Solidarité avec les sans-papiers - undocumented migrants in Belgium organising themselves

There are about 150,000 undocumented migrants in Belgium, many of them living in Brussels. As already noted in the recent post by Mona, although sans papiers - as they would call themselves in French - belong to the most vulnerable denizens, being denied most of the rights, they rarely take a passive position just waiting for changes from the above. During the secondment in Brussels, I had a chance to observe and film the way how some of the documented and undocumented immigrants organise themselves. Now I would like to share with you some of these observations.

The basic unit of the migrant’s self-organisation is an informal group called a collective. It is a group organised around a common feature, be it nationality (eg. Collective Afghan) or shared experience. The latter one was, for example, the case of the Collective Mobilisation Groupe 2009. In 2009, its members were subjected to a temporal and conditional (i.a. linked with the employment status) regularisation attempt. However, due to the brief window of opportunity and unclear requirements, some of the migrants never managed to receive their Belgian documents and they do not know if they will be ever able to do so.

The recently grounded collective is named Ebola, and it gathers people from the three countries Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, hit last year by the Ebola virus epidemic. In February, the members of the Ebola Collective protested nearby the offices of Belgium Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Asylum, Migration and Administrative Simplification. The protesters were against the passivity of the Belgian government. According to Alexis, one of the protest organisers, while there were actions made to protect Belgian citizens from the threat of the virus, nothing was done in order to protect unregistered migrants. The Ebola Collective, along with their supporters, demanded temporary right to stay and work in Belgium. Germany, Switzerland and Sweden, were given as examples of the countries which have already suspended deportations.

Interestingly enough, the deportations from Belgium to the “Ebola countries” have been de facto stopped, but for reasons other than humanitarian. Namely, the trade union of the police officers refused to assist in the deportations because they themselves were afraid of the Ebola threat.

The vague legal situation of the members of the Ebola and Mobilisation 2009 Collectives shows a wider problem. There is a need for clear international solutions and procedures regarding health and climate refugees, who nowadays are not covered by international law, in particular by the Geneva Convention. It also reflects the incoherence of the European Union policy, which on the one hand pursues a common policy with regard to immigration from the EU countries, but on the other hand leaves policies up to the member states’ governments in regards to the regulation of immigration from the non-EU countries.

Coming back to the described case, all collectives were supported by the non-governmental organisation Pigment, which devotes its work to the emancipation of people in poverty – with or without papers. Since the Pigment principle is „to give the poor the voice” and help them to unite, each month they organise action and public marches to make other people aware of their difficult situation. It is also a way of building solidarity among the different collectives and simply a chance to meet friends.

As the undocumented migrants lack a stable source of income, they cannot rent a flat or even a room, so they occupy some abandoned buildings in the centre of Brussels. Living in a squat is really challenging and means one room for 8 to 12 people as well as sharing one bathroom among 50 flatmates, but it is also used as a way for group mobilisation. As explained by one of the interviewees, there is an unwritten rule that only those who regularly attend the meetings and participate in the demonstrations can stay in the squat. In that way, the activity is initially „enforced” on the newcomers. However many of them remain engaged, even after they manage to find more comfortable dwelling places.

Actions: Comments (1)


# Karima
04 May 2015 08:53
Thank you very much for this interesting post and the pictures, Mateusz! Last week I was at a conference here in Brussels on Migration Policies and during the discussion someone of the sans papers in the audience criticized the academic discussion talking about them as subjects and not including them into such events. While two of the panelists basically ignored his input, the third one offered his support and related to the sans papers through his personal experience as formerly undocumented migrant in the US. While I think a lot of the researchers in this field are engaged in the topic because they care for people, this nevertheless raises the question of what public sociology could or should look like.

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