Participation and empowerment: Mobilising for the rights of undocumented people

On 8 and 9 June 2023, PICUM brought together migrant and human rights advocates, from both inside and outside our membership, at our General Assembly, to reflect on the participation of people with lived experience of precarious status in our work. This blog shares some highlights of our discussions.

PICUM’s 2023 General Assembly showcased the work of our rich and varied membership, and the ways undocumented people can be active in resisting and shaping the policies and practices that affect them.

A diverse and active network

In the opening plenary, we heard from Afrique Culture Maroc, an organisation founded and led by migrants and refugees in Morocco. In 2014, they were instrumental in securing the regularisation of some 27,000 undocumented people living in Morocco, drawing inspiration from regularisation campaigns run by PICUM members in Ireland, Belgium and other countries.

We also heard from Maisha, which was founded by and for African women in Germany in 1996 and successfully advocated towards the city of Frankfurt for support in meeting the needs of migrant women. While it originally focused on access to health care, Maisha now also works on labour and inclusion and runs a variety of programs to empower African women in Germany, and those who have been returned to their country of origin.

The Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS) is an intersectional feminist organisation for Latin American migrant women living in the United Kingdom. They have had success in leading a broad advocacy campaign in the UK centring migrant women’s voices and experience concerning undocumented women and gender-based violence, offer a helpline and support thousands of women every year who are exposed to violence, labour exploitation, trafficking and poverty.

PICUM member HIAS Israel underscored the importance of the network as a vital source of inspiration in a difficult political context and expressed appreciation for opportunities to do PICUM-supported mutual-learning exchanges with other members.

Stichting LOS, based in Utrecht, Netherlands, is one of PICUM’s oldest members. Their work has benefited from PICUM’s support and analysis – including a successful effort to resist a law that would have criminalised support to undocumented people. They also played a key part in developing a movement of young undocumented people who call for secure residence permits after they turn 18.

ASGI, the Italian Association for Juridical Studies on Migration, uses advocacy and strategic litigation to counter hostile legislation and policies in Italy, where various governments have been restricting the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers. ASGI is active in various working groups of PICUM’s network, where it appreciates the possibility to exchange information with other human rights organisations.

This year, PICUM also welcomed four new member organisations that are all led by people with lived experience of migration and provide direct support to undocumented people and people facing marginalisation: Siempre, a grassroots organisation providing support to the Latin American women’s diaspora in Belgium; Generation for Change, a migrant-led organisation working on community-building, awareness raising and service provision for people in migration in Cyprus; the Communauté Ivoirienne de la Grèce, an association that promotes the participation of people from the Ivoirian community in Greece in decision-making processes that affect them; and Uniao de Refugiados em Portugal, an organisation that provides various forms of support and assistance to migrants and refugees, including undocumented people.

Participation and empowerment

The General Assembly also featured dedicated discussions and workshops on participation and empowerment of people with lived experience.Irene Jagoba and Chanasi Potso spoke about their involvement in Justice for the Undocumented (JFU), the largest movement of undocumented people in Ireland, with over 2,500 members. After mobilizing for several years through marches, vigils, banner drops, selfies, press conferences and even parliamentary debates, they secured a nation-wide regularisation programme in 2022. Both Irene and Chanasi highlighted how important it is that the movement is led and organised by people with lived experience, and that relationships of trust are built with affected communities.While their participation was driven by the personal impact of policies and systems on their living and working conditions, both shared the conviction that change can only come through collective action and that they felt empowered having a role in pushing for that change.

Eva Maria Jimenez Lamas of the Brussels section of Belgian trade union CSC led a workshop on the union’s work with undocumented domestic workers who have been organising for the past few years within the League of Domestic Workers, and have been campaigning for decent work permits and working conditions, and for the regularisation of undocumented workers more broadly. She spoke of the importance of songs in building solidarity and connection, and the role of artistry, storytelling and theatre in expressing their vision for change and making their case to the public and to politicians. The work takes time: the women built their demands together.

Henriette Essami-Khaullot of the Office for the spokesperson of undocumented people (Belgium) shared her experience as an active member of the movement for change of undocumented people in Brussels. Prior to her activism, she hadn’t realised undocumented people could be organised; she was touched by the commitment of the people the met and the power of the actions they made together, which helped build her political consciousness and moved her to stand up for her rights. She reflected on the need to ensure diversity in movements to address specific challenges faced by different members of the community. For instance, she shared that in Belgium, the regularisation movement is primarily led and coordinated by men: this has meant that certain actions, such as occupations of buildings, have sometimes been organised without considering specific needs and facilities for women.

Allied spaces and groups can support the struggle of undocumented people, by providing safe spaces – and sometimes by stepping aside so that they can take the lead. Jonathan McCully of Systemic Justice, which partners with communities working on racial, social, and economic justice to bring about change through strategic litigation, explained the importance, in this setting, of  decentring the role of lawyers and prioritising the perspectives and priorities of communities.

Challenges and opportunities moving forward

The closing panel discussed future challenges and opportunities for change for human rights movements. Myriam Douo of Friends of the Earth Europe and Steering Group member of Equinox (an initiative that aims to mainstream racial justice in conversations around various topics, including climate change), spoke of how undocumented people are at the forefront of the climate crisis due to their living and working conditions. Natacha Kazatchkine of the Open Society Foundations discussed the democratic backsliding and shrinking space for civil society in much of Europe, and opportunities for building bridges between human rights defenders and migrants’ rights organisations. Riccardo Rossella of Civil Society Europe discussed the rise of the far right across the EU and its impact on the 2024 EU elections, which will likely result in a new European Parliament that is more fragmented and polarised than ever.