Global Movements for Refugee and Migrant Rights. (Introduction)

By Lowry, Michelle; Nyers, Peter | Refuge, May 2003 | Go to article overview

Global Movements for Refugee and Migrant Rights. (Introduction)


Lowry, Michelle, Nyers, Peter, Refuge


Refugees and other forcibly displaced migrants are encountering a vast and expanding array of restrictive laws and policies designed to control and exclude their entry. The countries of the North, in particular, have dramatically enhanced the powers of border authorities to interdict and interrogate, to detain and deport. Powers of surveillance have similarly been increased, to the point where we are witnessing the implementation of technologies that selectively determine who shall be excluded based on their (national, racial, gender) profile. While these measures have been under development for some time, the trend to "securitize" migration has only intensified in the wake of the violent attacks on New York and Washington. (2)

The authors in this special issue of Refuge are deeply troubled by these measures and their implications for national cultures of asylum and the international freedom of movement. But these moves to restrict movement, to limit asylum, and to sharply distinguish insiders from outsiders are not inevitable or irreversible trends. To the contrary, campaigns for the rights of refugees and migrants have emerged as some of the most energetic and important social and political movements today. Each of the contributors to this special issue takes inspiration from the ways in which these restrictive immigration and refugee policies are being actively contested, challenged, and, in some cases, overturned.

Migrant and refugee rights movements appear in various forms and take on a diverse set of tactics to suit their particular contexts and circumstances. For example, Australia's notorious policy of detaining asylum-seekers has been met by a vigorous campaign by citizen groups to advocate for the rights of refugees. Here, the traditional tactics of lobbying government officials and organizing letter-writing campaigns exist alongside more radical measures, such as the creation of sanctuary zones and the dismantling of fences around detention centres to facilitate escapes. Similarly, a well-developed movement under the slogan "No One Is Illegal" has emerged in Europe. Caravans for refugee and migrant rights make an annual trek across Germany. Border squats have been organized along the perimeter of "Fortress Europe." A well-developed campaign targets European airlines that profit from carrying out deportations. Finally, anti-detention campaigns have been successful in closing detention centres such as the Via Corelli in Milan and Campsfield House in England. (3)

The articles in this issue consider the struggles of refugees and migrants taking place in Afghanistan, Canada, the European Union, Australia, and Japan. Together, they demonstrate that both the crackdown on refugees and migrants --and the resistances to these assaults--are a global phenomenon.

A key theme runs through each of the contributions to this volume: the question of political agency. Each piece confronts this fundamental question: When it comes to advocating for refugee and migrant rights, who is an effective political actor? Is it the UN and its agencies? Governments? NGOs? Citizen groups? What of the refugees and migrants themselves? Must they be "spoken for"? Or can they speak, advocate, and organize for themselves?

In the opening article for this collection, Cynthia Wright tackles these questions with a savvy analysis of those social movements organizing around a "no border"/"no one is illegal" politics. Paying particular attention to the prospects for such campaigns in Canada, Wright looks at the effects that the September 11, 2001 attacks has had on migrant and refugee rights organizing. As the so-called Homeland Security agenda in the US looks toward tightening and coordinating its border policies with Canada, Wright argues that activists on both sides of the border need to internationalize "locally and nationally bound immigration struggles." Further, Wright argues that it is necessary to examine "current border panics and nationalisms from the standpoint of immigrants, refugees, and the undocumented. …

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