Immigration Rights and No Border Struggles in Europe - Markus Euskirchen, Henrik Lebuhn, and Gene Ray

What are the links between No Borders politics and those demanding immigration rights? What was the state of the migration movement in 2010. Originally published in September 2010.

Immigration rights and no-border movements in Europe are protesting and resisting an emerging border regime characterised, first, by a shift from traditional borderlines to extensive and intensive borderlands and zones and, second, by a public discourse that distorts representations of migrants in specific ways, as both criminals and victims. Protests and campaigns against the (old and) new strategies of control and exclusion have become a major field of action for many grassroots groups in Europe.

However, until today we can hardly speak of a coherent European immigration rights movement. Activists are evidently well connected across the European Union, and camps and demos often draw several thousand people from different countries. But overall, protests and interventions remain dispersed and uncoordinated. It is difficult to piece together an even rudimentary overview of the immense quantity and variety of creative actions across the continent. With few exceptions, such as the French “Sans Papiers” movement of the 1990s or the Spanish legalisation campaign of the early 2000s, immigration rights campaigns hardly ever make it into mainstream media news coverage.

Why has a strong and coherent European immigration rights movement failed to develop from the new forms of struggle and protest? To a large degree, it is the new border regime itself – the European Borderland - that makes it difficult and personally risky for undocumented and precariously employed migrants to organise themselves politically or even to participate publicly in campaigns organised by networks of the radical Left, the activists of which at least are not exposed to these constant threats of deportation or detention. This has certainly contributed to the failure of many campaigns up to now to develop into robust and effective social movements capable of actually stopping or reversing the trends toward border and immigration policies driven by the politics of security and fear.

However, as we will see, this “failure” has not been an utter one, for this field of struggles has produced a steady stream of inventive forms and tactics. Currently, migration struggles appear to be one of the most active, creative and engaging fields for radical politics in Europe, and grassroots groups increasingly bring together topics such as environmentalism, international migration, police brutality and precarious labour in inventive and compelling ways. In this essay, we will look in more detail at two recent examples of radical immigration rights struggles, the “activist camp” and EuroMayDay, and discuss them in the broader context of radical left tactics and strategies.

The Activist Camp and the EuroMayDay Parade

The activist camp – or “bordercamp,” as it is also called in movement discourse – is an organisational form that emerged from the experiences of past struggles in Europe, among others the militant annual campaigns to block the transport of nuclear waste in Germany. In the US, the nearest thing to this model is probably the travelling direct-action training camps organised by the Ruckus Society in the 1990s. In Europe the form has been developed further by the no-border and anti-racist movements, and by the ad hoc networks of groups preparing the large-scale international protests against the G8 and other summit meetings of dominant states and institutions.

The first European no-border camp took place in 1998 at the German-Polish border. It “was initiated to allow refugees, migrants and undocumented migrants, such as the ‘Sans Papiers’ in France, and members of support and campaign groups from across Europe to forge new alliances and strengthen solidarities in a ‘ten-day laboratory of creative resistance and civil disobedience’.” Since then, various camps and caravans have been organised all over Europe. Frequently synchronised with important EU-summits, they often function as counter-summits, bringing together hundreds and sometimes thousands of activists from different countries and diverse political affiliations within the radical Left.

Theoretically, these camps come quite close to Hakim Bey’s notion of the TAZ or “Temporary Autonomous Zone”: organised negations of capitalist logic and normality that appear for a limited time in some crack or interstice of everyday life. With their colourful and festive tent cities, their “Food Not Bombs” style communal kitchens, and their radically democratic “assembly” processes modelled on anarchist tradition as well as the EZLN in Chiapas, the European activist camp solves the logistical problem of materially sustaining international activists gathered for coordinated protests and at the same time pre-figures alternatives to capitalist hyper-individualism and competition.

But many participating activists are also critical of these activist camps. Critics point out their limitations and internal contradictions. The camps are necessarily self-selecting and therefore far from ideally inclusive – not everyone, after all, is cut out for the rigors of camping. And while realisation of direct democracy in the camps is indisputable, the strains of organising everyday life and the time-consuming processes of collective decision-making, or “conflict transformation,” can become paralysing. Finally, despite the fact that camps disappear before they can develop any permanent structure they still attract police repression – and indeed may even facilitate it by concentrating activists in delimited locations. However, the camp model remains a unique tactical form for building critical masses of activists from different cities and regions over periods of several days, and grassroots groups are now trying to extend the movement beyond political camping and some of its tendential problems. And while the activist camp is a tactical, rather than a strategic form, it does push against the limits of tacticality. The camp, as a social space, doesn’t just erect tents; it also constructs, each time, some of the conditions for a different kind of collective life – an alternative way of living that can be realised here and now, while struggling in common for radical social transformation within the existing reality. In this way, the camps push against the very contours of the dominant way of life. This, ultimately, is the source of the tensions within them – and also what draws repression from without.

The second example we want to point to is EuroMayDay. These colourful rallies and marches are organised by a large network of grassroots groups from across the so-called undogmatic Left. They aim to connect struggles often fought separately and to bring together workers, students and migrants in a common anti-capitalist front. The first EuroMayDay march was held in 2001 in Milan, where it now gathers up to 100,000 people each year. Since 2004, the process has spread all over Europe with radical and anarchist groups participating in dozens of cities. In 2007, an international assembly met in Berlin and agreed on six demands for EuroMayDay 2008:

- full legalisation for all persecuted migrants
- the right to form unions and other forms of self-organisation free from state repression
- an unconditional (or universal) basic income
- a European living wage
- free access to culture, knowledge, and skills
- the right to affordable housing

In response to this program, the question can be posed: do we really need yet another May Day parade in Europe? The EuroMayDay marches aim to solve a dilemma that emerged within organising on the Left over the course of the 1990s. Neither the traditional labour day rallies organised by Social-Democratic, mainly co-opted bureaucratic trade unions, nor the autonomist black-block style confrontational demonstrations were able to offer a viable pathway to a broad and radical social movement capable of effectively taking up new issues around migration and precarisation. In this context, EuroMayDay – sometimes compared to a leftist carnival procession spiced up with Salsa bands, political pamphlets and banners, and humorous yet radical direct actions– is an experiment aiming to re-occupy, re-frame and re-define the highly symbolic First of May.

Within the radical Left, EuroMayDay has often been criticised for exactly this: being fun and party-oriented. Many radicals fear that it goes too far in the direction of the carnivalesque, to the point that it de-politicises May Day. Moreover, EuroMayDay suffers from the usual weaknesses of programmatic marches. As a tactical form, a parade can at best open social space for the performance of radically alternative representations. But the gap between representation and reality returns at the end of the march: the mobile carnival does not demand enough from those it attracts to radically transform their ways of living. Finally, it’s not so clear who the EuroMayDay demands are directed to; while few leftists would argue with these six aims, none of them are clearly linked to the political means that could realise them.

From our perspective, however, EuroMayDay has at least been fairly successful in attracting new and diverse grassroots groups, subcultures and individuals, including undocumented migrants. It provides a common forum and shared experiences that potentially are the basis for closer coordinated actions in the future. And while the carnivalesque approach does risk trivialising the problems of responding effectively to the causes of social misery, the emphasis on humour, parody and surprise rather than direct confrontation does protect the demos from the usual stigmatising reflexes and strategies of mainstream media. In any case, it seems to us that both the trade union marches and more militant black-block clashes with riot police also tend to become de-politicising in their very ritual predictability. The vector of re-politicisation begins where predictability ends, and in this sense EuroMayDay is an impressive and viable attempt to rescue May Day by reinventing it.

Immigration Rights Struggles in Europe between Incoherence and Subversion

Despite well-connected international networks, the many actions and campaigns across Europe remain dispersed and without effective critical mass. One obvious reason for this is the fragmented political landscape of the EU. Language barriers, highly differentiated regional labour markets and a variety of national political cultures, policies, practices and institutions make it difficult to transform dozens, if not hundreds, of local initiatives into a truly European movement. But more importantly, the effects of the new border regime itself pose serious obstacles and challenges for grassroots movements – especially when it comes to connecting local activists and migrants across national borders. As a result, there is still no unified social movement that can produce political effects at the highest level of the EU, where questions of common visa policies, cross-national law enforcement cooperation, asylum and deportation standards, etc. are being negotiated and developed.

However, from our perspective, the decentralised character of the current struggles also has some clear – if mainly tactical – advantages. Small and locally grounded movements tend to learn more quickly and adapt more flexibly to new challenges and situations than can larger, more institutionalised organisations. They also tend to be more democratic and participatory and for this reason also more effective in tapping the creativity and energy of their activist membership. The protests around the G8 Summit in Germany in the summer of 2007 and similar large-scale, highly-visible international protests demonstrate the capacity of small groups and networks to organise effectively across borders in preparation for specific scheduled events – even if these mobilisations usually dissolve soon after. These are the tactical strengths that correspond to the strategic weaknesses we have indicated.

In fact, policy makers and politicians seem to fear the fluid and unpredictable character of the current movement, especially when the line is crossed between co-optable law-abiding demonstrations and more militant civil disobedience. In 2008, after one of the largest French deportation prisons was completely destroyed by revolting inmates, a French minister expressed fears of “an accumulation of incidents of that kind in the near future” – meaning riots, revolts and similar explosive upsurges of resistance.

The recent uprising in Greece and that in the French banlieues in 2005, as well as others elsewhere, indicate that his fears are not ungrounded: in a context characterised by persisting forms of institutionalised racism, reduced social entitlements, increasing precarisation of labour and deepening militarisation of everyday life, unexpected explosions of popular revolt are always just around the corner. Such uprisings, often triggered by incidences of police brutality or murder, are difficult and risky for states to deal with; false moves can easily pour gasoline on the flames of revolt and expose the depth of a generalising crisis of legitimation circulating through the capitalist “democracies.” The production of borderland also produces its own specific and explosive forms of social misery. If such uprisings are to develop into effective forces for radical social change, however, the strategic weaknesses of de-centralised protest movements would have to be overcome. In the struggles over borders and immigration policies, this would mean developing organisations adequate to contemporary realities – namely, to the deterritorialised but nevertheless efficiently coordinated border regime that has emerged in Europe in recent years. The flows of migration driven by the dialectic of desire and the relentless coercions of globalised capitalism are already a material force. Borderland names the structural and institutional constraints that, so far, block this force from becoming a factor of emancipation. To overcome this blockage, the no-border movement would need to develop strategic capacity and collective agency that could open – and defend – a pathway to the goals of free mobility and access to social rights based on residency. In the current balance of social and political forces, this means: shaping discourses more capable of disarticulating the hegemonic representations of immigrants within the prevailing politics of fear and security, and reaching beyond the comfort zones of radical-leftist politics to build more durable and effective coalitions for struggle.

"A longer version of this article was presented at the Radical Art Caucus panel, “Migration Struggles and Migratory Aesthetics” for the College Art Association annual conference in Los Angeles, 25-28 February 2009, and can be found online at www.metamute.org"