Contested Meanings of Migration Facilitation: Emigration Agents, Coyotes, Rescuers, and Human Traffickers

Heike Friedman's picture
November 16, 2020 to November 17, 2020
California, United States
Subject Fields: 
Borderlands, Demographic History / Studies, Immigration & Migration History / Studies, Social History / Studies, German History / Studies

Annual Academic and Policy Symposium: Innovation through Migration at GHI PRO
Conveners: Ulf Brunnbauer (Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies & Regensburg University) and Andrea Westermann (GHI PRO)

November 16-17, 2020 

The symposium will explore migration facilitation as situated between securing borders, solidarity networks, and economic interests or needs. It brings together Germany-based professionals from the academic, cultural, activist, and policy sectors as well as colleagues from California and other parts of the United States working in similar contexts.  

Nation-states often see immigration facilitation as threatening their claims to sovereign control of their borders and population. Over one hundred years ago in 1910, the Immigration Commission of the U.S. Congress issued a report on “Importation and Harboring of Women for Immoral Purposes.” Stories of European women being forced into prostitution and more general fears of “white slavery” were powerful tropes in calls for restricting immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. At the same time, such stories fueled demands for the restriction of emigration in Europe. The assistance of escape from oppressive or genocidal regimes in the 20th century was again linked with (re)negotiations of state- and nationhood and opens up new questions about humanitarianism as well as securitization, too.

Moving forward in time and into other regions, anti-immigrant policies targeting the U.S.-Mexican border are today presented as a fight against traffickers. At the same time, both the political economy of vendors and ‘coyotes’ in the U.S.-Mexican borderlands and the general U.S.-American labor market depend for their flourishing on the restriction or illegalization of immigration. As for Europe, today’s humanitarian NGOs patrolling the Mediterranean assisting migrants in distress are being recast as people smugglers and thus legitimate objects of police persecution. We might also include state-led migration facilitation initiatives and repatriation programs into the picture, all of them intersecting with hierarchies of gender, race, and class. 

Our symposium will explore past and present political, economic, and cultural framings of the facilitation of migration. We invite short kick-off talks (15 min.) that address questions such as:

  • Which symbolic and social dynamics underpin shifting meanings of those who help migrants to cross borders?
  • How and why was a once perfectly legal, sometimes even state-sponsored occupation criminalized?
  • Which master narratives and ideological frameworks are employed to understand and analyze migration facilitation?
  • How are these understandings institutionalized in public policies and legal norms?
  • What are the self-images and narratives of people assisting unsanctioned migrants to cross borders?
  • What do migrants know about alternative geographies and transborder networks of unsanctioned migration? What do the interactions and relationships between migrants and those facilitating migration look like?
  • What histories are there behind social activism for “sans papiers” (migrants without residence documents)? 

In order to address the complexities and contingencies of migration facilitation, the symposium seeks to make comparisons across time and space since the nineteenth century. To do this, we welcome proposals from a wide range of disciplines, including history, ethnic studies, migration studies, political science, sociology, and law.

The symposium will be a plenary meeting that offers panels on a set of thematic clusters. Please upload your kick-off talk proposal (max. 350 words) and brief CV by May 25, 2020 to our online portal. Please contact Heike Friedman ( if you have problems with submitting your information online. 

The Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute Washington will cover basic expenses for travel and accommodation.

Contact Info: 

Heike Friedman, Program Officer

Pacific Regional Office of the

German Historical Institute Washington

202 Moses Hall

University of California Berkeley, CA 94720-2316

Telefon (00) 1 510 643 4558

Contact Email: