A 2013 interview with an anti-capitalist and anti-borders activist based in Asturias in Spain, published here for its relevance to ongoing struggles against borders and to facilitate the sharing of experiences and practices across Europe. Translated from the ‘Qué Hacemos’ section of eldiario.es, 21/09/2013.
The epoch of hypermobility in which we live is characterised by both forcing and preventing the movement of people. Reinforced borders and repressive migration policies combine with the forced displacement of peoples throughout the planet. In order to better understand migration and its function within capitalism (emptying some territories and filling others; dispossessing people in some places and increasing the pool of cheap labour in others) we talked to Eduardo Romero. Member of the Asturias based collective Cambalache, he is co-author, together with Gema Fernández, Pablo ‘Pampa’ Sainz, Raquel Celis and Leire Lasa, of the book Qué hacemos con las fronteras, a proposal for a world without borders, where nobody would be forced to move nor prevented from doing so.
Why do you think that the reality of migration is habitually simplified and decontextualised in normal analysis? What type of interpretation do you advance instead?
The majority of the numerous reports on migration that have appeared in recent years are unworthy of the term ‘analysis’. On the contrary, these reports tend to present the migratory process as a ‘pure event’, in the form of a news item that shows migrants as creatures with neither a past nor a future. To ‘humanise’ migratory processes does not mean to treat them sentimentally. The news media has managed to combine maximum sentimentality with maximum indifference. We need fewer photos of migrant people caught on the fences in Ceuta and Melilla or unconscious on a beach on the Spanish coast; we need more analysis of the migratory processes that humanises migrants in the only way possible: by putting migration back into its social, economic and political context. This means placing it in the framework of extreme inequality that this system generates, relating it to the need of capitalism to force movement onto millions of people, and contextualising it, on a global scale, within the workings of patriarchy.
What is the difference between your approach, which comes from a perspective of social activism, and that of academics, which you have described as ‘erudite stories destined for internal academic consumption’?
We could not write about migration ‘from without’. The motivation for writing this book has been to feed into the struggles and networks of solidarity and mutual aid that have sprung up and which will continue to spring up in the social collectives that seek to end the migration policies enacted by the Spanish state and the European Union. To us it seems fundamental that social collectives immersed in ongoing struggles should be capable of elaborating our own critical thought. This book is an opportunity to disseminate a small sample of this thought.
In the book you characterise our period as ‘the epoch of hypermobility’, but your perspective on this ease of movement is critical. Why is that?
Only a few years ago, anti-developmental thought was viewed from afar as a theory tied to the past with nothing to say about the present and the future. Now, in the midst of a crisis of capitalist accumulation, with a future fast approaching in which the energy sources vital to the sustenance of the system as it is will run out, and with official analyses endorsing alarmist discourses, things may be seen differently. The hypermobility of this society, the nine-hundred-and-something million annual tourist trips, the massification and popularisation of the means of transport – the car being the paradigmatic case but we might also cite low-cost flights – are a historical anomaly that will disappear sooner rather than later. The real invasion is not that of migrant people, but that which devastates ecosystems and communities through neo-colonialism. One of the clearest expressions of this is mass tourism.
Why did you consider it necessary to make a specific analysis of the situation of women migrants? What is the nature of this analysis?
Since the beginning of the 21st Century, almost half of the migrant people that have arrived in the Spanish state have been women. In some cases, such as that of Latin America, women have been in the majority. There are countries of origin from which over 70% of those that left for Spain are women. But the quantitative aspect of the question, although important, is not the principle one.
Any analysis that, like ours, attempts to reconstruct emigrant trajectories episodically, from the situation in the country of origin that causes migration up to the roles that migrant people take on in their destinations, should think about the specific role played by women. Women tend to be at once the principal victims of patriarchy and of capitalism, and those who take the lead in the survival of their families. They are the poorest, the most threatened by economic and sexual violence, but also those who sustain the lives, in the countryside or in the suburbs, of those close to them. Often it is this gendered dictate, of care for children, elders and dependants, which forces women to leave those close to them in order to use the strategy of migration as a form of collective survival.
Hundreds of thousands of women have left their families to look after dependant people in Spain. In doing so they are partially substituting local women who, since the second half of the nineties, have been incorporated into the labour market (with much worse conditions than men, of course). Given that there was no attendant social sharing-out of care work, which continued to rest on the shoulders of women, migrants came to carry out the work that many local women could not, or did not wish to do.
Another reason why the analysis in this book does not refer to Soufian or to Adam but to, among others, Hope and Faith, is the need to carry out a specific analysis of the circumstances that form a part of migration for the women who travel from their place of origin to the so-called southern border. The book conveys the hell these women suffer. Trapped in trafficking networks, they travel through the desert until they reach Morocco. The continuing policy of collaboration between the Spanish and Moroccan governments enables the traffickers to play the role of protector of the women on their journey, in spite of the fact that under this protection they carry out all kinds of violence on them. The women, as a survival strategy, are forced to accept these conditions in order to protect themselves from the still greater violence of the states and police forces that have been converted – on a European pay packet – into the gendarmes of the southern border.
You relate migrations (emptying and overpopulating territories) to capitalist accumulation, not only to primitive accumulation but also to that which is going on currently. How does this ‘accumulation by dispossession’ operate today?
I think it was David Harvey who coined this term in order to bring attention to the contemporary character of primitive accumulation. Pillage, violent robbery, is not a characteristic exclusive to the origins of capitalism, but is plainly ongoing and even expands in situations of crisis such as the present.
We are interested in inscribing the analysis of migrations into the analysis of capitalist mobility. This has led us to analyse the history of the mobility of populations in the last century and a half: there are numerous examples of migratory processes that combine an original forced movement – in order to empty territories – with the need for an abundant and poverty stricken labour force in the place of destination. The mechanism continues to function today: in order to occupy millions and millions of hectares in Africa or Latin America for single crop farming for export, for mining activity and the extraction of hydrocarbons, to construct great energy centres etc., it is necessary to first provoke the forced displacement of millions of people. Some of these undertake internal migration and join the inflated numbers of the population that are causing the suburbs of the peripheral megalopolises to grow ever larger, but another section end up arriving at the so called developed countries in search of a future.
What is the right to stay? How could such a right be formulated and protected?
We are not attempting to come up with a judicial term when we talk of the right to stay. Rather it is a term that attempts to complement existing political projects that, when talking about migration, focus exclusively on the demand for individual freedom of movement. It would therefore seem that ending the repressive border enforcement mechanisms in the places of destination – in our case putting an end to Fortress Europe – would be sufficient to guarantee the right to movement. However, bringing down the borders is necessary but insufficient, as many people who emigrate do not do so in order to exercise their freedom, but because they are forced, for political or economic reasons, to leave their place of origin and their loved ones. In the book we say that there are even places in which violence is used specifically to force people to move.
The right not to move must therefore form a part of the right to movement.
The concepts most closely related to this notion are far removed from the sociological or judicial jargon on migration: the food sovereignty of peoples and also their energy and political sovereignty; the autonomy of women and the absence of patriarchal violence against them. All of these are concepts that, although apparently unrelated to questions of migration, would form the basis – in conjunction with the end of borders – of true freedom of movement.
What role do Spanish multinationals play in the forced and violent displacement of populations in other countries?
Leire and Raquel, co-authors of the book, carried out specific analyses on the role of multinationals in Colombia, showing how a good number of Spanish companies occupy territories previously emptied of people by military and paramilitary violence. In Colombia, every year, hundreds of thousands of people are forcefully displaced. Spanish multinational energy companies, for example, are established thanks to such displacement and proceed to suck dry the natural resources of the country. Many other companies also take advantage of the rural exodus to the cities to enrich themselves by increasing the prices of services such as water, electricity, telephones etc.
Meanwhile, the possibility of Colombian nationals successfully applying for asylum status in the Spanish state is continually decreasing.
What has been the impact of the reinforcement of the southern border undertaken by Europe and specifically Spain in recent years?
Rubalcaba (General Secretary of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, the PSOE, at the time of the interview) summed up the current situation best when he said that ‘almost nobody enters Spain without us seeing them first’. Indeed, the violence applied at the border has had appreciable results: almost twenty thousand people have drowned at sea and several thousand people have disappeared at Europe’s southern border; people have been left for dead in the desert by North African armies, with neither food nor water; others have been shot dead on the fences of Ceuta and Melilla; thousands have been jailed in prisons and detention centres outside of any legal jurisdiction in countries such as Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria or Libya.
But the construction of this threat from the South has produced other political consequences: it has created both an external enemy – the Africans who invade us – and an internal one through the intensification of Islamophobia; it has encouraged neo-colonial practices with the excuse of the struggle against illegal immigration (see Plan África), and it has reinforced internal borders in order to discipline the migrant population through the threat of expulsion.
The idea of ‘papers for everyone’ is normally presented in a caricatured way by right wingers. What is your position as regards the system of administrative papers?
The political landscape wouldn’t be so bad if it was only ‘the right’ that defended migration policy. But was it right-wingers who put it into place? That would depend on what we understand by the term. The governments of the PP and the PSOE are no different when it comes to migration policy. The big trade unions have given coverage to the Ley de Extranjería (Immigration Law) and their approach doesn’t differ from the far-right slogan of ‘Spaniards first’. CCOO (Comisiones Obreras - a major Spanish trade union), for example, has published documents in which it demanded greater firmness from the government in insisting that African countries accept repatriated people. It is easier, therefore, to ridicule the empty and hypocritical defenders of ‘humanitarian progress’ than the idea of ‘papers for everyone’. In any case, the social collectives confronting migration policy do not do so in an isolated way, but within an anti-capitalist framework and practice. It is not our job to propose administrative measures that might alleviate the suffering of a section of migrants but to shut down – and not only verbally – migration policy.
What role did immigrant workers play during the years of the housing bubble?
The period of economic growth was characterised by a spectacular growth in the waged population: from 12 to 20 million people in thirteen years (1994-2007). There were two processes that made this growth possible without unemployment figures going down: the accelerated incorporation of women into waged work; and the entrance of millions of men and women into the Spanish labour market. There wasn’t, therefore, a policy of closed borders, but one of creating a cheap and compliant migrant workforce. The border security mechanisms have been particularly useful to that end: not so much for the fact of deportation in itself but for ensuring that immigrants live with the threat of deportation.
The cheap labour supplied by the migrant population at the beginning of the twenty-first century was essential to duplicating employment in construction work in a very short space of time, but also increased the workforce in greenhouse agriculture, the hospitality sector, care work etc.
What is your analysis of the current emigration of Spanish workers to other countries?
A good proportion of the population of the Spanish state had forgotten very quickly that emigration had been a relatively recent experience. Now that it has come back, we can see that it has followed the same logic that we have suggested above: a crisis in the place of origin – in this case Spain – has produced a ‘flight’ to other places with ‘emerging’ economies, or economies that haven’t been so devastated by the crisis.
Is there a risk of outbreaks of xenophobia on account of the crisis?
Up and down the state, uniformed men and women armed with guns, batons and sometimes dogs identify and arrest people according to their ‘racial’ appearance; there are detention centres specifically for migrants; the state pays for macabre deportation flights onto which deportees are forcibly embarked… It is not a question of anticipating an outbreak of xenophobia among ‘the population’ or wondering whether ‘society’ is racist. It isn’t necessary to focus on the speeches of the far right organisations. The Spanish state and its principal political parties have put racist and xenophobic policies into place, and have generalised and institutionalised these practices. Are the people racist? What is certain is that societal racism follows on from the institutional variety.
How can we build networks of solidarity among workers, neighbourhoods, citizens and activists that include immigrants?
Fortunately there is no such thing as an ‘indigenous’ struggle to which migrants can be invited to join. Still less so today. The interlinking of the local and migrant population in the struggle against evictions or against cuts to healthcare has happened naturally. The struggle against migration policy demands a high level of specialisation, and creates marked differences between those who are affected by it and those who have documentation and do not have to worry about a residency permit. Nevertheless, this new cycle of struggles has created the possibility of this meeting taking place. In fact it is happening already. One of the challenges is to take advantage of this situation in order to ensure that the multiplication of social struggles also reinforces the struggle against migration policies.
What role do detention centres and raids play in migration policy?
Detention centres are a link in the chain that begins with racist raids and ends in deportations. But their role is not only as a mechanism to bring about these deportations. On the contrary, perhaps their most important function is to spread fear and therefore compliance among the migrant population. In reality, the machinery of repression works above all in an exemplary sense: every migrant must understand that ending up in a detention centre is a real possibility, that a deportation flight reported in the newspaper could have been his/hers. Millions of racist raids are effective in the sense of instilling this fear. They are also effective in criminalising migrants, and demonstrating at street-level that there really are enemies within that have to be controlled, identified and deported.
Have the exposés changed anything with regard to the detention centres?
The avalanche of reports, complaints and actions against the detention centres has discomfited the Spanish state. Specifically, the succession of disturbing reports and the death of one person in the detention centre of Aluche in December 2011 and another in that of Zona Franca in January 2012, at the outset of the PP’s term in office, caused the new government to hold meetings with various social organisations and to promise the passing of regulations for detention centres. A year and a half on from those deaths and the promised regulation has yet to be passed, and the draft bill is in any case nothing but a whitewash, hypocritical to the point of changing the name of the centre. Perhaps ‘Centre for the Internment of Aliens’ sounds too much like a concentration camp, so now they want to rename them ‘Centres for the Controlled Residence of Emigrants’.
The government has attempted to entangle certain organisations in the negotiation of the regulations, while it gained some breathing space after the succession of scandals and while it attempted to present itself as a promoter of a more humanitarian policy: together with the reform of detention centres, the supposed end of the raids was announced. Neither one nor the other has taken place, and the organisations that chose to negotiate have seen that what is on offer is more of the same.
The arbitrary, repressive and racist character of detention centres lies in their very makeup. That is why there can be no perspective other than getting rid of them, whatever name they are given. In the book we collect examples of struggles that have challenged the existence of these jails, from inside or outside, throughout Europe: rallies, marches, hunger strikes, break-outs and even the burning of one centre in Vincennes (France).
You talk about the need to learn from experiences of activism and disobedience such as the Brigadas Vecinales de Observación de Derechos Humanos (Neighbourhood Brigades for the Observation of Human Rights). In what sense?
Surely, if we were to look back at the existence of millions of racist ID-checks, we would be shocked that a society had let it happen. Nevertheless that is what is happening now, what has been happening for a decade, and we cannot say that it has passed by unnoticed, as it is highly visible and palpable, not only in the media but in the experience of those of us who walk the cities and neighbourhoods of the Spanish state.
It is vital to report and denounce the raids, and, if possible, to impede them wherever they take place. The Brigades in Madrid have carried out a very valuable job of documenting and reporting raids. In other places in the state, interventions in the geographical hotspots for raids have resulted in a great deal of experience in reporting and resisting. It’s important that this accumulation of experiences is shared and circulates among the social collectives as a common apprenticeship and as a way of mutually strengthening ourselves.
For more information see the book Qué hacemos con las fronteras and the webpage www.quehacemos.org
Eduardo Romero is a member of the Asociación Cambalache and its Immigration Working Group. He participates in the Ruta contra el racismo y la represión in Asturias and is the author of several books published by Cambalache: Quién invade a quién. Del colonialism al II Plan África (2011), Un deseo apasionado de trabajo más barato y servicial. Migraciones, fronteras y capitalismo (2010), A la vuelta de la esquina. Relatos de racismo y represión (2008), and Quién invade a quién. El plan África y la inmigración (2007). He has also contributed to Frontera Sur (Virus, 2008), and Si vis pacem. Repensar el antimilitarismo en la época de la guerra permanente (Bardo Ed. 2011). He also contributes to the feminist publication La Madeja.