Meaningful participation: making sure undocumented people’s voices are heard

We’re committed to ensuring undocumented migrants are heard and can shape and participate in the policies and services that affect them, including with regard to our work. What that looks like and how it can be achieved depends on the context and can be quite challenging.

In this blog, we discuss the participation of undocumented people in activism and in health care, and we highlight two new resources on those areas. We hope that these insights and resources can help organisations reflect on their own work to ensure that undocumented people have a say in the policies and services that affect them.

Political participation

Beyond the potential to make policies more inclusive and humane, undocumented migrants’ voices and experiences can help to inform policymaking processes. As a result, policies can be more effective, better meet the intended outcomes and create stronger relationships between governments and people.

However, undocumented people rarely have the opportunity to engage with policymakers and policy processes. The most obvious hurdle is the fact that they cannot vote and are thus not represented in the political sphere. They are also rarely (if ever) consulted by decision-makers, even though undocumented migrants are directly, and often negatively, affected by migration, economic and social policies.

Undocumented people who want to advocate for change struggle to have their voices heard. First and foremost, they risk arrest, detention and deportation because of their residence status. Secondly, they may simply not have the necessary time or resources, when struggling to make ends meet. Finally, they may find it hard to know how and when to engage with decision-makers without the guidance of more experienced advocates.

Participation of young undocumented people in activism

Enabling the political participation of young (formerly) undocumented activists by supporting their advocacy and campaigning helps promote meaningful representation and advance the rights of undocumented people.

In 2022, We Belong’s successful national campaign, co-designed and run by young migrants, led the UK to ease access to permanent residence for non-British children who have lived the better part of their lives in the country, by halving the required procedural time from ten to five years

Also last year, Ireland introduced a six-month regularisation programme after years of advocacy from the undocumented youth-led group Young Paperless and Powerful, who gave media interviews, met with politicians, and used creative tools such as art, music and film to raise awareness about the impact of growing up undocumented.

For years now, PICUM and its members have been supporting undocumented and formerly undocumented young people advocating for change. We brought young people together in three international youth exchanges in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and helped young advocates meet with EU policymakers whenever possible. Several of our members are migrant-youth-led organisations or have supported youth-led campaigns.

Support varies depending on the context. It can range from providing legal advice, mental health support, media training, information on policies, mentorship or other professionalising training on how to run a campaign or organisation and access funding – to creating safe spaces for young people to come together, self-organise, access political platforms, and meet with politicians and policymakers.At a recent workshop, we brought together young activists and organisations who already provide support or are keen to support advocacy work of undocumented youth. Their exchange revealed that even with good intentions, cooperation between young activists or migrant-youth-led organisations and established organisations can be tricky. Besides working, studying, and other commitments, young undocumented people may not find the time to engage in advocacy. Moreover, there is always a risk of young people’s participation being merely tokenistic, condescending or paternalistic attitudes leading to young people not being taken seriously, and an adverse mental health impact of advocating based on lived experience.

However, when these challenges are overcome, cooperation can be incredibly fruitful and beneficial for both parties. It may lead to issues being approached in a more holistic way, and allow both young activists and established organisations to exchange knowledge, skills, power, visibility, resources, and social networks.

To ensure others can learn from our and other members’ experience, we have published our brief Lessons Learned in Supporting Undocumented Young People Advocating for Change in English, French and Spanish.

Participation of undocumented people in service delivery and research

The need to include undocumented people in service delivery and research is particularly visible in the field of health care, as we highlight in our brief. Health services and interventions have traditionally been based on data generated from the general population. As a consequence, health care providers often failed to meet undocumented people’s needs when seeking care.

By employing participatory methods, organisations providing health services to undocumented people, as well as researchers, can address long-standing inequalities in access to healthcare and health outcomes between the undocumented and general population.

To make HIV prevention more effective, the HIV/AIDS patient-led NGO European AIDS Treatment Group (EATG) has been looking into how different communities perceive and wish to receive AIDS prevention measures. A community expert group guides the research and sets the project’s priorities. Maisha e.V., a Frankfurt-based NGO that runs a health clinic for people without health insurance and offers health support to migrant women, regularly conducts surveys to improve their health care delivery and decide what services to offer. These co-designed, community-based surveys are a way to gauge the opinions and experiences of the women using Maisha’s health services, as well as their health needs and priorities.

The lack of participation of undocumented people in research about them can lead to the reproduction of harmful stereotypes and toxic narratives. Participatory research, which meaningfully engages communities who are the subject of a study, not only combats this phenomenon but also produces stronger research findings.

For questions of ethics and effectiveness, those informing, shaping or implementing services geared towards undocumented and other communities are thus increasingly relying on participatory research. For instance, the research and policy NGO Focus on Labour Exploitation has conducted participatory research on vulnerability to modern slavery, with migrant live-in care workers in London, and on labour exploitation of platform workers with couriers in the UK’s app-based delivery sector.

When policymakers and service providers base their decisions on data generated through participatory methods, it is more likely that their decisions will be informed by the actual needs of undocumented people, instead of pre-conceived notions of these. As policies and services gradually become more inclusive, they can start breaking cycles of structural vulnerability and marginalisation of undocumented people.