Spatialities of In-Betweenness and Irregulairsed Pathways of Incorporation: Exploring the Case of Bulgarian Migrants in Germany

On paper, Bulgarians are considered EU citizens. In reality, they are systematically humiliated. In a perfidious interplay of authorities, employers and placement agencies, a “bureaucratic border” is created that makes a dignified life almost impossible. At the same time, the degraded migrants are indispensable for the labor market, especially in Germany. In his contribution to the text series “Black Box East,” researcher and activist Polina Manolova reports from a supposedly permissive EU, where injustice knows no bounds.


To get on a new job.’, ‘To care for my brother’s children.’, ‘To bring medicine to my mother who fell ill.’, ‘To reunite with my husband who works here.’, were some of the reasons that Bulgarian arrivals, detained at the Frankfurt-am-Main airport on March 18, 2020, gave for their decision to travel at the onset of a global pandemic emergency. They were amongst the first to bear the repercussions of the unprecedented securitization of intra-EU ‘free mobility’ and its preferential sanctioning of permanency and regularity. The ‘essential’/‘non-essential’ categorisation around which the EU and the German Covid-19 border regime consolidated in the early days of the pandemic effectively granted mobility rights to German passport holders and EU nationals who could provide a proof of their residence, such as an address registration, employment contract, and health insurance.

The mobilities of those EU citizens in the category of temporary and non-registered workers, longer-term migrants without address registrations, non-insured and non-legally residing, as well as those providing unpaid care, like the arrivals stranded at Frankfurt airport, was classified as non-urgent and in fact illegitimate – and hence denied. Ostensibly such mobilities were posing a contamination threat and a potential burden to state resources. Thus the Covid-19 logics governing ‘free mobility’ have crystalised a normative framing of migration and integration as marked by one-way directionality, socio-spatial fixity, and regularity at the centre of which stood the independent migrant decision maker.

Blackboxed Migration

In contrast to this imaginary order of migration, this text reveals established ‘integration’ modes that work through a process of irregularisation of migrants’ socio-legal identities, their effects for enforcing newcomers in subordinated positions of temporariness and uncertainty and the on-the-ground practices of transnational support through which migrants manage these. This puts into perspective the recent repressive episodes at intra-EU borders and helps to understand the disruption they effected on East European migrants’ livelihood strategies that have become increasingly entrapped in ‘in-between’ spatialities and differentially formalised resource environments.

A strategy of blackboxing East-to-West labour migrations can be detected in the continuous public-political portrayal, which either reduces migrant strategies to cunning economic opportunism and/or episodically sensationalises them in victimhood discourses on ‘new slavery’ and exploitation. Unsurprisingly, these discourses have contributed to obscure the blackboxing of the elasticity and selective blindness of the EUropean migration management regime and its value extractive logics – and, in doing so, have further aggravated the ignorance towards the perspective of those who experience and subvert these on a daily basis.

Against this backdrop, this piece attempts to destablise dominant politics of migration knowledge production and contribute to the ‘unboxing’ of its systemic underpinnings.

Producing Legal Uncertainty Through Bureaucracy

The recent transformations of the intra-EU migration regime, which recast migration from a privileged type of movement bestowed with full socio-legal access to a form of migration that offers only marginal and so-called “differential” inclusion have unfolded on three main levels.

On the EU-level, the attack against EU citizenship ensued in full force in the aftermath of the 2008 global recession and the related austerity politics: through a number of juridical rulings EU citizenship’s social substance was severely thwarted and tied to migrants’ economic performance. This ‘closure’ in the politics of social solidarity has been further exploited by EU member states who have advanced a plethora of policies for encroaching on EU arrivals’ access to welfare systems. This access was made conditional on residence rights and newly enforced logics of workfarism.

Germany, a forerunner of the fight against ‘poverty migration,’ has initially directed efforts towards limiting child support, as a political concession to the pressure exerted by conservative and anti-immigration forces. By 2016, the Coalition government of CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic and Christian Socialist Union) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), managed to fundamentally constrain criteria for the eligibility to unemployment and minimum subsistence benefits, thereby putting under extreme scrutiny economically inactive EU citizens and jobseekers.

In this context, post-2014 Bulgarian and Romanian newcomers have become a particular sub-category of governmental intervention consolidated at the intersection of class, racial, and gender lines of differentiation and ultimately classified as “undeserving” when it comes to mobility but also settlement rights.

Bureaucratic Bordering

The gap left by absent policies on a national level and legislative ambiguity on the interpretation and implementation of EU citizenship rights has concentrated great discretionary power in the hands of street-level administrative authorities for a much more targeted and efficient manipulation of disenfranchising technologies of regulation. This downsizing of immigration controls and the ‘colonisation’ of migrants’ everyday (Lebun 2013) by diverse bureaucracies has drawn only limited attention. However, its ‘reactive’ potential for processing statuses in ways that funnels arrivals along subordinated pathways of incorporation is undeniable. What I have theorised as a process of ‘bureaucratic bordering’ in the case of Bulgarian post-2014 arrivals in the UK (Manolova 2021) is equally relevant for their German counterparts albeit operationalised within different institutional constellations.

Carried out within seemingly ‘routine’ procedures of ‘settling in,’ such as finding accommodation, registering one’s address, opening a bank account, and starting a job, ‘bureaucratic bordering’ takes the form of a web of dependencies and conflicting demands between various local state agents, private service providers and employers and their diverging control and profit-oriented logics. In Germany, what newcomers describe as an ‘enchanted circle’ of ‘accommodation-registration-work’ most notably refers to the inaccessibility of the regular housing market and the domino effect that this has on accessing legal employment, healthcare and social services. After arrival, EU citizens are obligated to obtain an address registration certificate from local municipalities, for which they need a signed confirmation from their landlord (German: “Wohnungsgeberbestätigung”) according to the 2015 Federal Registration Act. This official registration preconditions access to a range of services and amenities, e.g., tax administration, health insurance, social services, legal claims and others, but most importantly it is required for starting regular employment.

Why the address registration is such as stumbling block for newcomers (an average of 10% of Bulgarians are unregistered) has to do with the structural dimensions of private housing market in Germany with its high demand and lack of affordable housing, high deposits, proof for stable income, discriminatory practices – combined with limited social housing provisions and municipalities’ exclusionary policies towards disadvantaged EU migrants these often lead to homelessness. The importance of registered accommodation for kickstarting the process of settlement was confirmed by a Frankfurt-based migration advisor: ‘As soon as a registered accommodation is obtained, one is on the road to get settled […] without it one can easily fall outside the system for good.’

Employers and subcontractors are the other important node in the chain of bureaucratic bordering, as they are benefiting from the blocked pathways to administrative regularisation and further perpetuate the insecurity of migrants’ statuses by encouraging precarious work arrangements. Subcontractors often entice newcomers with a ‘full package’ offer including employment, accommodation and documents. In most cases, however, such recruitment strategies serve to entrap workers in relations of dependency and exploitation, rather than ensuring a fast-track route to incorporation.

Ultimately, employers use migrants’ legal vulnerability to procure informal employment, short term or part time contracts, and ‘bogus’ self-employment to avoid social insurance contributions in sectors that pay below living wages, rely on exploitative business models, and operate in legal grey zones to escape responsibility.

Paradoxes of Temporality

Those subjected to the bureaucratic bordering described above experience settlement not as a step-wise process to regularity and permanence but to the contrary as cul-de-sacs that are part of a circular rather than forward movement. This circularity works as a governing mode for temporal and legal management of new arrivals. Online migrant support communities proliferate with requests from new arrivals who have ‘fallen into the paper trap,’ ‘go in circles,’ or struggle to ‘come to the surface.’ This figurative language captures the pressures of coming to terms with a severely limited time horizon in which migrants need to carve out routes to regularisation while ensuring economic survival and, in many cases, fulfilling obligations to dependent family members.

Arrival is thus marked by temporariness and constant re-positioning along a regularity-irregularity continuum that migrants can only navigate by drawing onto the informal industry that flourishes in the cracks opened up by ‘institutional inadequacy.’ For instance, an address registration can easily be ‘bought’ from migrant entrepreneurs for a one-off payment of 300 Euros and a monthly payment of 100 Euros; migrants can rent (shared) rooms from fraudulent landlords who cramp people in dilapidated buildings at above average costs and without contracts. Such informalised incorporation often leads to paradoxical situations: those renting a place appear ‘homeless’ in the eyes of the state as they have no address registration, while people with registered addresses can be effectively without a shelter.

The informal industry that has grown to cater for the needs of the newly arrived and longer-term migrants who still find themselves in a legal limbo follows a clear logic of extractive profiteering: it offers overpriced services like illegal housing, translations, paperwork processing, providing information, and job opportunities. Informal employers undercut wages in exchange for a precarious footing in an underground socio-economic layer, where migrants’ marginalisation and lasting dependencies become further entrenched.

Inclusion Through Irregularisation

Indirect immigration control techniques such as bureaucratic bordering have often been analysed as tools for restricting arrival numbers and disincentivising prospective newcomers. In the case described here, their primary function turns out to be about disciplining mobile EU citizens into irregularised and highly compliant labour.

By severely precarising their legal status through practically preventing them from actualising their rights as residents, workers, and public claim makers, German authorities direct Bulgarian migrants towards socio-economic pathways of incorporation that exposes them to high levels of informality and subordinated participation in labour market segments defined by short-termism and limited autonomy. Needless to say, these patterns of inclusion through irregularisation accords to the transformations of labour processes within highly advanced European economies and the rise of a highly-flexiblised service sector. At the same time, it serves policies of welfare chauvinism and widespread strategies of migrant-scapegoating.

While the benefits of the production of migrant illegality for the German state and economy are all too obvious, the devastation wrought on migrants and their families remain unaccounted for and are being only marginally reported, as in the glimpses captured in last year’s pandemic border regime enforcement.

Politics of Resource Environments

To live irregularly is to have no or very insecure footing in the ‘host’ state’s systems of public support and provisioning, including healthcare, housing, childcare, social benefits, and education. Many Bulgarians compensate these systemic deficits by embedding themselves in intense cross-border networks of support and protection. These transnational resource environments are sustained by the informal logistics provided by hundreds of minibuses connecting major German cities to Bulgaria and transporting anything from foodstuffs, medicine, and cigarettes to cars, electric appliances, and people. Migrants rely on these itineraries for accessing informal care arrangements with family members who are regularly summoned to run households and care for children and relatives in bad health. For many, the only way to access medical care, whether in emergency or routine situations, is through phone consultations with physicians back home, short trips for examinations, and out-of-pocket treatments in Bulgaria, or visits in the informal medical ‘cabinets’ in urban diaspora hotspots.

The ongoing pandemic emergency has rendered visible instances of migrant suffering and struggle. To avoid treating this as fleeting evidence, we need to understand that these instances disclose the systemic production of vulnerability, impermanence, and precariousness entrenched by the intra-EU regime of migration governance and the neoliberal instrumentalisation of East-to-West mobilities. Gaining such understanding, requires looking beyond normative discourses of ‘free mobility’ privilege and regularity. Moreover, and above all, it requires unpacking the experiences of subordinated incorporation, fragmented livelihoods, and intense cross border embedding through which East European migrants ensure their social reproduction.

Note from the editors: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Black Box East” text series. The German version is available here. You can find more texts, artworks, and video talks on the English-language “Black Box East” website. Have a look here:

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