Reorganization of Borders and (Im)Mobility: Labor and the Coloniality of Power

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Restrictions on mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic did not conjugate with citizenship. They blurred the “secured openness” of the EU’s internal borders (for the EU citizens) and the closures against its “outside.” Labor is the key to understanding this otherwise puzzling landscape of (im)mobility. It is an important reminder of the coloniality that lies at the heart of bordering regimes and citizenship.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 90 percent of countries introduced measures to restrict cross-border and internal mobility. No matter what kind of regional or supranational border regulation jurisdictions were in place, nation states determined who would be exempt from the inbound and internal travel bans across their territories and on what basis. Contrary to the key criterion in regulating people’s movement across and within national borders, citizenship status was neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for people to be subject to or exempt from cross-border and internal travel bans during the pandemic. Mobilitity restrictions did not conjugate with citizenship. Though this form of mobility governance might appear paradoxical, it reflects the inherent contradictions of citizenship and highlights the colonial lineages of today’s nation states and their citizenship regimes. The reorganization of borders and mobility in the wake of COVID-19 urges us to reconsider the centrality of a particular pattern of power, namely the coloniality of power, in the constitution and governance of people, and above all of labor, in connection to accruing capital. Labor is the key to understanding the otherwise puzzling landscape of (im)mobility that came about during COVID-19.

In the European Union, those working in sectors designated as essential for society and economy, including seasonal workers, were allowed to bypass the pandemic cross-border and internal mobility restrictions. Most importantly, this category was comprised of citizens: not only EU  workers but also “third country nationals” (TCNs), refugees, and undocumented people. Thus, the exemptions from cross-border and internal mobility bans produced a legal persona for an otherwise heterogenous group of workers with differential legal status. However, this exceptional right to mobility granted to some workers was not coupled with any social and economic rights. On the contrary, no matter whether they were EU citizens (such as workers from Bulgaria and Romania in Germany) or TCNs (such as workers in agriculture or care sectors from Ukraine, North Africa, and the Middle East in Italy), they were deprived of their social and economic rights in their mobility. These flexibilized workers, independent of their citizenship status, slipped through the cracks of state care. The simultaneity of exceptional mobility rights and of deprivation of social and economic rights highlights not only the differential inclusion mechanisms that citizenship always entails, but also how the vulnerabilized social lives of such essential workers are maintained and reproduced.

The mobility granted to essential, temporary, and seasonal workers is an organized and regulated one that simultaneously depletes but also strives on these workers’ social bonds. Often the workers are brought to their cross-border or internal destination through particular transport arrangements and live in pre-arranged, secluded lodgings in their workplaces. Such arrangements function against the essential workers establishing social bonds with the others in their place of arrival. At the same time, the reproduction of this labor is built upon the social bonds and care arrangements among the essential workers in their new work places as well as back home. Deprived of social, medical, and economic rights, they need to rely on each other to maintain their bodies, health, and daily lives in their places of arrival. The responsibility for the social reproduction of labor as a whole rests preeminently on the workers themselves. In fact, without care arrangements elsewhere (like child care), it is almost impossible for them to sustain their livelihood as workers. Thus, this complex landscape of (im)mobility with its variegated social and economic rights regimes reveals not only the dilemmas of labor and capital accumulation, but also their social reproduction.

The mobile workers during the pandemic had an ambigious position. At one point they were valorized as for helping avert the breakdown of supply chains; for undertaking the essential work of health care, domestic care, and agricultural work; and for remitting much-needed currency to their places of origin. Reduced to their identity and presence as labor, these migrants were even welcomed by anti-migrant, right-wing governments because they ensured the continued functioning of certain essential sectors. On the other hand, the mobile bodies of migrant labor was demonized outside of their quality as labor as they were simultaneously seen as mobile virus-spreading bodies in their places of work and back home.

This assemblage of rights and value certainly laid bare the tensions and lineages of citizenship and the governance of borders that could and should be related to the colonial forms of power producing governable subjects and regulating mobility closely connected to labor and processes of accumulation. Here, it is important to recall that it was in the colonial age that the governing principles of mobility, mobile bodies, labor, and population were first laid down. Colonial rule needed flexible border policies to manage, stabilize, and govern population groups. The bordering regimes and graduated forms of sovereignty at frontiers were important to ensure the flexible management of variably dispossessed and devalorized labor. The simultaneous restrictiveness and selective openness of today’s borders are embedded in the historical genealogies of empire states and nation states.

The (im)mobility registers of the pandemic exposed the coloniality inherent in the border regimes of today’s nation states. By dividing and classifying people with different rights, this form of regulation was crucial to ensure the differentiated labor mobility required to accrue capital in the past and today. The landscape of COVID-19 closures revealed the actual coloniality of today’s bordering policies. In the EU, by blurring of the supposedly secured openness of borders for the privileged member-state citizens and the closures against its “outside,” the exceptions to the bans highlight the coloniality at the heart of bordering regimes and citizenship.

Coloniality and Racial Capitalism

The coloniality of power as a concept underlines the constitutive role played by racial hierarchies for capitalism. Most importantly, it underlines that coloniality differs from colonialism in that the former does not vanish with decolonization or independence; instead, coloniality is structurally inherent to capitalism. In this perspective, the hierarchized social differences and the division of people and labor are pivotal to capitalism, and racism enshrines the required inequalities. The production, appropriation, and reproduction of differences are crucial to the constitution of subject people, capital, capitalism, and social reproduction. This urges us to analyze the processes of accumulation, the social and cultural construction of hierarchies of difference, and their “social seperatedness as well as their centrality in maintaining social lives in relationship to each other.

The pandemic and its (im)mobility landscapes made the coloniality of power at the heart of tensions about citizenship visible once more. This is not an argument to reduce all forms of power to colonial rule, but rather a call to recognize the centrality of the coloniality of power in understanding the logics of (im)mobility and labor governance in connection to accumulation processes. Ironically, the COVID-19 virus, which recognized no borders and respected no conventions, protection regimes, or regulation policies—in other words, a “virus without borders”—laid bare the workings of borders and human mobility governance in our world and the inherent tensions of citizenship.

Quijano, A.  “Coloniality of Power and Eurocentrism in Latin America.” International Sociology 15 (2), 2000.

Melamed, J. 2015. “Racial Capitalism.” Critical Ethnic Studies 1 (1): 76.

An expanded version of this article appeared in Citizenship Studies 2022, 4-5: Citizenship Struggles: 25th Anniversary Special Issue.

Ayşe Çağlar is professor of social and cultural anthropology at the University of Vienna and permanent fellow at the IWM.