Mira Wallis response to Knittler, Müller-Uri, Schröcker

Response to Knittler, Müller-Uri, and Schröcker’s ‘Mobility and Migration is not a tautology’ – A Militant Research Contribution to Migration in Europe in the Context of Crisis

by Mira Wallis

“Mobility and Migration is not a tautology” – the heading which the Vienna Student Group chose for their research project captured their questions and findings quite strikingly: Understanding ‘new’ migratory movements in the context of the financial crisis implies certain epistemic challenges of who or what ‘a migrant’ is – for academia as well as for political practice. Who is addressed as a ‘mobile’ or ‘migrating’ subject by European Union policy, legal orders and public discourse? Wherefore functions the distinction? How do people challenge and reshape such imposed categories? How can we (re)conceptualize their relation?

These questions are particularly important since we need to tackle the mechanisms of in- and exclusion produced by the European border regime beyond the distinction between migrants who face the external borders of the European Union and those who possess the EU- citizenship. And we need to do this without subsuming the very distinct experiences and political subjectivities that come along with this distinction. But to merely state the difference does not help us to understand the way this European border regime strategically hinders mobility in some cases, while encouraging it in others and therefore constitutes the relation between different categories of ‘migrants’. With regard to Manuela Bojadžijev and Serhat Karakayali’s lecture on racism as a relational concept, we need to analyse this relation, without running the risk of reproducing the very same categories that we are trying to deconstruct. This is not only important in an analytical way, but might help us to build a common ground of struggle against this border regime. Therefore, we need to critically reflect the categories in which we think and constantly translate them between academic and political knowledge production.

Regarding this necessity, the title of this research project is so striking since it does not merely originate from isolated academic theorizing, but from a research method that attempts to challenge traditional conditions of knowledge production: It is a quote from a fellow activist who participated in the militant research project of the Vienna Group that took place in the Precarity Office. This office is a common project of the activist groups Juventu sin futuro, Marea Granate, Solidarity4all and PrekärCafé and was founded in September 2013 in the context of increasing migration due to the economic and financial crisis and precarious labour and living conditions. It aims at building new political alliances between local precarious workers and ‘new’ European migrants. In addition to offering a space for political discussions and social events, the Precarity Office is meant to be a space for mutual help and self-defence among different precarious workers, giving advice about labour rights and sharing strategies of resistance.

As part of their militant inquiry, the Vienna Group conducted interviews with fellow activists, asking them about their perspective on mobility and migration in order to develop ‘a common understanding’ of these terms. The questions pointed at the subjective understanding of the distinction between mobility and migration, whether it is ‘helpful’ or whether a person feels like a mobile person or a migrant. The responses indicated various borderlines that are crisscrossing the interviewee’s living conditions and its perception. Often mobility was associated with the demand to be flexible on the labour market, once even called ‘propaganda’. Migration was expressed as a form of mobility shaped by different excluding barriers: not being mobile because one cannot afford to visit family and friends, being the ‘scum’ on the labour market, being ‘forced’ to leave, seeing ‘the doors shut behind you’. Moreover, the responses shed light on the unease of indentifying as a migrant who possesses the European Union citizenship and the right to move freely. One interviewee expressed this as ‘You should not feel guilty about something everyone should have.’

Lastly, the group asked their interviewees about their experiences with the Austrian registration certificate (”Anmeldebescheinigung”) that is required in order to stay in Austria for more than three months. While at first this paper only seems to be a bureaucratic standard, it actually constitutes a major obstacle for many newcomers in Vienna since it is required for all relevant steps to arrive in the city, from opening a bank account to making a phone contract or renting an apartment. The group presented this certificate as an instrument not only applied by the state, but also by private enterprises to ‘set borders into action’ – through time and intentional arbitrariness. They described it as a ‘shadow of a more restrictive border’. In my opinion this is a significant argument and points to a question that the Berlin Student Group also meant to address in their investigation: If we want to figure out which role everyday bureaucratic practices of governance play in the reproduction of differential inclusion – how do we empirically grasp these practices? This is particularly important since we need this knowledge for a political critique that goes beyond noting the intentional arbitrariness of state institutions and private enterprises.

In conclusion, militant research projects open up possibilities to think about the relevance of knowledge production in a different way and point to various questions of translation (with regard to Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson’s notion of this concept in ‘Border as Method’). The Precarity Office is planning a knowledge archive to document the working and living conditions of migrants in Austria. This archive could also be used for future self-organization. The involvement of different international activist groups in the Office therefore makes it a transnational as well as a localised project that situates current debates around precarity, migration and crisis right within the metropolitan space of Vienna and could also be understood as an attempt to translate local social struggles onto a European level and vice versa. The Vienna Group emphasized that what is crucial in this process is to come together on the common basis of being activists, not migrants.