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Macrosociologist Steffen Mau on mobility and borders

“Globalisation is rarely a blanket opening for everything or everyone”

While people in Europe can travel nonchalantly from A to B, people from the Global South experience quite a different feeling of mobility. In his book “Sortiermaschinen” (“Sorting Machines”), macrosociologist Steffen Mau explores the narrative of dissolving borders – one that exists in the face of the immobilisation of large parts of the world’s population. In an interview with Futurium’s online editor Ludmilla Ostermann, he explains this paradox and talks about the borders of today’s world.

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Have you yourself ever been screened out at a border?

Steffen Mau: Yes, at various borders. It happened to me every now and again when I was travelling in South America. But also in the GDR. The wall around East Germany was a border that aimed to keep people in; the government used it to keep the population locked in the barracks, so to speak, and to heavily regulate who was allowed in and – above all – who was allowed out. For the first two decades of my life, the impermeability of borders was a frequent experience.

In 1990, the world had twelve border walls; in 2018, there were 72. Why is this the case when all the world is talking about globalisation?

Mau: It’s a paradox and somewhat surprising that the era of globalisation has been accompanied by borders becoming even less permeable. Both developments took place simultaneously, occurring in tandem. One hypothesis is that with an increase in the dynamics of transnational processes, the interest in closure and defence increases too. Globalisation is rarely a blanket opening for everything and everyone, but rather a highly selective process. Border walls serve to enforce such screening processes at places where there’s strong friction, while – with a high degree of effectiveness – sealing off certain territories from unwelcome mobility or migration.

The interview partner

Steffen Mau teaches macrosociology at Humboldt University in Berlin. His most recent books are "Das metrische Wir. Über die Quantifizierung des Sozialen" (2017) and "Lütten Klein. Leben in der ostdeutschen Transformationsgesellschaft" (2019). He was awarded the Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation in 2021.


Photo: Matthias Heyde

Where do we have fortified borders today? And what are the reasons for the existence of walls today?

Mau: Large disparities in wealth are the main factor behind fortified borders. We only need to cast our gaze to Africa: Botswana and South Africa, the wealthiest countries in southern Africa, erected heavily militarised borders. But there are also border walls that can be traced back to frozen conflicts – for instance, between Morocco and Algeria – or to terrorist threats – for instance, between Saudi Arabia and Yemen – or to national self-assertion – as is often to be seen in the successor states of the former Soviet Union. In these cases, the borders still have a military function. However, most border walls exist in places where highly unequal living conditions and highly unequal economic zones come together.

Do cultural differences play less of a role?

Mau: They play a surprisingly minor role. Political differences sometimes play a role, for instance in the case of conflicting regimes or with clashing ideas about religious practice or the organisation of political power. Interestingly, most of the newly built borders walls are between Muslim countries – that is to say, not at all between Muslim and Christian countries, as one would have traditionally assumed. Back in the 1990s, Samuel Huntington argued in his theory of the Clash of Civilizations that different cultural regions would separate from each other. But if we look at the newly erected walls of today, it’s not like that. Yemen and Saudi Arabia share the same religion. Turkey, too, is a country that builds many walls. Here we’re dealing with questions of terrorist threats or migration triggered by civil war-like conditions in Syria or by the situation in Afghanistan. This has nothing to do with religion.

So where does this shifted perception come from that makes us talk so much about globalisation and open borders and freedom of movement?

Mau: It’s the perspective of the privileged class, of course, of those with the privilege to be mobile. These are mainly people from the Global North, for whom globalisation used to involve the experience of borders opening up. And there was, and still is, this notion that if mobility – of information, cultural artefacts, capital, goods, and even services – were to increase, then human mobility wouldn’t lag far behind. And so, at least since the 1990s, the essential experience of people from the West or the Global North has been precisely to do with the expanding of their opportunities to be mobile. For this reason, the narrative that globalisation is about the dissolution of borders has become widely accepted – while the simultaneous counter-development, which is part of globalisation too, has not. It can’t be interpreted as a counter-movement, but rather as a collateral phenomenon. Opening and closing processes take place simultaneously, so do mobilisation and immobilisation, mobility and being fixed to one location. This is the Janus face of globalisation.

Not every form of exchange is welcome.

Why do processes of opening always cause those of closing?

Mau: Globalisation leads to an intensifying of exchanges. But not every form of exchange is welcome. States try to make a distinction between welcome border crossings and unwelcome ones. In the case of capital, the number of options for control is limited; in the area of migration, there’s a far greater range. This has led to groups of people from the Western world having significantly more rights to mobility, while others have been systematically excluded from them. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has talked about different kinds of travel: so long as travellers bring in money and increase consumption, they’re welcome, but migrants seeking protection for their very survival are not. This points to an extreme polarisation within today’s global mobility.

And things have been taken to even further extremes by the selling of citizenships.

Mau: It’s a crucial development. Citizenships have now become a commercial commodity. In the past, certain forms of political loyalty were considered essential for civic membership, and the changing of citizenship was tied to many conditions, such as long-standing residence or immersion in the political culture. Today, you don’t even have to live in a country to be able to acquire its citizenship – you just need to hand over the money. Once the passport has been acquired, its holder then possesses all the passport-related mobility rights that go with it. Studies suggest that one of the main reasons why the super-rich change citizenships or acquire a second one is visa-free travel. So it’s not so much about the security of money as about the opportunity to climb further up the hierarchy of global mobility.

Airlines take on a border control function.

For many other people, borders don’t even begin at the airport or at the wall itself. They’re being thwarted by so-called paper borders.

Mau: Borders aren’t always solid structures – they can also be made of paper and data. Travellers are confronted with borders in their home or transit countries as soon as they take the trouble to be mobile, for example by buying an airline ticket or entering an airport. To get an entry visa, people need to get to an embassy. From an administrative standpoint, the issuing of visas is highly complex. People are being classified here too – according to the probability of whether they’re likely to return to their home countries or whether there’s a risk they’ll misuse their visas. A clear hierarchy is visible in the rejection rates: people from wealthy countries have a low refusal rate with regard to visa requirements. People from so-called failed states or poor areas are highly likely to be rejected. As a rule, however, only those with a hope of obtaining a visa tend to apply for one in the first place. The strongest form of selection takes place at this point through the deterring of those who are unable to meet the formal criteria or gather together the necessary documents and upload them or scrabble together the money to have them processed. These are ultimately informal barriers that prevent access to mobility. In this way, airlines have assumed a border-control function – at the point of departure. More and more states have taken to imposing penalties on airlines or transport companies for carrying people who don’t have entry permits. Even in the Schengen area, taxi drivers are now responsible for checking their passengers’ permits when crossing the border. If they fail to do so, this now amounts to people-smuggling and is no longer regarded as the provision of a normal service. Nowadays, this control task has become the responsibility of an ordinary service provider.

Do we have a border-building industry?

Mau: Certainly. We can see it in those big companies that specialise in wall construction; they’re economically very successful, because lots of walls are being built. But there are also manufacturers for border technologies such as acoustic and thermal sensors or motion detectors for border area surveillance; and, of course, those companies offering technologies for checking in and out, for controlling people, for automating the processes of control. The capture of biometric data is becoming increasingly important. Many tech companies are working to provide and advance digital solutions aimed at ensuring that those travellers who are welcome can pass through very comfortably – even as they’re being classified intensively in terms of their data.

Die Grenze wird hier zu einer gläsernen Kaufhaustür.

Therefore, for some travellers, the experience of crossing borders is no longer something they notice.

Mau: This has even reached the point where borders have been smartified by means of automated double-door systems or tunnels. To pass through the latter, travellers must enter in advance into their smartphones certain data, which then remain there permanently – for example, via facial recognition software or iris scan. And when travellers then approach the actual border, the border already recognises them and can use this data. Travellers can then just walk through. Such systems already exist at airports in Dubai and other Gulf countries, where people can use pre-registration to become trustworthy travellers. The border here becomes like the glass door to a department store, so to speak, that is opened by an invisible hand and then closed again behind you. That’s the imperceptible border. And, in this way, it fades into the background of our attention. Those who are in a position to enjoy it will not make this type of border an issue, while others have a completely different experience at the border – one of rejection, exclusion, and being shut out from mobility.

Smart frontier technologies are not undisputed.

Mau: We know that social scoring systems like the one used in China have been sold to other countries, for example, Venezuela. And we know that autocracies and dictatorial regimes are interested in obtaining as much information as possible about individuals. China imposes travel bans when people score poorly on the scoring system and slip into the red zone. Then they can no longer buy tickets for long-distance trains or domestic flights. These kinds of mobility restriction for “improper” behaviour exist in completely different areas of life too. The current Covid-19 situation has led to information about one’s health becoming border-relevant, and this in turn has caused today’s borders not to be located spatially any longer on the periphery of a territory. This type of border can migrate just about anywhere – to countries of transit or origin – but it can also run through a country. Check-in systems function in a similar way to the process that takes place at the border. In some cases, they even involve the same tech companies. At U.S. airports, the company Clear offers pre-registration for travellers, who, for a fee, can register and then proceed through special double-door systems where biometric authentication takes place. In this way, they get to cut down considerably on their normal queuing time. Clear regards Covid-19 as a great opportunity to roll out its technology in all sorts of other areas. The biometric process is the same, regardless of the area of application; all that needs to be added is the health data. In this way, the technology can be used for check-in at concerts, in public buildings and in lots of other areas. This is how selection can be enforced.

People are pushed away from the border so that they do not have to be granted asylum status.

Extraterritorial borders, such as the one constructed by the EU in Niger, deny people the opportunity to apply for asylum because the would-be applicants never manage to reach safe territory. How legal is that?

Mau: The practice of using safe third countries stipulates, for example, that individuals entering Germany via a third country that has been declared as safe have forfeited their right to apply for asylum in Germany. The debates about which state can be classified as safe speak volumes and show that it’s a more or less arbitrary process, guided mainly by political interests. An individual’s right to refugee status is linked to that person being able to reach a particular territory. Laws act territorially and the kind of border-control we have today has become detached from the territory itself. If those seeking protection are controlled in such a way that they’re unable to reach the desired territory, then it’s made impossible for them to apply for asylum. The illegal pushbacks practiced by the EU using its border protection agency Frontex, as well as the pushbacks of migrants in the Mediterranean, are all carried out with the unmistakeable aim of pushing away responsibility. People are pushed away from the border so that they don’t have to be granted asylum status. Through this relationship between law, territoriality and a specific form of border control, countries try to circumvent their own liberal commitments such as refugee law – which they set down for themselves and which have been enshrined in international conventions – because the shift of border controls away from the actual border opens up more possibilities for illiberality. This is also being enabled through cooperation with autocratic systems that are a fixed part of the border-control system and which take on auxiliary functions within it for their own defensive interests.

Then ought people’s rights move with the border?

Mau: There are other questions connected to this: how can legally sound procedures be formulated for a foreign territory that has different social and political norms? Asylum procedures cannot be organised within half an hour. And when people are persecuted for a variety of reasons, then we might well ask ourselves whether asylum proceedings taking place somewhere in North Africa can really satisfy our legal requirements.

A minority of individuals is becoming increasingly mobile – and the majority increasingly immobile. Which region is less mobile today than it was a few decades ago?

Mau: We’ve been studying developments in visa-free travel and found that in the 1960s and 1970s a relatively large number of African states were visa-exempt. Citizens of these states were able to travel to many European countries, with each European country having its own individual requirements. Today there’s a single list and we see that, in that moment when more people became mobile, the states of the Global North became more selective. The visa-waiver policy has been applied primarily to wealthy, democratic states. Many African countries have found themselves excluded. On average, African countries have to a large degree lost the freedom of visa-free travel, and people from Africa have fewer opportunities to be mobile today, while Europeans have been able to increase their own mobility opportunities significantly. A visa is a powerful brake on mobility. The number of people travelling to countries that require a visa is around 70 per cent less than for countries without a visa requirement. A visa incurs costs and is an administrative burden. So it’s much easier to pass through a border without one.

The book

The cosmopolitan dream of a borderless world has been deeply cracked in recent years. But was it ever realistic in the first place? Steffen Mau shows that borders in the age of globalisation have not been made more open from the very beginning, but have been transformed into powerful sorting machines. While a small circle of privileged people are allowed to travel almost everywhere today, the vast majority of the world's population continues to be systematically left out. Sorting Machines is published by C.H. Beck.

Mau sortiermaschinen ausst rgb 1

People who are turned away at borders and stay in camps near borders create new zones, within which the legal status of their inhabitants remains unclear. What’s this phenomenon all about?

Mau: The increase in border walls leads to crowds of people being held back at borders that were built to deter them in the first place. Usually, these people are simply unable to just go back – they’ve managed to reach a particular border with great difficulty and then find themselves forced to stop. Spontaneous camps emerge near the border. The construction of border walls therefore goes hand in hand with the formation of camps. Initially intended as temporary shelters, some of them transform into permanent, enduring camps. People spend many years in these camps, under conditions that are not covered by law and in situations that are socially, hygienically and – in part – medically precarious. Often, these people are left with no perspectives whatsoever for their own development. They become displaced persons, that is, people who no longer have a geographical place of their own, but who are forced to live there for many years herded together socially and politically, as if stuck in a barrack. Over time, these camps become established and recognised; structures for care and assistance are built up and NGOs become active within them. The willingness of states to dismantle these camps is low. Ultimately, people are being held there, sometimes with fences and perimeter structures that resemble the border itself. There are controls placed on them, and limited times to go out, as well as police or military surveillance, so that people’s mobility between the camp and the surrounding territory is severely restricted.

Bringing all these factors together, can we speak of a north-south divide in mobility?

Mau: There’s a steep gradient: in 1950, the number of tourist trips was 25 million, compared to 1.5 billion per year just before the Covid-19 pandemic. Probably 80 per cent of the latter were travellers from the Global North. We know that the vast majority of people in the world – 80 to 90 per cent – have never been inside an aeroplane. Each year, only two to three per cent of the world’s population fly by plane. Europe accounts for 17 per cent of the world’s population, but people from Europe are responsible for more than 50 per cent of all air travel. There’s a very strong asymmetry in this cross-border mobility.

Grenzen sind immer beides, sie Schließungsformen, aber auch eine Brücke zum anderen.

Can you also find something positive in borders?

Mau: Borders perform a social and political function in establishing order. A world without borders may be a vision today, but it’s hardly conceivable in practical terms if we still want to be able to maintain the central pillars of society such as democracy, the welfare state or educational institutions. The central form of social organisation that we know is not only territorially organised, but also determined by a specific form of statehood that is linked to that territory. The rights arising from this are rights of access to collective resources and state-provided services. The state ultimately gains possibilities for action through forms of border control and closure. Therefore, borders cannot be easily demolished without running the risk that these types of state service would come under strain or even collapse. At the same time, it must be said that there’s no necessary link between the specific form of openness at borders and a state’s capacity to act. The reverse conclusion, namely, that the more closed a state is, the higher its effectiveness, is also not true. Nor should we regard borders as impermeable spatial dividers or only see their interruptive function. Borders are always both – constructions of closure, but also bridges to something different. And these kinds of border relationships between countries or territories have historically been handled in highly variable ways. Countries have been able to live and survive with different types of borders. Today’s notion that they must be as insular as possible, and exercise as much control as possible to ensure security, is a chimera.

How will borders continue to develop?

Mau: I believe that the detachment of borders from territories will become more strongly reinforced. Territorial borders won’t disappear. They’ll keep their function, but they’ll play a role mainly in specific locations where there are strong frictions and wealth disparities. Another factor is the strong shift of border control into public spaces, that is, towards border structures in front of and behind the actual territorial borders. This phenomenon is strongly driven by technological opportunities and digitalisation. When we carry a mobile phone with us, we’re walking about with a constant motion detector in our pockets, so to speak, providing lots of information, including personal data, that can be reused over and over again. In this way, we’re identifiable in the public space and so the border no longer needs a point of entry to determine whether we’re permitted to be in a territory or not. This will be a fundamental change. Biometric information is already being collected at many borders, and some countries are using it to compile large databases. When it comes to access to education, social benefits or the housing market, people will be regulated by this kind of personal identification. These will then not be spatial or territorial borders, but social ones.