Amplifying the voices of undocumented people in Europe

This blog post was written by PICUM’s Communications Trainee Bettina Guigui.

As a migrant working for a migrants’ rights organisation in Brussels, I am very aware of the need to include the voices of those we serve in our work and to make sure that migration policies are rooted in their experience.

As far as undocumented migrants are concerned, there are still important gaps between the realities they live and the policies shaping those realities. Being undocumented comes with a wide variety of specific challenges. For example, undocumented people are more likely to be victims of violence as they have very limited options to safely report abuses. Oftentimes, their residence status perpetuates states of dependency or prevents them from accessing basic services such as health-care and justice. Undocumented children experience obstacles to complete their education as they may be denied formal certifications for studies they completed because they are not officially registered as students. These are only few examples which illustrate the need to create representative and empowering spaces for undocumented people to engage in discussions and influence the decision-making affecting their lives.

In recent years, migrants’ rights organisations, including when led by migrants themselves, have been conducting awareness-raising campaigns which have empowered migrants to tell their stories and increase the visibility of the challenges they experience.

In the United Kingdom, the charity Migrant Voice aims to amplify the presence of migrants within the public discourse around immigration. Between 2015 and 2017, the NGO brought together migrants and journalists to discuss issues from migrants’ lived experience. These meetings have led to over 150 high-profile media appearances in British newspapers

In Greece, the Melissa Network, a collaborative initiative created in 2015, works to enable migrant women to emerge as leaders of their communities. The network achieves this by creating opportunities for migrant women to freely share their experiences and be active participants within their community. Their Athens centre provides a safe-space where migrant women can gather to discuss how they can organise and bring about social and personal change. This approach has allowed the network to build meaningful relationships with the women they support which is an essential resource for the organisation to better advocate for the rights of migrant women living in Greece.

In Belgium, the “Coordination Sans Papiers” has, for the past ten years been a platform where undocumented migrants have been able to self-organise and campaign for change. For example, in 2018 the coalition surveyed 230 undocumented people in Belgium to provide an in-depth overview of the challenges they face on a daily basis. The responses were used to address a list of recommendations to local policy makers to improve the living conditions of undocumented people at the municipal level, ahead of the communal elections.

Organisations such as the Coordination Sans Papiers demonstrate that it is possible to successfully put undocumented migrants’ voices forward and ensure that their contributions and concerns are effectively communicated in discussions with decision-makers.

Storytelling has also been instrumental in providing space for undocumented people to talk about their experiences. It is of course important to note that due to their precarious status, undocumented people are at risk of being detained or deported if they come forward and are identified. As a young communicator, I believe that this presses us to think of creative ways to build spaces allowing undocumented people to speak for themselves in safety.

This is being done by initiatives such as the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland’s (MRCI) youth project Young Paperless & Powerful. The project is focused on using artistic mediums to raise awareness about the situation faced by children of undocumented migrants in Ireland. In 2016, MRCI held a conference on the need for a regularisation scheme for undocumented migrants in Ireland which included a spoken word performance from the undocumented youth part of the Young Paperless & Powerful project.

The Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) carried out several initiatives to include the voices and stories of undocumented migrants. In 2016, for instance, PICUM interviewed young undocumented people from around Europe and published their testimonies in the form of interviews, poems and drawings. In 2012, PICUM travelled to several European countries, including Spain and Sweden, to gather the stories of undocumented people through face-to-face interviews. Bringing together a wide range of multimedia tools – videos, photos, and infographic, the platform created a web-documentary which showcases the realities of undocumented migrants living in Europe.

In the UK, migrant-led groups such as Brighter Futures have created spaces where young migrants can express themselves and raise awareness about their experiences. Through their podcast “Migrant Hot Topics” young migrants living in London are able to openly speak about issues which have a real impact on their lives and about how they are treated in society (for instance being called “illegal”).

Inspiration can also be drawn from the efforts of the London-based Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS) to bring the voices of migrant women, including undocumented women, to the forefront. This is visible for instance in the documentary “Voices of Resilience – Migrant and Refugee Women in Europe”, which LAWRS produced with other organisations, where migrant women from Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK share their experiences and call for change. The documentary was launched at an international conference where more than 20 migrant and women organisations discussed the role of migrant women’s lived experiences and developed recommendations to uphold their right to live free of violence and discrimination.

These experiences show that it is not only important to foster participation of undocumented people but also to recognise and support it in order to ensure policy impact and good practices. By doing so, undocumented people can become agents of their own rights and move from the margin to the centre of the discussions.


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