Thirty years ago this month, my family migrated west from Sri Lanka, through East Germany and then past the Berlin Wall. Like thousands of refugees from the Global South — especially those from Non-Aligned Movement states — they sought asylum in the West.
Five years later, the wall fell. West Germany absorbed East Germany, and the border’s most visible manifestations — the wall, guard towers, and barbed fences — were quickly dismantled. Much of the remnants were given to other countries, relics to be displayed and remembered.
The dismantling of the wall was taken as both a symbol and expression of the commitment, first under the auspices of the European Economic Community and then the European Union (EU), to seamlessly integrate the continent. Getting rid of a single wall, however, never challenged the concept of borders themselves.
Indeed, more than two decades later, fences and walls continue to be erected in Greece, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and other countries that border eastern or southern, non-EU gateways. These lines of separation are financed and guarded with the help of all EU member states.
That is, the very same Germany that today celebrates the erasure of its inner borders invests heavily in “Fortress Europe.” While the Schengen Agreement has indeed rendered the EU’s inner borders porous and flexible over the years, its external borders have become heavily fortified. Refugees are largely out of luck.
And if one is fortunate enough to get inside, unseeable borders can spring up.
As a European citizen, I may be able to walk freely between what used to be East and West Germany, even between Denmark and Germany. But as a dark-skinned person, the border police may stop me virtually anywhere inside German territory and racially profile me — as if I freshly crossed an exterior border. As some physical boundaries have disappeared, such invisible lines remain, patrolled by capricious agents of the state.
Meanwhile, refugee camps housing tens of thousands are fenced in, with heavy restrictions on mobility, work, and dignity. They exist in a state of emergency that creates socioeconomic, mental, and medical conditions that don’t afflict affluent Germany. Camp inhabitants, or rather detainees, cross borders every day — borders that simply do not exist in the eyes of those who today romanticize and (rightly) celebrate the fall of the wall.
Arriving in East Berlin after a ninety-six-hour odyssey beginning in Jaffna, Northern Sri Lanka (she had sold her thali, her Hindu wedding chain, to purchase the tickets), my mother bought a “Transitvisum” (transit visa), valid for twenty-four hours in the Soviet-controlled zone. It cost no more than $20 USD at the time. Dozens of other young Tamil refugees arrived alongside her in Germany’s November cold.
They were heavily scrutinized at the East German border control before being allowed to pass. Dressed in clothes unsuitable for Europe’s biting winters, the chain of brown people walked across a white landscape to the adjunct S-Bahn station and boarded a train to the heart of East Berlin.
Like most refugees, my family disembarked at Friedrichsstraße — nowadays Berlin’s largest subway and overground station at the heart of its public transport system. At the time, the station was divided by the Berlin Wall and served as one of the few border crossings between the East and West sections of the city. Unlike most East German citizens, foreign passport holders had relative ease in transiting through Germany’s division.
Still, her transit visa was no guarantee we’d reach the West. East Germany wasn’t a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and, therefore, had no legal obligation to shelter refugees. They were instead transferred straight across the border.
Ironically, the country’s leaders praised the same state that restricted the mobility of its own citizens as a “free transit state” for asylum seekers. This played into the hands of most Third World refugees who had no intention of seeking refuge in East Germany in the first place.
With her toddlers and the few belongings she could rescue in her hands, my mother boarded a train to West Berlin’s central station, Berlin Bahnhof Zoo. Friends and relatives of refugees, who were for the most part refugees themselves, awaited the new arrivals at the central station and helped them register at local asylum camps. Others helped them continue their journey by boarding so-called Interzonenzüge, transit trains that connected the West German enclave with its mainland to the west.
My mother decided to board the Interzonenzug FD 1/2 (inter-zone train) that connected West Berlin with Frankfurt am Main. Like many other refugees, she was to claim asylum on-board the train.
Later called “transit refugees” by the West German government, refugees like my family were perceived by some as a demographic weapon used by East Germany to threaten the stability of the West by engineering a humanitarian crisis. Franz Josef Strauss, former chairman of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) and long-term prime minister of the state of Bavaria, famously said at the time: “Tamils are storming us in their thousands and if the situation in New Caledonia sharpens, we’ll soon have the ‘Kanaken’ [a highly derogatory racial epithet] in the country.” Most refugees from the Global South, of course, were unaware of this discursive dehumanization. They simply sought survival.
In July 1985, in an effort to crack down on the wave of Tamil refugees arriving at its borders — more than 37,000 since 1980 and as of 1984, the single largest contingent of refugees arriving in the country — the West German government reached an unprecedented agreement with its eastern counterpart.
They provided the East German state with a lucrative block credit totaling 250 million DM. In return, East Germany promised to change its visa policies towards Sri Lanka and install a German-wide visa requirement for Tamils who arrived at Flughafen Berlin Schönefeld.
West Germany’s demands to expand the new visa restrictions beyond Tamil refugees were, however, either refused or half-heartedly implemented by the East. In December of that same year, West Germany severely restricted its general asylum policies and declassified Tamils as a politically persecuted people in Sri Lanka. In 1985, 23.5% of all asylum seekers in West Germany (about eight thousand refugees were Tamils from Sri Lanka); that number dropped to 4.4% only a year later.
Today, refugees no longer travel through East Berlin. With the fall of the wall and the expansion of the EU further towards the east and south of the continent, their current transit destinations have shifted: Istanbul, Tripoli, Cairo, Beirut, Fez, Kiev, and St. Petersburg are a few of the places through which refugees must pass before attempting to enter Fortress Europe.
Nowadays, they don’t die drowning in the Oder River or the Danube, or freeze to death in Hungarian or Austrian forests. They drown in oceans and seas that arbitrarily decide whether to swallow their bodies or carry them as reminders to its northern or southern shores. They die in silence, far from our capitals and without TV reports covering their deaths.
Why? Because borders are today outsourced, as are the deaths of their countless victims. They are made invisible in our everyday. So much so that states claiming to fight for human rights and the liberation of people elsewhere in the world can retract their support for rescuing drowning refugees at Europe’s southern sea borders with little public outcry, as recently announced by the UK and Italy. Today, they can pretend to bear no responsibility for the tragedies engineered by their policies.
The few who are able to successfully circumvent Fortress Europe’s new Frontex-secured “iron wall” are met with public hysteria, xenophobia, and racism. There is, in fact, little difference between the rhetoric of the 1980s and the 2010s. Today, it isn’t East Germany but countries like Italy who stand accused by the EU’s most prosperous nations of allowing Third World refugees to transit through and reach their territory of control.
What used to be transit visas (in the case of East Germany in the 1980s) are today temporary travel documents and money handed out by Italian authorities to rid the southern European state of its refugee problems. Borders haven’t been dismantled, they’ve simply been shifted.
One of my first memories of borders was not of checkpoints or walls, but seeing the bodies of two female Tamil refugees who drowned in the late 1980s only seventy kilometres across the former Czechoslovakian border from our West German asylum camp. Their bodies lost their human shape, their memories, and identities.
That this could have been us struck me for the very first time. That there was no one to pick people like us up, to identify us and mourn us. That this happened in the silence of the night and all we could do is collect their nameless bodies the next morning and send a letter back to their relatives or embassies telling them, “We are sorry.”
Today, however, there are no more letters of apology being sent — only those stating, “You are not welcome.” And if you die along our borders, European states say, it is your own fault or maybe that of “ruthless” smugglers — but never ours.
So while we celebrate the fall of a wall dividing East and West Germany, we shouldn’t stop there. Across the world, governments continue transforming invisible lines into lethal sites for refugees and immigrants fleeing violence, persecution, poverty, and other human or natural catastrophes.
Between 1961 and 1991, Germany’s partition cost the lives of at least 136 refugees at the Berlin Wall and 872 at the inner German border. Between September 2013 and September 2014, the US Border Patrol registered 307 dead refugees and immigrants at the US–Mexican border alone. The year before, it was 445. And these are only the official accounts.
On the other side of the world, the Indian Border Security Forces have since 2001 shot and killed more than one thousand Bangladeshi and Indian citizens on its 3,286 kilometre-long border fence with Bangladesh — the most extensive geopolitical barrier in the world.
Borders are far from being a distant past that we can look back on as historic artifacts. We are surrounded by them. Israel’s West Bank wall has replaced the Berlin Wall. Yet borders are also more than mere physical manifestations. They can fluidly shift. They can transcend and bridge spaces; they can be outsourced and rendered invisible; they can inhabit bodies, architecture, and nature.
In thinking about the contemporary horrors of Fortress Europe, we should remember the thousands of refugees who sought asylum in West Germany, the majority being from Palestine, Lebanon, and Sri Lanka. These are the stories erased from memorialization events and the narratives we hear about flight and migration across the “Iron Curtain.”
The lethal divisions continue in spite of Berlin and in spite of selective “unifications.” We must struggle for a world in which borders and walls come down, where the lines of segregation arbitrarily drawn upon land, sea, air, and people finally retreat. One border is already one too many.