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Solidarity across borders

As governments borrow ideas from each other to expand their anti-migrant regimes, movements to defend migrants’ rights must likewise share strategies of resistance. Hear from five activists on the ground

7 to 9 minute read

Interrogate motivations and amplify knowledge

It’s easy to say ‘No borders, no nations’ but we must reflect that by learning about what’s going on beyond Britain – so many migrant solidarity movement members lack knowledge about contemporary migration routes and experiences. This should not be gained through the ‘voluntourism’ industry, however.

If you’re tempted to spend a week or two in Calais, Lesbos, Serbia or at any border zone, ask: who does this really serve? Is it paired up with a long-term strategy around migrant solidarity work? Are you personally more useful there, or at home? Could you instead sponsor someone with essential language skills or cultural knowledge, who otherwise couldn’t afford to go? There is a notable lack of people of colour out ‘in the field’, including in professional roles. This needs to change.

Many migrants attempt to enter the EU through Serbia, which is not an EU country. Frontline organisations such as the Border Violence Monitoring Network, Noname Kitchen, Collective Aid and MSF Serbia are doing essential work there gathering information on the treatment of migrants that should be headline news. British activists can help amplify the knowledge they’re producing and help fund their work. We can seek out imaginative ways of disrupting the border regime where we are. After all, Britain contributes resources to the realities of Fortress Europe that are evident in countries like Serbia.

Anon spent 3 months organising in Serbia in early 2021

Activate human rights protections

Fortress Europe continues to make itself as hostile as possible to migrants and asylum seekers. Walls line several borders, while violent and illegal removals and inhuman and degrading treatment is commonplace. Few migrants are aware of the protections afforded to them by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) or how to make best use of them.

The ECHR can act to prevent the imminent risk of irreparable harm to a ‘core’ right (such as the right to life or human dignity) through interim measures issued under rule 39 of its rules of court. These measures can be an effective and fast-acting tool to prevent infringements. They were used, for example, to prevent the first ‘Rwanda flights’ leaving the UK. Unfortunately, the system is scarcely known to the public and not well used by advocates. In 2019 and 2021, the ECHR granted just 11 per cent of interim measures requests.

The Rule 39 Initiative promotes the effective use of interim measures to protect migrants’ rights, including through pro bono lawyers supporting groups across Europe. The collaborative project has helped 260 people, including 48 children, in ten countries. Key wins include first-of-a-kind decisions on the pushback of migrants from Greece and securing relocation for migrants, including asylum seekers stuck in Ukraine, during active conflict. We’ve also supported cases concerning sea rescues and fighting against pushbacks at several European borders.

With proper use, this approach can protect migrants and set new precedents for protection. We’re eager to help British organisations understand how to best make use of it.

Daria Sartori, Rule 19 Initiative project leader, and Fabi Fugazza, chief operating officer of the Italian Coalition for Liberty and Civil Rights @Cild2014

Legal action complements grassroots resistance

The UK struggle against its government’s ‘Rwanda plan’ mirrors the long-running defence of the right to seek asylum in Australia. These are two sites of the same destructive phenomenon: well-resourced governments repudiating the right to seek safety by subjecting desperate people to prolonged suffering in other countries as a deterrent to others. These policies rely on exploiting other countries’ sovereignty to shield inhumane conditions from public scrutiny and legal challenge.

Since 2012, more than 4,000 people intending to seek asylum in Australia have been forcibly detained in Nauru or Papua New Guinea (PNG). More than 150 remain there almost a decade after they arrived. Many others live precariously after being returned to Australia. Fourteen people have died. For over a decade, asylum seekers have been deprived of liberty on remote islands, exposed to violence, neglect, crushing uncertainty and even death.

Despite its immense human and financial cost, Australia’s policy has not achieved its stated objectives even on its own terms. Boat journeys to Australia slowed only after the introduction of boat ‘turnbacks’ – a policy with its own serious legal and humanitarian concerns.

We must be able to communicate with elected officials in the language they best understand – votes

Just as the Rwanda plan was inspired by Australia’s inhumanity, opposition to it can draw on Australian responses. Australia’s policies were designed to keep its victims silent and out of sight. Getting the voices, stories and images of people detained to the public has been critical to shifting opinion. It is essential to defend the right of protest and communication and to support the activism and leadership of those most affected. People subject to the policy have mounted the most powerful resistance to it, including leading unceasing action – from protests to vigils to riots – in detention centres in Nauru and PNG.

Other responses have aimed at varied targets using a range of strategies and tools, from lawyers coordinating individual legal challenges on a mass scale to resist transfers from Australia, to broad-based campaigns to bring people back and improving access to timely medical care. Calls for divestment successfully limited the companies willing to take on the financial and reputational risks associated with offshore detention. The Manus Island detention centre was closed after lawyers in PNG established that it was unconstitutional.

Our experience underscores the value of broad-based movements. Where years of toxic discourse on refugees and immigration have shaped public opinion and governments are committed to pursuing ‘deterrence’ policies, high-profile legal action can help efforts to change public discourse but can rarely change it alone.

Scott Cosgriff, senior lawyer, for the Human Rights Law Centre, Australia @humanrightsHRLC

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visiting the operations room for small boats command

Rishi Sunak stands in an operations centre with two men.

Mobilise mass action

Immigration has been an immensely difficult political issue in the US for a very long time. Many movement leaders have spent decades seeking a humane federal immigration reform centred on a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people in the country. Time and again, proposals have failed in Washington.

In this challenging context, immigrant rights organisations have nonetheless won many important fights, securing humane state and local policies including in-state college tuition and access to driver’s licences regardless of immigration status. These victories have been possible because of base-building organisations whose members are directly affected by the issues.

Our members spend at least as much effort engaging state and local elected officials as we do focusing on Washington, winning policies with an enormous practical impact on people’s lives. In efforts to tackle inhumane detention and deportation policies, we have also focused on particular detention facilities, such as the Berks Detention Center in Pennsylvania, and the authorities that licence them. Throughout the Trump administration, our ‘Corporate Backers of Hate’ campaign successfully moved J P Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo to stop financing private immigrant detention.

As well as building a base of directly-affected people ready to take action and developing the flexibility to identify and campaign at different sets of targets, we have engaged in electoral politics. Across the US, immigrant-led organisations have undertaken voter engagement work, registering and mobilising voters, endorsing candidates and recruiting members and allies to run for office. We have found we must be able to communicate with elected officials in the language they best understand – votes – and, where they refuse to communicate with us, to lift up the leadership of those who will.

Daniel Altschuler, co-executive director, Maegan Llerena, Pennsylvania director, and Leo Murrieta, Nevada director, Make the Road Action, USA @MaketheRoadAct

Emotional solidarity counters criminalisation

The Iuventa ship conducted search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean from 2016 until it was confiscated by Italian authorities in August 2017. Twenty-one sea rescuers were later charged with ‘facilitating unauthorised migration’. If convicted, we face up to 20 years in prison.

Across Europe and beyond, structures in solidarity with people on the move have been increasingly impacted by obstruction and criminalisation. These are well-orchestrated tools to systematically shut down borders by means of pushbacks, deportations, ignoring distress cases at sea, arbitrary arrests and convictions of migrants, gravely violating international law. It is important to not confuse solidarity structures with the primary target of the repressive measures but to understand them as a barrier to counter the impact of the violent European border regime.

We experience criminalisation as an integral part of efforts to hinder solidarity structures. However, its ability to deter or even paralyse lies in its effectiveness as a source of fear at the individual level. Yet instilled fear can also bring about anger with the potential to strengthen and mobilise political action – thus making repression ineffective. When authorities want to intimidate us, we must reply with determination and preparedness, not to avoid legal consequences but to endure them. This is because, ironically, the criminalisation of our political actions proves their effectiveness.

The underlying mechanisms of repression often have disguised impacts. Promoting a hegemony in which activists censor themselves, for example, is among the most effective and demobilising pitfalls. Individuals need to have agency in order to recognise these mechanisms and transform repression into an opportunity.

In this context, the outcome of any legal case is by no means reducible to acquittal or conviction. Criminalisation requires neither to unleash its destructive momentum in our networks.

So, let us strike up emotional solidarity – recognising that emotions can escalate political participation as well as demobilising solidarity structures – and pay attention to strategic choices, uncovering their underlying mechanisms linking the ability of each of us to endure repression to the necessity to fuse a collective movement identity. In other words: be careful with each other, so you can be dangerous together.

Kathrin, defendant in Iuventa trial @IuventaCrew

This article first appeared in issue #239, Spring 2023, Flight, Fight, Remain. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

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