In a context characterized by the curtailing of migrants’ rights and tighter border controls, migrants tend to feature in the political arena mainly as political objects. They are routinely made into political and policy ‘targets’ to control, count, contain, deter, detain and deport. Their often disadvantaged and precarious conditions favor exploitative and exclusionary treatments by employers and politicians alike, and their representation in public discourse is increasingly hostile.
In this short piece I want go beyond this approach and look at migrants as political actors and subjects of policy. While many questions could be considered in this respect, here I will focus on only two. Firstly, I am interested in highlighting how migrants can articulate their agency in adverse contexts such as the ones just outlined. Secondly, I want to consider the impact of their engagements. Can policies be transformed from below by migrants and their civil society allies (unions, NGOs, social movements and community organizations)?
Despite usually lacking the right to vote and sometimes even the right to stay in the receiving country, there are several indications of migrants’ civic and political vitality, even though these have received scant scholarly and media attention. In recent years, migrants throughout Europe have struggled against irregular status and the vulnerability and exclusion it produces, seeking papiers, papeles and pathways to citizenship (see Mc Nevin, 2011; Anderson, 2010). They have demonstrated in the streets, occupied churches, undertaken hunger strikes, and formed alliances with labour, civic and community organizations. In the UK, examples include the Justice for Cleaners and the Living Wage campaigns where precarious migrant workers joined forces with unions and community organizations to engage multinational companies and big business on the issue of fair pay and conditions (Però, 2014). In addition to fighting exploitation, abuse and discrimination at work, migrants have struggled across a range of other issues such as fairer access to health care and housing. They have also mobilized for respect and recognition. This has been an important element in the struggles of Latin American migrants in London who felt invisible and thus perceived themselves to be an unsupported minority in superdiverse Britain (Però, 2008). Migrants have also fought against the violation of their human rights, as was recently the case in Italy, where a group of migrants sewed their lips in protest at being detained.
Clearly, when examining and assessing migrants’ political engagements, we need to factor in their subaltern and marginalized conditions to fully appreciate their agency and impact. We also need to adopt an inclusive idea of policy change that extends beyond formal changes. As I have argued elsewhere, this more comprehensive idea of policy change should comprise ‘smaller’ changes produced by the everyday practices of citizenship that migrants deploy to cope with, neutralize or resist adverse policies, and to demand the enforcement of favourable policies and laws when these are not being implemented. For example, I have elsewhere discussed how a group of sin-papeles in Barcelona obtained regularization through a combination of hunger strikes and a well organized and supported occupation of churches. While not repealing the immigration policy that had originally illegalized them, these migrants did successfully manage to suspend its enforcement and negotiate an amnesty. I have also illustrated, on the matter of exploitation and rights at work, how a group of new migrant workers from Latin America succeeded in their demand for the application of existing British employment law through establishing a migrant workers’ organization, LAWAs, within the British trade union movement. This initiative not only made a significant number of migrants with a poor command of English aware of their employment rights, but also supported them in demanding compliance from exploitative employers (see Però, 2011).
Given the significance of the kinds of migrants’ practices of citizenship outlined above, it is important for engaged scholarship to pay attention, in research and teaching, to both the practices and their impact. Likewise, it is time for community and labour organizations to represent more systematically the interests of this new and marginalized sector of the population. Finally, as part and parcel of their role as guardians of pluralism and fairness in a context of growing inequality, nationalism and xenophobia, it is important that the liberal and cosmopolitan media give more visibility to the struggles for justice involving these new members of society that we call migrants.
Anderson, B. (2010) ‘Mobilizing Migrants, Making Citizens. Migrant Domestic Workers as Political Agents’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 33(1): 60-74.
McNevin, A. (2011) Contesting Citizenship, New: York: Columbia University Press.
Però, D. (2008) ‘Political Engagements of Latin Americans in the UK. Issues, Strategies and the Public Debate’, Focaal 51: 73-90.
Però, D. (2011) ‘Migrants’ Practices of Citizenship and Policy Change’, in C. Shore, S. Wright and D. Però (eds.) Policy Worlds. Anthropology and the Analysis of Contemporary Power. New York: Berghahn.
Però, D. (2014 forthcoming) ‘Class Politics and Migrants. Collective Action among New Migrant Workers in Britain’, Sociology. Article accepted 11 November 2013.