Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies

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A5 ›Refugees‹ and Others: The Production of Refugee-Related Figures since the 1970s

Prof. Dr. Isabella Löhr

Isabella Löhr, Foto: privat

Freie Universität Berlin and Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History Research Potsdam

Prof. Dr. Jochen Oltmer

Jochen Oltmer, Foto: Simone Reukauf

Osnabrück University

The 1970s witnessed an intensification of social debates about flight and asylum in German-speaking Europe, and these contestations remain acute to this day. The increasing significance of flight and asylum in both the public and political spheres of the GDR, the old Federal Republic and the unified Germany led to an expansion in the social production of flight-related figures, who are at the center of this project. The creation and usage of such figures communicates ideas about the (il)legitimacy of (potential) migrations as well as the utility, danger, or (non-)affiliation of those who are on the move. The older figure of the refugee – a figure that tends to have positive connotations – was encumbered with new and mostly negative meanings, and thereby made to appear different. Various figures emerged from these negotiations, such as asylum seekers‹, unaccompanied minors‹, boat refugees, tolerated persons‹, refugees‹, vulnerable refugee women‹, economic migrants or ›illegal migrants.

This project assumes that these are not trivial semantic shifts. Instead, historical figures and categories are constructed and they become relevant for the perception and classification of people on the move, as well as for the ways in which society deals with them. As such, the flight-related figures produce a specific knowledge about migration that is closely linked to social processes of closure or opening and to competing interpretative sovereignties. The figures thus provide information about migration regimes that vary in historical and spatial terms, and in which migration has been negotiated in particular ways from the 1970s to the present day.

Numerous stakeholders from the political, judicial and administrative spheres, civil society, media and science – not to mention the designated persons themselves – were and are involved in the negotiation of such figures. The project analyzes the discursive shifts and their power effects, focusing on the competitive, interactive and transfer-related aspects of the relationships between stakeholders. Where and in what context does a figure appear and how does their career develop? Why, how and by whom are figures created, discarded or modified, and in the context of which interests, resources and goals? To what extent did the figures emerging from the nation-state, post-colonial, European and Cold War discourses of the FRG and the GDR influence each other? And how did German reunification influence existing figures and which new figures emerged since then?

To approach these questions, we first carry out statistical analyses on a broad empirical base of text corpora from the GDR, former West Germany and Germany since 1990 (including parliamentary minutes, newspaper articles, legal texts) in order to identify significant figures. Selected figures are then subjected to a qualitative, historically contextualizing exploration in order to reconstruct the process of the creation and negotiation of the figures in both comparative and specific national perspectives. By combining quantitative and qualitative approaches, the project aims to trace the production and differentiation of flight-related figures in German-speaking countries since the 1970s from a comparative and transnational perspective, and to understand their significance for the social negotiation of migration.