This text is an improvement of an article published in May 2013 in Forum Wissenschat. The reconstruction of some events that took place in the last month and of the campaings aiming to oppose the conditions that produced them, allow point out the immediate political character of migrations. The dreadful number of death, institutional indifference, administrative misery, open or hidden racism, the everyday oppression exercised both on the borders and within every State do not establish a humanitarian question. They are the effects of a desire of freedom that cannot be stop, while it obrains as only answer a deprivation of rights. The latter, however, is not a legal omission, but the political instrument to produce subjects who are eupposed to accept the complete deprivation of power as something unavoidable. Yet, migrants‘ movement reveal the clash between a mobile and disordered power and a violent and dull repression. This clash goes far beyond the situation of refugees, since it concerns the whole condition of migrants who are experiencing everyday both the power of their freedom and exploitation and institutional racism.
«No Fingerprints» – While collectively raising their hands and walking with self-painted banners along the main shopping street and harbour towards the tourist beaches, 250 refugees, mainly from Eritrea, again and again chanted this slogan at the top of their voice. They all had just left the camp at a distance of two kilometres outside of the city that was supposedly locked, after – as a large group and against all coercive measures of the authorities – having refused for a period of more than ten days to submit their fingerprints. On 20 July 2013 they went public and it was an impressive demonstration of civil disobedience that took place on the island of Lampedusa, which ten weeks later would again become the media symbol of the EU’s deadly border regime in connection with the 360 casualties of the boat tragedy of 3 October.
The small Italian island, situated closer to the North-African coast than to Europe, has been making the front pages for years, when overcrowded boats reached its coast or were wrecked on this risky route. It is less known that all the newcomers on Lampedusa are at first interned, incarcerated in a large camp, in order to register them by taking their photos and fingerprints and, if possible, to immediately deport them again to their country of origin. Against this background insurgences occurred repeatedly here over the last years, in the fall of 2011 several buildings of this prison were put on fire by Tunisian deportation prisoners.
«Dublin II» is the name of the EU Regulation according to which all refugees remain bound to the EU country where they were first registered. Meanwhile thousands of people who are travelling towards their relatives and acquaintances in North-Western Europe, are returned to these transit countries, e.g. to Italy, Poland or Hungary, on the basis of this regulation. The «No Fingerprints» protest of the refugees on Lampedusa prevented this registration, a collective anticipation and refusal of the «Curse of the Fingers».
And they were successful: after having occupied the square in front of the church for a night and a day, they were able to obtain the guarantee for their transfer to the Italian mainland, in negotiations that went on for hours and without submitting their fingerprints! It was the joint resolve of this large group that led to this success. The protest also occurred at an opportune moment, since only two weeks earlier the pope had made a surprise visit to the island and had, in no uncertain terms, criticized «the global indifference» towards the boat people and demanded more support for the refugees. Against this background the government and the authorities obviously wanted at least to avoid new conflicts, all the more since as of May 2012 Lampedusa has a progressive mayoress who during the negotiations mediated in favor of the protestors as well.
«Revolt of the Invisibles…»
It was the largest demonstration in support of refugees that was ever held in Germany, when on 2 November 2013 more than 15,000 people took to the streets in Hamburg, to protest in favour of the right to stay of the «Lampedusa in Hamburg» group and against the deadly EU border regime. Almost every day very diverse actions were and still are taking place in Hamburg, after the SPD-governed Hamburg Senate under Olaf Scholz started – one week after the October accident in front of Lampedusa – raids against black African migrants. The fact that the resistance became increasingly broader and more determined, despite and against this repressive and stubborn behaviour, is of exemplary significance. If the collectively organized struggle in Hamburg gains increasing acceptance, this could be a decisive contribution to the encouragement and strengthening of the self-organized refugee protests.
From Lampedusa to Hamburg, on squares from Berlin to Vienna, in the internment camps in Greece or already in the forecourt of the EU border regime in Tunisia: the multiple struggles of refugees and migrants are growing stronger. No later than October 2012 Germany also saw the development of a new wave of self-organized protests. Led by self-organized refugees – who before this had organized local protest tents in several cities, followed by a one-month march straight across Germany – about 6,000 demonstrators passed through the capital on 13 October 2012. The abolishment of the camps and of the «Residenzpflicht»/residence obligations and a stop to all deportations were the three main demands, for which hardly ever before so many people throughout Germany jointly took to the streets. Since then the anti-racist resistance has increasingly been in the public eye and remains dynamic and persevering. In Berlin a protest camp was even kept up throughout the winter, the Nigerian embassy was occupied for its collaboration with the German deportation authorities, followed by hunger and even thirst strikes, more marches and the occupation of squares by self-organized refugees in many cities throughout Germany. «Revolt of the Invisibles» the heading of the newspaper (taz) read in early August 2013; the newspaper also published a map of the resistance.
Empowerment against the prescribed powerlessness
In several bus tours the already organized refugees travel along innumerable camps and shelters in all the German federal states, to talk to and mobilize those who are not organized yet. Asylum seekers have to live in remote «jungle»-camps, meaning somewhere in the woods, and in shabby barracks or overcrowded containers. The regional district as the internal border, coupons or food parcels instead of cash money and a claim to medical care at the most in case of emergencies; in all respects asylum seekers are made to feel unwanted. They are systematically refused a self-determined life. A central slogan of the Self-Organized against the camp regime is therefore «Break Isolation», because it is the isolation of refugees which is supposed to keep the victims powerless and desperate. Over the past years active cores of refugee-activists have sprung up in several cities and are increasingly well connected in networks, in particular in the «Caravan for the Rights of Refugees and Migrants». From their own experience they know that the encouragement in daily life is a decisive factor for a continued self-organisation: to defend oneself assertively against the racism propagated by caretakers in the camps, not to become intimidated by the deportation threats uttered by civil servants of aliens departments, to resist a «Residenzpflicht» which at the most with arbitrary permits allows one to travel beyond the regional district limits. These real experiences of self-assertion remain convincing points of departure during visits and meetings in the camps, but also during regional and nationwide conferences. And in the spring of 2012 this existing day-to-day resistance against (special)racist laws, came up against the surprising dynamics of a wave of protests caused by the death of an asylum seeker in Würzburg. Out of fear of deportation and desperate about his situation in the camp, an Iranian man had committed suicide there. His acquaintances and co-occupants did not intend to accept his death as an «unfortunate event», which was the way in which the authorities and the media wanted to deal with it in their usual manner. They rather organized a stubborn and determined protest in the middle of the city and in doing so denounced the inhumane circumstances. With mutual visits they also inspired refugees in other cities to bring the wretched situation in the camps to a standstill by striking. A few months later Würzburg was also the point of departure of the protest march to Berlin, which march had more than 30 stops and was 600 kilometres on foot. It became a March of Dignity, which not only among the refugees themselves, but also in the public media gained increasing attention.
On the squares…
Cairo, Madrid, New York: 2011 was the year when the occupation of public squares became a major means of action for new protest movements. Not only in Germany did refugees and migrants assume this form of resistance; in Amsterdam, the Hague and Vienna, squares and later churches were occupied in the fall of 2012 as well. Demonstrations, each with a few thousand participants, were held simultaneously in Bologna, Amsterdam and Berlin on 23 March 2013 and even Budapest saw its first refugee marches; this parallelism was not yet the expression of a Europe-wide coordination though. For that the respective basic conditions, as well as the composition and specific claims of the protest groups, are too diverse. Yet we saw the development of more and more direct connections; what they at least have in common, within the «harmonized» Europe-wide migration system, is the resistance against having one’s rights taken away and being excluded. And not seldom the struggles experienced along the transit routes are touched upon, because this new wave of refugee protests and strikes inside the EU, corresponds with the persistent social and political struggles at the external borders.
The border regime, a lethal deterrent
Whether at the Greek-Turkish border and in the Aegean, in the straits of Sicily or Gibraltar, around the island of Lampedusa, or around the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla: the images at the different focus points, the so-called «hotspots» of the external borders, are alike. Monstrous fencings and high-tech surveillance, EU-financed detention camps and permanent deployment of the border agency Frontex characterize the situation along the borders of the major neighboring countries. From the EU perspective, the Ukraine, Turkey, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and even West-African countries are essential stops of transit migration and must – by means of economic pressure and financial incentives – as much as possible be embedded in the migration control system. This externalization strategy, the removal of the border regime in southward and eastward directions, results in thousands of casualties and much distress being factored in under the EU deterrence strategy against «illegal migration».
The deadly events of October 2005 in Ceuta and Melilla, the Spanish enclaves in Morocco, are generally considered as the turning point, the intensification of the conflicts at an EU border, since the Spanish and Moroccan border police forces responded to the migrants’ collective storm of the fences with plastic missiles and even live ammunition. At least 14 people died, hundreds of others were brought in the direction of the Algerian border on buses and were left there in the desert. Despite massively increased controls and repressive measures towards transit migrants in Morocco, and despite an insane reinforcement of the fences in Ceuta and Melilla, this border remains severely disputed to this day. Again and again individual people succeed in climbing over or swimming around it and first in April 2013 and then again in mid-September several hundred people – in a last desperate effort – collectively laid their lives on the line trying to get across.
The tenacity of the migration movements
After the Aegean islands had been the migrants’ main target in 2008 and 2009, the route changed in 2010 and the Greek-Turkish land border along the Evros river became the main place of transit. Even the deployment of Frontex and immediate incarceration could at first not stop the self-determined entries. The crisis and the reduced possibilities of survival, systematic police raids and racist pogroms, as well as finally the mobilisation of thousands of border guards at the land border, changed the situation again at the end of the summer of 2012. Now fewer migrants are coming, but again over sea and onto the islands, also again to Lesbos. Solidarity groups on the island succeeded in November 2012 to press ahead with an open welcoming centre for the newcomers, this whereas closed camps and prisons usually are the reality in Greece. After the major raids of last year and after another adjustment of the Greek migration laws to EU standards, thousands of people are locked up here and this meanwhile for up to 18 months. Against this background massive revolts of the interned refugees and migrants occurred in April 2013.
With the fall of the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali numerous new actors have sprung up in civilian society, among which the organisations of the family members of missing and drowned Harragas (Arabic/north-African word for migrants who start travelling without a visa, which in translation means «He/she who burns borders»), who with their protests do not only demand clarification of the fate of their relatives and friends. They simultaneously ask for the abolition of the EU visa regime and criticize their own government for its collaboration with the EU. «We made the revolution for dignity and democracy», said the spokeswoman for a group of Tunisian mothers of disappeared people in July 2012 at an international meeting. And further: «The government is passive, our sons have made the revolution, but we still have not heard anything about their whereabouts. There will be a second revolution, if the situation does not change». When in September 2012 another boat capsized near Lampedusa and 79 Tunisian migrants (among whom also children) died, a local uprising with strikes and blockades occurred shortly after in El Fahs, one of the places of origin of the victims. Simultaneously there are recurring protests of transit migrants from sub-Saharan and east- African countries, who during the civil war fled from Libya to Tunisia and then had to live in the desert, in Choucha near the border, in encampments of the UNHCR. They demanded to be allowed to travel on towards a secure host country and many also managed, as recognized refugees, to obtain so-called resettlement places in the USA or Europe, but a few hundred refugees have been refused this status and/or to travel on. As of January 2013 they are in a permanent protest, in April 2013 even in a hunger strike, in front of the UNHCR’s office in Tunis.
Transnational campaigns and structures
In January and November 2013 a donation-campaign of west-European networks made it possible for the transit migrants of Choucha to go in busses to protests in the city of Tunis 500 km away. But transnational solidarity has long since gone beyond fund raising. Three examples: with a Noborder camp on Lesbos in 2009, not only multiple contacts developed – in particular with the Afghan and east- African migration communities – which were maintained in further joint struggles concerning Dublin II. There was also an impetus for monitoring and support projects along this, statistically considered, most important migration route from Turkey, via Greece, towards north-western Europe.
With the Bus Caravan for Freedom of Movement and Just Development from Bamako to Dakar in early 2011 a new step was made in the Euro-African cooperation. In particular with groups from Mali a continuous and stable interchange has developed. And with the Arab Spring new possibilities and necessities ensued in the cooperation with organizations in North Africa. With the fall of the watchdog regimes in Tunisia and Libya and in view of the rigid EU visa policy, increasing numbers of migrants boarded boats again, in order to try to reach Europe via Lampedusa and Sicily. Many died and still die in doing so, more and more often also because border guards refuse to safe them. Against this background Boats4People was started in July 2012, a symbolic campaign of Euro-African solidarity against the deadly border regime at sea, which is now followed by «Watch The Med», a practice-oriented, transnational monitoring project against the left-to-die policy in the Mediterranean.
For if the Noborder camps, caravans and solidarity boats in the disputed border regions are considered as publicity-effective actions and yet rather symbolic interventions, the contacts and cooperation have meanwhile evolved into longer lasting structures which are increasingly well-linked. The knowledge obtained in this way finds many applications, such as for instance in the virtual guideline of Welcome to Europe, which website offers useful addresses and practical information from all major transit and target countries in four languages, as a concrete support for refugees and migrants who are on the move. At the end of last year a «Transborder Map» was created, a map which offers a first overview of the increasing number of linked initiatives along the external borders of the EU. It will soon be supplemented and elaborated into an interactive platform, which makes the struggles and campaigns for global freedom of movement visible in a joint framework.
Challenges and perspectives
A week after the tragedy of 3 October, Wolfgang Niedecken, singer of the rockband BAP, made a remarkable comparison in a German talk show («hart, aber fair»): he wished that the gruesome death of the boat people near Lampedusa might turn into a «Fukushima of refugee politics», meaning that it might mark a turning point away from the gruesome exclusion politics. Considering the given reality this would seem another case of wishful thinking, since while the pope was demanding secure ferries for the people in need, the responsible politicians in Brussels decided to reinforce Frontex and to intensify surveillance by means of Eurosur (the European border Surveillance system, which is intended to make use of drones, reconnaissance equipment, offshore sensors and satellite search systems. As of December 2013 the system will become operative in seven countries bordering on the Mediterranean). Having twenty years of experience in border management, they do this full well knowing that more control will lead to more deaths and distress.
Yet it is not only the outcry in the media and the uncommonly critical public discourse of these last weeks, that gives us hope, first and foremost the continuous self-organized struggles of refugees and migrants are encouraging. At the moment we see a trans-European perpetuation and condensing of the struggles for freedom of movement, which seem unique for the more recent history of migration. Perspective questions concerning concrete enforcement strategies, as well as improved Europe-wide coordination are at the very top of the agenda at current nation-wide and international meetings and conferences. There were and there are small successes: be it – as mentioned at the top – the struggle against Dublin II, be it more resettlement places being made available for the reception of refugees, be it the abolition of coupon systems and food parcels in Lower Saxony and Bavaria, be it the abolition of the «Residenzpflicht» inside the federal states. That these concessions do not serve the intended reformative pacification and division, but can be used for further dynamics and the strengthening of our movement, will be one of the challenges.
Moreover the way in which, in the next months, a Europe-wide coordinated protest cycle could be started off, is already intensively debated. If we would moreover succeed in strengthening the link between these struggles of migrants and refugees with campaigns against the general crisis- and austerity-politics – in the way this is being discussed e.g. in the preparation meetings for the Blockupy Action Days for May 2014 – this could result in an exciting impetus for the necessary debate of the connection between the deprivation of rights and precarity. On the other hand it could strengthen the refugee protests, not only from a moralistic point of view, but also from a general social context to interconnect struggles against the crisis and the border regime. Anyway in the near future, there are indeed chances to permanently demolish «Fortress Europe».
* The German version of this text is available on FORSCHUNGSGESELLSCHAFT FLUCHT & MIGRATION