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Debating the legitimacy of borders: How the inclusion and exclusion of migrants and refugees is justified across the world


Prof. Dr. Jürgen Gerhards (Freie Universität Berlin)                       

Prof. Dr. Steffen Mau (Humboldt-Universität Berlin)

Prof. Dr. Marianne Braig (Freie Universität Berlin)


Daniel Drewski M.A. (Freie Universität Berlin)

Research Questions

In the liberal border script, there is an inherent tension between the nation state’s right to exclude outsiders and to control its borders in the name of collective self-determination, and the individual’s right not to be excluded on arbitrary grounds (e.g. by birth) from the attainment of valued resources. Increasing global migration and refugee flows in recent years have highlighted this tension, and have put the question whether it is legitimate for nation states to control their borders and to exclude outsiders high up on the public agenda, in particular of the world’s wealthier countries. The aim of this project is to compare how the legitimacy of borders is publicly debated across different countries around the world. We will tackle the following research questions:

1) What arguments, frames of interpretation and narratives are mobilized to justify the inclusion or exclusion of migrants and refugees? What categories are used to describe and differentiate between them and how are these drawn on to justify their rights, claims, and treatment?

2) Which actors – i.e. proponents and challengers of the liberal border script – dominate the public discourse and how do they achieve legitimacy, and which actors are less successful in influencing the public debate? How can we explain differing outcomes across countries?

3) To what extent do these debates reflect the tenets of the liberal border script as discussed within political philosophy, and how are its inherent tensions with respect to the legitimacy of borders resolved in practice?

Case Studies

We compare debates about the legitimacy of borders in the public spheres of three different countries around the world:

1) United Kingdom: The border script of this Northern European country is recently being contested by inside challengers, represented by the decision to leave the EU.

2) Singapore: This Southeast Asian country has one of the largest immigrant stocks in the world and a liberal policy toward skilled immigrants, yet it accords poor legal status to low-skilled workers and accepts no refugees.

3) Mexico: This North-American country features a border script in transition. Its historically liberal migration policy is being challenged by the country's increased role as transit country for large numbers of migrants from Central and South America heading to the United States.


This project is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) within the Cluster of Excellence “Contestations of the Liberal Script”


Drewski, Daniel/Gerhards, Jürgen 2020: The Liberal Border Script and its Contestations. An Attempt of Definition and Systematization, SCRIPTS Working Paper No. 4, Berlin: Cluster of Excellence 2055 “Contestations of the Liberal Script – SCRIPTS”.

Soziologie - Euiropäische Gesellschaften