On the Frontline: Protesting as Noncitizens – Refugee Protest Camps in Europe

On the Frontline: Protesting as Noncitizens – Refugee Protest Camps in Europe

Heather Johnson 

“We do not talk about facilities, about own place, but about legal status and about our struggle. This is the time to share responsibilities… This is the European Union. They say they work for a peaceful world, we support this! Because we are also part of this world, and our role is very important.” (Refugee Protest Camp Vienna, May 3 2013)

Every day in Europe, borders are crossed. The most significant refugee crisis since the Second World War is challenging the ‘normal’ operation of border controls, and of security. Amidst a panic about the number of arrivals, European states continue to bicker over responsibility, ‘burden sharing’, emergency resettlement plans, and longer term strategies for a way to stop and manage the flow of refugees. In the turmoil, and in the high-level discussions of numbers and costs and ‘solutions’, individuals themselves are reduced to statistics. They are administered and managed through a restrictive policy that is premised on control and that silences the voices of the migrants themselves, excluding them from the conversations that shape their lives.

Migrants are not, however, passive in accepting this silencing; across Europe, migrants are self-organising, reaching across borders to stand in solidarity with one another and with supporters calling attention to their enforced voicelessness. The protests are unprecedented in scale, and in their form (1). Through occupation and protest, noncitizens are demanding that they be admitted to the conversation, that their expertise as migrants both can and will contribute to imagining not short-term, band-aid solutions, but long term, inclusive strategies that work across the lines that divide us in an activist politics that can also imagine new futures.

Refugee Protest Camp Vienna (RPCV) is an important and remarkable example of this protest movement, embracing strategies of occupation and solidarity. In November 2012, a march of over 100 refugees and supporters left the Traiskirchen reception centre and walked to the centre of Vienna, demanding freedom of movement and better living conditions for the refugees. They established a protest camp in Sigmund Freud Park in front of the Votive Church, where they remained for a month. On December 28th the camp was forcibly cleared by police, and the protesters took sanctuary in the church itself. Forty-five refugees began a hunger strike which lasted until February, when it was paused because of the marked deterioration in their health. In the Spring of 2013, RPCV was moved to an old monastery with the support of Caritas. Since then, it has left the monastery and refugees have been housed in various places throughout the city. The movement itself remains an active, palpable presence in Vienna, advocating on local issues while connecting to similar protests elsewhere. RPCV continues to be supported by widespread action, including marches that have numbered up to 2500 protesters, public events such as discussion panels and film screenings, solidarity rallies, and public information campaigns.

The notable thing about the Protest Camp movement is that it is led by migrants themselves – by noncitizens. This upends our usual understanding of political activism, which sees it as necessarily led by citizens as the only legitimate political actors. The question of who can be political is, at its core, a struggle over the recognition of legitimacy, inclusion and power. We use citizenship as a short-hand to understand these dynamics, but in doing so we risk failing to recognize the political power of noncitizens. It is this failure that the refugee protest camps demand that we not only recognize, but put right. In doing so, we can admit new voices to the conversation about migration, re-imagining the society in which we live.

The protest camp movement has roots in the no-borders movement that has persisted for ten years as citizen-activists have stood against the increasing restriction of the European border regime. The refugee protestors in RPCV target both national and European policies, seeking concrete improvements in their living conditions and tangible rights from the host state. They are also demanding a rethinking of the European system (embodied in the Dublin Convention). They demonstrate a keen awareness of how the political trade-offs between state and regional law shape the lives of migrants and control their movement – as well as their political participation.

The Protest Camp embraces a tactic of occupation, and in doing so asserts that refugees are an integral part of our politics. The establishment of protest camps in city centres situates the protest in a clear local context that is highly visible. In direct contrast the isolating, silencing, and exclusionary policies of states which require migrants to live in immigration reception centres or in remote, pre-selected housing, the camps assert that the migrants are here, not in a place apart. Occupation is about the re-appropriation of space and, much like the Occupy movement, by being visible the protestors are asserting that they are part of this society, part of the public. They use this to enact a clear politics of belonging, and to make active rights claims (2).

Such visibility, however, comes with risk. Unlike citizens, the noncitizen is deportable. This is an essential difference, and is at the core of the politics that shapes the experience of refugees, and of the protestors. By making themselves visible, refugee protestors are vulnerable to state action designed to quell dissent, if not remove it entirely by removing the protestor him/herself through deportation. In Vienna, this is an important reality. Since 2013 there has been a concerted campaign, of public criminalisation of the refugees, by the Austrian government. Several protestors have been accused of human trafficking, on which basis they have been arrested, detained and deported. For the protestors, who claim that these charges are false, this is a clear tactic of political suppression. A central demand for RPCV, therefore, has been to end the deportations and reaffirm access to effective asylum procedures for all refugees. The importance of this cannot be overstated, and it is a demand heard across Europe.

Despite the risk, the protests continue. In their demands, protestors recognize the differences between citizens and noncitizens, and actually embed them into the political solidarities being built across the movement. Rather than seeking a solidarity which asserts the ‘right’ of the citizen to speak on behalf of the refugee, the protest camps assert solidarity as mutual responsibility. Activism in this light is as much about the relationships between people as it is about relationships with the state. It requires that a sustained conversation become part of the everyday lives of both refugees and supporters. This solidarity understands that noncitizens are capable of making demands not only of the state, but also of one another and of citizens. It is a call for a relationship of equality that recognizes the power of citizens to support, alongside the capacity of noncitizens to articulate their own demands, to be seen and heard, and to lead. As one of the RPCV protestors states:

“We ourselves, the refugees, make the demonstration and we are the ones who want it. It is our fight. We thank everybody for their help, but we don’t allow anybody to use us. This is a self-organized struggle of and by refugees, one that needs your support” (RPCV, February 13, 2013).

To stand in solidarity with migrants who enter Europe each day, we need to think about politics beyond the framework of citizenship. We need to do so in a way that does not seek to flatten each individual protest into one single understanding, rendering their strategies and voices homogenous. The Refugee Protest Camps are a movement of noncitizens who are claiming rights and making demands that are not only about their living conditions, but are also about the quality of their political lives and the right to be participants in the societies in which they live. If we are to address the current challenges in migration creatively and in ways that improve the everyday lives of individuals, these are voices that need to be included. Citizenship is a structure that is based upon exclusion, and upon lines that divide. The protests challenge this division, articulating demands in an inspirational affirmation of the political contributions of noncitizens to the discussions that shape their lives, and that re-imagine our society, and its politics.

McGuaran, Katrin and Kees Hudig (2014). “Refugee Protests in Europe: fighting for the right to stay” Statewatch Journal: reflections on the state and civil liberties in Europe 23 (3/4), 28.

For more about migrant occupation and their politics:
De Genova, Nicholas (2010). “The Queer Politics of Migration: Reflections on ‘Illegality’ and Incorrigibility” Studies in Social Justice 4(2): 101-126.
Mountz, Alison (2011). “Where asylum-seekers wait: feminist counter-topographies of sites between states” Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography 18(3): 381-399.
Rygiel, Kim (2011). “Bordering solidarities: migrant activism and the politics of movement and camps at Calais” Citizenship Studies 15(1): 1-19.
Tyler, Imogen and Katarzyna Marciniak (2013). “Immigrant Protest: an introduction” Citizenship Studies 17(2): 143-156.

For more on this research, see Johnson, H. (2015) These fine lines: locating noncitizenship in political protest in Europe. Citizenship Studies 19 (8), 951-965. 

Heather Johnson is a Lecturer in International Studies in the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast. Her research focuses on irregular migration and asylum seekers, border security, and the practices of resistance, solidarity and protest of noncitizens. She also writes about visual representations of refugees. Her book, Borders, Asylum and Global Non-Citizenship: The Other Side of the Fence, was published in 2014 by Cambridge University Press. Her work has also appeared in journals such as International Political Sociology, Security Dialogue, and Third World Quarterly. Heather is currently working on a project about irregular migration in the maritime space, funded through the ESRC Future Research Leaders scheme.