Borders, Borderness, and Re-Bordering Before and After the Pandemic

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by H. Neşe Özgen
© H. Nese Özgen, fig. 4.
© H. Nese Özgen, fig. 3.
© H. Nese Özgen, fig. 1.
© H. Nese Özgen, fig. 2.

While the tacked transience of countries in different colors on a world map is provided to us, states paint their political maps surrounded by a desert space outside their borders. On these maps, there is a completely empty world outside of their borders and outside of the civilized-only country. It appears that there are no villages around, no other human being alive; there, not a single plant grows, people never kiss, kids never giggle and no food is ever cooked. However, the ones living on borders know very well that there is a way to cross and a government to negotiate with for citizenship. From this point of view, people on the borders become more vulnerable but more competitive than the ones living in interior parts. In these encounters, while states are the strong agents, citizens on borders have their own agenda to negotiate no matter how feeble it seems, however still living on the border means being endlessly bruised by an uncanny uncertainty.

On this text, I focus to discuss on how change discourse and policy on immigration and refugees by referring the uncanny uncertainty on the borders and border regimes. I claim that the refugee issue in the hands of authoritarian regimes, such as Turkey, by bordering of the whole motherland, is used as a tool to drive their nation to xenophobia.

Hardening in border regimes enables states to intimidate their own citizens by decreasing refugees into a 'res' category, thus provoking both citizens to reinforce nationalism and obedience to the state (rebordering). In the critical border studies literature, the concept of borderness (Green, 2012) describes that the more uncanny the border regime becomes and the more it spreads to the whole area of citizenship, the more the authoritarianism of the whole motherland.

I think that solidarity with immigrants and refugee organizations is important to build an exit together and create a world without borders. In the EU, immigrant policies are the areas where a liberal discourse but state-controlled, likewise in Turkey the state policies are fostered and controlled by a similar tolerance-oriented but religious discourse. Refusing from these rhetoric, one of the most urgent tasks for all organizations is to build a new coexistence area with the immigrants themselves.

Borders and Borderness

What are we saying when we talk about borders? Homeland, government, gender, economy, map, body, language, ethnicity, etc. Border studies, just like the border itself, is an area of research that intersects with almost all social science concepts.

When we talk about the border, these disciplines also define and reconstruct the border: to what extent cross-border extensions of ethnic pools can be effective in domestic negotiations, the effects of trade-kinship-ethnicity-beliefs and legal systems on border regimes and citizenship negotiations, etc. are border researchers’ favorite topics (Paasi, 2011).

During my work on land borders over the last twenty years, I have studied the economic and political anthropology of Turkey’s borders1, including some studies that took place in urban-rural areas on the borders of Turkey between both Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria. My research questions concerned the sociological and anthropological structure of borders, rather than strategist and/or political subjects; when nation state borders were drawn, were the structures of ethnicity, beliefs, culture, and relationships dimidiated? In the global era, have these borders invalidated life without borders? Was the border an ethnic-religious-cultural sharing pool on both sides? Following Ernst Bloch’s expression (Bloch, 2006), this was a study that I ‘traced’, as Benjamin Korstvedt cited Ernst Bloch that “The concluding "Things" suggests that if we can remain alive to the amazement of things and our experience of them, we can sustain our "questioning wonder past the first answer" so that it may become possible that "the many great riddles of the world will not entirely conceal their one inconspicuous mystery"’’(Korstvedt ,2007). Also as Benjamin’s explains ‘‘which can also mean tracks, footprints, or even clues, found in the European Lebenswelt of the early twentieth century’’ (Benjamin, 2002). I was curious to understand the current trespass of the things as Shapiro’s states as Flows (Shapiro, 1996: 170-171). And I wanted to bring this study into relation with Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and thus the connection between empiric and theoretical knowledge (Benjamin, 2002). I have seen how these passages, the things in the labyrinth of crossing the border, are transforming the social sphere, as they have become the subject of the first ever barter economy, then the merchant system, and finally finance capital for decades. In addition, I have to state my deepest gratitude, as Granovetter has led me to understand the relationships of things to each other and to people (Granovetter, 1985: 481-93).

Studying the Economic and Political Anthropology of borders has shown me that a border itself produces and reproduces accumulation. In other words, a border is not a place where the sovereignty of a government is only reinforced metaphorically; it is indeed a political economic reality that leads to various social strata or even classes empowering or collapsing, depending on negotiations with the state about whom to cross and who is stopped at the borders.

Borders are places, or ‘zonalities’, where the peripheral political economy encounters state sovereignty. The issue about where the zonality moves on the border and how far it could go is to decide the actual border of the land, namely, the scope of the dominant market economy. This scope is also related to how people living within the borders react to outsiders. Those hints about the change in the zonality will provide us significant clues related to the political map of a country that is shaped by a government working on how to locate and legitimize its own citizens, which we call borderness as Sarah Green’s conceptualization (Green, 2012) (see fig. 1 and fig. 2).

For instance, on all the land borders of Turkey, the shape of borders, the way they are interpreted, and the definition of an ample citizenship have changed a lot. While these borders seemed to remain intact, the signs and symbols that represent borders and the people who enforce or protect the borders, along with the ones who suffer or benefit from borders, kept changing. This shows us that a border is not just a wire, mined area, or a gate, but a zonality, permeability, extension, or simply a space in itself.

Therefore, the borders where border crossings are not clear at all become sharper, harder, and more enforceable borders. For example, borders within the EU are free to those with EU approval, but extremely closed to those outsiders (Scott & van Houtum, 2009). The possibility of being ‘uncivilized’, ‘terrorist,’ or ‘perverted’ is always on the agenda and in this sense, EU borders are so high that you cannot cross them rhetorically (Kolosov & Scott, 2013). Of course, there are other keys and passwords that can cross any border, such as bank accounts, money deposits, powerful political negotiation networks, or as Khosravi writes, simply your ‘body’ (Khosravi, 2010). Thus, cast as ‘perverse and limitless’, refugees may be left to die at 20 degrees below zero on the Bulgarian-Hungarian-Romanian border, somewhere on Via Egnatia, the three thousand year old Roman road, or be burned in their tent on a winter night in Calais, in the heart of France. However, sovereignty and its political power thus re-glorifies itself with profits in the millions of Dollars and Euros, negotiated over the dead bodies of refugees. Hence, the state has continued to exist in many areas over the years, ranging from the redefinition of its neighbors to redefinition of internal and external enemies. Throughout the last years, the border also became legitimate as we continued to talk about it and established the foundation of the homeland and citizenship by redefining it. The situation demonstrated the mechanisms we have experienced in border studies: In short, the border produced a spatial political economy, and as a space, it is not a signifier of border culture, but rather the border itself; its legitimization was rebuilding itself as social structure capable of recreating citizenship, culture, and politics.

On the one hand, the state legalizes and legitimates its own antagonism, and thus borders become ‘spaces’ where this uncanny volatility and arbitrariness are embodied. In other words, the border is an osmotic structure (Özgen, 2008). For example, the legitimacy of property, people, or ideas changes so constantly that, thanks to this complex relationship between the legitimate and the legal, citizenship is redefined according to the pattern of what “the state (for that moment) deems acceptable” (Özgen, 2017). This eternal allegiance, the necessity to conform to the patterns of these ever-changing definitions, keeps citizenship under constant pressure (Özgen, 2011).

The state enforces its best practices in relation to the reproduction of crime rather than the investigation of it. Uncanny, blurry, and semi-permeable borders are the places where the definition of homeland and the state, and then the appropriate citizen can be best observed. Power holders perform this negotiation in two ways; first, by stating the border and homeland metaphorically and embellishing real images with materiality, and second, by legitimizing these metaphors as part of the reproduced citizen identity and homeland. In other words, the border as a place is also the re-mapping of the state’s sovereignty and legitimacy over former places (see fig. 3, and fig. 4).

Rebordering: Speaking on Behalf of and Despite Refugees

As you know, immigrants and refugees are discussed but not represented: an item on the agenda without a seat at the table.

Meetings are held without immigrants at times or in places they cannot attend, even if they catch wind of them, and in languages they do not know. Everyone is ready to speak on behalf of ‘them’, provided the sentences are long and fancy enough, and the numbers are convincing; sometimes sincere, sometimes excitedly, sometimes as an object of social engineering. But nobody, really, nobody turns to ask themselves: Well, where are they? Why are not they here? Overhauled, analyzed talks are instrumentalized in a way that the precious ‘professional audience’ can evaluate, countless tallies and corresponding budget calculations.

Although immigrants are neither a blunt unity, homogeneous characters nor a massive structure, the people categorized as ‘immigrants’ are always spoken for by those in power (Tsitselikis, 2018). In other words, not only the state and governmental bodies, but all those within the jargon use this ‘narrative’: It is only the immigrants themselves who cannot agree about who will be which type of immigrant.

If you want to include refugee in the category, you are demoted (and you usually have no other choice), these words begin with the infinity and eternity of the gratitude to be shown, and continues with all the requirements of submission and obedience (Tsitselikis, 2018). Pages of documents to be filled, wounds that need to be proven, questioned and repeatedly bled and nouns and adjectives need to be said more clearly in certain categories never end.

A refugee or an immigrant foregoes other identities and often loses any title – artist, academic, businessperson – in favor of a more degrading role: the 'refugee-immigrant' is often labelled Syrian thief, Afghan scavenger, Iraqi robber, or Russian prostitute. Therefore, immigration is not just about losing a homeland but being willing to be trapped in an endless chain of obedience, being forced to remain in pre-determined conditions, and if there is something offered to you, it means accepting obediently and gratefully and trying to be as innocent as possible. It means turning into a cautionary demonstration by acceding to always be a victim, innocent, always at the bottom, and even as the most innocent and dead victim, it means staying put. It is therefore functional: An immigrant-refugee has no choice but to live and die within a defined mold.

The new perception has been developed by constantly implying that refugees are absolutely alone and helpless, and they must have been forced out of their homeland, therefore equating the refugee to an anonymous non-class and from there to an anonymous loss. In this perception, Chouliaraki and Stolic, pointed out very preciously how refugees are regarded as a number or a dead child’s body as described sharply, say “Infantilization may this aim at mobilising empathy in the name of ‘our’ common humanity, yet, in portraying refugees as children in need, it ultimately deprives them of agency and voice” (Chouliaraki, & Stolicc, 2017:1177). Refugees have to be either a baby or a woman, or they have to share the same ethnicity or religion, especially to deserve compassion, however, they were forced to be dead and innocent while dying (Chouliaraki, & Stolic, 2017).

Thus, the perception that those who are forced to flee from their homeland are either innocent or evil causes us to reproduce and re-border our own citizenship. The homeland has been reconstructed as an indispensable ‘heaven’ that is surrounded by the threats of enemies on all sides and fortunately has borders, walls protected by security units so that they cannot enter. The outside, then, is constructed as a complete ‘hell’. Hence, the concept of human-citizen within a country’s borders that were raised and restrained again was re-established with a moral judgment: You are either one of us or one of them! The construction of the xenophobia is functional: It is used as an exemplary object to show the citizens of the host country how precious their homeland, their rights, and especially their own states are (Mbembe, 2019). Hence, when we talk about massive migrations, we are forced to speak of the ‘defined’ and the ‘demoted’ one, as a form of ‘exclusion by recognition’ (Saracoglu, 2019).

Turkey has spent a couple of years priding itself for hosting millions of refugees; however, the rhetoric of a refugee policy that can be proven neither with comparison nor reality actually obscures a merciless refugee policy. Only 280,000 of the 3.5 million people registered as ‘guests’ can stay in camps. Even if the refugees from the latest Middle East war would be taken into account, the ratio of the population of Turkey to the refugees that Turkey is hosting (not supporting) is only 4% to 4,5% (Koros, 2017). This ratio, when compared to neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, where almost 40-55% of the population has changed, or continental European countries like Germany or France that have been accepting refugees with an elimination process for about 40-50 years, is really nothing. Despite these facts, Turkey claims to be a safe third country and reaches the highest category of support assistance (Bajekal, 2015). Let's see if Turkey can be considered a safe third country according to the criteria and how to take advantage of this rhetoric.

We always say that the perception of Turkey’s refugee and immigration policy resulted from laws and definitions that emerged in 1945. That is, refugees with high status are Westerners, while people from the East are labeled as low status immigrants. As an example, Akalin shows us the status of women who work as household slaves from Georgia or Bulgaria are slightly better paid than the immigrants from Korea or the Philippines, and than Chinese immigrants who are brought in in large numbers to work in iron or steel complex (Akalin, 2016). Therefore, this research shows how quickly the hierarchy of the nations is set up by Turkey even before migrants begin moving, even though they all have the same work permit.

On the other hand, we have seen that refugees from the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan were placed in a discriminating category in the years that the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, en. Justice and Development Party) has been in power. Their sect and tribal ties were also a determinant for the Islamist neoliberals to decide whether to see those refugees as friends or enemies. Although this tactic is not actually new, it has recently been applied very forcefully because the AKP is one of the forces involved in the war in the Middle East.

It is mainly Sunni and Arab families that belong to the groups supporting the war. On the other hand, Turkey maintains a racist and discriminatory imbalance by both not giving refugees a status and inciting the differences between sects and cultures, and also by centralizing and Islamizing all the areas refugees have access to.

The fact that all academics working in this field work only with state permission, NGOs can only act together with refugees and immigrants to the extent that state permission is given, and the pressure on immigrant organizations is also exemplary (UNCHR Reports, 2019). It would not be wrong to claim that Turkey has become the backyard of the Middle East because of its refugee policy, which was created by using all the resources the state has to intimidate both its own citizens and immigrants (HarekAct,

The borders between the EU and Turkey were toughened after the March 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey (, and the legitimacy of nation states was gradually strengthened by those trying to pass the borders (Atac & Heck; Hess, 2017). The only policy of the state that remained stable in terms of borders was to harden it, following Soykan’s marvelous perspective on the EU (Soykan, 2017).

Blurring the crossings and negotiations of orders as well as networks with local interlocutors has been the most important policy that states have applied in order to control borders in the last 10 years (UNHCR, 2016.). Because of this, new restrictions within the homeland (re-legitimized also with the pandemic at present), changes in the definitions of citizenship (obedience-allegiance-acceptance without questioning, etc.), and a new period in which the whole homeland gradually became a buffer zone (no-man’s land), have emerged. The whole motherland became borderness, to use Green’s word (Green, 2012).


What are we left with these days and with so many experiences? We have recorded many stages in theory and knowledge, but what should we do, talk about, and how should we act?

I am of the opinion that solidarity with immigrants and refugee organizations is important in order to build an exit together and create a world without borders. In the EU, immigrant policies are the areas where mostly liberals work and have a right to speak, whereas in Turkey, they are fostered and controlled by a tolerance-oriented religious discourse. Starting from this rhetoric, one of the most urgent tasks for all organizations is to build new areas of coexistence with the immigrants themselves.

It’s important to not forget that economic policy built around chronic corruption and theft, which started before the pandemic and became undisguised with the pandemic, will result in a great recession after the pandemic: where the knife now passes the flesh and rests on the bones all macro and micro policies must implement a new organizational language, a new organizational success.

This new language cannot be expected from the ‘soothing-insidious’ language of the liberals or the parties that follow the state-centric policies that have bowed to right-wing populism, which diverts society from the principle of gain for itself. We must rely on our own compass, insist on the core values of freedom, equality, and solidarity, and continue to fight for the multitude, the weak and the poor. We must also change. We must appeal to the masses, support popular resistance, and organize all categories of workers, stay sober at dawn, when the world will be worse than the world we now know and more unstable at the same time.

Simply asking for borders to be removed is an empty sign. The separation of the boundaries between two spaces of unequal lives only results in one exploiting the other and consolidating the sovereignty of a new state. The way to remove borders is not simply to deny them; on the contrary, it is about being able to substitute other forms of existence for the state and the homeland and validate them.

It is possible to establish a sovereignty without a state. If we can realize what new life alternatives will be on both sides of the border, without blurring the libertarian and democratic demands with resolute will, we can remove the borders in our minds and hearts. Today we must again insist on popular liberation and focus on building networks of solidarity and action that resist the authoritarian destructiveness that is accelerating towards us. We have this strength and memory in our socialist traditions and their new areas, which have also been tested and discussed with the Kurdish movement that emerged in  Rojava (Bay & Dirik, Graeber, 2016). We need to develop and propose a realistic collectivist and egalitarian project for a new society, in a language accessible to the public, because soon it will be clear that the old one will not return. To do this, we must critically examine new areas, means, and goals of state action, help consolidate the left and working class that remains fragmented, and also unite layers recently alienated from the capitalist order. Finally, we must avoid confusing ourselves with the projects of the new ‘reformist’ divisions of the ruling right-wing parties. It is a long path, but now is not the time to settle for less.

Stay out of the borders.




1 My research interests include qualitative and quantitative research technics and methodologies; gender, capital accumulation and citizenship on border for the last twenty years; South-Eastern (Iraq, Syria), Eastern (Iran), and North Eastern Anatolian borders (Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan), as well as the Western (Bulgarian, Greece) land borders of Turkey. For details and papers see:


1st and 2nd figure: Both photographs show how poor and dependent they are on the state and how they are kept in a circle of nationalism and hatred as border guards. Title: Two Towns at Borders: The first is from a tiny border town with Armenia (Çıldır, taken in 2006). The town’s entering point “Welcome to the land of heroes, let the whole world know that we never leave a piece of our homeland to the enemy while the life is alive” (this refers to Armenia). The second is from the gate on the South-Eastern border between Turkey and Iraq: Daily bread. This photo shows the border smugglers’ passports’ daily stamps. They serve as porters for a daily fixed wage, paid by the traders, but still have to have a government-approved passport, which is a tourist passport (2002).

3rd figure: “The motherland is the first!”. Photo from Eastern border of Turkey (Armenian border) - 2004.
4th is from Eastern border between Georgia and Turkey (2008), it says: “We, the followers of you.” Most of the Caucasus, Eastern, and South Eastern borders of Turkey were deforested by the Turkish Army and the security forces because of “national security issues.” Both photos are characterized by the very heart breaking and striking loneliness of the cemeteries, also unbearable poverty (2008).


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H. Neşe Özgenis currently a Visiting Scholar at Duke University, Cultural Anthropology Department, and Resident Fellow with the National Humanities Center in Durham, NC/US. Her research interests include qualitative and quantitative research techniques and methodologies (engaged anthropology issues), and capital accumulation and citizenship on borders for the last twenty years, especially on issues of the state, border, and class, and the political geography of the motherland, gender, and gendering of borders. She conducted her research along the southeastern (Iraq, Syria), eastern (Iran), and northeastern Anatolian (Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan), as well as the western (Bulgarian, Greece) borders of Turkey. From 2006 to 2009, Özgen was a research associate on the project “Caucasus Borders and Citizenship”, which took place at the Max-Planck-Institute for Ethnological Research. She conducted considerable field research on the topic of land ownership and citizenship on the Ardahan and Kars borders. “Collective Memory: Ways of Forgetting and Remembering Beyond the Borders” is among her main works.