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Article Access: Transgressive Citizenship at the Border [Routledge]


Notable for her diverse works and continuous research in the areas of border security and citizenship politics, Kim Rygiel encapsulates in her 2014 handbook “In Life Through Death: Transgressive Citizenship at the Border” the plight of migrants at the border. Evidenced in the increasing death and escalation of violence of migrants due to the restrictive border controls put in place – and the growing activism of non-citizen migrants and citizens specifically regarding claims-making to citizen rights and resources, Rygiel brings to focus the concept of ‘transgressive citizenship’.

Rygiel proposes a dualistic explanation of citizenship, noting that citizenship can be explained as a political and legal institution entailing rights and responsibilities within the nation-state. Sociologically, it can be seen to include the practices discourses, technologies, and forms of power involved in governing individuals and populations.

She addresses citizenship as a ‘contested concept’, stating that non-citizen migrants and migrant right activists mobilize the language of citizenship in making social justice claims to greater rights. Although modern liberal approaches associate citizenship with an already settled status and set of rights and responsibilities, Rygiel states that critical citizenship approaches, such as Ranciere’s, assume that; “The potential power of citizenship lies not here, but, rather, in its potential to move individuals to act and to disrupt the normal order of things. A sense of contestation, challenge, or resistance is central to the understanding of citizenship, as is a notion of performance or engagement in enacting the politics of citizenship” She agreed with the view that citizenship is about ‘being political’. Furthering her discussion, she focuses on citizenship politics in regards to migrant deaths, analyzing the ways in which border deaths exemplify how citizenship is fundamentally a bio-political regime of government. According to her, bio- politics objectify individuals in the management of the life and death of populations. Even more, citizenship is bio-politics in the sense that it is a means to regulate the very ‘right to have rights’ that is, the basic right to become a political subject.

The years encircling the high rate of restrictive border controls have been categorized by border transgressions leading to endangerment of lives, escalation of violence etc., and this border violence can be seen in the growing number of death of migrants who are buried, often anonymously in unmarked graves. These graves, Grant (2011:62) says can also be called new migrant “potter fields”.

Among these ‘potter fields’ are the gravesite of unidentified migrants including, the cemetery in Oranto, where migrants who died crossing the straits of Oranto to Italy are buried, the cemetery located in the village of Sidiro, in Greece, which is now the site of close to 400 unmarked graves of migrants who have died trying to cross from Turkey to Greece.

The politicization of migrant deaths began when the villagers of Sidiro and the müftü (Muslim religious leaders) of the Evros region became concerned that the migrants were not being given proper Muslim burials. For this, the müftü became more actively involved in this burials heeding to the procedures and laid down rules for a proper Muslim burial.

It is worthy of note that the border violence and migrant deaths have not gone without the activism of politicized groups. These groups consist of non-citizen migrants, families of missing or dead migrants alongside activists working in solidarity with the latter to reclaim and memorialize the missing and entails demands such as the right to know what has happened to migrants who have gone missing/died in border crossing, the right to have the dead identified and properly buried, and the right for relatives to reclaim the bodies and personal belonging of their dead loved ones.

Groups such as ‘Welcome to Europe’ champion this cause, striving to trace relatives who have drowned or disappeared on their journey from Turkey to Greece (interview R.M., 20 July 2012). In bringing to fore the solidarity that transcends the border, Rygiel points out Soguk’s observation that borders should be considered not just in their function of separation but as ‘practices of relationality that become possible in moments of tension, conflicts, and contradictions as well as unexpected convergences of intentionalities’ . Rygiel observes that the border can be ‘productive of a transformative form of politics’ (ibid). In this realm, she uses the term ‘transgressive citizenship’ raising the idea of; “An alternative way of thinking and doing citizenship based on acts of transgression of borders and boundaries motivated by concerns of social justice and solidarity.”

The Oxford Dictionary (1998 + online edition) defines ‘transgress’ to mean to contravene or go beyond the limits set by a commandment, law etc. Thus, she defines transgressive citizenship as a form of politics which is:

“Dependent on acts of crossing that disrupts a norm, rule, or law. It involves forms of politics that are unconventional (crossing normative boundaries) but also transformative (in the sense that crossing disrupts the border). This would include politicization that is transnational in nature (acts that cross national and territorial borders) but also action that disrupts and displaces borders of belonging (the ontological, legal and political divide between the citizen and non-citizen for example) as definitive grounds upon which to legitimize claims and access to rights and resources.”

Rygiel says that her examples of transgressive citizenship involve movement across border – and through this, the movement of borders, alongside an illustration of a politics of those who do not move across borders but declare solidarity with those who do, like the transversal politics to which Isin refers.

In her conclusion, she emphatically states that transgressive citizenship of death at the border has the potential to disrupt notions of borders – territorial borders where citizens engage with others across physical borders to challenge border controls that result in migrant death. Transgressive citizenship aims to squelch the popular and accepted equations of who is and is not a citizen, who should be a citizen, along with those whose lives should count, that is, who should be recognized as a political subject with the right to have rights.



Rygiel K (2014) In life through death: Transgressive citizenship at the border: In E F Isin and P Nyers (eds) Routledge Handbook of Global Citizenship Studies (pp 66-72). New York : Routledge



Enunosowo Mpama is a current law student at the University of Calabar completing her degree in Law (LLB). She is also a content writer for other publications such as Dark Hues Magazine and Havilah Woman.


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