Author: Engin Isin

Citizens without frontiers

Updated Wednesday, 15th February 2012
There's a widening gap between those who ignore national borders, and those constrained by them. Engin Isin explains what this might mean.

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Médecins Sans Frontières treating Cholera Medecins Sans Frontieres treating cases of Cholera in Zimbabwe Over the last 40 years we have seen academics, accountants, architects, engineers, lawyers, reporters, teachers and other professionals organising or identifying themselves with the name ‘without frontiers’. Taken together, the without frontiers’ movements are radically different from business, professional and diplomatic travellers.

First, travelling businesspeople, professionals and diplomats are protected in the practice of their profession. Especially over the last 20 years under the banner ‘globalisation’, the movements of such people have become much easier, smoother, and more straightforward. For them, travel and work are increasingly asserted, claimed, and obtained as of right.

Second, corporations, organisations, and governments  remunerate professional  services and they engage in exchange and transactions. By contrast, movements without frontiers are neither commercial nor protected.

In fact, state, corporate and religious authorities often do not endorse or support their movements and attempt to inhibit their activities. It is in this sense that I think the founding aspect of these movements is traversing frontiers.

To understand all these movements ‘without frontiers’ is a difficult task and it would be wrong to give only a positive image of academics, accountants, architects, engineers, lawyers, reporters, and teachers claiming to act without frontiers. These movements raise various troubling questions about the dominant human-rights based or humanitarian politics.

For example, Marie Noelle Rodrigue, operations director of MSF in Paris, recently accepted ‘... the price it is necessary for an organisation to pay so that you are helping the victims’ and recognised that ‘often that means making a compromise to a degree where you are helping the authorities.’

Clearly, although such movements, or at least some of them, have been increasingly subsumed under human rights politics, it is important to recognise that movements ‘without frontiers’ cannot be seen only as human rights politics or as transnational (or global) activism that is mobilized through human rights.

Admittedly, they are implicated in human rights regimes and their compromises, but they also operate with quite distinct principles, and we ought not to see these movements as identical or equivalent to what has come to be known as ‘global activism’ or ‘international volunteerism.’ To be sure, movements without frontiers share a non-commercial and non-profit ethos with activism and volunteerism.

They can even be considered as a species of global activism and perhaps share some elements with international volunteerism. Yet, these movements indicate a new kind of politics for which we do not yet have a name; or perhaps we have not yet taken seriously the name they have given themselves.

Why have we not witnessed a mobilization called ‘citizens without frontiers’? What exactly would  such a movement involve? And here we encounter a problem. The very term ‘citizens without frontiers’ is a paradox. Citizenship is a bounded concept. It is bound up with the state if not the nation that signifies its authority and limits.

Unlike academics, accountants, architects, engineers, lawyers, reporters, and teachers the ‘membership’ of citizens is strictly considered within the frontiers of the state. In fact, the very frontiers of the state become possible by defining some people as ‘its’ citizens. That it is acquired by birth, residence or blood and these bound it to the authority and territory of the nation-state constitutes citizenship.

Without binding people into a body and bounding them with an authority, the state would be inconceivable. In a way, boundedness is the very condition of citizenship. By using ‘citizens without frontiers’ are we not then creating an empty concept?

Yet, as many scholars observe, it is this boundedness of citizenship to the nation-state that has become problematic in the age of migration and globalisation. Many scholars have noted that with the increasing movements of people across boundaries there have been transnational, cosmopolitan, global forms of citizenship where dual and multiple nationalities are being negotiated. Some have attempted to develop concepts of cosmopolitan or global citizenship. Others have called for open borders. Yet, all these presuppose, I submit, a moving subject rather than an acting subject.

Can we understand the specificity of those who don’t move but traverse frontiers without professional accreditation or privilege? Is it possible to shift our focus from the moving subject to the acting subject traversing frontiers?

These acts do not necessarily involve work, travel or escape and the issues we have come to associate with them such as dual and multiple nationalities or regulation of movements. What makes these acts of citizens without frontiers revealing is their traversal qualities: with specific interventions each creates concrete series of resonances, solidarities (or enmities), alliances, and intensities across space and time and effectively resists universalizing narratives and unifying interpretations.

The qualities of acts traversing frontiers such as those of WikiLeaks, Anonymous, Gaza Flotilla, The Pirate Party, Climate Camp, No One Is Illegal, Waging Peace, Open Rights, If the World Could Vote, and Banksy on the Wall are too heterogeneous to be confined within our known categories. These are only the most known and recognized instances. There are literally thousands if not millions more acts such as these.

Interested in reading more on citizenship?

Find out more abou The Open University'sCentre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance and Oecumene.




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