When borders matter: Reflections on the importance of citizenship and the nation-state during the COVID-19 pandemic

An opinion piece by Elina Jonitz and Ingrid Blankesteijn (current GMD students)

“Progressively, entry visas are phased out all over the globe. But not passport control. The latter is still needed - perhaps more than ever before - to sort out the confusion which the abolition of the visas might have created: to set apart those for whose convenience and whose ease of travel the visas have been abolished, from those who should have stayed put - not meant to travel in the first place.” Zygmunt Bauman, 1998: 87[1]

For us, two students from Germany and the Netherlands, growing up in 21st century Europe meant being able to move visa- and care-free around an increasingly interconnected globe. Yet, as a reaction to the current COVID-19 pandemic, geographical borders between and within member states, but also worldwide, seem to suddenly matter more. We, together with many Europeans, are now experiencing what it means to not be able to travel freely from one country to another. This is for instance reflected in how international students, including those of our own GMD program, were almost overnight confronted with the question of whether or not to leave the Netherlands and return to their families amidst more and more countries announcing travel restrictions and calling for their nationals to come ‘home’.

It would be presumptuous to equate these temporary inconvenient situations to the circumstances of those who experience the insuperability of borders on a daily basis. The act of migration itself is a symbol of agency by those who are “not meant to travel in the first place” and who claim their right to be recognized as humans. We should therefore be careful that our reflections do not problematize nor construct a migrant ‘other’[2]. Still, we argue that the sudden presence of inner-European borders and the subsequent consequences on people’s lives can serve as a starting point to reflect on our own privileges. This can help shed a light on the (im)mobility of those who do not profit from the “phasing out of visas” and whose movements are often stigmatized and criminalized. For them, especially now, having no entry visa is not a symbol of a ‘shrunken’ world, but rather a barrier that makes the crossing of borders often impossible.

Citizen vs. non-citizen

Before the worldwide restrictions as a response to COVID-19, this was clearly visible in the ‘paradox’ of citizens of member states enjoying the freedom of movement in a borderless space and presumably ‘unfit’ non-citizens being prohibited from entering fortress Europe[3]. Now, this fortress has seemingly become even more difficult to access, highlighted by for instance the restrictions on or even the complete suspension of the right to file for asylum for those arriving at the European border[4]. Even those who have managed to cross the EU’s external border remain uncertain if they can find the protection they were seeking and hoping for. Their status as asylum seekers or ‘irregular’ migrants determines their access to social, economic, political and legal rights. This differentiated access to fundamental rights and membership statuses - most visible in the distinction between citizen vs. non-citizen - manifests itself in a system of civic stratification[5] which also influences the extent to which people are affected by the current COVID-19 crisis. This becomes most apparent when reading the news about the inhumane conditions in the Greek refugee camps that do not allow for ‘proper social distancing’ or ‘washing hands’ that are considered necessary to prevent the spread of the virus[6]. Coming back to Bauman’s initial observation, this example demonstrates again that (im)mobility, and with it citizenship, are important stratifiers in our globalized world.

However, for some people, even the possession of formal citizenship does not necessarily mean that they are seen as actual members of society, i.e. they don’t have moral citizenship[7]. Discourses of in- and exclusion depict immigrants and people with a migrant background as “fundamentally different from the ‘home’ population”[8] which may lead to a situation where former refugees with a Swedish passport are not ‘trusted’ when crossing borders because they are not seen as ‘real’ citizens[9]. In other cases, non-citizens suddenly gain privileges or access to rights that they were initially deprived from. For instance in Germany, the current threat of a labor shortage led to the decision to grant a large number of asylum seekers or ‘tolerated’ non-deportable persons work permits[10].

The sovereign nation-state

Inextricably linked to these themes of mobility and citizenship is the concept of the sovereign nation-state. As the current situation shows, the nation-state remains the ruler of the roost. Ultimately, it is the nation-state that controls and produces mobility - and in that sense, proves to be the ‘monopolizer of movement’[11]. We have seen this before, with the continued reintroduction of border controls in the context of the 2015 peak in migration flows and its presupposed link to terrorist attacks[12]. And even though borders are slowly being reopened, the overall message to third-country nationals waiting to file asylum claims is clear: Europe is closed, stay away. The measures seem to be successful as numbers show that migration to Europe has been the lowest it has ever been since the start of data-collection[13]. At the same time, thousands of nationals stranded abroad have been repatriated back ‘home’ to their own country[14]. These costly repatriation operations reflect the assumption that the territory of the nation-state is the only ‘safe’ place for its citizens, despite recently noted claims of denationalization and deterritorialization[15]. This conflation of citizenship and territory is a reflection of the predominant idea that the nation-state is the natural frame of reference for policies and defines membership. Hence, the nation-state is perceived as the only ‘suitable’ provider of rights and protection for its citizens. But what happens to those who have been so successfully barred from entering? To those who do not have a (safe) place to go back to? To those who are dependent on a nation-state to seek asylum and need to be protected against their ‘own’ nation-state?

Solidarity within Europe

The ongoing conflict about the redistribution of unaccompanied minors living in European refugee camps[16] and the continuous dire situation in these camps[17] indicate once more that Europe is missing a cohesive answer to these questions. Solidarity of member states with those that do not count as their own citizens, as well as forms of European solidarity and cooperation between member states internally, is fairly absent. This is particularly visible in how EU member states have been struggling for years with their response to the arrival of irregular migrants and refugees. In the context of the current global pandemic, this struggle becomes more problematic as the tendency to prioritize national interests is regarded as the only feasible answer by many states. While this might be understandable to some, it does not have to be this way, and if the history of the ‘European experiment’ has shown us anything, transnational cooperation is not only possible, but crucial when it comes to addressing these complex issues. The closing of Europe’s internal borders has made us painfully aware how much we – as students, and European citizens at large – depend on being able to move freely and how privileged we have been to enjoy this right that has derived from European cooperation. Perhaps the fact that borders suddenly matter more to us can make us appreciate what we have achieved so far, and can allow us to relate better to and show solidarity with those who are deprived from these freedoms and rights on a daily basis.


[1] Bauman, Z. (1998). Globalization: The human consequences. New York : Columbia University Press.

[2] Schinkel, W. (2018). Against ‘immigrant integration’: for an end to neocolonial knowledge production. Comparative Migration Studies, 6 (31), 1-17.

[3] Malik, K. (2018). How we all colluded in Fortress Europe. The Guardian, The Sunday Essay. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/10/sunday-essay-how-we-colluded-in-fortress-europe-immigration

[4] ECRE (2020). Information sheet 5 May 2020: COVID-19 measures related to asylum and migration across Europe. Retrieved from: https://www.ecre.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/COVID-INFO-5-May-.pdf

[5] Morris, L. (2003). Managing Contradiction: Civic Stratification and Migrants' Rights. International Migration Review, 37(1), 74–100.

[6] Human Rights Watch (2020). Greece: Island camps not prepared for Covid-19. Retrieved from: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/22/greece-island-camps-not-prepared-covid-19

[7] Schrover, M. & Schinkel. W. (2013). Introduction: the language of inclusion and exclusion in the context of immigration and integration. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 36:7, 1123-1141.

[8] See 7.

[9] Khosravi, S. (2010). 'Illegal' Traveller: An Auto-Ethnography of Borders. Palgrave Macmillan UK.

[10] PRO ASYL, 2020. Newsticker Coronavirus: Informationen für Geflüchtete und Unterstützer*innen. Retrieved from: https://www.proasyl.de/hintergrund/newsticker-coronavirus-informationen-fuer-gefluechtete-unterstuetzerinnen/.

[11] Torpey, J. (1998). On the state monopolization of the legitimate ‘means of movement’. Sociological Theory, 16(3), 239-259.

[12] European Commission (n.d.). Member States’ notifications of the temporary reintroduction of border control at internal border pursuant to Article 25 and 28 et seq. of the Schengen Borders Code. Retrieved from: https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/sites/homeaffairs/files/what-we-do/policies/borders-and-visas/schengen/reintroduction-border-control/docs/ms_notifications_-_reintroduction_of_border_control_en.pdf

[14] DW, 2020. Coronavirus: German government to fly home tens of thousands of tourists. Retrieved from: https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-german-government-to-fly-home-tens-of-thousands-of-tourists/a-52811964

[15] Sassen, S. (2002). Towards Post-National and Denationalized Citizenship. In: Engin F. Isin & Bryan S. Turner (eds.). Handbook of Citizenship Studies, pp. 277–91. London: Sage.

[16] Fore, H. (2020). Time is running out to protect refugees from a coronavirus crisis. Al Jazeera. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/time-running-protect-refugees-coronavirus-crisis-200330063002696.html

[17] See 4.