About the German Terms “Schlepperei”, “Fluchthilfe” and “Grenzübertrittsdienstleistung”

This article is a translation of a German article which is about the words used in
German language to describe the action of helping someone to cross a border un-
documented. Here we will talk about German terms and not ask the question about
the words used in English, even though this would be interesting as well. Anyways,
according to the language problem, this article is not a literal translation of the original
article but a slightly adapted version with the aim to make the discussion accessible for

In Austrian law “facilitating a foreigner’s illegal immigration to or transit through a
member-state of the European Union or a neighbor country of Austria with the aim to
enrich him/herself or a third person through a payed reward” (§114) is called “Schlep-
perei”. At the time of this trial, many people in Vienna talk and write about “Fluchthil-
fe”. Roughly, both terms want to describe actions that certain people take to help others
to cross a border undocumented. Still, the words put attention to different aspects.

“Schleppen” means in German in general “to tow”, “to carry” as used for really heavy
things. With the prefix “ein-” (“einschleppen”) it can be used for example to describe
that Europeans brought certain illnesses to the Americas, when they started to sail
across the oceans. “Schleppend” as an adjective describes situations which are taking
long, proceeding very slowly and where the same things are happening again and
again. In the context of undocumented migration, the word “Schlepperei” as a noun
therefore pictures the person that is “smuggled” as a passive thing, with which some-
thing is done that he/she doesn’t want or at least cannot control.

At the same time with this objectification (migrants are shown as objects, not as sub-
jects) the focus lies on the people that support others to cross a border – the so called
“Schlepper”. They seem to be the protagonist of a seemingly brutal – or at least exhaust-
ing – action of bringing a person from A to B. It is not a coincidence that the law uses
exactly this word. According to Austria’s Migration and Asylum policy (as well as the
EU’s) migration is a danger, something that has to be controlled, restricted and (except
from certain cases) prevented. Every undocumented immigration extracts itself from
the control, so everyone who facilitates or supports it is an enemy – and this is how
these persons are presented: And Enemies are not only doing bad things, they actually
are bad. “Schlepper” are brutal and ruthless – this is how it is legitimated to take partic-
ularly harsh actions against them.

Behind the picture of the ruthless “Schlepper”, those who actually migrate and take
support for it disappear. They become “poor, passive refugees” of whose weakness the
greedy “Schlepper” take advantage to squeeze out the last cent of their pockets.

Even though women are also sentenced with this paragraph 114, this picture shows the
“Schlepper” as a man. Being brutal and exploitative are adjectives generally related to
men. Women are mostly shown as victims. If it is about women and “Schlepperei”, in-
stantly connotations on forced prostitution and trafficking in women (“Frauenhandel”)
are evoked. Actually, “Schlepperei” is juridical distinguished of “human trafficking”
(“Menschenhandel”) which per definition is based on a forced migration enacted by a
certain person onto another. Especially – but far not only – if it is about “female” mi-
gration, the terms “Schlepperei” and “Menschenhandel” are mashed up. In fact, “Men-
schenhandel” is often intentionally distinguished from “Schlepperei”, at the same time
also the confusion has a function: to underline the ruthlessness of the “Schlepper”.

A term that is used alternatively to “Schlepperei” is “Fluchthilfe”. Historically, the
term was used for actions which helped people to get from the GDR to West Germany or to
cross the so called iron curtain. It is also used to describe the support for people who
had to flee from National Socialism. The term does not only describe help without condi-
tions but also paid support. Anyway it focuses on the aspect of helping and has a positive

The first part of the word “Fluchthilfe”, “Flucht” (English: flight or escape) points out
the reason, why the people whom is helped, cross borders: They flee. “Flight” is a
reason for migration which is quite strictly defined in the UN’s Convention relating
to the Status of Refugees (CRSR). Generally, the term flight is related to the situation
in the country a person has been living in until he or she left. People flee from war,
persecution, oppression. An especially bad situation in a country is seen as a legitimate
reason to emigrate (which it definitely is). But why this view can be problematic, is
that in reverse it is often suggested that there would be circumstances which deliver no
legitimate reason to migrate. For example the German word “Wirtschaftsflüchtling”
(“economic refugee”) commonly expresses this idea. Privileged external people (bu-
reaucratic authorities, media, the white/western majority,…) judge according to their
view of a situation in a country if a person has the right to leave from there.

Related to the history of the term “Fluchthilfe” we also have to think about a certain
anticommunism, which was not only relevant during the Cold War. The so called
Socialist regimes have constituted a legitimate reason for migration – the emigration
from the GDR was seen positively in the Western Germany because of ideological
The “Fluchthelfer/in” in contrast to the “Schlepper” is a hero/ine, he/she saves lives.
What the term does not consider, are the interests of the “Fluchthelfer/innen” them-
selves. The term suggests (even if strictly defined, it still means more) they would act
from a charitable background – namely to help someone. In fact, many people have
been doing it this way. People also support because of given or felt commitment,
because they are from the same village, because they were once in the same situation,
because they are friends or family and/or because of political reasons. Some of the peo-
ple ask back the money they spent, others (partly) pay travel expenses, food or other
important things from their own pocket. Indeed, there are people who don’t just ask
back their expenses, but take money for the work and time spent or whose main inter-
est is to earn money. And finally, there are those who take advantage of the illegalized
situation of others, exploit or work together with the police.

The closed borders and the lacking possibilities for many people to cross borders
“legally” are the conditions, which create a market for services to support or facilitate
border crossings. Legal regulations, controls and military protection of border areas
possibly produce additional expenses (fake documents, bribe authorities,…) and make
the services firstly illegal and secondly dangerous. Dangerous not only for those who
cross the border but also for those who help them – and the second often let the first
pay for the expenses and the risk (according to the rules of capitalistic market econo-

As this market hence is illegalized and many states have a certain interest in destroy-
ing or repressing it, a structure is built up between repression, illegalization and profit
interest, where it is often not the target to help people. On the other side, there is a
structural interest that the service that is offered – the border crossing – functions, be-
cause only then money can be made and other “customers” will come. But again on the
otherhand, the illegalization facilitates the implementation of structures that are more
brutal and exploitative than in a “legal” market situation.

In English it is relatively simple to stress the market-like aspects in the term border
crossing services as another alternative for “Schlepperei” or “Fluchthilfe”. The German
translation of this term is rather complicated though: Grenzübertrittsdienstleistungen.

To sum up, we can say that the term “Schlepperei” isolates the exploitative aspect that
this kind of support can have. It ignores the circumstances that lead to a possible ex-
ploitation and secondly completely hides the reasons why people cross borders and presents
migration as a danger. The term “Fluchthilfe” on the other hand overstates the charity aspect
of actions which are not always done out of the wish to help someone and it reproduces the
idea that flight (in the sense of CRSR) would be the only legitimate reason to cross borders

In German language the term “Grenzübertrittsdienstleistungen” is complicated and
bulky and therefore not really user-friendly but it contains the possibility for a general
critique on capitalism. Still, the term does not refer to the circumstances under which
these services are provided – the illegalization which is produced by the closed borders.
On the other hand, the wording “Grenzübertritt” (border crossing) is less judging
concerning the reasons why people migrate. At the same time, it doesn’t say that the
border is crossed illegalized or refers to any reasons of migration.
Moreover, it is important to say that the terms are hardly used by the travelers without
papers themselves but by people who talk about them.

Definitely we have to ask if at all one term can contain everything it should express.
Probably, especially in this case it is not possible but it could be an adequate criteria to
ask if the used term points out the intended aspects.

Therefore, we decided to partly still use the word “Schlepperei” when we talk about the
legal criminalization of “Fluchthilfe” or border cross services but to write it with quo-
tation marks and clearly connect it to the paragraph 114 FPG. Because this is the term
that is used in the law and fulfills the function discussed above.

As we want to fight for a world where everyone has the freedom of movement to
choose his/her preferred place to live, we don’t want to use a term that legitimates
migration under certain circumstances but excludes others. It is not enough to try to
include other reasons for migration (e.g. so called economic ones) – we refuse any
kind of judgment about the legitimacy of migration. Nonetheless this should not put a
simple move to another country on the same level with fleeing from persecution.

Hence, for us it is not so important to find the proper title for this trial but to generally
point out the criminalization of migration and of the protest movement and to try to
uncover the structural and explicit racism of the police and the justice system.