Unequal passports, unequal freedoms. Reflections on researching freedom of movement while holding a European passport

15. December 2023

Migration and mobility rights are unequally distributed across the globe. As Ayelet Shachar famously observed, borders and migration regimes have increasingly developed towards a “selective closure (for the many) and selective opening (for the few)” (Shachar, 2016: 179). The extent to which individuals are able to move freely across borders is largely determined by the nation-state and socio-economic background from which they come from, leading to a “global mobility divide” (Mau et al. 2015).

In our role as migration researchers, we – the authors of this text – are part and parcel of these global dynamics. Currently, we are investigating regional migration governance in three different world regions: Mercosur (the ‘Southern Common Market’ in South America), ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States), and the European Union. While the inequality in the “global migration regime” described above is an integral part of this research, it is precisely the privileges it grants us as EU citizens that make our research in these regions possible.

In migration studies, the motivation and positionality of researchers in the field have recently received increased attention. Inspired by this “reflexive turn”, we take our positionality and experiences with borders as a starting point to reflect on our privileged position as researchers in the unequal global mobility regime.

Experiencing borders as EU citizens

The reasons for our interest in these questions are rather personal, stemming from experiences that date back many years. One researcher on our team was born in a rich European country, a country that could be considered one of the most privileged in the world. Both sides of her family, however, had emigrated from countries with complicated political situations at the time. Later, as a young adult, she decided to move to Germany for her studies. Within a few days, making use of the mobility privileges afforded by her Western European passport, everything was sorted out. Upon her arrival in Berlin, she barely faced any problems, besides adjusting to the cold weather and people of the capital.

From 2016 to 2018, the second author lived in the Spanish enclave Ceuta in Morocco, on the Southern border of the EU. Here, a wall has been growing steadily since the 1990s, motivated by the opening of the EU’s internal borders with the Schengen Agreement of 1985. From 2.5 meters in 1999, the border fence has risen to 10 meters in 2020 (Martín, 2020). Along with the height, border violence and the despair of those trying to cross has increased over the years. At the EU external border in 2016, military force against migrants and news of injured, dead, or disappeared migrants became a daily reality. This violence stood in sharp contrast to the treatment the researcher received at Ceuta’s multiple borders: as a German citizen, she could cross the border to Morocco several times a month without difficulties – just by pulling out a red European passport. And while migrants who had arrived in Ceuta were trapped in the city for months or years – calling it an “extended prison” – she took the ferry to mainland Spain without hindrance. Thus, while the European researcher has grown up with the right to free movement within the EU as a given, for those trying to get in, free movement remains a utopian demand, ever more out of reach.

Doing research on unequal free movement

Now back to the present and our research on free movement in Mercosur (South America) and ECOWAS (West Africa): For our data collection, we have already traveled across two continents, visiting three countries in each region during two field trips of three weeks each: Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil in South America, and Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal in West Africa. This quick and easy mobility was possible due to several reasons: visa-free access to most of these countries and easy access to visas in Ghana and Nigeria, the resources of our home university to fund the high fees for air travel to and within these regions, and our White European identity, which made us exempt from suspicion at border checks.

This possibility of cross-border movement, globally and regionally, stands in sharp contrast to the experiences of citizens of countries in these regions. Within their specific regions, they have rights to free movement guaranteed by regional treaties, such as the right of entry or the right to regular residence. These regions should therefore be spaces of exception to the unequal mobility regimes that exist worldwide.

However, despite the mobility rights enshrined in regional treaties, the experiences at border crossings that were mentioned during our research are clearly less “seamless” for regional citizens than for us.

In Mercosur, our interview partners reported many cases of Black or indigenous regional citizens being discriminated against and blocked at intra-regional borders. In West Africa, mobility within the region is jeopardized by controls and harassment at an immense number of border posts, making any movement across national borders extremely time-consuming and expensive. Air travel, on the other hand, is reserved only for a very small portion of the population due to the high costs. The ambiguous term “free movement” then becomes painfully ironic, since cross-border movement is clearly not for free but rather becomes an expensive endeavor.

Cosmopolitan privilege and post-colonial borders

These West-African borders have not always been in place. They were drawn in 1884 when the colonizing countries met at the so-called West African Conference in Berlin to divide the African continent among themselves (Gates & Appiah, 2010). The arbitrary borders that resulted from this process did not follow the lines of pre-colonial territories and kingdoms, but separated communities and crossed established spaces of free movement.

And now, coming specifically from Berlin, we as researchers can cross these post-colonial borders more easily than local citizens, since we can afford plane tickets and don’t have to cross land borders. Clearly, borders – even those in other world regions – seem to have vanished for us as part of a privileged global cosmopolitan elite. For citizens of Mercosur and ECOWAS, they are still very palpable – even though their right to free movement is supposed to be guaranteed in their regions. In comparison to us, they are thus not only disadvantaged in terms of mobility on a global scale, but also in their very own regions of origin.

Experiencing the inequality of borders, past and present, makes the freedom to move more than a research object for us. We acknowledge our incredible privilege, which we haven’t earned any more than any other person in the world. Knowing that the same regime we are part of can be abominable on the other side of the coin, we feel it is our duty to use these privileges to research these unequal borders. They have become invisible in our daily life, but we want to make them more visible to everyone through our research, which we hope will contribute to a more equal distribution of movement rights.

Gates, H. L. & Appiah K. A. (2010). Encyclopedia of Africa. Oxford University Press.

Martín, M. (2020, October 14). Interior ultima la construcción de la nueva valla de Ceuta y Melilla. El País.

Mau, S., Gülzau, F., Laube, L., & Zaun, N. (2015). The Global Mobility Divide: How Visa Policies Have Evolved over Time. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 41(8), 1192-1213.

Shachar, A. (2016). Selecting By Merit. The Brave New World of Stratified Mobility. In L. Ypi & S. Fine (Eds.), Migration in Political Theory: The Ethics of Movement and Membership (pp. 175-201). Oxford University Press.

Author Information: Zoé Perko ( and Dorothea Biaback Anong ( are research assistants at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. They conduct research in the CRC sub-project C01 “The Borders of the World II: Conflicts and Tensions in the Formation of Macro-Territorial Borders” on border and migration regimes in regional integration arrangements, focusing on conflicts and selectivity in regional migration governance.