March to Brussels 2022: Over two hundred people representing migrant and refugee rights organisations met in Brussels over the weekend September 30 – 2nd October to reinvigorate their collaboration across European networks.
The years of the Covid pandemic have had their impact on human rights activism in this area, which depends on people meeting face-to-face and finding ways to get beyond the national differences that distort transnational solidarity. But as the gathering got underway it was clear that participants were able to report on an upturn in their work, from across Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Greece as well as the UK, who all at strong representation in the discussion.
Spanish activists in particularly provided a vital element with a large contingent who had arrived as a part of a People’s March delegation which had started out in a large caravan departing from the rural regions of Andalusia, where a large migrant labour force tends to the crops of the agribusiness multinationals. The supporters of Via Campesina brought the perspective of these farm workers firmly into focus with a call not only to recognise their rights to decent work and pay but also for a transition to policy based on food sovereignty as opposed to the production of commodities for export.
Covid shifts opinion
Delegates from Belgian explained how the experiences of the Covid pandemic had forced a reluctant change of their country’s view of migration, with many coming to see the contribution of migrants as a factor which allowed society to continue to function through the long periods of lockdown. Despite this, right wing, anti-immigrant viewpoints remain entrenched in the ministries which is leading to policies that are increasingly recognised as irrational and against the fundamental interests of the mass of the population.
The continuing incidence of deaths at borders and on sea crossings to Europe provided the backdrop to discussions about the militarisation of controls at frontiers. Policy emanating from the EU had facilitated this development as policymakers in Brussels had abandoned the idea that human rights underpinned the common approach to border management. There was much criticism of the work of FRONTEX – the EU border force which has assumed responsibility to patrolling Europe’s borders. In addition, the notorious incident as the Melilla-Morocco border on 24 June which led to the deaths of 37 in a assault by Moroccan border police which crushed people against the Spanish enclave’s 6 metre high fences, was condemned by conference participants.
The UK delegation consisted of supporters of the Status Now Network and the UK-based domestic workers organisation, Waling Waling. Activists from the latter explained how far the British government was from providing a secure immigration status for a group of workers who are at high risk of exploitation and abuse at the hands of their employers. The domestic workers visa, created in 1997 for the specific purpose of allowing domestic workers experiencing poor conditions of employment to leave their jobs and seek alternative work in the same sector, with a right to permanent settlement being acquired after five years. This security of status had been withdrawn in 2012 as a part of the coalition government’s hostile environment measures, returning migrant workers employed in private high households back to a situation of endemic high risk.
The Status Now representative explained the wider situation in the UK, with migrants continuing to live at high risk of destitution and denial of health and other crucial services because of policies which deny access to social security and public services and creates obstacles to their full integration onto the labour force on equal terms with citizen workers. He argued that this was having the perverse effect of making immigration policy incoherent and was producing frequent crises of the way the regulations were enforced, most famously shown in the Windrush generation scandal.
In addition to the information exchanges provided during the discussion sessions delegates took time out to demonstrate solidarity with migrants and refugees on the streets of Brussels. On the Saturday afternoon they staged a protest on the Place du Luxembourg outside the European Parliament building which was joined by many Brussels residents to make a crowd of close to a thousand people. The voices of migrant people were prominent on the platform and the lively event mixed spoken word with the display of banners proclaiming solidarity with the sound of salsa drummers providing the musical backdrop.
As well as rebuilding links that had been disrupted by the Covid pandemic the conference gave participants the opportunity to plan practical activities for the future. It was resolved to work with human rights defenders across the North African region to build a session of the Permanent People’s Tribunal on Violations of the Rights of Migrants, with the target set for a public hearing to take place in Tunis in November 2023. Progress on this project will be reported here in the period ahead.
The website for the Brussels conference can be viewed at https://rights.nodeaths.eu/en/. To see more about the organisers of the conference – Transnational Migrant Platform-Europe, go to https://transnationalmigrantplatform.net/events/