Air travel played a crucial part in the history of migration in the twentieth century, a topic largely overlooked by historians thus far. This research project examines the changing role of air routes and airports in global refugee movements and asylum migration. Dovetailing with a growing historiographical interest in transit phases and travel infrastructure and combining perspectives from global history and migration, border, and mobility studies, the project investigates both the specific humanitarian potentials linked to airborne escapes and their limitations. More particularly, it seeks to explain if, when, and how illegalized and undesired migrants became excluded from the opportunity of air travel.

The study begins in the 1930s and 1940s when thousands of refugees and displaced persons, most of them Jewish, left (post-)Nazi-occupied Europe by airplane, and it ends in the mid-1990s, by which time asylum procedures and closed facilities at international airports had become firmly established. Based on sources from private institutions such as airlines and NGOs, state archives, and international organizations, the project examines different levels of policymaking involved in the management of airborne migration. By doing so, it sheds light on the emergence of a transnational migration regime that was specifically targeting commercial aviation and the challenge it posed to territorial orders in the twentieth century.

Reaching beyond the analysis of political strategies geared toward immigration control, the project delves into micro perspectives. It uses the Rhine-Main Airport Frankfurt, Germany’s busiest transit hub, as a starting point for a transregional and mobile research design. The study “follows,” so to speak, migrants transiting via Frankfurt at different decades to several important places along their journeys. One of those places is Istanbul which became a major transit spot for asylum seekers from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia heading for Europe in the 1980s, and which developed a thriving underground market for air tickets, false documents, subversive knowledge, and migration facilitators. Looking at Frankfurt and such connected sites, the project investigates everyday experiences, interactions, and agencies of actors including border police officers, refugee aid workers, smugglers, and the refugees and asylum seekers themselves. Revealing both restrictions and opportunities migrants encountered en route, the project promises insights into changing policies of migration control as well as the small-scale and transregional dynamics through which those policies were implemented or challenged on the ground. “History in limbo” is thus an assessment of both, the manifestation and the subversion of borders in times of globalizing air passenger traffic.