By Eve Geddie,
Program Officer,
PICUM, Brussels.

Life through the eyes and voices of irregular migrants in Europe

UNDOCUMENTED migrants reside in every single country of the European Union. They are a diverse group with very different backgrounds and experiences.

“Paperittomat” by Kaisa Viitanen and Katja Tähjä offers a unique insight into the daily-lives of undocumented migrants in Europe. Currently available in Finnish, the book will soon to be available in English under the title “Paperless”.

The personal testimonies and accompanying photos in the book provide a honest, and often shameful reflection of how our society treats those poorly served by the existing visa, work permit or asylum regimes; those subject to labour exploitation or gender-based violence; those facing economic difficulties; those experiencing misinformation, administrative delays or other forms of disempowerment. These migrants are particularly susceptible to losing their status and becoming undocumented. One this happens, it is extremely difficult to find a route-back to regularity, and many become trapped in a limbo situation.

Rather than assessing inflexible and discriminatory migration polices, European policy makers have sought to ‘prevent and combat irregular immigration’ by limiting social services and support for undocumented migrants.  “Paperless” chronicles the implementation of these policies in towns and cities across Europe, through the eyes and voices of the men, women and children living this reality;  In London, a young man’s dreams of supporting his parents and startinga family of his own are disappearing as the process of employing so-called’low-skill’ workers remains lengthy, expensive and bureaucratic.

In Athens, a young mother of three suffers from a debilitating neurological and respiratory condition. Yet, Layla remains untreated because ’third country illegally residing nationals are only entitled to immediately necessary care’.  Across town, a girl lives under the shadow of an abusive and sexually violent man who threatens to report her to the police; but for Marisa, this is a better option than living on the streets. “At least I know who is raping me”, she explains.

In Amsterdam, a university graduate with five languages is forced to feed her young children with leftovers collected from the market. Unable to work legally, Olga has become desitute as the visa system would only consider her as an ‘economic dependent’ of her Dutch husband.

In Stockholm, an employee is told by her boss that ‘it is illegal to work without a permit’. So Rita either works without pay or faces deportation.

In Brussels, a woman is thrown out of her apartment and has her belongings and money stolen. Homeless, Khadija is unable to access anemergency shelter or to seek the help of the police ’because she should not be here anyway’.

In Helsinki, a teenage boy is suspicious of those who offer him shelter. Hiding from the authorities who want to return him to Greece, Ashraf remembers his mother’s warning not to trust those who ‘offer him chocolate or a roof over his head’.

To be effective, ‘the fight against irregular immigration’ relies on the denial and not realisation of human dignity. Yet after more than a decade of pursuing this agenda, the number of irregular migrants has not significantly decreased. Instead, European society has become more fragmented and divided.

It is evident that irregular migration is a phenomenon that cuts across racial, national, gender, religious, economic, and social lines. Through the use of photographs and testimonies , “Paperless” ‘gives back’ control of image and text to undocumented migrants, a group so often discussed, yet rarely included in the debate on migration policy. For many readers, this is the first time they have ‘seen’ or ‘heard’ an undocumented migrant so directly.

Against the negative images so often portrayed by media and politicians, undocumented migrants emerge as active and empowered agents, working hard to secure a dignified existence to support their family and contribute to their community and broader society.

In all countries of the European Union, undocumented migrants have taken action to speak out and assert their rights. More and more individuals and organisations are joining this movement of solidarity and support: resisting social division and exclusion, they are firm in the assertion that ‘no human being is illegal’.

Migrants’ rights organisations, humanitarian agencies, and churches are working to provide irregular migrants with the basic elements for survival. In distributing food and clothing, providing shelter, offering healthcare services, ensuring access to education, they challenge the use of poverty and destitution as a tool of governance in modern Europe. While guarding Europe’s founding principles of human rights, equality, and rule of law, and fulfilling the obligations of its member states under international law, these front-line human rights defenders are increasingly criminalised and vilified.

A ‘rights-based approach to migration’ emphasises that while governments have a right to control their borders, they are under a legal obligation to ensure that all policies aimed at migration management are in accordance with their obligations under international law. The principles of non-discrimination and universality are key elements of human rights law. As confirmed by the UN independent expert Paul Hunt following his fact-finding mission to Sweden in 2006: ’Undocumented migrants are precisely the sort of disadvantaged group that international human rights law is designed to protect.’

Recognising the existence, reality, and humanity of undocumented migrants is an essential first step, and one to which “Paperless” has made an important contribution.

This blog entry was posted also on the website of Flyktingbloggen (Refugee Blog) on 30 January 2012.

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