhere with your Mastercard and pay. But there seems to be a multiplication of borders that we’re actually all faced with increasingly in our everyday lives, whether it is to access services, to try and act in a public space, or even sometimes to communicate and do things together with others. Perhaps this multiplication of borders is a more realistic characterisation of what is being called globalisation, a multiplication of borders which are no longer just at the frontiers of countries, but are actually everywhere. And then there are different regimes which give certain people rights and abilities to go over those borders, to change the border, or find themselves confined by those borders. At the moment, very few of us are at the position of really being able to go beyond or change those borders, and certainly very few of us have the power to really influence the way those borders are set up.

Lastly, one of the key things we wanted to think through was how to understand and characterise the right wing. From 2008 and 2009 onwards people have seemed to understand it to be a paradox that the right wing seems to be partly neoliberal – meaning they believe in the free flow of capital, the free flow of workers, no nation-state, these kind of things – but also racist, putting up new walls, stopping people’s mobility at the same time. One of the things we try to explore in the book is that this is really not a paradox. There’s only a paradox if you buy into the neoliberal idea that there is such a thing as a pure market and everything functions like a mathematical mode. The moment you really look at humans as part of it, it’s totally coherent that there is the model of free market, and all kinds of constraints on people’s movements, and a kind of soft nationalism, which sometimes becomes really hard nationalism that prevents people from exercising their agency across borders. We tried to characterise the new Right in those terms and then think about what we can do about it as citizens in those contexts.

I would like to consider the term citizenship, which all of you use in your work, a bit more closely. My question to all of you thus is: is citizenship a useful concept, given that many – notably feminist and diaspora scholars – have pointed out how it is a term that includes, but also necessarily excludes people, for instance as non- or even anti-citizens of a particular nation-state. And if not, what might be alternative concepts to think through the idea of citizenship?

NA: Talking about citizenship in the project Migrant Narratives of Citizenship was hard, especially when speaking to people who don’t necessarily have any citizenship documents. I think one of the reasons for this was that citizenship was exactly the thing that took agency away from them. To give an example, I spoke to an Afghani woman in Odessa, who had fled the Taliban and was living in Pakistan for many years. When she was there, she had an ID card that most refugees are given in Pakistan. Pakistan never gave Afghani refugees citizenship, but they could live and work there, and so she seemed to have a very settled life. Then, at some point in the last few years, Pakistan decided that it was going to start voluntary returns of Afghani refugees back to Afghanistan. At that point, her husband started to be harassed by the police and finally they went back to Afghanistan.

Later however they returned to Pakistan and then went to Odessa, where I met them. When I spoke to her about citizenship, she started to talk about the ID cards in Pakistan. This referred exactly to what we were saying about the different shades of citizenship earlier, the way they get enacted in legalities and bureaucracy. In Pakistan, there are all sorts of ID cards: people who are refugees have a certain kind of card, people who are internally displaced, and then all along the border communities of Afghanistan and Iran, you have different types of border cards, depending on how often you can cross the border and how long you can stay there. To negotiate that sort of system for her was absolutely impossible. This is what citizenship meant to her – a Kafkaesque, legal and bureaucratic regime that she found difficult to do anything in. But there was also a more hopeful side to the story, which was related to her son’s illness, who had a spine problem and had to undergo a major operation in Pakistan. Now to be able, as a refugee living in Pakistan with a refugee card, to get your son to have a major operation is something really quite impressive even if you had a lot of money. The fact that she managed to do that, gave her the feeling that she had agency. To be able to do the everyday things we would normally take for granted is crucial: when you begin to act as a citizen, you become a citizen. For her, going to the hospital and sorting out her son’s operation was an act of citizenship, I think, even though she didn’t talk about it in those terms.

Transeuropa Festival 2017, photo by: Elisa Sanchez Fernandez

I was doing a lot of these interviews in Urdu. The term for citizenship in Urdu is Shehriat ( شہریت), which has the same root as city, Shehar (شہر). But Shehriat as a term is quite technical, which also says something about this concept being very European in many of its ways of construction. To use this term in a question posed in Urdu is thus leading you to talk about certain things, so to speak to somebody like her about Shehriat didn’t make sense. I would instead use a different phrase, asking if people are “of a particular city”, and that would make things much more open and loose, and we could talk more freely about what people were able to do in a particular place that might then give a clue to whether they felt they could act as citizens beyond the bureaucratic sense of the word. In English then it was the term belonging that was really helpful to me rather than citizenship, as well as forms of non-belonging, and we talked a lot about what made you not belong somewhere. The term agency is something I had also worked with beforehand. In a project called Spatial Agency we were looking at localised examples of people enacting some form of agency at the neighbourhood level, a lot of whom were migrant and diasporic communities. Again, speaking about agency helped because it took away this idea of something that the state has given to you and shifted the emphasis to what you might do yourself through creating networks etc.

EI: The example you give about language is really interesting. It also relates back to what we were talking about earlier – how we inhabit certain categories through language, and the kinds of words we are invited to identify with. In Turkish for example the concept and history of citizenship is really fascinating. Until 1923, there was a concept of citizenship that was not reducible to nationality or belonging to a nation-state. Then, when the new republic eliminated Farsi and Arabic elements from Turkish and instituted Turkish as a Latin alphabet language, the notion of citizenship changed. Since then and still today you cannot speak about citizenship as a term that might mean multiple things and retains a sense of multiplicity. In contemporary Turkish, you cannot speak about citizenship without connoting nationality. There are two words for citizenship, yurttaşlık and vatandaşlık, both of which are linked to nationality. So to talk about citizenship in its performative sense, what people do with it, how do they inhabit it, is technically impossible in the language. This reminds us of the multiple trajectories and histories of the term and that it is actually an unstable concept. It is in this instability where the possibility of politics lies.

Certainly, citizenship also has a colonial and imperial history. It was used by European imperial states to manage populations. Citizenship was a method of population management by sorting people into different categories. The very moment that modern liberal or republican citizenship was born was also the moment when European empires sorted their territories into different citizenship categories and began regulating movements. So colonialism along racist, and patriarchal dynamics, which are built into citizenship itself, that is one trajectory. And yet at the same time the concept of citizenship also has a longer trajectory which is not really associated with the nation-state. In this different history, it means what Hannah Arendt recuperated as the right to claim rights, the right to institute oneself as a right-bearing subject, regardless of the convention that authorises you. That means wherever I am and wherever I’m acting politically, I’m constituting myself as a political subject. That’s also the history of citizenship. These histories exist with one another in rather unstable ways and it is a question then in politics what people pick up, what they identify with, what they use. In certain situations, we find people being caught up in citizenship regimes in the most terrible ways. You can find yourself stateless, right-less, and subject to state law, but without having any claims to it. And yet, at the same time, citizenship can become a space for people to move into and make themselves as claimers, drawing on various repertoires of languages of rights. So when you ask me whether the term is useful, what I would like to add then is the question: useful for whom? Who is actually deploying the word and what is the purpose of doing so?

Certainly, citizenship also has a colonial and imperial history. It was used by European imperial states to manage populations.

NM: I think that the word citizenship is useful in much the same way that the word Europe is useful. If you don’t manage to articulate your relationship to Europe you find yourself powerless – an experience which the UK government is currently having. I think all of us as citizens are somehow obliged to come to some sort of terms with what it means, but without reducing the complexity or the problems of the term. Europe is a highly problematic term, because it carries with it all kinds of colonial – and not only colonial – violence from its mythological beginnings in the capture and rape of the goddess Europa by Zeus. There is violence inscribed in the idea of Europe. Much in the same way, there is a sort of violence inscribed in the term citizenship which we have to come to terms with. But there is also a promise – a promise of equality, eventually a promise of democracy, a promise of agency, which is also embedded in the term of citizenship.

I am increasingly of the opinion that there are terms which are part of the European heritage, which we inherit, those of us that are around here, and which we have to deal with. And that requires somehow thinking through and drawing resource from our European, and not only European, history. One of the things we tried to do in Citizens of Nowhere was to trace a very short history of various “citizens of nowhere” – people who have called for or tried to enact citizenship beyond borders throughout European history, from Odysseus to early feminist and trade unionist, to the people in the resistance of WWII and after. The reason why we did that was because we thought it was important to have this kind of historical lineage to give us a way of projecting back into the past and taking strength from it as actors. Citizenship is a useful term for me because it opens up this kind of history, and all the ideas and terms that can come from it, but it also brings with it all of its problems.

Speaking of the question whom citizenship is useful for, we might also refer to ideas that expand its usefulness beyond the citizens of a particular nation-state. I’m thinking for instance of supra-national ideas of citizenship, which link citizenship to residency rather than nationality, such as ideas like flexible citizenship or nomadic citizenship, which would include people who move around. Moving into practical ideas of how citizenship might be enacted concretely, then, my last question to you is what examples – local, trans-local, or planetary – do you draw hope from?

NA: Before we go into speaking about the more hopeful examples, I think it’s useful to talk about some of the difficulties. For instance, it might be that a project uses all the right buzzwords on the outside, but that it is actually creating spaces in which refugees are effectively detained, and which are still absolutely about the externalisation of asylum and a normalisation of the current popular attitudes towards migration. I’m thinking, for example, of proposals which end up creating enclaves within nation-states where refugees and migrants live. We have to be careful not to create spaces in which the relations between old and new residents of a nation-state are based on exploitation. I am particularly weary of solutions created by white Western academics in ivory towers that don’t have anything to do with or involve the people who actually experience these things on a daily basis. What is important here, I think, is that without the kind of enacting that we were speaking about and without things coming from the bottom-up, this is where we might end up: a dystopia sold as an achievable solution.

I am particularly weary of solutions created by white Western academics in ivory towers that don’t have anything to do with or involve the people who actually experience these things on a daily basis.

To give a more hopeful example, I wanted to mention the project spatial agency, which collated instances of people enacting some kind of change in their community. I’m an architect by training and the project was started with two other people who were also quite depressed by the state of architecture and wanted to think of other ways of acting spatially at a local, neighbourhood level. These projects are all about local people getting together, and so the question of citizenship and how you act really comes out here. One example is a project based in Paris called Ecobox by Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée, which stands for studio for self-managed architecture. On one level Ecobox is a community gardening project in an area of Paris that has a very high migrant population. But what started as a community garden then slowly became a cultural space, where they had film screenings, as well as sociologists and urbanists coming along and working in that community. The idea was to eventually create a management structure that would allow the residents to take over the space. After a couple of years of doing lots of events, the residents started working with this space and then something quite important happened when they were about to be evicted. At that point these people who had never really taken part in any kind of politics and were very much excluded from politics as migrant communities in Paris, went to the mayor’s office to petition for another space for the garden. And so suddenly a network of gardens emerged within this neighbourhood, and then transformed into a slightly bigger project in the banlieues, which was again about using gardening as a catalyst within marginalised communities to create forms of agency. A final thing that seemed important was that the aim was always to try to make trans-local connections. One of the projects now has an outpost in London and I think there’s about to be one in Brazil.

There’s also another project that might be worth mentioning in this context, which is Urban Alternatives. Its aim is to map where alternative ways of thinking and practicing political agency already takes place and thus connects them across borders. One of the organisations involved here is European Alternatives, to whom acting locally is also an important element of exercising agency beyond the nation-state. Thus, let’s hear about how this is done at European Alternatives, this idea of acting beyond borders, but in particular beyond the nation-state?

Particularly over recent years, there has been an enormous demand on such trainings across Europe, on different issues, but strongly on anti-hate speech, anti-racism, and organising to keep out the far right.

NM: The origin of European Alternatives date back to a dinner during which my friend Lorenzo and myself, who were often moaning quite a bit about the current state of culture and politics, were reminded by my cousin that we ought to try and do something instead of just complaining. We thus decided to find some agency by organising events, inviting intellectuals and writers to talk about the idea of Europe, because, as I mentioned, we inherited it, but also because we have the conviction that any interesting politics or culture will be at the very least European. From then onwards, people rapidly came to us and said that since we seemed to be active on European issues, we should do something about the situation of media freedom in Italy, or the Roma being expelled from France, or forest fires in Croatia, or other political issues. Of course, there were organisations already working on those things, some of them big NGOs, but they are typically not the kind of organisations in which individuals can find a strong sense of agency. People who felt like they wanted to do something didn’t necessarily feel they could go to Oxfam or Greenpeace to get the kind of agency they wanted. Secondly, we found that certainly when it came to European institutions and European politics, there was an enormous number of people complaining about the fact that it is undemocratic, unrepresentative and so on, but there are very few people actually trying to go in and influence the decisions that are being taken. So we humbly went to knock on the doors of the European Parliament and told them that, as citizens, we thought they ought to do something about, for instance, media freedom in Italy. We were surprised, I suppose, to see that people in the Parliament, people in the Commission, people working around the Council, and people in the national governments were happy to work with citizens to try and make resolutions and change decisions.

EA Congress 2018, “What comes after the nation-state?”, photo by: Frieder Unselt

They were happy to do that for at least two reasons. One was, some of them said, that they get quite a lot of lobbyist knocking on their doors, but relatively few citizens. The second more cynical but real reason was that by politicians acting hand in hand with citizens, they managed to demonstrate that they were good politicians who tried to make things better, and so we were aware that we were being used in a kind of political strategy and we had our own strategies as part of that. Thus, from organising cultural discussions and film projections we got involved in campaigning and activism on a European scale. Through this trans-European activism, an organisation developed, called European Alternatives. We’ve continued the festive activity, the cultural discussions, and the activism, and alongside that have come two other things: some degree of publishing and new media to try and broaden the audience, and an element of training and capacity building, to build up the strength of other people to do this kind of activity. Particularly over recent years, there has been an enormous demand on such trainings across Europe, on different issues, but strongly on anti-hate speech, anti-racism, and organising to keep out the far right. This is a sign of hope for us.

Engin, you also worked with a lot of NGOs, activist groups and movements. What other examples did you find hopeful?

EI: One inspiring development right now is pueblos sin fronteras, the migrant caravan that’s making its way into the United States – thousands of people from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala. I’ve been closely following the caravan and people are saying really inspiring things about politics: what it means to cross borders, what it means to be without frontiers. There is an interview that made it into the Financial Times where one of the marchers said they are not refugees. They are not going to the United States to beg for rights, they are going there to claim them. That voice of defiance backed by a collective movement that is staging an act, is something that is quite inspiring to me. We don’t know the consequences, but the movement is similar in its defiance to the sanctuary movement. The sanctuary movement started as a very small church-based movement in the United States around the Mexico border, but it has grown to become a worldwide phenomenon. Now we are hearing that in China nearly a million people, Uyghur Turks in China, are being detained in massive camps. Are there not sanctuary movements protecting them, hiding them, quite akin to what people did in Europe for Jews for a period of time? That may become an example of Chinese citizens saying that this is an intolerable situation and that something has to be done about it.

Are there not sanctuary movements protecting them, hiding them, quite akin to what people did in Europe for Jews for a period of time?

Another inspiring example is the recent act that the group Operation Mediterranean has staged with the ship Mare Joneo. There have, of course, been a number of rescue ships, rescue ship movements and aid and so on. But this one is really inspiring in terms of its organisation. Michael Hardt and Sandro Mezzandra wrote about it in The Guardian, but we need to also talk about the sophisticated level of organisation and how they have crowdsourced, raised money, and made an arrangement with a bank that declared itself as ethical. They went to them and said that if they wanted to continue to associate themselves with that word, they should give them a loan and then they actually forced the bank to live up to its name, organise a loan and got a ship. The Italian government is very nervous about them, just as the United States is very nervous about the sanctuary movements. Nervous in the sense that they are prepared to counteract. That means these movements, these acts, got under their skin, so they organised against them. These are major inspiring moments.

Finally, on a planetary level, I think it is worth remembering, that for the first time under the United Nations framework, there is a possibility for a global compact on migration, by which migration could be disassociated from concerns with development and security. There is going to be a meeting in Morocco in December about this. The United States is not going to be part of it, possibly Poland is not going to be part of it, and Hungary is not going to be part of it, but some one hundred and fifty countries are about to sign. There are a number of issues and problems with this, but on the other hand, human rights and migration coming together through activism might be backed by a legal framework, a development of which some human rights and legal scholars are saying that this is unprecedented. The UN might possibly move into a new direction. There are a number of issues associated with this and different directions that it has taken, but it is worth paying attention to it as well.


This interview is an excerpt from a public conversation that took place at Goldsmiths, University of London, in November 2018, which was kindly supported by the College’s Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy.

Nishat Awan is a senior lecturer in the Visual Cultures department at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of Migrant Narratives of Citizenship and Diasporic Agency.

Engin Isin is a professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London, and author of Citizens Without Frontiers amongst other books.

Niccolò Milanese is a poet, philosopher and co-founder of European Alternatives, as well as co-author of Citizens of Nowhere with Lorenzo Marsili.

Antje Scharenberg is an activist, PhD student and ethnographer at Goldsmiths, University of London, who works with transnational civil society organisations such as European Alternatives.