A Brief History of the Noborder Network

It wasn't exactly the right place nor really the right time to launch a political campaign which publicly called for a series of offenses 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 well-known 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 offense: aiding and abetting illegal entry and residence. The offense 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 self-organisation 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 radicalizing 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 anti-racist 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 specialization, 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 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 European-wide 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 European-wide 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 in a decentralized but coordinated manner against a new chapter in the politics of separation: "the gradual establishment of an area of freedom, security and of justice"; was the flowery 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 border-less 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 paralyzed 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 canceled 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 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 large-scale 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 demonize 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 cheer-leading 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 interpretation 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, counter-conferences 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 job-mediating 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 the same 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 European-wide 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 leveling 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.