Insurgent mobility

12 Aug

As agreed, I arrive at the camp at around 4.30 p.m. I go to the info spot where a German guy in his early twenties tells me to go to the cooking tent. It is dark, windy and deserted at Oranienplatz and the last days of snow have left the place rather muddy. As I enter the tent I’m greeted by an amazing diversity of culture and age, warmth, the smell of exotic food and the loud sound of dubstep coming from a boomblaster in the corner. After talking to the resident chef for a little while I begin doing the dishes, feeling awkwardly out of place and welcome at the same time.

This was my first and so far only encounter with the protesting refugees[1] at Oranienplatz, Berlin. Out of curiosity I visited the camp and agreed to come around and help out for a couple of hours. The protests were kick started in a refugee camp near Stuttgart, where an asylum seeker, apparently due to the hopelessness of his life situation (Karawane 2012), committed suicide. From there the situation evolved. Fellow refugees from the same camp went on a hunger strike in March 2012, the protests spread to other camps as well, and it was decided to make a mark by going on a 600 kilometers long protest march from Würzburg to Berlin, where activists had raised a provisional tent camp at Oranienplatz. Furthermore, a hunger strike has been held in front of Brandenburger Tor, and the protests have also spread to other cities in Germany and Europe (Refugee Camp Vienna 2012). The camp at Oranienplatz, the hunger strike at Brandenburger Tor and the protest march becomes infrastructures, mediating the voices of the asylum peripheries. This challenges the spatial divide between protesters and citizens, and by appropriating the city’s soil a claim (…) for the right to reside with dignity, security and mobility (Holston 2009:248) is formulated.

The insurgency

In the following, and mainly building on Holston’s notion of insurgent citizenship (Holston 2009), I will argue that this protest can be understood as a form of insurgent mobility, leading to a claim for equal rights in line with (other) citizens. By applying the former notion, Holston captures the movement towards a claim for citizenship being articulated and fought by the marginalized and peripheral groups in the Brazilian cities. This happened somewhat autonomously in the so-called autoconstructed peripheries, where the emergence of new squatted neighbourhoods lead to an alternative public sphere, grassroots movements, articulation of rights and on the basis of this, a new understanding of rights. Furthermore came also demands for inclusion in the infrastructures, the legal city, properties and services (Holston 2009:259). In the example from Brazil the use of violence was a part of the motion, but as I understand the concept insurgent citizenship, it does not necessarily have to be about a violent rebellion, but has more to do with the autonomous and alternative craving of acceptance and right to the city, and via this – right to citizenship.

However, in the case discussed by Holston we are dealing with a group who, despite its marginalization, already hold a Brazilian passport and are legally part of the nation, though not being treated equal to other citizens. In the case of the refugees the insurgency is being performed by a group who are not part of the nation state and, by law, are not allowed to move freely. From having to reside in what can be conceived as non-places, the protesters have taken to the streets to form their claims, and publicize themselves towards others in the urban space, in an attempt to gain recognition and create awareness. By doing this, they raise questions concerning the right to the city and most importantly the right to rights and the right to freedom of movement. Regarding the latter, the notion of insurgent mobility physically came in to play when the protesters marched from Würzburg to Berlin and thereby violating §56 of the Asylum Procedure Act, also known as Residenzpflicht (Globaleyesprod 2012). This paragraph state asylum seekers are not allowed to travel beyond a 40 kilometer limit zone (Karawane 2012). The articulation and performance of their claims then, is perhaps better understood as insurgent mobility, since the movement from the refugee camp to the urban square is at the same time a demand as well as a method. In other words, and as I will attempt to show, this can both be considered social and physical mobility, performed quite literately step by step.

An autonomous political space within the nation state?

The squatting of neighbourhoods in Brazil was what led to demands for equal rights, and to some extend this also seems to be the case of the occupying protesters at Oranienplatz. The construction of an autonomous base emerges as a site which interrupts the sovereignty of the nation state and common assumptions about the capabilities of refugees. As mentioned, the refugee camps often appear as non-places situated away from the public sphere, making it difficult for the inhabitants to be in consideration of the greater society. Furthermore, the refugees and asylum seekers commonly stand out as being noncitizens excluded from the possibility of political action. According to Dan Bousfield (2005), (…) the possibility for agency from the site of the excluded seems remote if not impossible (Bousfield 2005:2), but the actions of the refugees prove this site as being very political rather than a space of bare life.  It was from the non-places the decision was made to go on a march and occupy public space, turning it into an autonomous site bringing the refuges into the political field as agents. The urban squares, in this light, become spaces of the creation of and battles for citizenship, and also places where inequalities appear in your face (Holston 2009:263), demanding some sort of reaction.

Not only has there been established a camp, but also an International Refugee Tribunal against the Federal Republic of Germany (Refugee Tribunal 2013), which further underlines the insurgency and autonomy of the network. In this tribunal the German government is charged for being (…) responsible for the daily generation of reasons for people to leave their lands as refugees, for the killing at the outer borders of Europe, and for the psychological and physical suffering, that refugees and migrants experience in their daily life here in Germany (Refugee Tribunal 2013). This presents the protesters as being political subjects creating demands and, as we see, accusations and a call for changes that would deeply alter the configuration of included and excluded and the realm of the political (Bousfield 2005:9).

Several other requests are being formulated from the tents at Oranienplatz. Among them appeals for German citizenship for children born in the camps, work permit, access to learning the German language, right to choose the location of settlement, abolition of the 40-kilometerlimit of travelling and also entitlement to receiving residents permit in Germany (Karawane 2012). In order to achieve this, or at least in the first place demand it, they are attempting to work politically by constructing infrastructures such as; a financial workgroup, logistics workgroup, communication workgroup, documentation work group and a media workgroup. This indicates more than simply a call for better treatment and can be read as a demand for the allowance to get the chance to climb the social ladder in society by being given rights. Children being able to be part of society from day one and the allowance to learn German, clearly indicate the desires of the refugees and asylum seekers to be part of the nation state infrastructures which allow one to participate in society, and thereby live a more sustainable life. This, as I argue, they are attempting to achieve by performing insurgent mobility, including a tightrope on the edge of what is legal and illegal. Part of their tactics was the march which clearly violated German law, but the creation of a shared political space cannot in any way be illegal, no matter how autonomous it might be. In this light the insurgent mobility can be understood as both the means and the end. In the following I will attempt to further outline this argument.

The right to freedom of movement

However, the sudden presence of the protesters in the urban landscape is significant in other ways than the mere political. In an infrastructural perspective they have managed to bring themselves into the consideration of the wider public by creating their own infrastructures, and thereby combining the noncitizens with the citizens of the nation.

As argued above, the camping refugees challenge general assumptions regarding the abilities and strengths of this marginalized group outside the society. Besides making a claim for recognition as citizens in line with others in the nation state, another assumption they challenge is concerning the ability to be mobile. Here the group has shown that despite the fact they are not allowed to move freely and as they wish, they have nevertheless proved capable of crossing spatial divides, via what I argue can be named insurgent mobility. As the protesters point out in a statement, and which also underlines the insurgency and question of legality in their actions;

“The Residenzpflicht (obligation of residence) is like an open prison, which deprive our rights. It makes us subject to arbitrary and humiliating police controls all over Germany. For us mobility equals a criminal act.” (Refugeestrike Berlin 2013).

An interesting aspect in this is how it to some extend interrupts with common European ideas about freedom of movement. As many European nation states are now members of the EU and also a part of the Schengen Agreement a great amount of European citizens now have the right to cross borders and move freely in a large part of Europe. This, however, is not an option for the refugees in Germany and neither is it within the nation state, underlining what Doreen Massey (1991) also claim, namely that the increased opportunity of mobility in Europe is not necessarily synonymous with mobility for everybody. Limitations exist and there are still groups who experience the feeling of being “out of place” (Massey 1991:317). Despite this feeling of being out of place, they have managed to, at least for a while, transform an urban place into a very political space through an illegal action. By positioning themselves in places they do not belong (Simone 2006:365) they have managed to perform some sort of piracy, which does not necessarily produce stability, but nevertheless creates an image of them as agents instead of passive, or perhaps more precisely pacified, objectified noncitizens.

It is not only the physical mobility and physical presence in the urban landscape the protesters draw use of in order to raise their voices. They have also managed to create an electronic space making it possible to cross the national territories in an attempt to stand out as a united force with other refugees in other European cities. The internet and the electronic forums[2] becomes, what Holston (2009) terms an auto-constructed infrastructure uniting the noncitizens in Europe in a common struggle and allowing them to transgress the control of the country they reside in. As Mike Crang (2000) explains, the public and electronic space offers the opportunity for smaller groups to overcome distance and a chance to form (Crang 2000:307). In this light it seems evident to consider the camp and the forums as infrastructures or what Doreen Massey names meeting places (Massey 1991:323) being reproduced through a mix of relations, and not necessarily only relations from the aforementioned peripheries. The camp becomes a place where residents and visitors of Berlin can get knowledge of perspectives from the peripheries, and perhaps be confronted with prejudiced assumptions. From being regarded as marginalized, dispersed and non-political subjects the protesters now stand out as political agents in a very global network, involving not only the asylum seekers but also sympathizing activists who contribute in various ways, be it by emptying toilets, doing dishes, sitting in the info tent or, as some of the neighbors at Oranienplatz has done, letting protesters take a warm bath. What this also indicates, is that this is an infrastructure whose use might still be up for negotiation. Even though the end goal seems clearly defined, it is also worth pointing to the fact that citizens of the nation state also draw use of it as a place where they can express some sort of political subjectivity. In this might also lay a danger regarding the support of the cause, as the sympathizing visitors are, so I will argue, from a predominantly white middle class who can come and go precisely as they wish. Not neglecting the movement towards the urban squares performed by the refugees and asylum seekers, the supporting activists, like me, are without a doubt able to move in a completely different, freely and not least legal flow.



Concluding, the notion insurgent citizenship might not be what best encapsulates the case of the striking refugees and asylum seekers, simply because they are not quite there yet. Instead I argue the notion insurgent mobility can better describe the process we are now witnessing. Whether or not the end result will be an insurgent form of citizenship remains to be said, it seems however an uphill struggle to be included in the infrastructures of the nation state. What is interesting in this case though is how the protesters via autonomous and auto-constructed infrastructures try to come into consideration of both the legislative, sovereign nation state as well as its citizens. The end goal is to be able to move up the social ladder (the right to rights), and the attempt to get there is via insurgent mobility (the right to freedom of movement). What they are performing is ultimately insurgent mobility, balancing on the dichotomies of what is legal/illegal, legitimate/illegitimate and also possible/impossible.


Bousfield, Dan (2005): The Logic of Sovereignty and the Agency of the Refugee: Recovering the Political from ‘Bare Life’. YCISS Working Paper No. 36, October 2005.

Crang, Mike (2000): Public Space, Urban Space and Electronic Space: Would the Real City Please Stand Up? Urban Studies 37 (2): 301-317.

Holston, James (2009): Insurgent Citizenship In an Era of Global Urban Peripheries. City & Society 21 (2): 245-267.

Massey, Doreen (1991): A global sence of place i Reading Human Geography. Arnold. (s. 315-323)

Simone, AbdouMailq (2006): Pirate Towns: Reworking Social and Symbolic Infrastructures in Johannesburg and Douala. Urban Studies 43 (2): 357-370). 


Web sources:

Globaleyesprod (2012): Where are you going?! – Asylum Seekers in Germany. Viewed at the following webpage:

Karawane, Daniel (2012): FIRST DECLARATION OF THE REFUGEE TENT BERLIN. Viewed at the following webpage:

Refugee Camp Vienna (2012): Viewed at the following webpage:

Refugeestrike Berlin (2013): Viewed at the following webpage:

Refugee Tribunal (2013): Viewed at the following webpage:

[1] My impression is that the movement contains both refugees and asylum seekers, and therefore I choose to use both terms loosely.

[2] See for instance: Refugee Camp Vienna; Refugeestrike Berlin; Refugee Struggle Congress Munich –; Calais Migrant Solidarity; Refugees in Netherland


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