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  • Building Fortress Europe: The Polish-Ukrainian Frontier by Karolina S. Follis
  • Chris Hann
Karolina S. Follis, Building Fortress Europe: The Polish-Ukrainian Frontier. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. 296 pp.

Not so long ago, borders in Eastern Europe were relatively impermeable. As Karolina Follis points out in Building Fortress Europe, nominally sovereign states controlled their boundaries with political allies almost as rigorously as the “iron curtain” to the West. Citizens depended on the whims of their officials for passports. The Berlin Wall (to take an extreme instance) was officially described as an anti-fascist protection wall by those who built it. However, few citizens took this rhetoric seriously. The lie was obvious and, in this sense, the border regime was transparent. At the same time, there was a good deal of variation in practical implementation. Poland generally pursued a more liberal passport policy than any of its neighbors, and citizens took grateful advantage of it, even in times of great political and economic turmoil. (This point is overlooked by Karolina Follis, who reports her own migration as a child from Poland to the US without discussing the fact that minor hurdles and all this exemplified the relative openness of her homeland.)

Following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, states such as Poland found themselves in a quite different situation. The eastern border with Ukraine opened up dramatically after 1990, above all for purposes of petty commerce. The states had become more sovereign, but millions needed the lifeline of the cross-border “gray economy” to survive the chaos of shock therapy in Poland and the collapse of Soviet central planning in Ukraine. Easy permeability prevailed until 2003 when, as a precondition for membership in the European Union and, more specifically, in the Schengen zone of visa-free personal mobility, Warsaw was obliged to introduce new border controls—in other words, to contribute its building blocks to the [End Page 949] Fortress Europe of Follis’ title. In the last decade, Poles have been granted unprecedented freedom to move and seek work in the West. Millions have done so, above all in Britain. They leave behind significant gaps—e.g., in seasonal segments of the labor market and, above all, in the domestic (care) sector. These gaps can be most readily filled by Ukrainian women, who have been colonizing these niches informally since the early 1990s. Schengen norms are designed to suppress this postsocialist mobility. In practice, the flows from western Ukraine continue more or less unabated because the needs of the national economy trump supranational obligations to “Europe.” Officials of Poland’s Border Guard turn a blind eye in their “tacit acknowledgement of illegal labor” (107). The hypocrisy of this aspect of “rebordering” (Follis’ key term) is more subtle and insidious than the lies people were obliged to live under socialism. The author traces the consequences of these morally dubious policies for Ukrainians obliged to “lose” their passports as an alternative to leaving the country at regular intervals to observe the time constraints of their visas. The waiting period before they can re-enter Poland is referred to as a korydor, a metaphor with intimations of oppressive bureaucracy but at the same time a valued opportunity to be with their loved ones at home (64). Migrants and refugees from more remote places, especially the Russian Federation are not deemed welcome as economic migrants and are routinely denied their basic human rights as the EU “externalizes” its immigration dilemmas by cultivating Ukraine as a “buffer zone.”

Follis carried out multi-sited fieldwork, primarily in a region that witnessed appalling violence and ethnic cleansing before (and, on a reduced scale, even after) Stalin imposed a new boundary between Poland and Ukraine at the end of World War II. She conceptualizes the present border as “an interface for a range of interactions, encounters, and events” (21). Successive chapters give insight into the precarious lives of female migrants from rural Ukraine, the perspectives of Polish border guards and the technologies at their disposal for “quotidian surveillance,” the mechanisms for classifying self-declared refugees in a highly imperfect Common European Asylum System, and seminars for training the staff of state-of-the-art detention...


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